As a member of the Environmental Pillar, BirdWatch Ireland supports the reluctant withdrawal of Ireland’s leading environmental NGOs from the Agri-Food 2030 Strategy Committee this week. The Pillar had come to the conclusion that the draft Strategy is woefully inadequate to meet the social and environmental challenges we face in farming.
The Committee was established over a year ago to develop Ireland’s successor to the Food Wise 2025 strategy in the long line of agri-intensification strategies published over the last 15 years.
Following recent review of the draft final document, the Environmental Pillar network concluded that there was no change in direction signalled from the current business-as-usual intensification model which has caused a marked decline in the quality of our environment. Globally agricultural intensification has contributed significantly to our current biodiversity and climate emergency. In Ireland the agricultural sector is our largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 37.7 % of our total emissions. It is also the leading cause of water pollution. In addition, intensification is the leading driver of biodiversity loss having resulted in the catastrophic declines in farmland birds such as breeding waders, with no sign of population recovery. A step-wise shift is required to reverse these trends and to assure a future for all farmers who are at the front line of the effects of climate breakdown.
A clear map of the steps needed to achieve sustained cuts in greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions as well as reversing water quality decline and restoring biodiversity is not visible in the document. There are no targets and instead the proposals are for more discussion and action down the road.
The Department of Agriculture set up the AgriFood 2030 Strategy Committee in 2019 and it has 31 representatives. The Department gave one seat to the Environmental Pillar. A request was made for additional seats and this was denied though agreement was reached that the Pillar could represent the views of Stop Climate Chaos and the Sustainable Water Network (SWAN). This was welcome but created additional burden for one representative.
There were 10 meetings over the last year but additional bilaterals with the Committee chair and government officials were had. BirdWatch Ireland contributed substantially to the development of Pillar submissions to different Strategy chapters. However, despite a large volume of input from NGO experts [see links below], the draft Strategy still falls very far short of what’s required to address the environmental and social inequalities with our current agriculture model during this the UN Decade of Action to 2030.
The process of strategy development has not facilitated any meaningful public dialogue on the future of food here and land use. The Irish public has never been asked what kind of food production and agriculture system they would like (and which they currently support financially very substantially) with the pros and cons of different models presented. Do people want more Irish fruit and vegetable production, more locally-produced food? How do we support agri processing jobs? Is there an understanding that farmers need to get a good price for what they produce so they can live but that there are additional costs with meeting environmental standards? Or of economically marginalised farmers who provide society with a range of ecosystem good and services through their High Nature Value farming and how it supports habitats and wild bird populations but needs our support?
The Department of Agriculture did undertake a public consultation survey in advance of the AgriFood Strategy development process. The findings are insightful and can be seen here. Of the 212 responses to the consultation, 60% were primary producers (farmers and fishers). Only 18% percent of respondents agreed that Food Wise 2025 was able to deliver on its vision of thriving producers and industry. Environmental Sustainability and Human Capital were the highest ranked themes for the next AgriFood Strategy with 110 out of 212 respondents ranking environment as the most important theme- with a significant margin between it and the next ranked theme (43 points for Human Capital). Low profitability is the key area of focus needed for generational renewal and new entrants. In relation to the importance of the contributions of farmers/fishers to society- protecting biodiversity, water and climate came second and third to ensuring safe, healthy food. The respondents want safe and healthy food that protects the environment but the draft Strategy is not aligned with that. It is more aligned with global market sentiment. We are concerned that farmers are being left behind in this strategy.
BirdWatch Ireland was the only environmental representative to the committee developing FoodWise 2025 back in 2015. Our concerns at that time also went unheard. A key commitment in Food Wise 2025, and repeated by successive agriculture ministers, was that ‘environmental protection and economic competitiveness are equal and complementary: one will not be achieved at the expense of the other’. This turned out to be false, and a breach of promise to the people of Ireland but as the AgriFood survey results show, the economic competitiveness success seems to have served a few only.
The Pillar engaged in the process of drafting this strategy in good faith but found that our suggestions were largely disregarded. Such treatment of these issues is misaligned with growing calls for climate and biodiversity action, which we know grow louder every day as well as consumers demanding higher standards. The draft Strategy lacks many key policy drivers including the means to reverse the downward trajectory of environmental indicators associated with agricultural practices.
BirdWatch Ireland surveyed its branch members in 2019 asking them what was their number 1 issue of concern for biodiversity in their area. The overwhelming response from 19 branches around the country was the impact of agricultural intensification caused by drainage, hedgerow removal and destruction, and a general marked decline in the diversity of habitats in the landscape.
More and more consumers want food that is produced in a way that works with nature and not against it. Our high nature value farmers have a low-intensity model of production that supports biodiversity and which fits into a future where we will have to eat less meat and dairy in order to cut the impact of agriculture on the natural environment. They need our support.
On leaving the Committee, Karen Ciesielski, the co-ordinator of the Environmental Pillar and former representative on the Agri-Food 2030 Strategy Committee, said “This industry-led Agri-Food 2030 Committee and draft Strategy is on an entirely different book, let alone page, when it comes to our intensive model of agriculture.”
She continued “It fails on so many fronts, and we cannot put our name behind the perpetuation of the environmental crises we have highlighted time and time again.”
The outcomes and process of this draft 2030 Agri-Food Strategy are both deeply flawed. Market driven polices have consistently entrenched inequalities in our society and have will only continue to add fuel to our ongoing biodiversity and climate crisis. We need an entirely new blueprint for agriculture, one that supports all farmers, upholds climate obligations, and restores our depleted natural environment. It is now in the hands of Government to get us there.
Notes: NPWS (2019). The Status of EU Protected Habitats and Species in Ireland. Volume 1: Summary Overview. Unpublished NPWS report.  The Environmental Pillar’s full statement given to the 2030 Agri-Food Strategy Committee today can be found at: https://bit.ly/37M28F  “The impact on 2020 greenhouse gas emissions of Covid-19 restrictions” from the EPA is available at https://bit.ly/3smAruD and EPA data on water quality in Ireland can be found at http://bit.ly/3dHkZVL More information on the decline of farmland birds is available at: https://bit.ly/3dJZhAp
And please find below the Environmental Pillar’s submissions on the 2030 Agri-Food Strategy:
- The Environmental Pillar Interventions to the Agri-Food 2030 Strategy Committee meeting on 12 March 2020
- The Environmental Pillar’s Submission on Chapter 10 of the Agri-Food Strategy 2030 on 30 June 2020
- The Environmental Pillar’s submission on SEA Scoping report and AA Screening statement for Agri-Food 2030 Strategy sent in July 2020
- The Environmental Pillar’s submission to the Agri-Food 2030 Strategy Committee on 28 September 2020
- The Environment Pillar’s submission to the Agri-Food 2030 Strategy Committee on 13 November 2020
- The Environmental Pillar’s annotated version of the Appropriate Assessment (AA) Screening Statement on Ireland’s Agri-Food Strategy Programme 2020 – 2030
- BirdLife Europe’s Position Paper on Feeding the World whilst saving biodiversity