The opinions stated in these blogs are the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or values of Development Perspectives.
How Ireland’s dependence on food exports may represent a hazard from a food security perspective.
A few weeks before the start of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, BordBia, Ireland's food authority, was boasting impressive export numbers of €37 million a day by 2021. The latest report registered a continuous increase in exports in the last years, only mildly affected by the global pandemic. According to the report, Ireland exported 90% of its food and drink production by value in 2021, while a substantial amount of the food on the island -the latest figures suggest it is worth €27 million a day- is imported. In other words, of all the food consumed in Ireland, almost 90% by value comes from abroad. As this article explains, the research found that the country has been a net importer of food since 2000.
However, not all imported food and drink are destined for the final consumer. While Irish farmers export beef and dairy products to various parts of the world, they also must draw on the world's food supply to sustain this production power. A significant proportion of these products -enough to feed between 2.5 and 3 million people- are raw materials needed for food production on the island. Thus, 90% of these imports will be resold abroad in the form of high-value-added processed foods, such as milk powder, dairy products, alcoholic beverages and meat.
It is therefore not surprising that the Food Safety Committee (NFFSC) is focusing on the risks to meat and dairy products, given that this is a market worth €3.3 billion. With reduced access (or even lack thereof) to fertilisers, the risk this summer is that there will not be enough grass to graze cattle. It could be teased that the proud 'Made in Ireland' labels on steak, bacon, butter, eggs and milk powder would be in danger of disappearing without cereals from, say, Ukraine or fertilisers courtesy of Russian oligarchs. But the Emerald Isle is not the only one affected.
When asked about whether Ireland would see food shortages, Trevor Donnellan, head of economics and surveys at Teagasc, said “I’m not sure we’re going to see shortages of food in our part of the world”. Low-income families are likely to find it difficult to afford certain items. But developing countries will be hit hardest, by a perfect storm of shortages and price hikes.
The US government is even considering extending sanctions to fertilisers as well. "Maybe sacrifices are necessary to address the unjustified war that Russia has chosen to start," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. Sacrifices that, once again, will maybe be paid for by those who already cannot afford to choose in the form of collateral damage. That is, for example, the populations in the leading exporters of soya, coffee, sugar and other cash crops in Brazil, the largest importer of fertilisers in the world. While a reduction in consumption of these products is indeed beneficial, we should not forget that the main consumers of these products are developed countries, and other countries in the south of the world were somehow pushed by international policies, multinational corporations and other economic bonds to deforest great rainforests areas to keep up with the game of globalisation.
For these reasons, in our view, dependence (or should we say addiction) on global market logistics has profound implications for Irish, and indeed global, food security. For example, the slightest disruption in the supply chain would threaten most Irish farmers. They risk suffering heavy losses, thus becoming unable to meet both external and internal food demand at the same time. Moreover, from the few numbers above we could say that the problem is not yet production capacity. Rather, it is the agricultural sector's strong dependence on external sources, on low input prices and on exports dictated by economies of scale: the higher the exports, the lower the unitary value of the products, the greater the dependence on those exports, on external markets, but also on state and/or EU funding. A situation that runs in the opposite direction to resilience, sustainable food systems or reducing inequalities. Ireland may literally be trading its food security for the chance to sell commodity food for profit more than almost any other country in Europe. A risky business, as we are nearing the breakpoint of the supply chain at an accelerated pace.
In the meantime, the Irish government is aiming to increase tillage crops, namely wheat and oats. Although this may partially alleviate Irish dependence on external sources, the quantities required to provide both food, fodder and fertilisers to sustain even a small percentage of Ireland's massive export-oriented production would prove impractical due to high production costs. Unfortunately, extensive tillage is also a major factor in the future fertility crisis of the planet's soils. Specialised monocultures such as wheat, maize, sugar cane, etc., deplete the terrain at a rapid rate (especially when they are not organic). They increase farmers' dependence on pesticides and fertilisers, which in turn pollute the water and are hazardous to everyone's health. Moreover, tillage is one of the most carbon-intensive activities on the planet.
Extensive tillage has made agriculture increasingly inefficient, requiring more land for the same amount of produce. All this... for the privilege of overproducing an undervalued commodity.
When reading economic reports from official sources, such as BordBia’s, it is surprising how confident and focused they are on bare economic performance, with little regard to strategies to address food security from the perspective of external stresses, chain breaks or other unforeseen events. Instead, concern is expressed about so-called gastro-nationalism, which on the contrary could even prove instrumental in decreasing excessive dependence on exports.
Perhaps we are reaching a tipping point in history where we will be pushed to rethink the importance of maximum profit at all costs, especially when pursuing it becomes an economic risk factor itself. It is interesting to note how the unsustainability of the meat and dairy sector may not stem from the animals, or even the practices (albeit improvable), but rather from the sheer overproduction triggered by the export addiction of the food sector.
In a transitional period of rising inflation and supply chain disruptions, a possible solution could be for farmers to ride the disruptions by decoupling part of their economy from the export market.
Irish consumers are already going to spend more on food, so the producers could as well seize the opportunity by diversifying their business. They could reintroduce mixed-farming systems and practices of holistic management of the land. This would have a double benefit: for farmers to be able to sell more sustainable and higher value products and for consumers to have access to more nutritious and healthier food. This, of course, would also require a difficult transition to different, healthier dietary trends, a challenge for low-income households. Especially when it comes to the dependence on carbohydrates and sugars and the explosion of new diets based on soybean and GMO grain byproducts dependent on pesticides. Which have been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders and most of the modern diseases that are pandemic today. Unfortunately, Ireland is exporting its most nutrient-dense foods, while eating habits remain deficient and at high risk of health degradation.
In the figure shown below: a 2014 study from the US found a statistical correlation between increased usage of antibiotic pesticide glyphosate and rates of autistic children born in the US. In the States, currently, 1 in 35 children born have autism. Forecasts project this trend to increase to more than 1 in every 10 children.
Thanks to Development Perspectives’ collaboration with Dundalk Institute of Technology, we had the opportunity to coordinate a couple of workshops on the SDGs. Here we had an interesting discussion with young student farmers and discovered that they considered it reasonable to need more than 100 acres of land to have a viable farming operation. A prohibitive amount unless you accept a heavy reliance on oil, machinery, pesticides, fertilisers, private debt or subventions (public debt). What made farming so impractical and inefficient in sustaining the lives of producers, while being so harmful to the environment?
It is time to expose the weakness of this model, especially in an island that is already heavily dependent on oil for its import-export trade.
How can we take action to embrace the change?
In the next post we will talk about possible answers to this challenge, which although it seems so complex to tackle, can have very simple and straightforward solutions. Stay tuned to discover the wonders of regenerative agriculture.
This is a continuation of the series It's neither the cow nor the how, which began last week with the blog article available here.
The following are the sources used for this entry, as well as some other useful insights on the same topic:
Mirko Greco and Laura Franco are currently collaborating with Development Perspectives through the Erasmus Young Entrepreneur program (EYE). They are both researchers and entrepreneurs in regenerative practices on the land and communities.