“The world does not need Ireland to feed it. The world needs Ireland to work for justice”.
This suggestion by Pippa Hackett in a recent Agriland article, that Ireland does not have a responsibility to feed the world, has become quite contentious. The Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity’s statement may seem like a banal truism, but in fact goes against our prevailing agriculture policies, which envision continuing exports far into the future.
The FoodWise 2025 policy document published in 2015 aimed for an 85% increase in exports to €19 billion by 2025, and the updated Food Harvest 2020 report showed that further increases are intended. In both reports, the increase in global population and particularly the rise in the number of people entering the global middle class – with its associated change in diet – was mentioned as a particularly important factor for our agriculture policy. The implication is that Irish agriculture has a role not only to “produce more for the global market but to perform a moral duty to do so in pursuit of ‘feeding the world’”. It is not only our food we export, but also expertise, experience, and technological innovation, modelled our own dramatic increase in production and our move to a more industrial agriculture model.
This position has been hotly contested, with questions raised consistently about the ethics of our exports, marketing, and impact on other countries. There are also major concerns about the environmental impact in terms of deteriorating biodiversity and water quality, as well as the methane emissions associated with the production of meat and dairy – our main agricultural products. It would be prudent to reflect on some of these issues, and Ireland’s place within the global context before we can decide whether our claims to feed the world are a veneer for protecting corporate interests or if this burden does indeed fall to Ireland.
Filling the Market or Developing It?
Ireland expends a considerable amount of effort and spends millions of euro on marketing and research to develop markets for Irish produce. A striking example of this was illustrated in an article last year where the Director of Teagasc, Prof. Gerry Boyle outlined the work being done in China, stating that “We’d like to develop a Chinese appetite for cheddar – particularly challenging in that market.” This work undermines the other mantra that we have been hearing for quite some time, that if we reduce our dairy production, other, less efficient, countries will take our place.
If we put less effort into marketing, redirecting investment into ensuring fair wages for farmers, then filling the hypothetically expanding market for carbon-intensive foodstuffs might not be such a consideration.
Another troubling aspect of our marketing commitment also focuses on the Chinese market, but instead of cheddar it’s the lucrative baby formula market. Ireland supplies 10% of the global market and this product constitutes almost 35% of all dairy exported from Ireland. However, a report published in 2017, highlighting a history of unethical practices in marketing infant formula, found that companies’ aggressive marketing can undermine breast feeding rates and can have a significant financial impact on families where baby formula can use up a substantial proportion of their income.
Cheap food but at what cost?
As long as we define success narrowly in terms of commodity output, Ireland has very effectively developed our agriculture. We are producing more dairy than ever and continue to export the majority of our meat, while simultaneously importing the majority of our food, including apples and potatoes. Unfortunately, this has come at a high price in terms of environmental degradation, in the form of reduced water quality and a detrimental impact on biodiversity (although there are some excellent results-based agri-schemes combating this). There are also systemic inequalities in terms of income within the sector, leaving some farmers lagging behind and unable to make a living in what used to be a viable profession. This is the model of agriculture that we are keen to share with the world?
It is important to remember that these detrimental impacts are the result of prevailing government policies and not individual decisions by farmers who have relatively little control over the system in which they work.
To think constructively about the place of Ireland in global nutrition, the concept of Food Sovereignty, a growing global movement which is especially strong in Africa may provide a helpful framework.
“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture; to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives; to determine the extent to which they want to be self-reliant; to restrict the dumping of products in their markets”.
It requires prioritising food production for local and domestic markets based on production systems which work with nature (agro-ecology), community owned (rather than corporate owned) and resources and investment directed towards the empowerment of local communities. This also means ensuring fair prices for farmers, which implies protecting internal markets from low-priced imports, such as the threat of beef imports from the Mercosur trade deal. Ironically, in African countries the threat of low quality, low price commodity dumping comes not from the Americas but the EU.
The exportation of discount-priced milk powder from EU countries into some African countries is causing indigenous dairy industries to struggle. Our policies of ‘feeding the world’ affect the food sovereignty of others.
The concept of Food Sovereignty recognises the importance of indigenous knowledge and traditions, working with and protecting the natural environment and the need for diversity and flexibility in agricultural approaches. At a recent virtual conference on Food Sovereignty in Sub-Saharan Africa, hosted by the Jesuit Justice and Ecology Network of Africa (JENA), the President of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar (JCAM), Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator SJ, highlighted that:
“Food is more than just what we eat. The ways in which we produce, process and consume food touch every aspect of life on the planet. It is the foundation of our cultures, our economies and our relationship with the natural world. Food has the power to bring us together as families, as communities and as nations.”
It might not necessarily be our responsibility to feed the world, or to direct developing countries into cultivating agricultural systems which mirror ours. Perhaps instead we could learn from their struggles to retain control over their food production, in our own efforts to rebalance our agricultural system towards something which not only produces food but also values our natural environment and the rich cultures of our rural communities.