Yasmina Lembachar
Iside Tacchinardi
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The missing links in Ireland’s agrifood policy

New strategies needed to reach vital climate targets, new report finds

The missing links in Ireland’s agrifood policy
This article was originally published by Apolitical

The Irish government is taking steps towards a more sustainable agrifood sector with the roll-out of plans and roadmaps to cut nutrient pollution, decrease fertiliser use, increase afforestation and protect biodiversity, among other aims. Irish policy is tackling the fork as well as the farm, with bold targets to halve food waste, for example. But are current ambitions enough to support the country’s broader environmental goals? Not entirely, according to research from impact organisation Circle Economy, featured in a new EIT Climate-KIC report*. 

To meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and halt biodiversity loss worldwide, we need to overhaul our food systems: the way we produce and consume food is causing us to barrel past several of our planet’s vital limits while contributing to one-third of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For Ireland—two-thirds of which is covered by farmland—these concerns are central as pressure mounts to meet net-zero targets. Farming has long been a backbone of the Irish economy: as the country’s largest indigenous sector, it’s historically had a critical impact on employment and the economy alike—and has even been hailed for certain sustainability credentials. But to avoid a case of ‘too little, too late’, change is needed to reshape the sector for the better.

Traditionally livestock-intensive, cattle and sheep play a pivotal role in Irish agriculture; two-thirds (68%) of the GHG emissions produced by the sector are methane emissions associated with ruminant livestock. The vast majority of the land is managed intensively, harming soil health and generating long-term impacts like reduced yields, decreased resilience to climate change and biodiversity loss. Grazing’s prevalence also means that forest cover is relatively low, claiming just over one-tenth of the country’s land. 

Aiming to become a world leader in sustainable food systems by 2030, Ireland has rolled out numerous ambitious targets to cut nutrient pollution, decrease fertiliser use, increase afforestation, protect biodiversity and halve food waste. The targets are in place: 

But how are these to be achieved?

Building a better food system through the circular economy 

By producing food regeneratively, designing out and making the most of ‘waste’, and promoting healthy diets for people and the planet, circular economy solutions have the power to transform Ireland’s agrifood sector for the better, according to new research by Circle Economy in a recent EIT Climate-KIC report. The analysis uncovers five crucial gaps in current policy—and provides recommendations for practical actions with significant impact. 

1. Farm for the future by increasing focus on regenerative agriculture and organic farming 

Governments Europe-wide are increasingly framing sustainability solutions around technologies that may improve efficiency, but often do little to dislodge entrenched modes of production and consumption. Ireland is no different, with plans to cut emissions in the agrifood sector centering on improvements to livestock feed and modifications to synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, for example. While efforts are being made to soak up the sector’s excess carbon through afforestation and peatland restoration—both with huge carbon sequestration potential—more regenerative practices that inherently cut emissions are relatively underexplored. Organic agriculture represents just 2% of total farmed land, for example—and plans to boost this figure to 7.5%  would still leave Ireland trailing behind other EU countries, with an average of 9%

A regenerative Irish agricultural sector could mean scaling the use of natural fertilisers—manure and compost, for example—and natural livestock feed. Silvopasture, which integrates livestock, fodder, crops and trees within a single farm, and rotational grazing offer opportunities to do so. Scaling back the use of artificial fertilisers can cut emissions from their production and transport, improve water and air quality by reducing nitrous oxide and ammonia emissions, nourish soils and boost biodiversity. Healthy soil is a cornerstone of productive agriculture: it’s time to farm in its favour. 

2. Learn from other countries cutting their livestock numbers 

Livestock is the largest source of the agrifood sector’s emissions, racking up a staggering 68% of the sector's GHG emissions in Ireland alone. Can Ireland maintain its current livestock levels whilst meeting environmental goals, or should it begin rethinking its relationship with livestock farming?

Efforts to maintain current livestock numbers while working towards a range of connected environmental goals only serve to highlight the limitations of a sole focus on new technology and improved management practices. Improved livestock feed can successfully reduce methane emissions, for example, but likely not at the scale needed to bring true impact

Although controversial, nearby agrifood giant the Netherlands is already paving the way. It has announced plans to let go of its role as one of the world’s largest agrifood products exporters and buy out thousands of farms to cut livestock numbers by half, following warnings from the country’s environmental assessment agency that such measures are crucial to meeting climate targets. ‘It will be all eyes on the Netherlands to learn from this transition’, said Dr. Helen Harwatt to The Guardian. If Ireland is to follow suit, farmers must be involved in government decision-making every step of the way, and ensuring their livelihoods are protected must be at the heart of the transition to a more circular food system.

Livestock numbers must shrink to reach crucial climate numbers
Livestock numbers must shrink to reach crucial climate numbers. Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash.

3. Base low-impact diets on plant-based protein and fewer processed foods 

To nudge behavioural change for Irish residents’ food choices, the government has laid out ambitious diet-centred strategies that target food safety and health—yet environmental concerns are underrepresented. Targets centre on integrating food policies with health policies, creating national food, health and nutrition initiatives, and bolstering consumer trust by providing information on food safety, animal welfare and ethical food production. A focus on low-impact diets that incorporate more vegetables, fruits, whole grains and plant-based proteins could further push Irish agrifood policy in the right direction. 

Sustainable diets are shown to be also healthy: one does not have to come at the expense of the other. Awareness-raising activities that tackle the public perception of plant-based diets, promote local consumption where possible, and put health at the forefront by advocating for less processed food options may be considered. 

4. Waste not, want not: design waste out of food and packaging

Ireland’s Food Waste Prevention Roadmap sets out targets to prevent avoidable food waste, recycle unavoidable food waste and cut food packaging waste. But while an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, the roadmap doesn’t only focus on just that: while measures to prevent food waste are in place, for food packaging, end-of-life solutions take precedence. Targets for recycling capacity are overtaking the use of renewable, bio-based materials and slowing the flow of packaging through reuse initiatives. Less attention is given, as for now, to reducing the sheer volume of resources employed in packaging production—even if the government has identified packaging as an area to consider further. 

Waste prevention measures are still needed, in addition to end-of-the-pipe solutions.
Waste prevention measures are still needed, in addition to end-of-the-pipe solutions. Photo by Jas Min on Unsplash.

Here, collaboration is key: policymakers may take a system perspective that supports various actors along the value chain and encourages cooperation between stakeholders: for example, industrial symbiosis (where material scraps and waste from one production system become a resource for another) and the ‘bundle of buyers approach’ (where small suppliers come together to gain better access to the market and deliver products in greater amounts). Cutting down on food waste while ensuring packaging is reusable, recyclable, and bio-based must be a priority for the government.

To truly transform Irish agrifood, tackle root causes 

The common denominator across Ireland’s agrifood policy? A predominant focus on the impact of activities’ output, with less attention afforded to the source of the impact—the root causes. This hints at an opportunity: by embracing circular economy strategies, Ireland can bridge its missing link to tackle multiple planetary crises and become the true leader in sustainable agriculture that it aims to. Sustainable agrifood requires a systems perspective above all else—and it’s time to make this shift. In the case of Ireland, taking a systems perspective needs to consider the role of meat in Irish culture, striking a balance between consuming less and supporting farms and rural communities. Across the globe, food systems need a fix that embraces circular strategies, draws on local knowledge and puts social justice at the heart of the transition. Ireland has the potential to lead the way.

Learn more

About Circle Economy

Circle Economy works with stakeholders across the public, private and third sectors to build circular food systems that are regenerative, fair and resilient. Using an impartial, data-driven approach, we work with partners to identify key circular interventions for food systems transformation, evaluate their socio-economic and environmental impacts, while building local capacity for implementation. Learn more here.

About the EIT Climate-KIC Deep Demonstration programme

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine of Ireland has partnered with EIT Climate-KIC to support national climate action in the agriculture and food sector. The strategic partnership with EIT Climate-KIC was announced by Ministers McConalogue and Heydon on the 30th March 2022, and is supporting the country’s mission to reach climate neutrality by 2050. Building on EIT Climate-KIC’s Deep Demonstration methodology, the partnership is developing a portfolio of innovation actions across the entire value chain, from soil to farm to fork.  

*Circle Economy contributed research to the initial stages of this partnership. Learn more here.

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A Dutch circular agrifood system does not stop at the border either*
A Dutch circular agrifood system does not stop at the border either*

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