Last year saw the publication of the Irish Government’s ‘Food Vision 2030’ – a 10 year Strategy prepared by a committee of sectoral stakeholders and the Department of Agriculture as Secretariat, to make the Irish agri-food sector a “world leader in sustainable food systems”. Crucially, it sets ambitious targets to measure verifiable progress in reducing GHGs by 2030, with chemical fertilisers front and centre in the firing line: the objective is that nitrous oxide emissions from nitrogen-based chemical fertilisers are reduced by 50% by 2030 (source Gov.ie). It is to be expected that while a reduction in the national herd remains a politically-sensitive roadblock between the coalition partners, chemical fertiliser will remain in focus as an easier target to mitigate nitrous oxide levels.
The shift in approach to sustainable farming practices will be mammoth, likely requiring the greatest transformation in agricultural production in the history of the State, but which farming groups would point out is already underway and being spearheaded by them. This will be the task at hand for Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue and his officials in Agriculture House, in implementing policies to meet the climate targets and environmental policies being led by his Cabinet colleague, Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan. Already concerns have been raised by the former and across the agricultural sector as to the implications of the GHG emission targets being set, and Minister McConalogue will be determined that Irish farmers are incentivised with the carrot, rather than shown the Green Party’s stick. The end-goal will likely only be reached by trade-offs on all sides.
The Government’s Climate Action Plan has tasked the Agriculture sector with reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by an ambitious 22% to 30% by 2030 (based on 2018 emission levels). The sector is the largest contributor of Ireland’s GHGs, responsible for approximately one-third of total emissions according to the Environmental Protection Agency, who recently raised concerns around the progress the sector has made towards emission targets and “the uncertainty regarding its ability to deliver even the lower end of the range of its sectoral targets within the ever-shortening timeframe to 2030.” (source EPA Ireland)
Other measures to get the sector to 2030 include a National Soil Strategy, which the Department of Agriculture has committed to following the launch of the Soil Analysis Programme last year. In addition, an interim report published in recent weeks by the Food Vision Dairy Group, which was established by the Minister, has already been met with strong resistance from farming groups particularly on its recommendations around tighter cuts to nitrogen usage.
Most significantly, the Fifth Nitrates Action Plan published earlier this year illustrates the extent to which chemical nitrogen usage sits within the Department’s firing line, outlining a 15% national reduction in usage rates by 2024. With heightened focus now on chemical fertiliser use, the Department is looking to establish a national fertiliser database to capture all fertiliser purchases made by Irish farmers, and a legal requirement for all fertiliser sales in the State to be registered. Legislation is currently being prepared to have this fertiliser register in effect by January 1st 2023.
On the one hand, the Irish agri-food sector is considered among the most sustainable food production systems in the world, and indeed Food Vision 2030 also sets the target of growing the value of Irish agri-food exports by 50% by 2030. On the other hand, Irish farmers are told that the sector’s progress so far in transitioning to a more sustainable environmental footprint is below expectations. However, progress must also be considered in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine – for which publication of Food Vision 2030 predates – and the seismic impacts it has had on food supply chains globally.
While all sectors have been impacted by the war in Ukraine, the implications for the agri-food sector have been most severe. Irish farmers have been grappling with rising input costs in the form of feed, fuel and most acutely – fertiliser, which has seen by far the steepest rise in price: a staggering 134% in the year to February 2022 (source source CSO.ie). Availability, global demand and rising energy costs have all led to the unprecedented price spiral, all factors which show no sign of abating in the medium-term at least.
The EU ban on specific fertiliser imports from both Russia and Belarus have also squeezed market supplies. We had already seen prior to the Russian invasion calls from some MEPs to reduce EU import tariffs on fertiliser supplies from third countries, to address issues of affordability. As the crisis worsens, the European Parliament has now called on the Commission to explore ways to mitigate the impact of fertiliser costs for farmers. It is only inevitable that such cost burdens will be further fed down the food supply chain to consumers, without intervention of some form, either at a national or EU-level.
Until then, Irish farmers will find themselves struggling to stay afloat amidst the rising tide of input costs, while also facing the oncoming wave of climate action measures, which will only gain momentum. As one TD recently remarked in the Dáil – “The inflation farmers face today is the inflation everyone else will face tomorrow.” (source source oireachtas.ie)