OPINION: We need to talk about agriculture

Published by Ian Carey on

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October 6th 2016

As global populations continue to grow, the direction our society takes has enormous consequences for our future.  Given the targets we have set in Ireland under Food Harvest 2020, the resulting amplification of our agricultural industries are likely to have significant consequences for our environment and the ability of it to sustain us.

In recent years, research has focused on the impacts of intensive agriculture on the environment and on how we can reduce them.  While more and more elaborate technologies are being developed; it’s important that we look at the collective impacts of our agricultural processes and not deal with its problems in isolation.  Why? Well, this strategy is comparable to trying to treat pneumonia with throat lozenges and lemsips.  It can lead to treating symptoms and not the root cause of the problem.

Agriculture is a major contributor to climate change both in Ireland and around the globe.  In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported the Agriculture accounts for one-third of CO2 (eq) emissions[1] .  The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation also reported that agricultural related emissions increased by 14 per cent between 2001 and 2011[2].

Agriculture is also responsible for water degradation in Irish water bodies.  The EPA estimates that 70 per cent of phosphorus inputs in rivers in Ireland are due to agricultural sources[3].  This trend is replicated in virtually all countries which engage in intensive agriculture.

Biodiversity is also on the decline. According to a study completed by RSPB, 56 per cent of species declined between 1970 and 2013 and agriculture was the most significant cause[4].  Furthermore, habitat destruction and the resulting biodiversity losses are being observed worldwide with one-tenth (3.3 million km2) of global wilderness areas over the last two decades being lost[5].

But what can we do?  It’s clear that the combined food production, its transport, and retail are major contributors to the global economy, and provides a living to large portions of our society.  Also, given our increasing population, how else are we to feed ourselves adequately?  This is where the narratives we tell ourselves really begin to unravel.

Our food system works on the basis that farmers grow or produce food that provides us with essential nutrition and in turn are rewarded with compensation suitable to support themselves and their family.  In reality, farmers are being pressured to sell produce at below cost at the demands of large retailers who disproportionally control and influence the market[6].  Ultimately, it’s the environment which bears the burden from the pressure applied on farmers.  More fertilisers are applied, buffer zones are reduced or more intensive methods are used in order to make a profit.  All this and we don’t even consume the food we produce.   Ireland is now a net importer of food and imports most of the food we consume.[7]

Our food system is not only hurting our farmers and environment but may be contributing to our growing health problems.  Our reliance on meat and dairy products has been linked to a range of conditions including obesity[8], cancer[9], and osteoporosis[10] .  Also, as a result of giving cattle large doses of antibiotics, antibiotic resistance bacteria is finding its way through the food system from the products themselves to crops which are grown using manure[11] .

Our current strategy to deal with these problems usually involves addressing each problem in isolation.  Animal agriculture is contributing to climate change, so let’s try change cows feedstuff or diet to cut emissions.  Nutrient application is polluting our water bodies? Let’s develop buffer zones to reduce or prevent runoff.  Biodiversity is suffering? Well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

In reality, when we look at the scope of negative consequences, this type of strategy is foolhardy and unrealistic. If our aim is to develop sustainably, treating the symptoms and not the root cause of our problems is at best; a piecemeal approach.  While it is important to research and learn how to do things more efficiently, we must also accept when an activity is too damaging and less intensive agricultural systems need to be explored.  Clearly, this is easier said than done, but while the road ahead is long, it must start with a first step.  Let’s hope we start this journey sooner rather than later.

[1] http://www.epa.ie/climate/emissionsinventoriesandprojections/nationalemissionsinventories/

[2] http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/216137/icode/

[3] https://www.epa.ie/pubs/reports/research/water/Finalper cent20Reportper cent20LS221per cent20Fieldper cent20Byper cent20Field.pdf

[4] https://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/stateofnature_tcm9-345839.pdf

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/08/humans-have-destroyed-a-tenth-of-earths-wilderness-in-25-years-study


[7] http://www.antaisce.org/sites/antaisce.org/files/colin_doyle_feeding_the_world_sustainably.pdf

[8] Turner-McGrievy et al. (2015). Comparative effectiveness of plant-based diets for weight loss:

A randomized controlled trial of five different diets. Nutrition 31 (2015) 350–358

[9] Key et al. (2009). Cancer incidence in vegetarians: results from the European

Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-Oxford). Am J Clin Nutr 2009;89

[10] http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g6015

[11] Jechalke, S.; Cook, K.L.; Smalla, K. (2015): Approaches to Assess the Effects and Risks of Veterinary Antibiotics Applied with Manure to Soil. In: Ossiprandi, M.C. (ed.): Antimicrobial Resistance – An Open Challenge, 17-32.[/cs_text][cs_block_grid type=”two-up”][cs_block_grid_item title=”Block Grid Item 1″][x_image type=”none” float=”none” src=”https://greennews.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Stephen-Barry-Green-News.jpg” info=”none” info_place=”top” info_trigger=”hover”][/cs_block_grid_item][cs_block_grid_item title=”Block Grid Item 2″]About the Author

Stephen Barry has an MSc. in Climate Change and has worked in the environmental sector on issues of compiling greenhouse gas emissions inventories and water pollution. He is currently completing a PhD. in Peatland Ecosystem Functioning.[/cs_block_grid_item][/cs_block_grid][/cs_column][/cs_row][/cs_section][/cs_content]

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Ian Carey

Ian is the editor of the Green News. He works as Communications Manger with the Irish Environmental Network.