Could North-South agri-food cooperation help cross the rural-urban climate change divide?

So in the end the political will did not exist among world leaders at COP26 in Glasgow to radically tackle global warming. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned at the end of the conference: “We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe.” He called for an end to fossil fuels subsidies, a phase out of coal (not a ‘phase down’ as was agreed in Glasgow), a price on carbon, building resilience of vulnerable communities against the impacts of climate change and to make good on the long-promised €100 billion climate finance commitment to support developing countries.

“Global leaders have turned their backs on indigenous communities, small-scale farmers, women and girls who desperately need support to recover and rebuild after climate disasters. This is a matter of great injustice,” said Siobhan Curran, head of policy at Trocaire, who was at the conference.

Rachel Kinnerly, a climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth UK, summed up the general feeling of disillusion among both activists and the concerned public: “The road to 1.5C just got harder when these talks should have cleared the way to making it a whole lot easier. The UK government cunningly curated announcements throughout this fortnight so that it seemed rapid progress was being made. Here we are though, and the Glasgow get-out clause means that leaders failed to phase out fossil fuels and the richest countries won’t pay historic climate debt.” She urged countries, after this disappointing “COP moment”, to “break away from the pack in their race for meaningful climate action and let history judge the laggards.”

Could a small country like Ireland take a lead here? Our government’s €125 billion Climate Action Plan, published during the first week of COP, set out 475 actions to halve Ireland’s greenhouse emissions by 2030, including extensive offshore wind power, retrofitting 500,000 homes and putting one million electric vehicles on Irish roads (I have doubts about the feasibility of the last of these). As that insightful political commentator Pat Leahy wrote: “The plan represents a very significant political success for the Green Party. After a year and a bit in government – in the midst of a pandemic – the party has moved climate action to the very centre of the Coalition’s priorities and committed the country to a radical scheme of decarbonisation that could only have been dreamed of by the party when it was in opposition.”1

The island of Ireland could lead in other important ways too. I listened last month to a debate held under the auspices of the John and Pat Hume Foundation on ‘How the island of Ireland can best contribute to COP26?’ A lot of it was about how more sustainable farming and food production could help bring Ireland’s farmers on board as partners in the battle against global warming, rather than as reactionary defenders of the size of the national herd. This was something that was largely absent from the public debate following the publication of the Climate Action Plan.

The distinguished public service leader, Tom Arnold – chair of the Irish Government’s 2030 Agri-Food Strategy Committee and a former Concern Worldwide chief executive and chief economist at the Department of Agriculture and Food – told the Hume Foundation colloquium that climate-driven common challenges and changed policy contexts in the European Union, the UK and Ireland, North and South, “provide a compelling case for cooperation in agro-environmental policy to be brought to a different scale than ever before.” North-South supply chains and ownership structures mean that agri-food is already the largest cross-border trading sector on the island of Ireland.

Arnold says it is remarkable that the key policy documents on agriculture, food production and climate change in all four jurisdictions are now so extraordinarily aligned. The core objective of his committee’s recent policy document – Food Vision 2030: A World Leader in Sustainable Food Systems – is the achievement of “a carbon neutral food system by 2050, with verifiable progress by 2030, encompassing emissions, water quality and biodiversity.” This is now official government policy.

He quotes John Bell, the Dubliner who is director of the Healthy Planet unit in the EU’s DG Research and Innovation, who said last year that the €1.8 trillion European Green Deal (EGD) represented a huge opportunity for Ireland, North and South. Noting that the EGD would be “the motor and the compass” of the European Union’s economic recovery after Covid-19, with the aim of becoming the first continent to be carbon-neutral by 2050, Bell forecast that Ireland would be among the leaders in European non-meat production and the restoration of peat bogs. The EU’s companion €9 billion Horizon Research and Innovation programme has five ‘moonshot missions’: preparing Europe for climate disruptions such as extreme weather and sea-level rise; restoring oceans and water systems; tackling cancer; building 100 climate-neutral cities by 2030; and restoring 75% of European soils and land. By placing the island at the centre of this research programme, Ireland could become “the green heart of the Green Deal,” said Bell.

Closer to home, Arnold says the Irish Food Vision 2030 strategy and the Northern Ireland Executive’s Green Growth strategy both reflect the reality that the agri-food sectors in both parts of the island are under increasing societal pressure to demonstrate their contribution to ambitious national efforts to combat climate change. “The sectors need to adhere to short-term measures to tackle existing problems of water and air quality and loss of biodiversity, within a longer-term vision of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and increasing carbon sequestration and on-farm renewable energy,” he says. He suggests that to the three ‘strands’ of the Good Friday Agreement should be added a climate-conscious fourth strand to provide “a link between tackling certain problems on an all-island basis – reducing emissions, improving soil health – and the major EU policies such as the European Green Deal.”

“Delivering on such measures can be the basis for a new shared vision between the agri-food sector and environmentalists which recognises their commonality of interests, changes the negative narrative that has developed between them in recent years and provides a basis to agree a common future agenda. That agenda should envisage farmers and the sector as being first responders in the climate emergency, ecosystem service providers, producing high quality food, capturing carbon and supporting biodiversity. In the post-Covid world, there needs to be a serious re-evaluation of the role that the agri-food and health sectors play in society,” he adds.

John Gilliland, a former president of the Ulster Farmers Union and chair of the Expert Northern Ireland Working Group on Land Management, was the first farmer in Europe to set up a combined heat and power project to process wood from his 110 acre willow farm outside Derry. At the Hume Foundation event he praised Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots (let us Southerners suspend our prejudices for a moment!) – a farmer himself – for “a leap of leadership” in announcing a scheme to measure the carbon sequestration in the soil, hedges and trees on all Northern farms every five years. “How can we make the Green agenda relevant to the around 150,000 farmers on this island? One thing we can do is to measure our carbon stocks every five years and see if we’ve made a positive or negative change to that agenda, ” suggested Gilliland.

Gilliland is also Director of Global Agriculture and Sustainability with Devenish, the Belfast-based agri-technology multinational, which uses science to achieve the most effective utilisation of nutrients in food production. He said that at their model farm at Dowth, Co Meath, Devenish had reduced greenhouse gas emissions in beef and lamb production by 26% in one year. He said the research-based innovation happening on ‘lighthouse’ farms like that at Dowth “empowers farmers to make their economics more resilient and delivers environmental goods at the same time.”

He said that in Scotland they had created a Just Transition Commission, which had “gone a long way to alleviate the concerns about building up a rural-urban split which is in danger of building here too. Rural people and farming families need to be comforted that they won’t be steamrollered; that there is a just process going on; that there is good science, and we need to reduce the emotion and get on with ensuring behavioural change.”

Gilliland and Arnold both believe that if the proper incentives are put in place farmers will play their part in the fight against global warming, innovating as they see the benefits of emission reductions. “We don’t want to leave our farms to our children and grandchildren in worse shape than we inherited them,” says Gilliland. “I realised after four wet harvests that my farm had to change because the weather is changing. What I’ve learned is solutions that I and other practising farmers can implement. I have a duty to reduce the negative legacy that my generation is leaving to the next generation.”

It is right that there should be sticks as well as carrots here. The professor emeritus of European Agricultural Policy at Trinity College Dublin, Alan Matthews, warns that “current levels of [farm] output are associated with unprecedented biodiversity loss, deteriorating water quality and levels of ammonia emissions that exceed legal limits. Failure to address these issues will lead to restrictions on output as happened in the Netherlands and New Zealand, where warning signals were ignored. There is a cost to inaction. Ireland already fails to meet its EU climate targets and will continue to do so if agricultural emissions are not reduced.”2

I know little or nothing about farming. But I do believe strongly that greater North-South cooperation on this island – between farmers, processors and retailers – can only produce good results: both in providing high quality food and in slowing climate change. When I sit in my Dublin home eating Linwoods flaxseed (milled in County Armagh) for my breakfast and Ditty’s Irish oatcakes (baked in County Derry/Londonderry) for my tea – both produced to the highest environmental and health standards – I am happy in the knowledge that these small examples of all-island sustainable food production are the shape of the climate-conscious future.

1 ‘If plan is implemented in full it will be on a par with Lemass’s 1960s opening up’, Irish Times, 5 November

2 ‘Farmers need the right incentives to reduce emissions, Irish Times, 1 November

This entry was posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, The island environment. Bookmark the permalink.

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