Ireland a nation of 4 Million feeding 400 Million

by Martha Kearns

Ireland feeding 4 million

As the global population soars to record highs MARTHA KEARNS looks at how Ireland is feeding the world and is on a mission to become a world leader in sustainably produced food.

SAOIRSE RONAN’S piercing blue eyes stare out at the viewers, imploring them to engage in the idea of sustainability and the unique opportunity it gives Ireland to become a world leader in sustainably-produced food and drink. “Our country,” she says, “was not handed down to us by our parents but is merely on loan to us by our children and we have to ensure we return it to them as bountiful as when we received it.” This, she says, is what sustainability is all about.

The young Irish actor is appearing in a magnificently shot four-minute long advertisement film for a new movement called Origin Green. Spearheaded by Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, Origin Green is a unique programme which aims to help Ireland become a world leader in sustainable highquality food and drink production. It is built upon the Origin Green Sustainability Charter which will commit participants to engage directly with the challenges of sustainability. This will include reducing energy inputs, minimizing overall carbon footprint and lessening impact on the environment in order to increase efficiency and competitiveness.

Sustainability has become a major issue for the global food industry and Ireland – and its food producers – are hoping to build up the country’s green credentials to become a world leader in this area. Ireland has already shown itself to be a world leader in the agrifood business and, as a nation of four million people, is worldwide feeding up to 400 million every year. But the world population is set to increase to 9 billion by 2050. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for the sector.

In a world that is using up its resources at one and a half times the rate that the planet can sustain, sustainability is where the Irish agri-food sector is headed in order to get itself even more noticed on the world stage. And we are already well on our way. European Commission research shows that Ireland’s dairy industry already has the lowest carbon footprint in Europe and its beef industry, which is the largest net exporter in the Northern hemisphere, has one of the lowest. Since 2011, the rollout of Bord Bia’s Origin Green carbon footprint monitoring for all of its quality assured beef farms, has further enhanced Ireland’s beef production carbon efficiency profile at international level.

The world needs to produce 70 per cent more food over the next four decades in order to meet its growing population, but at the same time it needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. “It is this dilemma that the world needs to solve,” says Aidan Cotter, Chief Executive Officer of Bord Bia, who said that Ireland was in an unique position in terms of its natural sustainability to take on this role. “It is as if the concept of sustainability was created for us,” says Cotter. “We believe we can be a world leader in sustainability. It is what we can, and should be, famous for. But certain conditions must be met.”

The Irish elements – rain, wind, mild conditions and plentiful seas – have always been advantageous towards Ireland becoming a world leader in the agri-food business

One of the conditions set by Bord Bia is that every farm and food-producing industry in Ireland signs up to the sustainability agenda. Bord Bia has set a goal that by 2014, 75 per cent of all of food and drink exports should be sourced from farms and food businesses that are “on the road to sustainability”. By 2016, the food board wants this figure to be at 100 per cent. So far, 257 companies have signed up for the Origin Green program, which includes signing up to a five-year programme which will see targets verified by an independent third-party.

As part of Origin Green, some 30,000 beef farms have already been carbon-footprinted and by early next year, a similar programme will be rolled out across all 18,000 dairy businesses. No other country is carrying out carbon footprinting on this scale. It is being carried out in conjunction with Teagasc and is being conducted to the highest international standards, based on carbon footprint calculation models accredited by the Carbon Trust. Plans are also in place to introduce such measures around biodivesity and water. And in a world that is facing water shortages, with agriculture requiring the use of 70 per cent of freshwater supplies for irrigation, our water stress index, is among the lowest in the world.

Even before sustainability became a buzz word, the Irish elements – rain, wind, mild conditions and plentiful seas – have always been advantageous towards Ireland becoming a world leader in the agri-food business. The importance of the sector to Ireland can not be underestimated. It is one of the country’s most important indigenous industries, providing 7.7 per cent of the country’s employment as well as providing the primary outlet for the produce of 128,000 family farms. When employment in inputs, processing and marketing is included, the agri-food sector accounts for almost 10 per cent of employment..

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine calculates that the sector contributes €24 billion to the national economy and generates 6.3 per cent of gross value added. It accounts for half of purchased Irish goods and services by the manufacturing industry and just over half of exports by indigenous manufacturing industries. It exports €9 billion to more than 160 countries around the world and accounts for around 32 per cent of Net Foreign Earnings from exports.

The Irish Government’s Minister for Agriculture Food and the Marine, Simon Coveney, says that the Irish government’s commitment to the agri-food sector remains strong. In the supplementary estimate for 2012, the Exchequer provided €1.339 billion for agriculture for agriculture, fisheries. Food and public expenditure will amount to over €2.639 billion when the department’s spending is combined with EU funding of €1.3 billion. “The high proportion of expenditure on local raw material and services as well as the dispersed nature and composition of the sector will ensure that the agrifood sector will play an integral part in the recovery of our economic success and the continued viability of rural and coastal areas,” according to the department.

Speaking recently at the opening of an international conference at University College Dublin (UCD), Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Tom Hayes emphasized the importance of a strong, sustainable Irish agriculture sector. “Ireland continues to build on the strengths of its green image and is deeply committed to maintain sound agricultural practices. Our aim is to maximize the food production strengths that are intrinsic to the Irish agri-food sector, particularly our environmentally friendly grass based production system.”

Exports in the sector are expected to grow by 40 per cent over the next decade as a result of opportunities arising from increased global demand and the end of the EU milk quota restrictions


Ireland’s small domestic market has meant that Irish food and drink companies have always had to export. The food and drink sector is the traditional backbone of Irish exports and accounts for around half of all exports from indigenous companies. In contrast to most other sectors – including pharmaceutical, chemical and ICT – Irishowned companies are more dominant than foreign multinationals. Exports in the sector are expected to grow by 40 per cent over the next decade as a result of opportunities arising from increased global demand and the end of the EU milk quota restrictions in 2015. Banks are reported to be putting aside large funds to support Irish dairy farmers when the restrictions are lifted and are already lending for capital programmes in advance of the ending of the milk quota.

Recent political progress has also been of benefit to the sector. As well as progress on a new reformed Common Fisheries Policy, major reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) deal, including the greening of CAP, which was reached in Europe in June, was a big coup for Ireland before the conclusion of its Presidency of the EU. Minister Coveney said he believed it secured the sustainable development of the sector to 2020 and beyond.

In 2012, the value of Irish food and drink exports increased by almost two per cent to exceed €9 billion for the first time, with meat and seafood being the strongest performers. This was an impressive performance against the backdrop of an eight per cent easing in global commodity prices, lower output in some key sectors and the public’s appetite for cheaper food. Export revenues have increased by €2 billion over the three year period to 2012.

The UK is the largest market for Irish food and drink exports, accounting for 42 per cent in 2012. In the same year, 31 per cent of exports went to Continental EU countries while 27 per cent went to international markets. The main drivers in trade to the UK – which increased by five per cent, or almost €170 million to reach €3.8 billion last year – were beef, seafood and dairy. But the emphasis on value-added food products has led to growing markets in other EU and in third world countries.

The figures back up this growth with trade in international markets – led by Asia, Africa and North America – increasing by eight per cent or €200 million to exceed €2.4 billion. Ireland is now the largest net exporter of dairy ingredients, beef and lamb in Europe. It is also the largest exporter in Europe of powdered baby formula.

Irish agri-food businesses are very conscious of the need to expand their markets and the potential of emerging markets is certainly there. The increasing world population – along with a growing middle class in large countries such as China and India – will mean that by 2030, there will be a 50 per cent increase in demand for food production. During 2011, trade to China increased by 47 per cent and to Russia by 30 per cent. While China is often cited as the main growing market, there is increased interest in Africa. This is because some analysts believe that there is a faster pace of growth in Africa. Trade to South Africa increased in 2011 by 43 per cent and to Nigeria by 38 per cent. Ireland is poised to take advantage of these opportunities, whether they be in China, India or Africa.

This is where it all comes back to sustainability. If Ireland can become a global leader in this area, it will give the country – and its agri-food businesses – a head start and a unique selling point in these emerging markets. “Becoming a world leader in sustainability is a bold ambition but it can be realized,” says Saoirse Ronan in the Origin Green advertisement. “We need to show the world we are on that journey and we need to show them proof that we can partake of the world without taking from the world.”