13 May 2021
Seven Reasons the Draft Agri-Food Strategy 2030 Gives Me Hope!
Will you eat today?
Then you too are a stakeholder in the Draft Agri-Food Strategy 2030, which sets out an ambitious and joined-up approach to Ireland’s food sector over the next decade.
A public consultation on this draft strategy is going on at the moment, and I have to confess to being somewhat disappointed by the small number of people I see engaging, and the paucity of media and social media discussion about something so fundamental to our lives as our daily nourishment.
The exception to this observation is the environmental NGOs and activists who are being very vocal in making their concerns about this draft strategy heard. As a coalition – the Environmental Pillar – they were an important part of the Committee that formulated this strategy for more than a year, but withdrew in February after concluding that the draft strategy is (in their words) “woefully inadequate to meet the social and environmental challenges we face.”
Their perspective is important, valid and valued, and is a part of the dialogue that needs to happen. But I worry that an emphasis on the shortcomings of the report and a lack of interest from the wider public mean that a lot of excellent thinking in this report is being overlooked.
So here is my take – 7 things that have given me hope reading this strategy:
1. The holistic approach
This is a FOOD strategy – not an agri-export strategy, or nutrition and health strategy, or climate change strategy. In short, not a report dominated by the views of one set of interests. For the first time ever in Ireland, food is being looked at with a ‘food systems’ lens. This recognises the interconnectedness between
· Economic sustainability
· Social sustainability
· Environmental sustainability
It’s a daunting challenge to achieve a genuine balance between these different priorities – yet it’s only through adopting a holistic approach that we will rise to the challenges we are increasingly being asked to face in our fast-changing, complex world. This strategy is a good first step.
2. Fairness as a guiding principle
I was struck by how this report is underpinned by the value of fairness, including:
o Access to nutritional food as a social justice issue.
o That the burden of addressing climate change needs to be shouldered by the whole of society.
o Ensuring primary producers are able to make a decent livelihood and return for their endeavours.
o That there needs to be a place in Ireland’s agri-food sector for all types of primary producers, be they big or small, full-time or part-time.
o Intergenerational equality and the need to reduce the barriers to young people entering agriculture, fisheries, or forestry.
o Recognition of the need to address gender equality (less than 10% of our farmers or fishers are female, and Ireland is one of the poorest performing countries in the EU on this).
o The linkage of this policy to Ireland’s foreign and development co-operation and its focus in particular on contributing to the sustainable development of Africa’s agri-food sector and rural economy.
3. Sustainability is also an opportunity and source of competitive advantage
So often sustainability is presented only as a negative, a cost, something that has to be done – under threat of what will happen if we don’t. It’s true of course that there is so much that needs to be done – we have a massive amount of work to do to achieve the national target of achieving climate neutrality by 2050 (and our track record to date here in Ireland is less than stellar).
Anyone looking at global food brands will be struck by the growing recognition of how important sustainable credentials are for the consumer. Indeed Unilever have made it the central plank of their development strategy. There is enormous potential for Ireland to build on its strong reputation for high-quality, sustainable food. Hopefully this strategy will turbocharge the investment, research and rapid progress that is needed for Ireland to achieve its stated goal of being a world leader in sustainable food systems within a decade.
4. An emphasis on innovation, knowledge and technology
At a recent national dialogue on Ireland’s food system, held as part of the consultative process for this strategy, there was a poll of participants. 86% agreed (55% agreeing strongly) that “research and innovation can make the biggest contribution to achieving a sustainable food system”.
The panel discussion on research and innovation at this dialogue included: Dr Nora Khaldi, CEO of Nuritas; Alvan Hunt, CEO of Hexafly; Kevin O’Connor, professor at UCD and director of BiOrbic; and Dr Maeve Henchion of Teagasc. Listening to their contributions left me in no doubt of the scale of the challenge, but also of the innovative development that is already happening in the food sector in Ireland.
5. The recognition of the need for much more joined-up thinking on our public policies of food and health
One in eight Irish households suffers from food poverty, while we have one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe. Alongside this about 30% of our food is wasted. Our thinking is certainly not joined-up at the moment. This strategy calls for improved policy coherence for food, nutrition and health. That is something to be welcomed, and hopefully our experience and learnings from COVID-19 will mean we give our public health policies much more respect and importance.
6. We are not starting from scratch
The draft strategy document is brought to life by case-studies from the food industry which highlight where ground-breaking work is already going on, including:
· U-Protein, which is exploring sustainable crop- and marine-based protein alternatives.
· An Bord Iascaigh Mhara’s and the Irish fishing industry’s work on technical solutions to reduce unwanted catches in fishing.
· Monaghan Mushrooms’ development (with MBio) of mushrooms with enhanced levels of Vitamin D.
· The AgTech Connector Innovation Hub led by NovaUCD, which is turning the UCD Lyons Farm in Co Kildare into the central hub for ag-tech research in Ireland.
7. The ambition for Ireland
The draft strategy sets out a vision in which this country becomes a world leader in sustainable food systems over the next decade.
It also sets out the vision that Ireland, leveraging the clout that comes with its membership of the UN Security Council, will play a leadership role in the UN Food Systems Summit in September 2021.
This leadership ambition is aided greatly by the growing influence of Tom Arnold, Chair of the 2030 Agri-Food Strategy committee. Arnold is a member of the Food Systems Summit’s Champions Network and has recently been appointed by the European Commission to chair a new High Level Expert Group preparing the EU’s position for the summit.
These are some of the elements in the Agri-Food Strategy 2030 that are giving me hope. If you were to read the draft strategy, you would undoubtedly come up with a different list, and you might disagree strongly with what I have selected and written. That’s fine! The key thing is that more people engage, and that an open and respectful conversation is held about this essential element of our lives.
The public consultation will remain open until 15 June 2021. The executive summary of the draft Strategy can be found here.Draft Agri-Food Strategy 2030