SEEDS OF CHANGE Could the future of Irish agriculture be plant-based?
In my words
The 2018 Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) was published in November 2017 and the findings make for uncomfortable reading. Ireland is the lowest ranking EU country at 49 out of 59 countries reviewed, coming in well below China, India, and South Africa.
Although we are slow to see the effects of climate change here in Mayo there is no denying that between an exceptionally high species extinction rate, an increase in ocean acidification and a progressively unpredictable climate, this is a problem affecting us all.
It is difficult to imagine, here on the west coast of Ireland, that we could have much impact. After all we live in small, bucolic communities beside the roaring Atlantic. Yes, we all drive cars and have heated houses, but there no large extractive industries are are visible and the countryside is relatively unpolluted.
Potatoes from Israel
However, lurking in our fridges, fruit bowls and favourite meals is the suggestion that we are more culpable than we believe.
Garlic from China, apples from New Zealand, potatoes from Israel, sugar from Germany. Products from Kenya, South Africa, Spain, Vietnam, Chile, Thailand and Peru are commonplace in every Irish home, and the carbon footprint of these foods is massive. The growing, transporting, packaging and storing of these products uses large amounts of fuel, water and man power.
At the same time, agriculture is the single-most significant contributor to emissions in Ireland, responsible for 29.2 percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions.
How can this be? Considering that aside from dairy, some meat, and the odd vegetable all of our diet is imported, how are our agricultural emissions so sizable? High levels of methane released by cows, extensive use of machinery, and a low volume of vegetation are all contributors to this fact. This, coupled with the lack of a carbon sequestration programme, makes Ireland’s agricultural system one of the worst offenders per capita in the developed world.
Growing and buying local food
Buying local is a familiar idea. Everybody appreciates the importance of supporting your neighbour and keeping money circulating within the community instead of sending it to Tesco HQ.
Where we shop and what we buy can also affect Ireland’s miserable position in the rankings on climate change action. If every euro was spent with consideration as to the origin of our food, every single one of us would immediately be active in the transformation of Ireland. Firstly, we could focus on the country where our food was grown. As Irish vegetables become a more profitable business model due to increased sales, we could then begin to make distinctions based on production methods and even county of origin!
Farms could return to producing food for communities rather than commodities for export.
This simple change from predominantly animal-based, export-driven agriculture to vegetable-based, community-centric growing would have a revolutionary impact. A reduction in emissions, an improvement in quality and quantity of local economic activity, and a return to a seasonally based, healthy diet would all be the result of viewing every euro as a vote for the community, country and world we want our children to grow up in.
One step at a time
Food sovereignty is a movement that hopes to reorganise the power dynamics of our food system and through that transform our society at large. The fundamental idea is the return of control and decision making to the people who produce and consume the food from large multinational companies and faceless trade agreements.
The aim is an ecologically sound method of food production through which environmental impact, quality of life, and community cohesion are improved.
Food sovereignty is a large and complex concept and initially can be difficult to visualise. This being said, I believe that the core tenets of equality, democracy and environmental stewardship will ring home especially strong with many here on the west coast of Ireland.
One step at a time, we can begin to voice how we want our world to be by mobilising our power as consumers.
To read more about food sovereignty visit www.foodsovereigntyireland.org or viacampesina.org/en/.
Saoirse McHugh, an Achill native, has studied genetics in UCD and sustainable agriculture and food security at Lancaster University. She is also involved with Food Sovereignty Ireland.