By Robert Engelman
True to its iconic national color—green—Ireland may be the first country whose government is taking steps to measure sustainability and to integrate the concept into its economy.
Poster and “sustainability extension agent” on government-funded research farm in Count Meath, Ireland. (Photo Credit: Robert Engelman)
They’re small steps, not remotely on a scale or schedule that can stop the world’s climate from heating up to well past 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial times. But Ireland is a small country, and (as Worldwatch has discovered working with small-island states in the Caribbean) small nations can act as beacons pointing the way to sustainable behavior—particularly when large nations refuse to lead.
Ireland’s “scheme” (the term, while pejorative in American English, means program or plan here) is called Origin Green. It’s an apt name that calls to mind both the deep history of the country’s people and the lush verdure of its land. Origin Green is the brainchild of Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, an independent agency funded largely by the government to promote Irish food exports to a globalized world. The board held a one-day conference last week on sustainable food production, and used the opportunity to educate some 800 attendees on the Origin Green program. (Full disclosure: the board covered my expenses to attend.)
Having written a chapter in Worldwatch’s State of the World 2013 called “Beyond Sustainababble,” I tend to apply a skeptical ear to the use of the words sustainable and sustainability, especially by corporations. As I note in the chapter, the S-words are often used without meaning or verification to pitch brands and products to consumers who want to help the planet through their purchasing power. And indeed, some of the corporate executives presenting at the meeting on their companies’ efforts did skirt past the tough question of what sustainability really means, particularly for their own operations.
There were plenty of PowerPoint slides showing reductions in the use of energy, water, and other resources. And there were some mentions of long-term targets and even a few goals of achieving zero waste or net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the future. These are healthy signs that these companies—ranging in this meeting from Irish firms like Errigal Seafoods to multinationals like PepsiCo—are at least showing some leadership and are ahead of the many others that can’t be bothered to worry about their impact on the future of humanity.
But what was more interesting than the individual corporate efforts is the role that the Food Board—and thus indirectly the Irish government—is playing in trying to introduce real metrics of sustainability into the food industry, all the way to the farm itself.
Ireland is a country of small family farms, 140,000 of them, averaging less than 33 hectares (about 81 acres), according to the semi-governmental agricultural research agency Teagasc. Unlike in the United States and much of Europe, industrialized agriculture scarcely exists here. These farms and the food they produce account for two-fifths of Ireland’s national greenhouse gas emissions, compared to less than a third of agriculture’s total for the world as a whole. So a real sustainability push that operated across the entire food sector—one of the biggest players in Ireland’s economy—might actually make a difference to the country’s environment as well as to its contribution to global emissions.
With no comparable programs else in the world to use as models, Bord Bia opted to focus on the most intensive source of agricultural emissions, beef production, and to move from there to dairy (already in early stages), lamb, pork, and eventually horticulture. Sustainability is defined primarily environmentally, as enabling humanity to live decently today without undermining the ability of future generations to live just as decently.
Irish actress Saoirse Ronan opens a heartstring-tugging video on Origin Green with a proverb that, almost in the same wording, adorned the cover of an early Worldwatch book by Lester Brown: “We have not inherited this world from our parents; we have borrowed it from our children.” To which Ms. Ronan adds: “One day we will return it to them. When we do, it should be every bit as bountiful as when we found it. That’s what sustainability means.”
But the program encourages farmers and food companies also to consider social sustainability, setting guidelines for improvement in the health and nutrition of food, the treatment of employees and communities, and the treatment of animals. Importantly, Origin Green seeks to link the entire food production chain into a kind of mutual commitment, with pressure moving in both directions between farmers and companies that depend on each other, to measure impacts and push for ever higher bars in shrinking carbon footprints and improving other markers of farm and corporate behavior.
Not that sustainability is always an easy sell. “When you talk to a room full of farmers about carbon footprints, within 30 seconds the first one falls asleep,” concedes Padraig Brennan, a Bord Bia senior business analyst. “After another 30 seconds, they’re all asleep.”
So the program promoters, not surprisingly, focus on the bottom line. They stress the monetary savings that efforts to reach for sustainability can yield. There’s a calculation, admittedly rough, for the savings in Euro each trimmed kilogram of carbon dioxide emissions can save a beef farmer. In a well informed, globalized world, to which nine-tenths of Ireland’s beef is exported, brand reputation is essential to farm, company, and national economic survival. And no matter what exact proportion of consumers really care about the sustainability efforts behind their purchases—and there was much debate about this—in a world of 7.2 billion people, there are enough of them to affect business reputation and revenue.
Moreover, it may actually be the case that many farmers understand what environmental sustainability means to their own future. As in many parts of the world, farms here operate on a thin economic margin. On a tour of a dairy and beef farm near Trim, County Meath, I asked farmer Michael Flaherty whether he thought seriously about the impact of his work on the planet and his children’s future.
“The world’s population is growing, and we need to produce more food,” he replied. “Even if you don’t have the moral decency to care about the environment, there’s the question of the cost of commodities. If oil goes to $150 a barrel, I’ll stop using nitrogen fertilizer, which depends on fossil fuel, and I’ll have to start passive injection of slurry [liquified cow manure].”
Ireland has more reason than most to take sustainability seriously. In the mid-19th century, it suffered a demographic collapse like no other in the modern world. Rapid population growth combined with heartless economic policies from the country’s English overlords to create an unprecedented reliance on a single crop, potatoes, which eventually withered in the face of an unrelenting fungus-caused blight. Even today, the entire island’s population of 6.4 million is barely 80 percent of what it was before the famine the Irish call the Great Hunger.
So maybe Ireland has a will to help feed the world sustainably, even if the country seems just a bit unhealthily “meatcentric.” (At the conference-closing dinner, one government official quipped, less than sensitively, that “vegetarian is a North American Indian word for ‘bad hunter.’”) In a world hurtling toward heat and catastrophe, we can hope that Ireland’s experiment in sustainability consciousness-raising is more than just a St. Paddy’s Day “wearin’ o’ the green,” and that other national governments will follow and expand on the country’s pioneering lead.
Robert Engelman is President of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C.