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Column: We need to plan for a realistic, sustainable future in order to survive

Our collective inability to recognise the enormity of a growing food crisis caused by climate change is to our detriment, writes Gerry Crilly.

Image: Thomas Bethge via Shutterstock

THE RECENT DEBACLE in Cyprus over the government’s intention to take money from people’s savings to pay for the financial crisis creates a precedent few would have envisaged in dealing with this man-made problem.

Meanwhile, here at home, we are consumed with the need for a financial fix because our own foreign debt commitment is directly impinging on our day-to-day living expenses.

  • Our GDP: €0.2 trillion
  • Our foreign debt: €1.7 trillion
  • Our foreign debt per person: €390,969
  • Our foreign debt to GDP: 1,093 per cent
  • Our government debt to GDP: 109 per cent
  • Considered risk status: High (any wonder?)

The ability to produce enough food

There is another, much greater, problem evolving: our ability to produce enough food. Our collective inability to recognise the enormity of this problem as we persist with the fiscal focus is to our detriment.

The recent renegotiation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is in agri terms all about money and understandably so. But what is lacking is a recognition of how difficult it is becoming to produce food for ourselves.

We trumpet Irish agricultural exports worth €9 billion while we reluctantly question €5 billion in agricultural imports. The export to import ratio presents as healthy. The enormity of import figures needs questioning. Why are we importing what we are in a position to produce here?

Setting aside the financial cost, the carbon cost is less when product is produced at home with consequent job creation. In terms of global carbon footprint reduction, the requirement to reduce our carbon consumption needs to happen locally/nationally; it makes no sense to import what we can produce here. For a clean green food-producing island, we don’t see the elephant in the room.

Many household favourites are imports

Many household favourites consumers assume are homegrown are imported. From Lyons teabags to HB ice-cream, Siucra, Kimberley biscuits, vast quantities of milk, beef, chicken and potatoes, some 3.5 million tonnes of food consumed each year originates somewhere else.

Central Statistics Office figures show importers bringing in €5 billion worth of foreign food and drink each year.

With retail mark-ups and tax, the actual amount spent by shoppers on foreign foodstuffs could be as much as €8 billion — half the annual €16 billion consumer spend on food and drink.

Imports include €799m worth of cereals, €958m worth of fruit and vegetables, €282m worth of poultry and €711m worth of drinks — and  that’s only at wholesale prices.”

Climate change

The elephant in the room is climate change. Global commodity food prices have dramatically increased due primarily to droughts in the US, Ukraine and Russia, where up to 50 per cent of the wheat and soya bean crops failed.

In Ireland, we have had no more than eleven dry/rain-free weeks in the past twelve months; the land is sodden. Ask any farmer his concerns and weather is top of the list. Only relatively recently is this beginning to permeate into public consciousness.

It has been argued whether extreme weather events are a consequence of climate change, and now a strong scientific consensus has emerged.

On this island, we are experiencing the much more immediate effects of climate change. These effects are beginning to present growing insurmountable problems which must be dealt with, in so far as we can.

Inaccessibility to land due to weather

This time last year, potatoes were €90-€100 per tonne, but today they cost €700-€750 per tonne.

Less than 50 per cent of the winter crops had been planted, acres of last year’s arable crops remained in the fields, potatoes remained in the ground, the spring crop planting season was under serious pressure. All of this is due to the inaccessibility to the land with the required machinery because of weather. Coupled with the current fodder crisis, we are experiencing the consequences of climate change.

It is becoming clearer that climate change as was thought to be a gradual occurrence is proving to be more current and erratic. Glacial Melt, Super Storm Sandy, Australian wild fires/floods, Russian/American droughts, Asian typhoons, in the last twelve months, the list is growing and enormity evident. Here at home, although the effects may be perceived as more subtle, they will be equally as costly in terms of food security.

We need to park the spin, the self-aggrandisement of our national discourse and have a real national conversation, how we are going to “sustain” ourselves. Stop the blame game and recognise our responsibilities to the generations coming after us. Begin to figure out a real sustainable future for ourselves to survive.

Gerry Crilly is a carpenter, environmentalist, retired member of the National Council of An Taisce, and sustainable planning expert currently living in Dunleer, Co Louth.

Read: Carbon dioxide levels reach historic high – US monitors
Read: Ireland to give €21 million to World Food Programme
Read: Oxfam warn of rising food prices if climate change not tackled

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