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Ireland's food security: 'It's said that modern civilisation is three meals deep'

Ireland is extremely vulnerable to external shocks in the food chain, writes Mícheál Callaghan.

Mícheál Callaghan PhD student, UCD

EVERY NOW AND again I get a pang of anxiety when I see supermarket shelves empty on a Sunday night, before the delivery lorries have arrived.

This is a reminder that our plentiful food supply is not a given, and depends on many factors, including the supply of fossil fuels to produce and transport the food.

In 2000, a truck driver strike in the UK led to fuel shortages and emptying supermarket shelves. It is said that modern civilisation is three meals deep. According to the Global Food Security Index of 2017, we are the most food secure nation on the planet, so why would we worry ourselves unnecessarily?

Food riots and civil unrest

In 2008, food security featured heavily on the world stage. The rising price of oil, pressure on food supplies from extreme weather events and the use of land for biofuels, saw the doubling of food prices in many countries, leading to food riots and civil unrest.

Ireland and the UK saw a dramatic rise in the number of people relying on food banks during the recession. Obesity and diabetes are major problems. The unhealthiest food is often the most heavily marketed and affordable.

Our industrial food system is not fit for social or environmental purposes. Supermarket price wars ensure many products are sold at below cost, making it difficult for Irish producers to compete with cheap imports from large commercial farms abroad.

The production of crops in Ireland has declined, as has the overall number of farms and farmers. We are becoming a one trick pony in agricultural terms, with beef and dairy being prioritised. This reduces the diversity of our food production and with Ireland as a net importer of food we are vulnerable to disruptions in the global food supply.

Broccoli shortage

We received a taste of this earlier in the year when supermarket shelves became short of vegetables such as broccoli and lettuce due to unusual weather on the continent.

On average, up to 10 calories of oil is required to produce just 1 calorie of food. This isn’t sustainable as we urgently need to move away from fossil fuels for energy security and climate reasons. Richard Heinberg, of the Post – Carbon Institute, argues that we need to de-carbonise our agricultural system.

First, we need to become less dependent on fossil fuel derived artificial fertilisers. Secondly, we need shorter food chains and to produce more food close to where it is consumed.

Thirdly, we need to become less reliant on heavily oil dependent machinery, which will mean more people working the land. This isn’t as pie in the sky as it might sound. Already in Ireland, there is a growing interest in community supported agriculture, urban agriculture, and conversion to organic farming.

Sustainable farming

Moy Fill community farm in Co Clare, which has recently run a successful crowdfunding campaign to help them dramatically expand their sustainable farm, is a pioneering example. Research has shown that organic and mixed farms are better for biodiversity and can be just as productive as heavily intensive monocultures.

Not only can smaller mixed production and organic farms increase the resilience of our food system to external shocks, they are also less damaging to the resource which underpin the whole system, soil. It takes 1,000 years to produce three centimetres of topsoil, yet we lose about 10 million hectares of arable farmland every year.

If current erosion trends continue, global top soils could be gone in under 60 years. Despite this, there is no dedicated soil protection legislation at national, or European level.

With a fossil fuel dependent food system, and a decreasingly diverse and more intensified production base, Ireland is extremely vulnerable to external shocks in the food chain. This is not compatible with the transition to a low carbon world.

As we get closer to the two hundred year anniversary of the famine, we need to plan for a realistic food and farming future for Ireland.

Mícheál Callaghan is a PhD student in the UCD Sutherland School of Law, researching community involvement in biodiversity protection and governance. His Master’s thesis looked at food security in Northern Ireland. He is a member of the Transition Town Network in Ireland, the network for communities building resilience.

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About the author:

Mícheál Callaghan  / PhD student, UCD

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