Business Consulting

Future of Irish Food

Padraig Ryan
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Ireland has always been known for its green landscapes and rich agricultural background, but with changing climate patterns, dynamic regulatory and legislative plans and evolving consumer demands, the future of Irish agriculture and food is being shaped in new ways.

From regenerative farming practices to bioprocessing techniques, there are numerous developments happening in the Irish agri-food industry to create a more sustainable and available food industry for all. The government has set a 25% reduction in emissions for the agri-food sector by 2030, so there has never been a more important time for farmers and producers to further examine their current practices and try to make them more sustainable, not only for the climate but also for their own financial security and bottom line.

Food Wise 2025 and the current strategy, Food Vision 2030, have set ambitious goals for reducing the environmental effects of the agri-food industry. Food Wise 2025 outlined that a sustainable and competitive food system should be developed in Ireland, its objectives included raising the value of exports of food and beverages, encouraging innovation in the food industry, and lowering the environmental effect of food production in our linear agriculture practices. The objectives of Food Vision 2030, the new ten year strategy for the Irish agri-food industry, aims to increase accessibility to healthy food, decrease food waste, improve resource efficiency in food production, and promote sustainable farming practices.

These strategies were created and have evolved to support farmers and producers in achieving these objectives. Given Ireland’s role in producing high quality agriculture products and other food crops, the Irish agri-food industry can make significant strides toward a more sustainable and resilient future by continually cooperating towards set objectives. One of these objectives is to encourage farmers to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2030, using horticulture, carbon farming, and tree planting as alternatives to raising livestock. 

The agri-food industry has a significant impact on the environment, including the depletion of natural resources, soil degradation, and greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, the industry has a responsibility to reduce its environmental impact while ensuring that it can continue to produce enough food to meet the growing demand. To achieve this, the food industry must continue to adopt sustainable farming practices that promote soil health, reduce the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Say goodbye to tradition

Regenerative farming is a sustainable agricultural system that focuses on restoring soil health and biodiversity by utilising practices that mimic natural ecosystems. It involves minimising disturbance to soil and using techniques such as crop rotation, cover cropping, and reduced tillage to promote soil health and fertility. By improving soil health, regenerative farming supports healthy plant growth, increases carbon sequestration, and enhances ecosystem health.

Regenerative farming is a farming system that contributes more to society and the ecosystem than it consumes. The effects of the changing rainfall patterns brought on by climate change are a significant obstacle for the Irish agri-food industry. Ireland's climate will become more predictable, with less rain falling during the spring and summer and more instances of heavy rainfall during autumn and winter.

In Ireland 4,500 hectares of vegetables with a farm gate value of €73 million are grown annually. Farming will be greatly affected by changes in weather conditions as rising temperatures will impact on crop growth stages and the crop growing seasons, Rainfall will result in flooding of land reducing grass growth. Drought can lead to reduced grass growth, fodder shortages, and water shortages.

Farmers will need to change their methods and selection of crops in order to survive. Regenerative farming can support ecosystem health, reduce climate change, and support farmers and their livelihoods by reintroducing carbon and nutrient resources into the soil organically. It can also do these things while increasing growing yields.

The future of our food system is at risk, as the world faces a critical threat to its topsoil. Without immediate action to promote regenerative farming practices, we could see a catastrophic loss of topsoil within the next 60 years. Topsoil is a vital resource that provides the nutrients necessary for plant growth and supports biodiversity in the ecosystem.

Without healthy topsoil, crop yields will decrease, leading to food shortages and increased food prices, this is something we are already experiencing first hand. We risk leaving future generations with a food system that is both unstable and unsustainable if changes are not made to topsoil management. 

Regenerative farming and sustainable agriculture systems must be used by the current generation of farmers and food producers if we are to help improve soil quality, use less water, and sequester carbon. If the world’s soil stored 0.4% more carbon every year, it would offset all human CO2 emissions. 

Bioprocessing revolution

Irish food producers have begun using food bioprocessing to become more sustainable.  Ireland's food bioprocessing industry is crucial to the development of environmentally friendly methods for producing food, fuel, and plastics, the advancement of the circular economy, the reduction of environmental waste, and the expansion of the agri-food industry. Bioprocessing is the process of turning raw food ingredients into food products with better nutritional qualities, a longer shelf life, higher safety standards, and improved sensory qualities.

Bioprocessing involves fermentation, extraction, separation, purification, and packaging techniques that rely on natural or genetically engineered microorganisms to produce value-added products. Innovative bioprocessing techniques are playing an increasingly important role in the future of Irish food.

In contrast to some fuel additives, biofuels are completely biodegradable and burn better than conventional fossil fuels, producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions. By transforming food waste into valuable products like biofuels and bioplastics, bioprocessing can help reduce waste and create new revenue streams for farmers and food producers. This technology has the potential to revolutionise the way we think about food waste and turn it into a valuable resource for the Irish economy. 

‘Plant based’ not a trend

The rising demand for plant-based foods is another development shaping the future of Irish food. The plant-based food category is forecast by the United Nations to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 28%, becoming an €85 billion global market over the next decade, as people opt for alternative environmentally-friendly foods.

The Smart Protein Initiative was launched in 2018 by a group of food industry experts, scientists, and entrepreneurs who recognised the need for a more sustainable and healthy food system. The initiative aims to address several pressing issues related to food production and consumption and seeks to address these challenges by promoting a more sustainable and diverse protein diet. The initiative supports the development of plant-based protein sources, as well as the use of novel food technologies, such as fermentation and cell culture to create new protein products.

The Smart Protein initiative seeks to create protein alternatives for human consumption that will benefit the bio-economy, environment, biodiversity, nutrition, food security, and consumer confidence and acceptance. This effort shows the potential for exploitation of the plant-based meat, fish, and cheese industries. With a budget of €9 million, the initiative seeks to promote plant-based farming and food production while also examining how to produce plant proteins in the EU at low cost.

Plant-based farming is not the only option available to farmers and producers; by working to make Ireland's livestock agricultural sector more sustainable, the food industry can lower carbon emissions and help the nation move closer to the vision of a future with greater sustainability that is anticipated in national strategies.

Funding the way forward

Collaboration is the key to the success of the Irish agri-food industry in the future. Food businesses now need to look at their long term business models and implement sustainability strategies. This can be done by implementing change in supply chains or carrying out research and development. Some of the government supports that are available for these sustainability strategies are:

  • Green Transition Fund
  • Climate Planning for Business Fund
  • Enterprise Emissions Reduction Investment Fund
  • Green Enterprise
  • Results Based Environment Agri Pilot Programme
  • Glas
  • Organic Farming Scheme

The Irish food sector is at a critical juncture, with the need for sustainable practices becoming increasingly urgent. As consumers become more aware of the impact of their choices on the environment, the demand for sustainable food products and agricultural practices will continue to rise. Sustainability is not just about reducing waste and emissions; it is about creating a resilient and equitable food system that benefits everyone involved.

By continuing to embrace sustainable practices, the Irish agri-food sector can ensure its long-term viability while also supporting rural communities, protecting natural resources, and reducing its environmental impact. By prioritising sustainable practices, Irish food producers can secure their place on a global market, attract customers who value the practices, and demonstrate their commitment to creating a better future for all.