Most people in Ireland are aware of the Great Famine and its consequences. It is estimated that around a million Irish people died because of hunger or diseases related to malnutrition. Millions more fled the country. The problem was caused by the arrival of blight into the potato crop, which had become the staple diet of most of the population.

The blight struck initially in 1845 and its impact continued through to 1851. The phytophthora fungus had not been seen previously, and when it struck in 1845, it destroyed about half of that potato crop and caused the loss of seed to plant the flowing crop for many years after that.

Records were sketchy back then, but it is interesting to note that agriculture was buoyant and there was no major scarcity of food – just the food that the poor people depended on.

Official records put the area sown to potatoes on the island of Ireland in 1847 at 115,127ha. In 2019, this area has dwindled to 12,447ha

So as the poor starved, Ireland continued to export many different types of food to Britain. Ireland had always exported a lot of grains and during those years. There were also considerable quantities of livestock and butter exported, as well as other foods such as peas, beans, rabbits, fish and honey. And this as the Great Hunger ravaged the countryside.

Official records put the area sown to potatoes on the island of Ireland in 1847 at 115,127ha. In 2019, this area has dwindled to 12,447ha. This is not a famine-related consequence, but rather one of increasing affluence. As people became better off, they opted for greater diversity in their diets. Ireland’s expanding exports today depend on people in other parts of the world wanting greater diversity in their diets as they move away from poverty.

Interestingly, that potato area in 1847 was only recovering from the disaster that began in 1845. I do not know the area sown to potatoes in 1845, but by 1848 it was back up to 327,388ha and went above 400,000ha from 1854 until about 1873. That reduction in potato area over time was directly reflected across most other crops.

Crops on the island

Information on crop areas and land use are readily available since 1847 from both the Central Statistics Office (CSO) in the Republic of Ireland (RoI) and from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) in Northern Ireland. The trends in the combined areas from both sources are shown in Figure 1.

The total crop area on the island during the famine was over 1.6m ha. This included cereals, root crops, potatoes, horticultural crops, flax etc. The reasons for the reduction in crop area are complex. Land suitability, economics, labour, intensification, imports, mechanisation, production cost, weather, the improvement in grassland and improved opportunities in the livestock sector, all contributed.

Farming systems changed too and farms gradually moved away from the traditional mixed farm model, where families aimed to be largely self-sufficient in food, to an open market economy where profit was generated.

There are a few observations that one should make from Figure 1. The first is the total area of crops back then – up on 1.9m ha in 1851. In 2019, this total was put at 401,598ha. The lower area in the late 1840s was almost primarily due to the collapse in the potato area, which was recovering from 1847. The total cereal area in 1847 was over 1.3m ha and it has been falling ever since. Potatoes peaked again in 1858 and the area has been falling since then.

There are two major peaks on the total crops and cereal area lines – both coincide with the two world wars and are largely driven by a combination of economics and the compulsory tillage introduced in the second world war.

Changes in ROI

Looking specifically at the changes in the Republic of Ireland in Figure 2, the most obvious thing is that oats was the main cereal crop back in the 1800s and right up into the mid-1900s. This is because oats were used to provide the power for work and transport – they were used to feed the horses, the main source of horsepower in that era.

Again, the impact of the war years is evident by the spikes in wheat, oat, and potato production. It is interesting that wheat area had fallen from the mid-1880s and only rose again in response to the war. Area has fluctuated somewhat since then and it would appear to be on a decreasing trend this decade, partly in response to difficult planting conditions in winter, as the winter crop took over from spring planting around the late 1970s.

Another interesting observation from Figure 2 was the rise in barley production from the mid-1900s. This increased from around 60,000ha to 366,000ha in 1980. The latter part of this increase was influenced by our entry into the EEC, but it also coincided with the collapse in the oat area, increased mechanisation and a decrease in wheat area. It is also likely that animal numbers were increasing during this period, generating a demand for barley for feed.

The potato story in the Republic is even more dramatic, with the area being under 100,000ha in 1847 and increasing to 374,000ha by 1859. However, as is the case in the all-island picture, potato area has continued to decrease since then. This means more imported foods are displacing native production.

Crops come and go

One other point to note from Figure 2 is the appearance of beet, exclusively sugar beet initially, on the list of crops from 1926. The beet area rose above 40,000ha in some years (sugar plus fodder beet) and then collapsed after 2005 following the closure of the one remaining sugar processing factory in Mallow. It might also be noted that the areas of peas, beans and oilseed rape were quite small in comparison to the other crops and these crop types were only assessed separately since 1991.

However, it should be noted that peas, and particularly beans, had previously been big crops as feed for horses and bean area increased again in the last decade in response to the Protein Aid Scheme.

Major changes in Northern Ireland

The trend in overall crop and total cereal areas in Northern Ireland (Figure 3) is broadly similar to the situation in ROI, only the pace of the fall was not as steep in the 1800s. It shows a similar area response in the war years, but the proportion of ‘other crops’ was even more reduced in NI. This was mainly due to the massive reduction in the areas sown to flax and potatoes in particular, where peak areas hit 83,815ha and 113,047ha in 1864 and 1860, respectively.

It is also worth noting that the peak total area in 1861 was 452,164ha compared with just under 45,000ha in 2018 and 2019. This equates to a drop of over 90% in crop area in a province that now has a very high proportion of intensive livestock production.

Looking more closely at the individual crop trends in Northern Ireland (Figure 4), oats had also been the most important crop, but its area decline had also been almost continuous since 1847. Area increased in the war years but then fell off completely with the rise of mechanisation. Potato area has been falling since 1860 and is now less than 4,000ha.

Barley area had traditionally been low but, like in the south, it increased considerably in the early 1960s as the oat area fell and livestock production intensified. Other crops include the hort sector and many other incidental crops for animal feed, and these too have largely fallen away over time.

Far from self sufficient

The trend in these cropping figures would sound alarm bells in many other countries around the world. A country that is becoming increasingly less self-sufficient in basic food and feed materials would be a worry to most similar island nations outside of the EU. There can be little doubt that the liberalisation of trade has been a major driver in the ongoing reduction of crop area on the island.

Economics also have a part to play in these trends, but the majority of crop farmers on the island would still fare well in this regard, despite their smaller scale, if the playing field was level. But it is not and the crop sector has been left out in the cold to fend off the chilly winds of free trade without any support or even recognition of the sector.

What would happen to agriculture if there was a war in the morning, or, God forbid, a pestilence that was far more powerful than COVID-19? Who would be blamed for the unavailability of imports?

Leaving aside the issue of availability, how will modern agriculture respond to the evolving need to show increasing sustainability in the food chain? There is no doubting the need for imports, especially of protein, but as the feed industry relies more on the importation of maize, it also relies more on the importation of protein.

Feed is the biggest end use for the island’s grains. But with a feed market in NI of around 2.6mt and around 200,000t of cereals produced, it is less than 8% sufficient in feed. While some of the imported material may come from Britain, it is increasingly likely that a greater proportion comes from much further afield.

The situation is somewhat similar further south, but not yet as acute. With a total feed market of around 6mt and a native availability for feed of around 1.7mt annually, we are now only about 28% self-sufficient in feed.

The sustainability concern

The big question now is how the sustainability criteria being pushed by processors will be represented at farm level. Will carbon footprints, travel miles, production practices etc become an issue for farming in the future?

The bigger the area drift out of cropping, the greater the challenges that must be faced by the livestock sector for both greenhouse gasses and ammonia emissions.

While Figure 5 and the other figures used in this article are for a time span of over 170 years, they reflect the changing structure of agriculture and of consumers and the market. Producing less at home means more is imported, with questionable sustainability credentials.

Figure 5 shows the virtual demise of oats on the island, an inevitable consequence of the demise of the horse where energy is now imported in the form of fossil fuels. Wheat has never been a huge crop, but we are now an island that is totally dependent on imports of flour. Potato production reflects changing consumer preferences and, ironically, increasing living standards. And the rise in barley production since EU membership continues to be eroded by imports.

Not just a land use issue

The fall in crop production has seen hectares drift back to grass, especially following the ending of milk quotas. This has also resulted in the closure of many businesses and the loss of infrastructure and commerce, which was important to rural businesses.

Crop land across the country also serves specific ecosystems and ecosystem services that are now lost from many areas. And while heavily managed crop land did not score well on biodiversity, having more crops itself adds diversity to the landscape, which also brings biodiversity.

It is time to reverse the decline in cropped area on this island. The recent AgClimatise report recognises the need to not only halt the decline, but to increase the area under crops as part of its strategy, to help combat the many challenges faced by agriculture in the years ahead.

In brief

  • Crop areas on the island of Ireland have continued to decline over the past 170 years.
  • Oats had been the major crop, but barley became the biggest crop since the mid-1960s.
  • The area sown to potatoes was reduced from almost half a million hectares in 1859 to around 12,000ha in recent years.
  • The trends in area decline have been broadly similar between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.