Tom Arnold had a clear vision when he assumed the chair of the agri-food strategy committee.
“An important decision at the beginning was that we were going to frame this strategy on ‘a food-systems’ basis,” he explains.
What does that mean? “We were going to formally recognise the links between policies for food, the environment and for health. That is quite an innovation, by comparison to any previous strategies.
“In addition, everyone along the food chain has a responsibility in delivering on a sustainable food system. So, I was very committed to everyone around the table having a voice.”
We set up a project on climate-smart agriculture and I said that we wanted to base it on two principles – good science and good manners
One voice, that of the Environmental Pillar’s representatives, walked away from the table. Does he regret that? “I was very hopeful that we could use this strategy to bridge the gap to get to a point where we change the narrative about the role of the agri-sector and the environment, that we frame the dilemma in a way that we see the agri-sector as being real contributors to solving environmental problems. The strategy supports that.”
Arnold saw the growing gap when he was in the Irish Institute for European Affairs in 2015.
“We set up a project on climate-smart agriculture and I said that we wanted to base it on two principles – good science and good manners, in that people have to start talking to each other. We have to get back to a point where everyone can see that it’s in their mutual interest to work together.”
When asked if some of the people who put themselves forward as representatives of rural Ireland share this responsibility, Arnold strongly agrees.
“The Taoiseach, in relation to Northern Ireland, recently said: “It’s time to dial down this rhetoric” and I think the exact same applies in this regard. This strategy is best likely to be implemented if it gets both political and societal consensus.”
Arnold served as CEO of Concern for a dozen years, and has a wealth of experience in the developing world. He believes that Ireland can aid emerging nations to develop their agriculture, and should do so.
Africa’s own agricultural and food sectors need to grow in a sustainable way. They have a huge road to travel in that regard
“It’s in our very definite interests that we promote the concept of sustainability everywhere. Real population growth is going to occur over the next three decades in Africa and Asia.
Africa’s own agricultural and food sectors need to grow in a sustainable way. They have a huge road to travel in that regard. It’s of benefit to us to help them. There will be opportunities to provide learning and expertise, but ultimately it’s of benefit to them.”
But will that not create competition for our exports? “We should get away from the idea that Ireland has some kind of duty to feed the world.
“I don’t think you’re likely to see a major jack-up in food prices at global level. Ireland is a sufficiently small player that it may be possible to get some level of price premium due to its sustainability credentials.”
Ireland is the only country that has developed a national strategy using a food systems approach
Arnold says there is a lot of interest in this strategy beyond Ireland.
“There is a global food systems summit coming up in September, and Ireland is the only country that has developed a national strategy using a food systems approach.”
“These things have to make sense to the farmer on the ground, and we’ve tried to do that through the four goals set around viable and resilient primary producers,” Arnold says.
He acknowledges there are no measurable targets, but says there is a limited amount that can be done by Government to affect markets, particularly exports.
Where the rubber is going to hit the road in the next decade is if you can differentiate yourself in the area of sustainability
“There are unresolved issues, and we couldn’t resolve them in the strategy, about how negotiations are going to take place with regard to the price of beef. This sets out a direction; a lot of supplementary decisions are going to have to be made in the context of the CAP strategic plan.
“The issue of the further expansion of the dairy sector versus the beef sector is one that must be tackled.
“Our record of food exports over the last two decades has been very successful in generating new markets, increasing the volume and value of exports.
“Where the rubber is going to hit the road in the next decade is if you can differentiate yourself in the area of sustainability. Then you have some chance of identifying that core problem of farmer incomes.
“The rural development strategy is kind of a companion document to this,” he adds.
“We’re at an early stage of the discussion about carbon farming. All that is going to feed into better income possibilities for farmers and for farm household incomes over the next decade. I think it is the reality that we’re going to have a core group of fully commercial farmers, and it’s around the dairy sector, but for a lot of the rest, you’re not going to get (full-time) income given the scale they’re operating at, so income also has to come from somewhere else.”