Over the last number of weeks, a number of independent dialogues were organised by consultants Stewart Gee and Michael Barry.

The aim: to identify the trade-offs in meeting climate change commitments while still developing the Irish agri-food sector. The results of these discussions will be fed into the UN Food Systems Summit, which is taking place in September.

UN Food Systems Summit dialogue organiser Michael Barry.

Commencing with keynote addresses from practitioners in policy, farming, industry and social enterprise to jumpstart the conversations, issues were then identified for further consideration. The outcomes of the follow up dialogues:

1 Sustainable and equitable consumption and

2 Sustainable and equitable production

were presented back to the participants in a final validation and consolidation session.

With over 200 people participating, a wide range of views and opinions were voiced across the four sessions.

Consultant Stewart Gee who organised Food Summit Independent Dialogue.

A need for change

Reflecting on the engagement, co-convener of the dialogue, Michael Barry said that the high level of engagement showed there is recognition that we must change our relationship with food, both in how we produce and how we consume it.

“While different people held different views and proposed alternative approaches, it was encouraging to see agreement in the vision for a more sustainable food system and an acknowledgement that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work in achieving this vision.”

His co-convener Stewart Gee pointed to the often much polarised nature of the debate on sustainability and agriculture.

“We had participation from stakeholders ranging – from organic small-scale producers to intensive farmers producing for export, to government agencies, to retailers and processors and everything in between– and everyone was able to voice their opinion and have it heard.”

According to participants sustainable food systems support (abridged):

  • A definition of “sustainable food” based on science.
  • Healthy and nutritious food available at affordable prices with consumption linked to nutritional guidelines.
  • Equity for all actors.
  • Zero emissions and waste through a functioning circular economy.
  • Enhancement of biodiversity.
  • Socially sustainable communities.
  • Animal welfare.
  • Consumers who understand the real value of food.
  • Clear, user friendly food labelling and credible marketing claims.
  • Moving the focus from “Farm to Fork” to “Soil to Gut”.
  • Immediate actions identified by participants (abridged):

  • Establish a Food Systems Council.
  • Develop education/awareness/behaviour change programmes for consumers.
  • Manage the trade-offs to ensure progress and avoid unintended consequences.
  • Research how we can deliver affordable sustainable food.
  • Implement transparency in the supply chain.
  • Address food waste.
  • Use taxation of unhealthy and unsustainable foods to finance sustainable food.
  • Greater regulation of marketing and promotion of sustainable foods.
  • Greater investment in emerging technologies and foods.
  • Increase the production of more nutrient dense foods by exploiting new plant varieties, better animal genetics and better crop husbandry.
  • What stood out most for Stewart following the process was that many stakeholders don’t feel listened to. “There has to be equity and transparency in decision making, but also in how the benefits or losses are distributed across the system. Currently, there is a real breakdown of relationships and, I would say, a breakdown in trust between producers, processors, retailers, consumers and regulators. That being said, everyone recognises there is a need to change and if you are looking for common ground, that’s no bad place to start.”

    Missed out?

    If you missed this dialogue Sinéad McPhillips, assistant secretary general with responsibility for agri-food strategy and sectoral development in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is the convenor of the official Irish dialogues. The first of these will be held Wednesday 21 April 2021. Details are at: https://summitdialogues.org/dialogue/9702/

    Identified barriers/trade-offs (abridged)

    The following are paraphrased from the dialogues

  • “The current absence of hard scientific evidence and baselines for sustainability makes it difficult to understand sustainability. This leaves room for ambiguity in what is ‘sustainable’ which erodes trust between food system actors.”
  • “Does sustainable food have to mean more expensive food?”
  • “Terms like green, natural and sustainable have become hijacked, how can we build credibility for consumers?”
  • “We shouldn’t assume that all fresh and locally produced foods have the same nutritional benefit.”
  • “Most Irish produce is targeted at the export market. What effect is Irish produce having on consumers and producers in our target markets?”
  • “Will promoting local and organic provide the economic returns for Irish farmers who rely on exporting 90% of what they produce”.
  • “What is the real price of sustainable food and will consumers be willing to pay it? If not, who will?”
  • “Should we tax highly processed low nutrient foods and if so, would this disproportionately affect consumers with lower incomes? Is this equitable?”
  • “Cheap food is a driver of food waste.”
  • “Is CAP a potential catalyst for more sustainable production practices or is it a barrier to them? What measures could be included in CAP (or other policies) to support farmers to engage in more sustainable practices at farm level?”
  • “Is decreasing the national herd the only way to simultaneously reduce emissions, increase biodiversity, improve water quality and ensure food security, both in Ireland and globally and if so, how can this be reconciled with the current agri-food growth strategy?”
  • “Most funding goes towards the ‘traditional’ sectors of dairy and meat. Building expertise and capacity in other sectors will take time and money.”
  • Read more

    The problems with global food production

    Will the organic food production target end up like the forestry target, a mess?

    Funding climate change initiatives a central function now for McGuinneses