We have already seen two agricultural revolutions in Ireland, now we are set for a third. This presents opportunities to farmers who are willing to adapt.
After the last Ice Age, the agriculturists who arrived in Ireland brought with them a tool kit of grains and domesticated animals that had spread from the Middle East into Europe. Irish conditions could sustain both, with pastoralism more evident in the rainy west. But before mechanization a living off cattle only allowed a semi-nomadic existence, forestalling the development of state structures.
It is said the Romans never colonised Ireland because they could not be sure of taking back a harvest surplus. Nevertheless, the arrival of Christianity coincided with innovations in water milling showing that grain was widely grown – wheat, oats, and rye – especially in the south and east.
Ireland’s first agricultural revolution coincided with the second wave of English colonisation in the seventeenth century. From that point, land ceased to be held as a common patrimony of clan or tribe, and individual ownership and possession – landlord and tenant – became the norm.
Colonisation turned Ireland into a bulk supplier of both grain and livestock for the Empire. But it was the arrival of an ambrosial New World crop, the potato, which was the game changer. Small tenant farmers, even in the rainy west, could survive on miniscule holdings, while much of the better land was devoted to cash crops and cattle for export.
The second Irish agricultural revolution began after the Napoleonic Wars when grain prices collapsed due to renewed European access to the British market, culminating in the Great Irish Famine. Geometric growth in the peasant population brought a monoculture that was susceptible to disease. The potato blight (phytophthora infestans) is reckoned by economic historian Joel Mokyr to have brought the worst famine to afflict any European country in the nineteenth century. Up to a quarter of the population either died, or were forced to emigrate.
Out of the devastation, pastoralism became increasingly dominant. That is an extensive system, however, which depends for profitability on low labour inputs: population in Ireland continued to decline for a century, and has still not reached the heights of the 1840s, which makes Ireland unique in the world for having a higher population then than now.
Membership of the European Community in 1972 fossilised this system, guaranteeing an income even when a farm is losing money, and keeping the price of land artificially high, thereby hindering the development of alternative agriculture, including horticulture. But large cracks are apparent, and a third agricultural revolution is required for the following reasons.
Carbon Emissions: thirty-three percent of the country’s emissions come from agriculture which is overwhelmingly livestock-based. We have the highest proportion of our emissions coming from agriculture of any developed country apart from New Zealand. Hundreds of millions in fines are on the horizon if we don’t hit EU-mandated targets. Overall we are the least Climate-friendly country in the EU. It seems unlikely that the EU will continue to finance a form of farming that is inherently carbon-intensive. Carbon sequestration is the Holy Grail of earnest livestock apologists, but there is little evidence to support this approach, and it seems like a chimera delaying necessary changes to production, and consumption.
Brexit: Ireland is about to lose favourable access to its traditional trading partner, and tariffs may be placed on Irish agricultural products. A weak sterling is already making life difficult
Peak Oil: our mechanized system is utterly dependent on oil and other fossil fuels such as natural gas, which is necessary for the Haber-Bosch process that produces the artificial fertilizers which are intensively used on Irish grasslands. Fracking may have bought some time, but the end of this finite resource will arrive eventually.
Climate Chaos: already we are seeing an increase in catastrophic storms passing over our exposed island. When it comes to defences cities will be the first priority for the state to protect; rural areas will be far more exposed as freakish weather becomes the new normal and oceans rise. Low tree coverage increases susceptibility to flooding.
Food Sovereignty: if we were to rely entirely on Irish products we would face severe food shortages, unless we adopted diets comprised almost entirely of animal products. Little grain is grown for human consumption, and knowledge of a traditional method of harvesting – bindering – in our wet conditions has been lost. The horticulture sector is almost non-existent, meaning most of our fruit and vegetables are imported from countries such as the Netherlands, which has conditions not dissimilar to our own.
Biodiversity Loss: the intensification of agriculture in Ireland is leading to extinctions of numerous native species. Agricultural authorities seem oblivious to the plight of other animals native to the island. Thousands of badgers are exterminated each year for a spurious connection to bovine TB. Loss of biodiversity could lead to ecological breakdowns affecting water and air quality. The present pace of ecocide cannot endure.
Disease Risk: the prophylactic use of antibiotics in Ireland has been documented, but this is not all. In factory farms antibiotics may be used to increase the weight of animals’ carcasses. Over-use of antibiotics in agriculture is a major factor in the emergence of superbugs that have already led to thousands of deaths across Europe, and threaten much worse.
Consumer Preferences: in almost every supermarket in the land there is a ‘free-from’ aisle. In particular the number of vegans is on the rise, which seems to have led the National Dairy Council to market their milk as ‘plant-based’, as if a cow can photosynthesize! Even meat-eaters are becoming increasingly uncomfortable at images of incarcerated animals having parts of their anatomy cut off in industrial farms, and dairy calves being taken from their mothers at just one day old.
Carcinogens: the WHO has defined red meat as a ‘probable’ carcinogenic, and processed meat as simply carcinogenic, which is placing a burden on our beleaguered health system. There is also compelling evidence that adoption of a plant-based diet diminishes the possibility of heart disease, and may actually be better than any pill. Meanwhile the dairy industry insists on the necessity of milk products to our health, despite the advice of the Harvard School of Public Health that dairy is neither the only, nor the best, source of dietary calcium.
Availability of Alternatives: billions are being invested in plant-based alternatives to animal products, including analogue meat and genuinely plant-based ‘milk’, which reduce environmental impact, and can be better for human health, besides avoiding a cruel system of production. The advance of laboratory meat technology also endangers the current model.
Ireland will not have to fall back entirely on its own resources immediately at least in the short term, and contrary to popular notions, becoming a locavore actually has a higher carbon footprint. Nonetheless we need to make our food system sufficiently diverse to withstand the challenges that lie ahead, while adopting best environmental practice.
We should be preparing for a third agricultural revolution on this island which can accommodate enhanced biodiversity through afforestation. We can also harness alternative energies in production. Old-fashioned greenhouses may be one of the best ways of diminishing the Greenhouse Effect. A widespread dietary shift towards plants is both necessary and desirable, for all concerned.