By Frank Armstrong.
Research and training for the agricultural-industrial complex.
Teagasc is the agriculture and food development authority in Ireland. Its mission is “to support science-based innovation in the agri-food sector and the broader bio-economy that will underpin profitability, competitiveness and sustainability”. In that order, and there is no mention of quality.
Teagasc was established by an Act in 1988 with a task of overseeing the provision of research, training and advisory services in the agriculture industry.
It subsumed the training functions of the national advisory and training body (ACOT) and the research functions of An Foras Talúntais/The Agricultural Institute (AFT). The rationale for this amalgamation was that considerable benefit could be derived from co-ordinating and integrating training services with research and advisory services. Teagasc is funded by State Grant-in-Aid; the National Development Plan; fees for research, advisory and training services; income from national and EU competitive research programmes; and revenue from farming activities and commodity levies.
Teagasc is the leading public-sector organisation in the fields of agriculture and food research in Ireland, undertaking innovative activities in research, knowledge dissemination and education covering the following broad thematic areas:
• Animal and Grassland
• Crops, Environment and Land Use
• Rural Economy and Development.
Its research portfolio comprises some 300 research projects carried out by 500 scientific and technical staff.
The main focus of its research is on the rapid delivery of results with potential for economic and social impact. It has developed a new focus on investment in the bio-sciences.
The main thrust of the Food Programme is developing the base of expertise and information in generic technologies needed to assist the Irish food industry to achieve consistent quality and guaranteed safety, allied to product and process innovations. The programme covers the full spectrum of the innovatory process, ranging from market studies through to strategic research to technology development services and training programmes.
A key element of national strategy for the food industry is to build a dynamic ‘foods for health’ or functional foods sector. Teagasc works closely with the enterprise-development agencies and university partners in serving as an attractor for high technology foreign direct investment.
It has 1,100 employees overall, though numbers have reduced in accordance with an ‘Employment Control Framework’, and its 11-member Authority is appointed by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine comprising representatives from the farming organisations, the food industry, universities, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Teagasc staff. No consumers or environmentalists.
The Authority meets on the first Wednesday of every month except in August. The Authority has the following subcommittees: Audit, Remuneration, Research, Advisory/Education and Operations.
Perhaps the key to Teagasc is that it is a client-based organisation. The stakeholder-centredness is emphasised in its ‘Statement of Values’: “to be professional, responsive, efficient, accountable and independent, while endeavouring to attain scientific excellence in all our activities and working in partnership with other organisations to meet the needs of our stakeholders’.
The authority has a number of county advisory centres, colleges and research centres at 52 locations in which it carries out its main business. Its headquarters are located in the Oak Park Estate in Carlow. It has an annual operating budget greater than €160 million. Around 75% of Teagasc’s yearly budget comes from the Irish exchequer and EU funding with the balance generated from earned income. Some 40% of the budget is devoted to research with the remainder split half and half between advisory and education services
It operates in partnership with all sectors of the agriculture and food industry and with rural development agencies. It has developed close alliances with research, advisory and training agencies throughout the world.
In considering how Teagasc exercises its remit, it is necessary to look at the history of Irish agriculture.
The level of education among Irish farmers has traditionally been low. In her history of the Department of Agriculture Mary Daly wrote: “The inadequate state of agricultural education, particularly the education of men and women who would remain on the land, was in conflict with the commitments given by successive governments to protect and preserve rural Ireland”.
As a result of land clearances during and after the Famine, and the absence of protection from cheap international grain, the pastoral model became utterly dominant over tillage, in Ireland. More than most types of agricultural production, raising cattle for beef tends to result in only low employment: the less the labour input the cheaper the animal’s carcass becomes. Moreover, overseeing cattle chew grass demands negligible education in crop husbandry or even knowledge of the biology of the animals themselves.
Thus during the second half of the nineteenth century Irish farmers abandoned subsistence production, instead producing beef cattle for the imperial market. Little food was produced for local consumption and the population, including the rural population, embraced the standard British-working-class diet of white bread and potatoes and occasional cheap cuts of meat, washed down with sugary tea.
The young and ambitious fled rural Ireland in waves throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century. During the 150 years from the censuses of 1801 to 1951 the percentage of the labour force engaged in agriculture (and forestry and fishing) declined from about 35 percent to 5 percent.
Upon independence the direction of national policy did not deviate substantially, especially as the first Minister for Agriculture Patrick Hogan was himself a cattle farmer. The export trade of beef cattle, mainly to Britain, was seen as the principal driver of the national economy.
Especially after World War II Irish farmers became increasingly dependent on government price-supports to remain competitive on the international market. This led then-Agriculture Minister Charles Haughey to claim in 1966 that: “agitation directed only to getting higher prices may develop a kind of dole mentality which would eventually make agriculture subservient to the state”.
Writing in 1971 the economist James Meenan claimed that “the small farmer cannot profitably raise beef on his limited acreage”. He also contended that it is: “…increasingly recognised that price supports are of most benefit to the large farmers who as a rule, are least in need of them, and that such supports do nothing to provide a lasting solution to the problems of small farmers”.
The introduction of CAP payments after accession to the European Community in 1972 was beneficial to those large farmers and did not stem the decline in agricultural employment. Rather the pastoral model was reinforced as CAP payments increased the cost of land and made conversion to other forms of production prohibitively expensive.
All of these issues are central to how a body with Teagasc’s remit might be expected to frame its vision and strategy. But in fact, for political reasons, including the recalcitrance of the agricultural sector, it must be an arch-defender of the status quo.
Today the majority of farmers rely on subsidies for a large proportion of their income: most would go out of business if left to a free market. The ‘dole mentality’ identified by Charles Haughey might be identified in the furious protests that greet any prospect of a diminution in subsidies or alterations to their terms.
Considering the difficulty farmers experience in this era of free and unfettered trade a degree of subsidisation of farming should continue. But if the wider population is to subsidise farming then they should have a say in what is produced.
Teagasc certainly faces significant challenges but it, almost systemically does not do so head-on. Apart from the immediate economic difficulties and the continuing ageing of the farming population, today the significant elephant in the room is the greenhouse-gas emissions of Irish farming (32% of total emissions come from agriculture, the highest proportion of any OECD country apart from New Zealand). There is also accumulating evidence that diets high in animal products, especially red meat but even dairy products, decrease life expectancy and increase morbidity.
Thus from the perspective of rural communities, environmental protection and even human health a change in agricultural priorities is desirable. We might assume therefore that Teagasc would be identifying how Irish agriculture can change direction. Instead Teagasc is perpetuating the present model.
Their research and training courses dovetail with the demands of the multinationals that dictate the priorities of Irish farming. Farming in the holistic sense of environmental management only appears to be a concern where European or international obligations are identified. There is certainly no indication that Teagasc is active in promoting desperately needed biodiversity restoration on an island whose landscape has been heavily scarred by centuries of over-grazing. It effectively considers this agenda the concern of other agencies, but other agencies must work within a context where the landscape is overwhelmingly devoted to farming.
Teagasc take its cues from the in-effect neo-liberal Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney who has shown himself a worthy heir to Patrick Hogan.
Its Statement of Strategy says it is: “…committed to playing a key role in embracing the ambitious targets identified for the food sector in Food Harvest 2020”, and therein is expressed the nub of the folly.
A recent European Commission ‘Country Report Ireland 2015’ stated: “Ireland is not on track to reach its greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets”. It notes that agricultural emissions “are expected to remain stable between 2005 and 2020”. Though it is technically accurate, this statement launders the reality that agricultural greenhouse gas emissions had fallen by 9% by 2011, yet they are now strongly increasing again as a result of Food Harvest 2020 – due to the expansion of livestock numbers, especially in dairy cattle, envisaged in that overarching Governmental policy document.
Emissions are already up 4% in two years and the EPA project continued emission rises until at least 2025. Given the need to cut emissions, Food Harvest 2020 is clearly not delivering on the spirit of our climate commitments.
Coveney has developed a spurious environmental argument that current lines of production in Ireland should continue and even be intensified, based on research showing that Irish beef and dairy have lower emission profiles than many of their European competitors.
This assuages the consciences of environmentally-conscientious consumers and does nothing to shift consumer preference to low-emission plant-based alternatives. Of course Teagasc accepts the imperative to address climate change. Its statements and policies on the matter, however, tend to be elusive.
For example a recent joint statement with the Royal Irish Academy written by Teagasc and synopsised in a shared press-release accepts that reducing emission from food production globally, and in Ireland, will not be easy. Then it moves to the contradictory, the unambitious, the insidious and the diversionary:
“Food demand is tied to population and income growth, which will both continue to increase in the coming decades. In addition, agricultural GHG emissions are generated through processes that are more complex than in sectors such as transport, manufacturing or construction. Emissions generated in the Irish beef and dairy sector, which produces Ireland’s two biggest food exports, are among the lowest in Europe per unit of output. While agriculture represents over 30 percent of Ireland’s GHG emissions, this is because food production in Ireland is high relative to our population, with most of our main agricultural products being exported. Methane from cattle, slurry or the use of nitrogen fertilisers contribute to GHG emissions in the food production process.
However, not all of this food is consumed. Food waste – food that is thrown away by consumers, usually in the developed world, and food losses – food that spoils before it gets to the consumer, usually in the developing world, are issues to be addressed. Some have advocated low intensity agriculture as the way forward, but while this might go some way towards reducing the GHG emissions associated with agriculture, it would also limit global food production capacity, leading to greater food shortages and rising food prices internationally”.
Teagasc is guilelessly optimistic about emissions-reducing technology and the possibilities of reducing waste: “long-term solution requires that we use science to develop technologies that increase the amount of food produced from existing resources. Over the shorter term, there should also be a focus on reducing the fraction of food that spoils before it is consumed through the development of better infrastructure and the promotion of waste prevention”.
Teagasc embraces carbon neutrality for agriculture by 2050 (eg in Shulte and Donnellan, Carbon Neutrality for Irish Farming, 2013) but only in the grotesque NESC-mandated form of a “horizon point”, not a target. It gleefully welcomes the inclusion of agricultural offsetting in the equation, of a refocus to ‘net’ figures, suggesting an infirmness of purpose on ‘gross’ emissions.
It focuses on reducing emissions per unit of an expanding beef and dairy production, without ever considering that simply reducing production is the fairest way to reduce emissions when all other sectors and all other countries are engaged in similar special pleading. It never addresses the ethics of a rich country claiming it cannot reduce emissions from a carbon-spendthrift sector. It champions a sectoral exceptionalism for agriculture within a national exceptionalism for Ireland.
Even on its own terms it ignores the state of the science. For example, a recent paper presented at a seminar in Greece stated: “It is found that the cost of some technical abatement measures is prohibitive and that the control of emissions via a reduction in the level of agricultural activity may be a cheaper option for society.”
Insofar as it addresses issues of quantity and quality, the guiding objective for Teagasc’s research in relation to crops, even those few varieties grown for direct human consumption, as opposed to animal fodder, is yield.
Among its voluminous research some attention is paid to nutritional trends but this is from the perspective of the market. In its 2013 annual report there is reference to the opportunity to use probiotics to enhance the value of powdered milk. It hardly matters that powdered milk is a poor alternative to breast milk and that Ireland has one of the lowest rates of breast-feeding in Europe.
Teagasc does offer courses in organic farming, but since the supermarkets moved in, organic farming has become a moveable feast. The environmental impact of cattle farming changes very little after conversion to organic methods.
Research into mixed farming that would provide Ireland with a degree of diversity are virtually non-existent despite a recent study which argues that forthcoming changes in climate will allow new crops to be grown in the coming decades. There has been one study on the wonder crop that is hemp but that is from 2001.
It is lamentable that Teagasc has done no research into the development of agri-forestry or permaculture. These are cutting edges pathways for agriculture to be integrated harmoniously into the natural environment. It hardly seems a controversial view that human beings will need to find radically different approaches to farming if we are to survive the coming centuries. Examination of Teagasc’s body of research reveals that forward planning of that type is non-existent.
In terms of innovation the organisation has set its stall out as favouring genetic modification of crops, successfully conducting trials of GM potatoes in 2012 despite widespread public disquiet. Globally the successes of genetic modification have been few despite huge investment, and their ownership has tended to be in the hands of large multinationals such as Monsonato.
Moreover, development of a late-blight-resistant potato does not imply indefinite resistance, as blight evolves rapidly too. The real vulnerability comes from mono-cropping.
Due to intense urbanisation, humanity will certainly need to continue, at least in the short term, with large scale cultivation of single-crop varieties (at significant ecological cost) but a sparsely populated country like Ireland should surely focus on developing genetic variety among its crops which offers the best form of resilience.
There has been some attention paid to Ireland’s energy insecurity in recent times and despite what we hear in the propaganda about Ireland ‘the food island’, as thing stand, there is also significant food insecurity.
Ireland grows few crops for direct human consumption and it would take many years for us to convert our agriculture to satisfy the nutritional needs of the population should there be significant energy shocks that would jeopardise the importation of the foods we rely on.
Teagasc would serve the public interest better by exploring agriculture from the perspective of the nutritional needs of the Irish population rather than the interests of multinationals.
The lack of Irish-grown fruit and vegetables has long been apparent despite consumer demand, and without price support Irish growers can’t stay in business.
Moreover development of tillage and horticulture would create far more employment opportunities in rural Ireland and reverse the long-standing impact of colonisation.
Research into healthy crops for direct human consumption is hard to find in Teagasc’s corpus of research.
It hardly seems to matter that Ireland is set to have the highest rate of obesity in the EU.
What our farms produce surely plays a part in this and unwittingly we essentially retain the standard British-working-class diet.
One beneficial reform would be to give Teagasc greater independence from the whims of the Minister for Agriculture and allow for long-term planning and independent evaluation of the nutritional requirements of the population.
But quality, environmental, consumer and animal-welfare imperatives should also be systematically enshrined.
Instead Teagasc, for the moment at least, is the research and training wing of the industrial agricultural complex.
If the judgement of history is to be kind, it needs to define the public interest and only ever act on it. •