UN FAO report on Irish agriculture a travesty, misrepresents reality and ignores NGO warnings


A UN case study portraying Ireland as leading in the transformation to sustainable  agriculture is deeply misleading and puts forward an image of the industry that is not supported by scientific evidence, The Environmental Pillar has warned.

Ireland’s leading coalition of environmental groups is alarmed by the case study’s publication and have stressed that it misrepresents Ireland’s rolling agriculture policy strategies which, rather than offering assurances of a transformation to sustainable agriculture as the study suggests, they have lead to a severely degraded environment and continue to do so.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation will be launch a case study on Thursday that claims that Ireland is a global leader in providing a template for transformation to sustainable agriculture[1]. However, all indicators, including those referenced in the report, have repeatedly shown that the environment in Ireland has been the sacrificial lamb to the expansion of intensive agriculture with little assurance of change.  

The study, financially supported by the Irish Government, misleadingly suggests that “processes and practices” in Ireland agri-food system governance and research are advancing sustainability. In fact, the reverse is the case, by focussing on efficiency measures without limits on emissions or nitrogen inputs, environmental impacts have steadily worsened [2].

As the Environmental Protection Agency recently pointed out, the scientific evidence shows that impacts from Irish agriculture on climate, biodiversity, water and air pollution have steadily worsened over the past decade [3,4,5]. In 2021 BirdWatch Ireland reported that there’s been a 45% increase in the number of farmland birds added to the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland between 1998-2020[6,7].

The report recognises that Ireland currently has not a sustainable food system saying that “while the country has experienced exponential growth in the sector, nutrition, sustainability and gender issues remain a challenge.” The report also emphasises that Ireland food systems are not only failing in terms of environmental sustainability but also in terms of social sustainability highlighting that “Two-thirds of all farmers are struggling to make their farms viable.”

In response to these shortcomings the document lauds the Irish government for developing a series of agri-food strategies as exemplary in stakeholder engagement, however this is far from the case.

The Environmental Pillar was forced to resign from the latest of such strategies in February this year due to the total failure of Food Vision 2030 Strategy development committee to seriously address the ongoing escalation in environmental damage from intensifying agriculture In Ireland.

Oonagh Duggan, an Environmental Pillar and BirdWatch Ireland spokesperson, said:

“It is deeply worrying to see Irish agriculture being promoted as a country leading in the transformation to sustainable agriculture when the scientific evidence and policy developments do not support this. The narrative that suggests Ireland is successfully transitioning to an economically viable, sustainable agricultural system is unfounded”.

“In a survey of the last agri-food strategy Food Wise 2025 only 18 percent of the mostly farmer/fisher respondents said that it delivered on its vision of thriving producers and agri-food business. Ireland’s agri-food strategies have only delivered for the few larger farmers and big business while failing to support diversification to address environmental challenges and to adequately support smaller farmers for the ecosystem services they provide.”

“The Food Vision 2030 committee was dominated by big agri-business. There was no representation of farm and agricultural factory workers, representatives of the global south or consumers and gender balance was also missing.” [8]



[1] Brouwer, H., Guijt, J., Kelly, S. & Garcia-Campos, P. 2021. Ireland’s journey towards sustainable food systems – The processes and practices that made a difference. Rome, FAO.

https://doi.org/10.4060/cb5996en available http://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/CB5996EN/ .

[2] Environmental Protection Agency (June 2021) Ireland’s Air Pollutants https://www.epa.ie/publications/monitoring–assessment/climate-change/air-emissions/EPA-Irelands-Air-Pollutant-Emissions-report_2021Final.pdf [accessed 6/10/2021] Extract pg 15 Current and future trends in NH3 emissions Increases in cattle numbers and fertiliser use have seen NH3 emissions increase for the last six years. NH3 emissions increased in 2018 by 0.9 kt, primarily as a result of a 2.7 per cent increase in the dairy herd and a 10.7 per cent (39,400 tonnes) increase in synthetic fertiliser nitrogen use. Road transport produces a small proportion of emissions of ammonia (< 1 per cent) mainly from petrol passenger cars with threeway catalysts. 

[3] Environmental Protection Agency (2021) Ireland’s National Inventory Report 2021, Annex 3.3 available: https://www.epa.ie/publications/monitoring–assessment/climate-change/air-emissions/Ireland_NIR-2021_cover.pdf [accessed 6/10/2021]

[4] https://www.epa.ie/publications/monitoring–assessment/freshwater–marine/Water-Quality-in-Ireland-2013-2018-(web).pdf [accessed 6/10/2021]

[5] Hoare, Pádraig (2020) EPA: Dramatic shift needed as Ireland’s environment ‘going in the wrong direction’ Irish Examiner 25 November 2020, available: https://www.irishexaminer.com/news/arid-40088840.html [accessed 6/10/2021]; McCormack, Claire (2021) ‘We can’t have this ongoing growth of the dairy sector’ – Laura Burke, Irish Independent 6/ September 2021, available: https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/forestry-enviro/environment/we-cant-have-this-ongoing-growth-of-the-dairy-sector-laura-burke-40894479.html [accessed 6/10/2021].

[6] BirdWatch Ireland (2021) Irish birds are faring worse than ever before [press release],April 15 2021, available:  https://birdwatchireland.ie/irish-birds-are-faring-worse-than-ever-before/  [accessed 6/10/2021].

[7] Presentation by Dr Anita Donaghy BirdWatch Ireland on farmland birds of conservation concern https://birdwatchireland.ie/app/uploads/2021/10/BOCCI-4-Farmland-birds-AD.pdf

[8] Oonagh Duggan of BirdWatch Ireland was interviewed for this UN FAO report.