MOST economic commentators and politicians regard Irish agriculture as a successful sector with considerable scope for expansion. But examining the economics of farming in the round reveals a very different picture: looking into the future, our production appears increasingly irresponsible, and perhaps obsolete.
We currently export €9bn worth of food, but import €5bn. Bearing in mind CAP subsidies of €2.339bn, it is clear that agriculture is not delivering such significant returns in one of Europe's most rural societies as the marketing of Ireland as 'the food island' would have us believe.
Despite the CAP, a mere 37 per cent of Irish farms are economically viable, with 58 per cent of their incomes derived from the Single Farm Payment last year. For dry cattle farmers, this amounted to a worrying 80 per cent of income, and it was 33 per cent of dairy farmers' income.
We maintain livestock products, especially meat, at artificially low prices that keeps consumption high across Europe and in Ireland, and it is large companies rather than farmers that profit.
Cracks in this system became apparent during the fodder crisis when a cold spring revealed the fragility of an unstable ecosystem supporting 6.8 million cattle. That was amplified by a drought in North America in 2012 that affected the price of corn, the leading feed commodity.
The horsemeat crisis revealed how the cost of beef production was prompting serious illegality.
The foot and mouth crisis of 2001 showed how a lack of agricultural diversity constitutes a threat to economic sovereignty: a miniscule 8 per cent of our farmland is in more labour-intensive tillage, most of that used for animal feed. The health of the national herd is maintained by excessive use of antibiotics, detrimental to human health, and the eradication of badgers which are considered, controversially, vectors of bovine TB.
There are also important global concerns to bear in mind. Nowadays, apart from Tea Party fanatics, the human role in climate change is not widely denied. But the understanding of responsibility by sector is under-appreciated. The 2006 UN report Livestock's Long Shadow attributed 18 per cent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to livestock production. But even this figure is dwarfed by the estimate of Robert Goodland (formerly the lead environmental adviser at the World Bank) and Jeff Anhang in 2009 who concluded that 51 per cent of human GHG emissions come from the raising of animals for food. If they are proved correct then the EU will surely seek to curb livestock production.
The fact that a large proportion of Irish cattle are grass fed offers no reassurance as this produces four times more methane than grain-feeding. Our agricultural sector produces more emissions than any other, and occupies land that could be reafforested.
The Climate Change Bill 2013 targets an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050. This would leave total annual emissions at 11 million tonnes of carbon equivalent. But agriculture alone currently accounts for 19 million tonnes. That means if everything else was reduced to zero, we would still need to substantially reduce the national herd. Unlike cars, it is not possible to engineer energy-efficient livestock.
Moreover, it is increasingly apparent that high consumption of livestock products is not good for our health. Numerous studies link these with the onset of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. A major long-term Oxford University study showed that vegetarians enjoy a higher life expectancy and are less susceptible to chronic disease even when adjusted for social class and smoking.
Heart disease, the leading killer of Irish men and women, can be treated with a plant-based diet, potentially saving the Exchequer significant health care costs. Many cancers are linked to high meat consumption, red and processed meat especially.
The 'Half Your Plate' concept of each meal consisting of 50 per cent vegetables and fruit is now advocated by the US department of agriculture, and the National Health Service in the UK. Vegetables especially contain the anti-oxidants and fibre that prevent disease. Usually the fresher a vegetable the greater the protection it confers against disease, and it will taste better too. The argument for increasing local production is apparent. Irish agriculture should provide year-round vegetables for most of the population.
Unfortunately, for many families struggling with falling incomes these vegetables are unaffordable. In the future, subsidies should shift to healthy foods conferring protection from disease. Celebrity chefs can assist in this campaign instead of promoting unhealthy diets as they usually do.
It is incumbent on Teagasc to initiate more research into which vegetable varieties offer the best nutrition in Irish conditions, thereby giving farmers the opportunity to shift production.
The caloric return on land devoted to growing plants is far greater than when we use it to raise animals. We can save on imports and make up for lost export revenue by exploring niche products such as sea vegetables, among others.
Another threat to the long-term viability of Irish agriculture emanates from so-called analogue meats. These 'smart' products are synthesised from plant matter and are designed to taste similar to meat. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs including Bill Gates and the founders of Twitter are prominent in this technology, which is far less carbon-intensive and healthier.
Moreover, scientists have already grown laboratory meat through stem cells. This also offers a less carbon- and energy-intensive route, and the end result is said to taste much the same as meat. This technology is in its infancy but could offer a less costly route for meat production.
If the price is right multi-national fast food chains and retailers will surely switch to these products, and as consumers are increasingly uncomfortable with modern production methods, cruelty-free equivalents that taste the same should prove popular.
The argument, which was advanced originally by TK Whitaker, that Ireland enjoys a comparative advantage in the production of beef has long been accepted. But this accepts the legacy of our colonisation during which subsistence farmers were evicted from the land to make way for cattle.
It curbs the production of healthier food for the Irish market, offering inestimable healthcare savings. Moreover, the vital role of livestock production in climate change, especially in this country, cannot be denied. Agricultural alternatives in Ireland producing healthier food for direct human consumption should be developed.
Frank Armstrong is a food writer and historian.