Global agriculture is at a crossroads. The climate is changing, impacting food production, farming practices, and the environment.
A growing global population needs to be fed, yet food production itself is a major contributor to a changing climate. How we deal with these challenges is the starting point for climate-smart agriculture - the latest thinking on how farmers and policy-makers can boost farm productivity in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.
Climate-smart agriculture is about boosting farmers' income while strengthening their resilience to climate change, and reducing agriculture's climate footprint by curbing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing carbon storage.
It relies on farmers' own ingenuity to meet the consequences of climate change, like floods and temperature rises, by adapting their farming practices. But, on a broader level, climate-smart agriculture depends on policy decisions that meet global challenges like fighting world hunger and increasing food production. It is the big idea whose time has come.
To help us better understand attitudes to climate-smart agriculture, the Institute of International and European Affairs and the RDS, supported by Glanbia Ingredients Ireland, Diageo, and several other public and private sector partners, conducted a survey of stakeholders in Ireland and internationally. The survey respondents ranged from farmers to policy-makers, non-government organisations (NGOs) to agri-business.
No one agrees what country is the global leader on climate-smart agriculture, according to the survey. That means there is an opportunity for Ireland to position itself as a leader in climate-smart agriculture, and in the production of carbon-efficient food.
Agri-food in Ireland is a sector on the move. The dairy industry is evolving towards new and innovative food products, with higher value added.
We are connecting local communities across the country to vast and diverse food markets around the globe. The Government's latest strategy for the sector, Food Wise 2025, aims to increase the value of our agri-food exports by 85pc to €19bn over the next decade.
This target cannot be achieved without increasing emissions over a period when Ireland will be legally bound to reduce these gasses.
Unsurprisingly, our survey shows that 8opc of stakeholders consider this a major challenge. But it is an opportunity, too, with 86pc saying that establishing Irish leadership on climate-smart agriculture could benefit the agri-food sector.
Ireland is well placed to lead in climate-smart agriculture because of our competitive advantages in farming, including a temperate climate and fertile land that favours carbon-efficient grass-based livestock production.
We have world-leading agri-food businesses and excellent Government and agency support for the sector. Already, we have success stories like the Origin Green Programme.
Survey respondents were clear that domestic action is key to establishing a leadership position on climate-smart agriculture. They identified better use of fertiliser, boosting research and innovation, and optimising land use as among the most important success factors.
Almost nine out of 10, or 87pc, identified economically and environmentally optimising our land resource, between dairy, beef, tillage and forestry, as a key climate-smart strategy.
How this can be achieved in practical terms will be a central focus of future work under the Leadership Forum.
Establishing an international leadership position will demand that all stakeholders in the sector pull together in the common good.
A huge majority of all stakeholders, whether NGOs, farmers, government, independent experts or agri-business, identified the three pillars of climate-smart agriculture as important for Ireland - increasing farm incomes and productivity, reducing emissions, and building resilience to climate impacts.
While some differences emerged - farmers and agri-business understandably focused on farm incomes and productivity while NGOs tilted towards reducing emissions - the common ground we identified is very encouraging.
With world population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, food production needs to increase by nearly 70pc just to keep pace with demand. This must happen in an increasingly carbon-constrained world, with emissions dramatically reduced in order to avoid the worst impacts of dangerous climate change that would hit the world's poor hardest.
Survey respondents were clear: we must consider this challenge in a global context. If Ireland is to be a global leader, we must lead in international negotiations, especially in the EU, and build climate-smart relationships with development partners.
Our survey of international experts showed they believe developing countries should focus on building resilience to the impact of climate change, followed by boosting productivity and farm incomes. In developed nations, the sample identifies cutting greenhouse gas emissions as the most important pillar, followed by building resilience to climate change impacts.
This shows that climate-smart agriculture can mean different things in different contexts. Our work is focused on agreeing what it means for Ireland.
The next phase of global agriculture is likely to be dominated by the climate-smart agenda. In Ireland, there is a case for climate-smart food production to emerge as a key goal for the domestic economy.
But we must continue to look outwards, too, making our expertise available to partner governments around the world. How we respond to new challenges in agriculture will be a measure of our leadership capacity, as well as our ability to seize opportunity.
Joseph Curtin is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of International and European Affairs and a member of the Government National Advisory Council on Climate Change.