A View from Dublin: Some random reflections

Posted in: Sustainable development

By Tony German


A few hundred yards from the flat, where we’ve been living in Dublin for the last 6 months, is the famine memorial. It helps explain why experience of famine, migration, colonisation and conflict are important parts of Ireland’s self-image – and part of what Ireland feels are aspects of its ‘development offer’.

Over 2021, the year of the Food Systems Summit and Nutrition for Growth, Ireland’s development cooperation focus on hunger was illustrated by its two-decade long championing of Community Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM). This is a success story deserving more attention and money – and is of particular importance to the Furthest Behind First approach, which Ireland has made a signature theme of its international development policy, A Better World. As we see it, acute malnutrition is practically diagnostic of being amongst the furthest behind. But Ireland has also been able to showcase its hybrid offer which spans both aid and commercial benefit to Ireland. As a country partially dependent on grass-fed agriculture (alongside tech giants…I won’t go into policy coherence issues highlighted in the DAC peer review here!), Ireland has experience and expertise which it now sometimes offers partners free via ODA - and sometimes offers commercially.

Ireland’s own trajectory can be seen as a linear path from food shortages to a focus on increased production, then to adding value and now with the aim of making the transformation to sustainable agriculture. Ireland is seeking to support its partners to do all three at the same time. Easier said than done – especially in the light of the effect of nitrogen pollution on water quality around Cork, at least in part, as a result of the increases in Ireland’s cattle herd since 2015.

The Dasgupta Review, which Nick Langridge wrote about in an earlier CDS blog, pointed to an issue which has been central to Ireland’s National Food Systems Dialogues – how societies account for the value of biodiversity (Short answer, very badly!). The farmers’ representatives at the national dialogues made the case that their families had often been custodians of the land for decades, if not centuries, and that the sustainability of their farm was a key priority. Of course there may be a tension between sustaining the farm and sustaining the planet – raising the question, who pays to fill the gap: Ireland’s farmers, Irish consumers – some of whom are already having to resort to food banks – governments, big agri-food companies?

A farmer from Tipperary raised, in farmers terms, the issue about how we count value - which Dasgupta covered differently as a renowned professor of economics. The practical point was made – ‘it’s not just me farming the land, it’s the bank manager’. The farmer may want to leave the hedge to enhance biodiversity. But isn’t the bank manager going to ask about the value lost, bearing in mind that a fence takes up a lot less grazing land than a hedge? It is all very well heads of big business talking up environmental credentials. But how does that filter down to local bank managers and their incentives? And to the issue of profit.

In March 2021, so early in the year of the Food Systems Summit, Emmanuel Faber, Chief Executive of dairy giant Danone, was ousted by a group of activist investors. Back in 2017, Reuters had reported Faber as saying Danone’s One Planet, One Health campaign would disrupt the business model by recognising food as a human right. “Faber gave a scathing indictment of the global food industry, saying it has created social and environmental destruction by treating food as a commodity driven by market forces, generating wealth for corporations while denying equal access to food for many.” An article in Forbes magazine said “Many firms (including Danone) have proven that it’s possible to marry sustainability and profitability. It depends on how much profit you have to deliver if 15% ROCE is the norm and if politicians will impose other societal and ecological norms moving forward” [Our emphases].

Many NGO reports and campaigns draw attention to the working of value chains, the role of large agri-food corporations and the marketing of profitable but unhealthy food. But we haven’t seen this extending into a discussion of the specific issue of the balance between the right to food and profit. Without such as discussion, it is difficult to envisage the sort of transformation in the food system widely discussed in 2021. This is the sort of big societal issue that we feel in the past, NGOs would have been shouting about. Or is that nostalgia from the era of the Independent Group on British Aid and Live Aid?

In Ireland, a space has opened up which the church used to occupy – between morality, values and politics. Ordinary people can now choose to express their views on these areas using social media. But this doesn’t fill the vacuum in a way that is necessarily inclusive or representative. In 2022 Ireland is holding a very welcome Citizens Assembly on Bio-diversity loss. With just 8 harvests to go before 2030, we hope that NGOs, thinkers and commentators – as well as politicians - in Ireland and more widely, might help stimulate and support a broad societal conversation on the balance between people, planet, profit and the SDGs.

Posted in: Sustainable development


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