It is increasingly clear that we are moving from a time in history where, at least in the developed world, we have had it good for decades in terms of easy access to food and water to a time that will present many different challenges. These are big challenges and require us to radically rethink how agriculture is practiced and how we produce the water we need.
Vast quantities of oil are used to grow, process, store and transport food to us. For the last 30 years we have been almost literally ‘eating oil’, as our food supply system is underpinned, and indeed made possible, by the uninterrupted flow of cheap oil and gas. In the US, the food system has been estimated to require 10 calories of fossil fuel for every 1 calorie that lands up on our plates (Giampietro and Pimentel 1994). We can no longer rely on the assumption that cheap fossil fuels will continue to be available into the indefinite future. It will no longer make sense to be importing fruit to Ireland from abroad by airplane.
With a rising global population and greater demand, the coming decades will likely see increasing price volatility and interruptions to supplies of liquid fuels. Having food and water systems that are very oil dependant is a high risk strategy for a region that has to import all of the oil it uses.
The other great challenge is climate change. To avoid runaway climate change we need to radically reduce emissions in the coming decades. The current food systems cause far too much emissions at all stages. In addition, a certain amount of climate change will happen regardless because of historical emissions since the start of the industrial revolution. It is predicted that the west of Ireland will be warmer and wetter in the near future. Sea level change is also occurring. We will need to accept that low-lying coastal land may be at risk of flooding and some may be lost to the sea. Any changes in climate will, of course, affect how we manage our water supplies as they are inextricably linked.
While we produce much of our food nationally, we are far more vulnerable in terms of food than we were several decades ago. In the past, the region was largely self-reliant for food with its core needs produced locally. In contrast, many elements of the present food system are fragile. Although we now have access to a greater variety of foods from all corners of the globe, there is insecurity in on the ‘just-in-time’ distribution system that we are increasingly dependent on. We are only a couple of days away from a major food crisis should, for example, the lorries that make it possible stop running, as we saw starkly in 2000 during the lorry drivers’ dispute in the UK.
Much of the fertiliser used on Irish farms is produced from natural gas. In addition, many pesticides and other agrochemicals are also produced using fossil fuels. Given that the vast majority of fossil fuels are imported this leads to a high degree of vulnerability.
Potash is mined from the earth and is used to make fertiliser used in modern large scale industrial agriculture. Global reserves of potash are running low. Ireland currently imports most of the potash it uses. The price can fluctuate greatly. Some argue that given its essential role as a fertiliser, ‘peak potash’ could be more of a problem than peak oil.
We are currently in the age of supermarkets and convenience foods. The large supermarkets have a very strong grip on the Irish food market. This grip can have a detrimental effect as the big supermarkets wield a great deal of power which can result in local suppliers and producers not getting a fair price for their produce. The current globalised food system is profoundly unsustainable. It is a vast system that sources food from whoever in the world that can produce it cheapest. Local suppliers and producers often have to compete with imported goods that are produced in places with lower environmental and labour standards.
Human population is rising, especially in the developed world, and more are adopting western dietary habits that are high in meat. Unfortunately, large scale industrial meat production has a large environmental impact. On a finite planet, there is a limit to how much meat can be produced.
There has already been significant environmental damage as a result of current farming practices. Soils have been degraded. There have been exceptions, but on the whole, we have lost a lot of biodiversity and habitats have been damaged on our intensely farmed agricultural lands.
In our seas we have overfished and taken more fish than we should have. If this massive overfishing continues, stocks will soon collapse.
A large proportion of the food we produce is needlessly wasted. This is not only a waste of valuable resources but is also unacceptable given that there are many people going hungry. Another wasteful practice is when a country exports millions of tonnes of a food product such as potatoes to another country but then imports millions of tonnes of the same food product from the same country. Vast amounts of oil are burned transporting all of this food around.
A very high proportion of the water we produce in Galway is lost in the old and defective water pipe system that delivers water to our homes and businesses.
Given the impending lack of security in supply of cheap oil and the urgent need to reduce emissions that cause climate change, a shift in how we feed ourselves is inevitable. This chapter contains some possible solutions that might help make the transition to a truly sustainable and resilient food and water supply system. Such a transition is challenging and urgently needed but it is possible.