John Feehan is a renowned academic and author of the definitive book on rural Ireland and farming: Farming in Ireland: history, Heritage and Environment.
(A video of his presentation at the Feasta Food event in UCD 2005 is available here)
What he wrote about the visit will be posted as two distinct entries. The first posting outlines the background context of food production in modernity. The second posting will be about the Omega Beef Direct farm visit itself.
Among the greatest challenges faced by humanity in our time is that of doubling food production in order to feed a population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Two-thirds of these people will be in dense conurbations to which they have moved because they can no longer find enough to support them in the countryside. These people will not have the land resources to feed themselves, and will depend increasingly not on food produced in the urban hinterland or indeed elsewhere in their own country, but on imported food.
The options available to meet the challenge do not include taking more land into cultivation, because there is no more land: the good land is already in production. Most of what is left is desert, mountain or city: and indeed, in 2006 the International Food Policy Research Institute reported that 40 per cent of what is farmed today is seriously degraded. We cannot afford to lose any more farmland: in 50 years time we will need every hectare of agricultural land we have.
Areas of the world that are critical to feeding today’s 7 billion will no longer be able to supply their current grain surpluses to meet the need of burgeoning nations that can no longer feed themselves, as rising temperatures put pressure on the world’s great cereal-growing areas and water tables continue to fall as a result of the overpumping of aquifers – in effect, the mining of fossil water that cannot be replaced.
This is a challenge that will take all of our ingenuity and skill, all the more so because it has to be met without further loss of biodiversity and without compromising environmental integrity.
Here in Ireland we are in a privileged position. We will have ample supplies of water into the foreseeable future, and the marginal land allowed to slip out of productive agriculture constitutes a productive land bank that can be reclaimed. We will see farmed once more land on the margins that was taken into production in earlier times and abandoned as the tide of intensification concentrated on the ‘best’ land. This includes the extensive acres on the hills taken from the wild as the population rose to its pre-Famine peak of eight million people to be fed from local resources: reclaimed at a cost in human labour we can hardly comprehend in our mechanized society.
This land cannot be made productive however by applying the oil-dependent intensive techniques of the last 60 years, which will have become obsolete half a century hence. In a future in which the high price of oil will have made the extensive use of fertilizer uneconomic, we will need to develop – or recover – an agriculture that is based on inherent fertility.
This will require an understanding not only of the principles of the applied science of agro-ecology, but of how those principles are to be applied in the unique circumstances of each place. In its newfound adherence to the principles of self-sufficiency this new agriculture will be a return to the older knowledge of the past, but the greater understanding and control which the advance of science and technology have given us will mean that it is enhanced by the best of appropriate technology.