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The social side of sustainability

Social sustainability is a measure of human welfare, with both internal dimensions, which relate to the individual, and external, which concern community-oriented issues around values and the demands of wider society.

There is increasing momentum worldwide to adopt an integrated approach to food systems. Sustainable food systems are profitable throughout, with a positive or neutral impact on the natural environment and broadbased benefits for society. To date, least attention has been given to the social dimension of sustainability, but it is now being increasingly recognised in policy. This is reflected in the more holistic objectives of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP, 2023-27), the EU Farm to Fork strategy and the Irish Food Vision 2030.

TResearch Summer 2023

Covid-19 has had an impact on social contact among farmers, with more transactions via online marts and 10% of farmers only seeing someone outside their household once a week

In meeting our sustainability goals, insights from social science can help us understand the social and institutional context to particular actions and behaviours, and the broader economic and political incentives. A suite of social sustainability indicators is being developed through the Teagasc National Farm Survey (NFS) using data collected on Irish farms. However, given its broad spectrum, the collection of some social data can be challenging, either due to the sensitive nature of the data itself or the intensive nature of its collection.

In addition to the demographic data reported on annually, a series of special surveys has been undertaken through the NFS in recent years. These have centred on issues such as generational renewal, farm safety, wellbeing, community engagement, rural services and digital connectivity. Some key findings from the 2021 survey are discussed below.

Health and wellbeing of farmers

Almost 40% of farmers reported experiencing stress relating to their farm business in the past five years, explains Senior Research Officer Emma Dillon.

“Across farm systems, the prevalence of stress was highest on dairy farms with more than one in two dairy farmers indicating that running their farm business was a source of stress,” says Emma. “This compares to between one in four and one in three across other systems. All farmers reported a significant deterioration in their stress levels over recent years. Identified farm stressors include weather, workload and financial concerns.”

On a more positive note, 78% of farmers surveyed reported having good or very good health. Post Doctoral Research Mary Brennan says: “The figure was highest among tillage farmers and lowest among sheep farmers. However, the variation across farm systems is reflected in the fact that between a quarter and one-third of cattle and sheep farmers reported poor or fair health, compared to about one in ten dairy and tillage farmers, who tend to be younger, on average.

“It’s also concerning that, of those reporting poor or fair health, almost half have no replacement labour. This seems to be an issue in some regions particularly where additional labour is in short supply.”

TResearch Summer 2023

Increase in digital connectivity

A dramatic increase in smartphone usage among farmers is evident – rising sharply from 20% across farm systems in 2015 to 76% in 2021. Similarly, there has been a steady increase in internet usage among farm households over the last decade, with close to 90% having internet access in 2021 (almost universal usage on dairy farms).

In terms of internet quality, 57% report good or very good internet access. However, the quality was reported to be poor or very poor on 15% of farm households across Ireland.

“The increase in digital engagement among farmers has been particularly evident since the onset of Covid-19,” says Brian Moran, National Farm Survey Team Lead, “as demonstrated by farmer use of online livestock marts. According to the NFS, two-thirds of farmers watched marts online during the pandemic, with over half buying and selling in this way. More than four-fifths (83%) of those surveyed plan to continue doing so given the convenience for parttime farmers in particular.”

The impact of Covid-19 is also evident in terms of the reduction in daily social contact among farmers. Rather starkly, the proportion of sheep farmers with daily contact with people outside of their household dropped from almost threequarters in 2018 to just over half in 2021, with a similar proportion reported for dairy and cattle farmers.

As a consequence, there has been an increase in the proportion of farmers with less social contact, with one in ten farmers only seeing someone from outside their household once a week.

TResearch Summer 2023

Family labour is important on Irish farms with higher levels of female labour input evident on dairy and sheep farms

Observations on age and gender

A core set of demographic data is collected through the NFS annually, and is reported upon in the annual and sustainability reports.

Data from the survey in 2021 reiterates the ageing nature of the Irish farm population, with the average farmer age standing at 58. Farm households are deemed to have a high age profile if the farmer is aged 60 or older with no members of the household aged below 45. Cattle and sheep farms were more likely to have a high age profile and be operated by farmers living alone.

In terms of labour input, hours worked and the greater labour intensity of dairying is reflected in longer hours worked on farm. When off-farm employment is factored in, the gap between dairy farms and other farm systems is reduced.

Taking gender into consideration, female labour input was reported on 54% of dairy farms; the next highest figure was on sheep farms, at 45%. Other farm systems reported lower proportions of female labour input, reflective of their generally part-time and more extensive nature.

Continued focus on social sustainability

“We need to further progress the routine collection of social data on Irish farms to better assess their social sustainability status,” reflects Emma. “Work is ongoing in this regard. Food Vision 2030 focuses on the collection of data relating to issues such as generational renewal, gender balance, diversity, education and training, health and safety, mental health and wellbeing and broader rural development. These serve as a wish list for farm level social sustainability indicator design.

“The delivery of a more holistic assessment of farm level sustainability, with improved social metrics, will simplify the process of CAP monitoring and evaluation and facilitate more targeted support and ultimately help us achieve a wider range of sustainability goals.”

40%: Percentage of farmers who reported experiencing businessrelated stress in the past five years. The percentage of dairy farmers (55%) who experienced stress is more than double that of tillage farmers (26%).

54%: Female labour input on dairy farms – the highest proportion of all farm types. The lowest percentage was 28% for tillage farms.


With thanks to the Teagasc National Farm Survey team and participating farmers for the provision of data, and to the Teagasc Walsh Scholarship Scheme for previous funding received which has helped to inform the direction of this research.


Emma Dillon, Senior Research Officer, Agricultural Economics & Farm Surveys, Rural Economy & Development Programme, Teagasc.

Mary Brennan, Post-Doctoral Researcher, Agricultural Economics & FarmSurveys, Rural Economy & Development Programme, Teagasc.

Brian Moran, National Farm Survey Team Lead, Agricultural Economics & Farm Surveys, Rural Economy & Development Programme, Teagasc.

Image credits: Bo Scheeringa Photography/shutterstock.com; SolStock/iStockphoto.com.