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Going green

Addressing challenges to sustainability in Irish horticulture

TResearch Autumn Winter 2021As we recognise 2021 as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables and Teagasc centres its focus on sustainability, it’s important we evaluate the horticulture sector’s progress in sustainability adoption. 

Horticulture in Ireland supports healthy lifestyles and diets and is a significant contributor to the economy. Forces such as Brexit, Covid-19 and climate change, however, have placed increased pressure on food systems worldwide.

Supply disruptions have led to food shortages and price volatility in certain places, and these pressures present a risk to countries like Ireland that import more food than they export.

Certain imported crops (such as bananas) cannot be grown locally, and there are times when home-grown produce is unavailable. There are also other social, economic and environmental barriers that may be stopping local food production.

Meanwhile horticulture, like other sectors of agriculture, is facing pressure to adopt sustainable business practices. And with plant-based foods making up one-third of the population’s dietary intake in Ireland, there is an urgency to identify areas of opportunity and address challenges.

Grower sustainability

The Horticulture Development Department in Teagasc carried out qualitative research to understand how sustainability is presently understood and adopted in Ireland. To do this, they conducted semi-structured interviews with horticulture growers across Ireland, in both organic and non-organic systems and across different business sizes (firm types), maturity levels, founder demographics (age, gender and location) and production types.

Lael Walsh, Research Officer in the Horticulture Development Department, says: “Our research aimed to identify challenges currently faced by the sector, determine knowledge and resource support needed to develop sustainable horticulture enterprises, and understand the enabling environment needed to support the sector to grow sustainably.”

Data were then analysed using a literature review and interview transcripts to identify connections between sustainability pillars (economic, environmental and social), challenges and the impacts identified in the literature. The results are summarised in the boxout on page 10.

Understanding sustainability challenges

“Our research shows that awareness of sustainability is high among Irish growers based on their knowledge of sustainability frameworks and engagement with certification and auditing schemes,” says Lael. “Notably, greater attention and importance is placed on economic and environmental sustainability.

“Despite signs in the literature that sustainability pillars are positively related to firm performance, however, knowledge of how environmental, social and economic sustainability integrate is low. This presents an opportunity to strengthen the sector.”

Economic sustainability issues were focused around high costs and low product prices, as well as limited opportunities for diversification. The result of this is a slow adoption of sustainable practices and low levels of investment, innovation, wages and growth.

A similar study in New Zealand found sustainability adoption was perceived to be costly, and growers did not expect to benefit financially from implementing better environmental practices. Furthermore, levels of knowledge and skills in sustainability were inadequate, and there was a poor understanding or realisation of benefits from sustainability adoption.

Environmental pressure to reduce pesticides, greenhouse gas emissions and the use of non-renewable resources (e.g. peat), alongside a low concern for biosecurity, were highlighted. Pressures to reduce pesticides are perceived to increase risks of crop loss and increase production costs beyond a point where horticulture enterprises remain economically viable, unless the market accepts a lower level of aesthetic quality.

Social issues, meanwhile, were more diverse. Consumer perception was highlighted as a strong driver of product quality and industry standards, yet high skill was needed to reach this. With wages recognisably low, new entrants aren’t being attracted into the sector and prestige for the profession is decreasing.

A new horticulture model

The current operating environment – centred on a linear value chain model and offering low levels of integration – may be hindering sustainability adoption. As such,  Lael has created and is proposing a new ‘value network’ model for Irish horticulture (Figure 1), in order to move away from the concentration of power given to retailers and consumers.

“In this new model, the value network would recognise an inherent interdependence between actors and elements in systems,” explains Lael. “In this way, shared responsibility and alliances would be championed in order to achieve a sustainable and vibrant horticulture sector.”

A Day in the Life - Science Week - Dr Lael Walsh and Lorraine Foley

Dr Lael Walsh, Teagasc and Lorraine Foley, Technological University of Dublin, talk about their research project “Leaf No Waste”. They’re aiming to make spinach production more environmentally sustainable by reducing food and plastic waste.