New report assesses Ireland’s role in creating sustainable and fair global food systems

New report assesses Ireland’s role in creating sustainable and fair global food systems

  • More supports needed for Irish farmers to transition to sustainable agriculture approaches 
  • Out of sync: Ireland’s trade objectives and sustainable development objectives 
  • Ireland must invest and transform to meet sustainable food system ambition - warn Oxfam and Trócaire
  • Globally: Farming communities reliant on strengthening food security and resilience to climate shocks

21 July 2021

Today, aid agencies Trócaire and Oxfam Ireland release a major new report assessing the Irish government’s ambition to become a champion of fair and sustainable food systems on the global stage. 

The report is published in advance of the UN Food Systems Summit pre-meetings in Rome next week and follows the release of the SOFI 2021 report, The State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in the World, which highlights rising global food insecurity and the urgency of delivering on the right to adequate food for all in sustainable ways.

The organisations are advocating for sustainable transformations that support small-scale food producers around the world. These context-specific transformations should protect everyone’s right to food, while sustaining the natural resources upon which agriculture relies.

Whilst acknowledging Ireland’s strong commitment to addressing hunger and malnutrition, the report found that Ireland’s ODA support for food and nutrition security needs to be more clearly directed toward agroecological initiatives, with only a minority of current ODA spending directed toward sustainable agriculture projects. 

Jim Clarken, Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland said: “Because of the climate and biodiversity emergencies, land use competition, and conflict there is a critical need for agriculture and food system transformation to prevent already at-risk communities falling into deeper peril. 

“Increasing the proportion of ODA spending used to support sustainable agriculture initiatives can move us in the right direction and ensure the communities Oxfam and Trócaire work with have a supportive enabling environment to help them to adapt and make their livelihoods climate resilient.”

The report also found that policy decisions emphasise Irish agri-food trade objectives to the detriment of sustainable development goals. This was found to be especially true in terms of subsidised Irish milk powder exports to West Africa, with the report stating that relationships with African countries should bolster local markets rather than putting them at risk. West African government officials, small-scale dairy owners and livestock farmers argue that powdered imports are nutritionally inferior and environmentally damaging, and are undermining local markets and dairy production.

Both Oxfam and Trócaire work in countries and contexts where agriculture and food are the main sources of income generation and employment. In addition, these small-scale farms quite often account for most of the food consumed within households and wider local communities, making their futures reliant on building their food security and strengthening their resilience to climate and other shocks.  

Caoimhe de Barra, CEO of Trócaire said: “A transformation is needed whereby food policies are centred on human rights, social equity, women’s empowerment, economic security and prosperity, environmental regeneration and resilience building to climate change and other shocks. We're calling on Ireland to ensure its leadership on sustainable food systems includes all of these elements.” 

A recent survey of 350 influential food and agriculture companies found that half do not disclose targets or report on progress to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while over a third do not sufficiently acknowledge their responsibility to ensure the human rights of workers in their supply chain - nor do they demonstrate any intention of improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.  The report calls for binding legislation to ensure the agri-food sector is fulfilling its human rights and environmental obligations throughout its value chain.

Closer to home

Alongside its international analysis the report addresses domestic changes that need to take effect in Ireland. It recommends the establishment of a national sustainable food systems body that provides space for the voices of all stakeholders – including the most marginalised in Irish society – to be heard and integrated into decision-making. The report also found that narratives claiming that Ireland’s food is ‘produced sustainably’ or that the Irish food industry has made great progress towards ‘driving sustainable food production’ are difficult to validate when assessing agri-environmental indicators and recommends the use of appropriate sustainability metrics to measure progress on the transition to sustainable food production.

Sinead Mowlds, researcher and author of the Sustainable Food Systems report said: “Ireland has a real opportunity to forge a new direction in implementing a sustainable food systems approach if it is willing to address current shortcomings and make necessary adjustments. 

“For example, the report reveals that Irish farmers are not adequately supported to transition to more sustainable methods and approaches.  At present only 11 percent of funding in Ireland is directed toward projects that support ‘principally’ sustainable agriculture. This is compounded by the fact that, in some cases, farmers are penalised for their efforts to support biodiversity. 

The report calls for the scaling up of programmes with clear environmental and social sustainability objectives, as well as investment in rural economies and measures to increase the production of fresh, nutritious, and local produce.



Caroline Reid, Communications Manager with Oxfam: | 087 912 3165

David O’Hare, Head of Communications with Trócaire: | +44 7900053884   


  • Read the Summary and Recommendations report here.
  • Read the full reort here
  • Spokespeople from Oxfam Ireland and Trócaire are available for interview. 
  • Report author, Sinead Mowlds, is also available for interview. Sinead is an independent consultant, Research Affiliate to the Cambridge Central Asia Forum, and M&E expert with the Natural Resource Institute at Greenwich University. Since 2007, her research has focused on sustainable development and food and nutrition security for rural and marginalised people. During that time, she’s worked with international organisations, think tanks, the private sector, and NGOS, including UN agencies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Brookings Institution, the European Commission, and the OECD. Her research aims to understand how complexity sciences can be applied to policies relating to food systems and climate justice. She holds a BSc in International Development & Food Policy from the University College of Cork, and a MPhil in Development Studies from University of Cambridge. 
  • This report is being released a week before UNFSS the pre-summit meeting. The UNFSS was initially characterised as a ‘People’s Summit’ which would address solutions and contain diverse dialogue on topics ranging from nutrition, sustainability, equitable livelihoods, and resilience. However, in the lead up to the summit, concerns about the approaches being taken by the UNFSS have been expressed by civil society, especially those representing small-holders in the Global South and indigenous peoples. In 2020, over 300 civil society organisations signed a joint letter over shared concerns around the lack of human rights approaches and legitimacy and the lack of inclusiveness in preparations for the UNFSS. Since then, the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM) of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the largest international space of civil society organisations (CSOs) working to eradicate food insecurity and malnutrition, have voiced their concerns over the proposed operation of the UNFSS and put forward proposals for how these concerns could be addressed.  These include a proposal that the UNFSS should have an explicit aim to “reverse the corporate capture of food systems, an additional action track should be established, as part of the formal summit process, to focus on the transformation of corporate food systems. 


  • At global level, agriculture, forestry and other land usage accounts for 23 percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Add in other emissions from the food chain, from farm to consumer, and the estimate rises towards 34 percent.   
  • In Europe, the agricultural sector accounts for 10.3 percent of GHG emissions. Irish agriculture contributes more than 30 percent of the country’s national GHG emissions. This figure does not include the emissions related to land use and land use change generated by imports of commodities such as soy and beef.   
  • We know that about 9 percent of the world’s population is undernourished to various degrees, while another 39 percent of adults globally were overweight in 2016, and 13 percent were obese.  
  • According to the FAO 3.5 percent of the Irish population, or 171,000 people are severely food insecure while a Safefood study from 2018 found that 1 in 10 Irish households were in food poverty. According to latest WHO figures 25 percent of the Irish population or 1.22m people are obese (2016). This is an increase from 16 percent in 2000.  

For a food system to be sustainable, it needs to generate positive value across all three dimensions of sustainability: economic, social, and environmental. The FAO (2018) elaborates on this:  

  • On the economic dimension, a food system is considered sustainable if the activities conducted by each food system actor or support service provider are commercially or fiscally viable. The activities should generate benefits, or economic value-added, for all categories of stakeholders: wages for workers, taxes for governments, profits for enterprises, and food supply improvements for consumers.  
  • On the social dimension, a food system is considered sustainable when there is equity in the distribution of the economic value-added, taking into account vulnerable groups categorised by gender, age, race etc. Of fundamental importance, food system activities need to contribute to the advancement of important socio-cultural outcomes, such as nutrition and health, with respect for local and indigenous peoples’ traditions, labour conditions, and animal welfare.  
  • On the environmental dimension, sustainability is determined by ensuring that the impacts of food system activities on the surrounding natural environment are neutral or positive, taking into consideration biodiversity, water, soil, animal and plant health, the carbon footprint, the water footprint, food loss and waste, and toxicity  
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