Bord Bia's Origin Green scheme
Bord Bia's Origin Green scheme had its 'soft launch' earlier this summer; promoting sustainability as something far from green and woolly but as a hard business strategy for Irish food exports.
As Ireland's clean food image is already a seller, what does ticking more boxes on waste and emissions mean for Irish farmers? Is greening the shamrock a strategy that works for big food, or can tracking sustainability create rewards that will filter down to Irish farm incomes?
Sustainability is safety, and Ireland's track record on extensive production could be worth more than we bargained for in a resource-strapped world under pressure to meet demand for food.
With a population of seven billion, the global marketplace is a huge opportunity for Irish exports. But it's also placing pressure on basic but limited resources like water and land.
Food companies cannot afford to be labelled as unethical in terms of where their food is produced and they also need to make sure that the bottom won't fall out of supply chains.
This is where Ireland steps up to the plate; we've plenty of rain, good grass and we've just began tracking exactly what's going in and out of the system.
In May of last year, Bord Bia began auditing use of water, energy, waste levels, animal feed and production practices on Irish farms.
Beginning with farmers in their Beef Quality Assurance Scheme, so far 30,000 members or 94% of QA producers have participated in the sustainability survey, the first national assessment of environmental performance of farms worldwide.
One of the farmers involved in the auditing is Richard Hogge who farms sheep and sucklers in Stonyford, Co Kilkenny.
He views the scheme as worth getting involved in, despite the additional workload. "There's a fair bit of trust and honesty on the farmer's part as you're putting in all your details and costings, so I had to gather all that.
Then it's processed at the Bord Bia end and I get a chart coming back to me outlining how my farm is performing on the different elements."
For Richard, there were obvious rewards in seeing how profitability could be improved. As he has 350 ewes on the farm and 25 sucklers, it was clear from the feedback that his grass could be better utilised by cattle but it didn't suit his sheep enterprise.
"I could have shorter time with cattle indoors but as I need my grass for sheep outdoors all year, this is difficult to improve on.
''At the same time, I compared well on how I'm finishing my animals -- little outside purchased concentrates, and I am also getting a calf per cow every year.
If I considered a continental bull, I might get more kilos per hectare but might lose out on the better calving ratios and fattening from my Angus bull. I'm getting the heifers away at 18 months and the bulls away at 20 to 22 months off grass. So, it's a balancing act."
Richard came into the scheme from his involvement in Bord Bia's quality assurance schemes for his sucklers and sheep.
"This was thrown in front of me as an option and, for me, it wasn't a hard choice as I'm involved in nearly everything that can be done to improve my lot.
For farmers, there's an advantage that it's showing you what can be improved with what you're doing and, ultimately, that's saving money."
Some of the top farmers taking part in the sustainability programme were rewarded at the Ploughing recently in New Ross by Bord Bia, the Irish Farmers Journal and Teagasc for efficiently producing cattle that meet the requirements for our main export markets.
One of these winners was Michael Murphy from Nenagh for his dairy calf to beef production. In a business where profitability can be tricky, Michael found the auditing gave him an outside eye on productivity on his farm.
"When the charts came back, compared with the national average, I was up there near the top which made me think I was doing everything as near as good as I can.
At first I didn't know much about carbon footprint and it is difficult for farmers to understand. Sometimes they don't think about details and may not have any plan in their head about when they're going to slaughter what they buy."
For Michael, tracking every last figure is the only way his business works. The 200 calves he brings in yearly are fed by machine which communicates with the calf's electronic tag. He also weighs them every two months.
"There is a definite time span for any animal I have. You need to keep animals moving along and putting on weight everyday. I can't understand lads not weighing cattle, I suggested a weighing scales at a discussion meeting and they called it a luxury, for me it is essential.
Overall, I found the experience a good one, and if other farmers are thinking about it, it will improve their efficiency without doubt."
Jim O'Toole, of Bord Bia, was one of the driving forces of the sustainability monitoring, previously working on the Quality Assurance schemes.
Quality Assurance has been a huge success for the marketing of Irish food, and customer feedback shows shoppers identify with traceability and 'safe food' assurance.
But why the move into the more 'open-toed sandal' area of sustainability? For O'Toole, it was a natural progression from the monitoring they were already doing.
"We did work that was completed in 2009 with some of the bigger customers of Irish food -- food service, retailing and manufacturing to see how important sustainability was and we concluded that it was an important issue.
''Our natural production in Ireland would resonate with that perception, but what we felt was that companies wanted more evidence."
Bord Bia returned to the topic in 2010, asking respondents again about sustainability. Instead of falling in importance as recession dug in, it seemed sustainability had hardened in importance.
For customers of Irish food and particularly beef and dairy, sustainability was now on the slate of key words and concepts, but what was driving the impulse for food buyers?
"The debate about sustainability is often described as a triple bottom line -- environment, financial and social" says O'Toole.
"If there isn't a financially sustainable supply chain, that supply chain could break down. There is also benefit from efficiencies by improving their environmental performance, in terms of reducing waste, energy, etc, so there's a cost saving there as well as enhancing brand value."
The scale of ambition of Origin Green is huge. To date, 27,500 of Irish farms have had a carbon footprint assessment done.
Some 45% of Irish export food and drink producers have signed up to the scheme; retailers, food service operators, manufacturers, Unilever, Nestlé, McDonald's, Danone and Tesco are already involved.
For retailers like Sainsburys with their "20 things for 2020" strategy, auditing our own sustainability on Irish farms can't fail to be an attraction as it means someone else is doing the hard work for them.
It's a move that has put Ireland ahead of the pack, potentially yielding us a competitive advantage.
But farmers might ask -- if retailers are so interested in sustainable food chains, why don't they just pay farmers more? Would Tesco's investment of £25m in the Sustainable Consumption Institute at University of Manchester be better spent rewarding extensive farming systems we already have.
Sustainability is clearly a great buzz word for retailers and at the corporate table, but where or when is the payback?
"It's too early to tell," says O'Toole.
"The cheap food debate isn't one that is going to get settled very quickly but, from our experience with this programme, the buy in we are getting from farmers means that Ireland can secure markets in the future.
''What we've got to do is prepare our industry to compete and win business, so it's a strategic long-term initiative."
Padraig Brennan, senior information analyst with Bord Bia, has been working with Teagasc and understands that Origin Green needs to appeal at farm level.
"There's no point in being environmentally sustainable if you can't make a living out of it. Being sustainable comes down to getting more output from the same input, more beef and more milk on a daily basis -- a combination of management, genetics, and using resources on farm."
As it stands, many food companies aren't making demands on suppliers in terms of sustainability but as Padraig points out, it's about Irish producers getting in before the rest of the posse.
"We are putting structures in place so rather than waiting for when it happens and being forced into certain things, we're being proactive in this area and creating that point of differentiation."
But how important is sustainability to our European customers of Irish food?
Marine Digabel, a journalist with Agra Alimentation in Paris, came to Ireland this month with a group of European food industry writers, visiting Richard Hogge's farm and the Glanbia plant in Ballyraggett.
"In France, there is a real interest in sustainability but after the French election, local food and French jobs have become more important."
Sustainability may have been overtaken by local, but as it makes sense to bottom line, it is a strategy not being ignored among large French companies like Danone.
"Definitely, they are all working towards less energy, less carbon and less waste," says Digabel, "probably not because they're deeply interested in environment but it is more about reducing costs all along the chain."
Does getting on the sustainability train early create an advantage for Irish producers? "I don't know if the Origin Green programme in Ireland will make people switch from one supplier to another.
But it might make them more tempted to change.
Companies know that they are working with people who have quality assurance and traceability and tracking the environment, which is good for a long-term perspective."