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Visions of Future Food Production

A view of agriculture in the post fossil fuel era (this page is in the process of being revised and expanded. Last update 06/07/19)

We are in the process of evaluating the Ireland's recently published Climate Action Plan 2019. Although perhaps driven by some good intentions, the document appears at best little more than a deckchair rearranging exercise, bereft of any clear road map or timetable for achieving net zero emissions and failing completely to acknowledge or address the major structural changes needed in society in order to realise this objective. The agriculture and land use chapter is a masterclass of deliberate omission (for example the greenhouse gas emissions costs of planting forestry), cherry picking of data and double accounting (for example attributing to the forestry resource both carbon sequestion and fossil fuel substitution (in power stations), when the resource can only be one or the other).

More commentary will follow...


Two unfolding and non-avoidable global events, namely fossil fuel depletion and global warming, are set to alter human societies out of all recognition in coming decades. Even in isolation, the depletion of geological oil and gas deposits as a consequence of over-extraction - fuels on which human society completely depends - would represent a crisis on a scale far greater than has ever been faced before. However, in recent years the looming crisis of fossil fuel depletion has been completely overshadowed by the damage already caused to the earth's delicate climate from the burning of these fuels, from agricultural activities and in particular the massive increase in livestock numbers, and from destruction of the rainforests, through the release of greenhouse gases that are now known to be causing the earth to warm up.

These gases, in terms of impact primarily carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, cause outgoing solar radiation to be be absorbed and trapped within the earth's atmosphere. All 3 of the primary greenhouse gases occur in the atmosphere naturally, but since the beginning of the industrial era their concentration has begun to rise, and has risen at ever increasing rates during the last 40 years. There is now irrefutable evidence that the increased presence of these gases in the atmosphere is causing the temperature of the earth to rise, hence the term global warming. The consequences will be both widespread and severe, and will increase exponentially as the temperature rises further. These consequences include species extinction, desertification, permanent changes to the earth's hydrological cycles, icecap melt and the associated sea level rise, and severe impacts on global agriculture. Approximately 76% of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming is attributable to carbon dioxide, 16% to methane and 6% to nitrous oxide. By sector, agriculture and other land use activities are responsible for 24% of emissions, electricity generation, heating and other energy sector emissions 35%, industry 21%, transport 14% and buildings 6% (IPCC 2014).

A 1.5C increase in global temperature from base line temperatures by 2100 is regarded as being about the maximum that the planet can accommodate without massive impacts upon both ecosystems and human welfare. Currently, emissions from human activity and associated feedbacks (for example methane releases in the thawing Arctic) put the earth on a trajectory for a temperature increase of 3-6C by 2100 (and further rises in temperature after this date), trajectories which if not addressed within a very narrow window of time will cause massive species' extinction, possibly including our own.

Food security

It's sometimes hard to convey to people outside of food security circles just how devastating climate change will be. It's not just the occasional failed crop in some remote part of the planet that has no direct impact outside of that region, but a permanently worsening and eventually catastrophic situation that will result in wholesale collapse of food production systems and famine on an almost unimaginable scale. It will not be solved by token measures like a country's elected leader pledging to eat less meat, in fact if 'solution' is defined as returning to the innocent pre global warming awareness era of 30 years ago, there is no remedy . There is no turning back the clock: Earth's climate is now permanently altered and the degree of divergence from climate stability will keep increasing for the entire lifetime of everyone alive today (and depending on how little or how much action is taken, possibly for another twenty or thirty generations to come).

Even if all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions somehow ceased tomorrow - while unfortunately is simply impossible - there is sufficient momentum in the planet's climate processes for global temperatures to rise for several decades and for icecaps to continue melting and sea levels rising for a further five hundred to one thousand years. In terms of net zero emissions (the point at which all unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions are cancelled out by sequestration/carbon capture), the best case scenario would be around 2040 (and even that will be enormously challenging). In the meantime, global greenhouse gas emissions will continue at a level of tens of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per annum for many years to come, accelerating the rate of warming further.

While is it still imperative that humanity do all it possibly can to reduce future emissions, it is also important to be realistic about climate outcomes and acknowledge that some changes in climate will be both permanent and far reaching, and hence the importance of planning ahead to help our societies adapt to the unavoidable impacts that climate change will bring. This short piece aims to open the discussion on both objectives: how agriculture in Ireland might reduce its net emissions to zero while at the same time providing greater food security for its inhabitants.

The challenges ahead

There are some things can be predicted with a reasonable degree of confidence:

1 The climate in Ireland will change. The latest available climate data, combined with likely trends in greenhouse gas emissions, suggest that it will get warmer, both in summer and winter. It is likely that winters will become wetter everywhere, while summer may become drier in the south and east.

2 As a consequence of unavoidable global waming, many countries that currently supply Ireland with food or animal feed - particularly those of the semi-arid belt in the mid latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere - will experience falling levels of precipitation and reduced access to water for irrigation.

3 Globally, land degradation caused by unsustainable agricultural practices (for example salination, toxicity and contamination from excess use of agrochemicals and soil loss from over-mechanisation etc) will increase

4 As major oil and gas fields become depleted, or perhaps as a result of global agreements to reduce fossil fuel extraction, energy will become scarce, causing prices on global markets to soar. Both oil and gas will become very expensive, or just unavailable.

5 Gas resource depletion/affordability/controls will impact upon the availability of nitrogen fertilisers

6 Depletion of global mineral phosphate and potash deposits, combined with rising energy costs, will impact upon availability

7 The prices of agricultural fertilisers, staple foods and of animal feedstocks will all rise

8 Even in the best case scenario global food production will struggle to keep pace with projected population increase of 30 percent by 2050, bringing the global population to 9.8 billion (United Nations data, 2017).


Greenhouse gas emissions Ireland

In 2016, Ireland's per capita greenhouse gas emissions amounted to 13.5t CO2 eq (tonnes CO2 equivalent), the 3rd highest in the EU (behind Luxembourg and Estonia) and 55% higher than the EU average (European Environmental Agency 2017). Approximately one third of Irish emissions originate in the agricultural sector.

In 2013 agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland amounted to 19.04 Mt CO2eq (million tonnes CO2 equivalent). In keeping with current policies (Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry 2010), emissions from agriculture are projected to rise until 2025, peaking at 19.84-19.99 Mt CO2eq. Beyond 2025, emissions are projected to gradually decline to 18.93-19.04 Mt CO2 eq by 2035 (Environmental Protection Agency, 2015).

Current agricultural policy envisages the Irish dairy herd expanding by 21% between 2013 and 2020, with a further increase of 17% between 2020 and 2035. Over the same period, the beef herd is expected to decline.

Enteric fermentation accounts for 55% of current agricultural emissions. Soils and indirect emissions account for 30%, while manure management and energy use in agriculture account for 9% and 4% respectively). The remaining 2% comes from lime and urea applications (EPA 2015).

These figures exclude emissions arising from manufacture and importation of fertilisers or from the production and importation of animal feed.  In 2014 Ireland’s agriculture sector imported 1.4Mt of NPK fertilisers, used of 0.89 Mt of ground limestone and imported of 3 Mt of animal feed (Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine 2015).

Emissions attributable to production of fertiliser and imported animal feed (but excluded from emissions attributed to agriculture in official data)

Wood and Cowrie (2004) found the emissions involved in the manufacture of nitrogen fertiliser to be 0.9-2.9 tCO2eq per tN fertiliser product. As nitrogen fertilisers form the bulk of fertiliser imports into Ireland (data from DAFM 2015) the annual emissions cost of  fertilisers imported into Ireland is estimated to be 1-3 Mt CO2eq.

The emissions cost of lime is estimated at 1.01-1.57t CO2 per tonne of lime produced (Stork et al 2014). Although much of the lime used on Irish farms is manufactured in Ireland, the emissions of production are not  included in the agricultural emissions inventory but attributed to industry instead. Factoring the additional transportation emissions, the production and supply of lime adds approximately 1-1.5 Mt CO2 to the annual emissions cost of Irish agriculture.

Regarding the emissions cost of imported feed, a study of soybean meal by Dalgaard et al (2008), found emissions to be 0.34-0.72 kg CO2 eq per kg feed. Assuming similar emissions costs for other feed, Ireland’s external emissions for animal feed would amount to approximately 1-2 Mt CO2 eq. Together, the imported feed and fertiliser add 3-6.5 Mt CO2eq to the emissions cost of Irish agriculture (equivalent to an additional 15-32.5% of emissions).¹

¹Food security in Ireland: Climate change impacts, adaptation and mitigation within the livestock sector and options for improved food security outcomes, Andi Wilson 2016 (full paper here)


Other pertinent facts

1 Ireland currently imports approximately 75-80 percent of the food it eats.

2 Ireland produces three times more lamb than it can eat, six times more dairy produce and ten times more beef. Around seventy five percent of all agricultural land is used to serve export markets.

3 The contemporary Irish diet includes approx 88kg of meat per annum, ranking Ireland about twentieth in the world in terms of meat consumption.¹

4 The quantity of protein (from all sources: meat, dairy, grain and other foods) in the Irish diet is 110g per day, more than 40 percent higher than the world average (77g)

5 Irish government agricultural subsidies/direct payments amount to approximately €1.6 billion per annum

6 Indirect state subsidies to agriculture in the form of reduced VAT, capital tax reliefs, stamp duty reliefs and fuel tax exemptions amount to a further €0.5 billion per annum (estimate).

7 EU CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) subsidies to Irish agriculture amount to approximately €1.5 billion per annum

¹ Average life expectancy in Ireland is 81 years. The quantity of meat consumed per head in Ireland is twice the quantity consumed in Japan where average life expectancy is four years higher than in Ireland. Irish meat intake is three to four times of that of many countries and twenty times the per capita meat consumption in India. High meat intake does not necessarily mean increased life expectancy: In Mongolia meat intake is similar to Ireland but average life expectancy (67 years) is comparable to India (66 years). Mostly, higher life expectancy reflects greater wealth and/or better healthcare and living conditions, not access to meat. Source of data: FAO

Studies of vegetarians who have access to a wholesome balanced diet have not demonstrated any detrimental effect either in health or life expectancy. If anything the opposite is true. One investigation carried out by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition of six different studies of diet and life expectancy found a 3.6 year increase in life expectancy among long term vegetarians. However, other lifestyle factors may have been involved, for example it may be the case that vegetarians are also more health conscious.

²Figures for some other countries as follows: Iceland 133g; Japan 92g; Cuba 80g; Slovakia 73g; Mongolia 72g; India 56g; Liberia 36g. The FAO recommends that the minimum average protein requirement is 44g per day. Source: FAO

Carbon footprint of different foods (kg CO2 equivalent per kg edible protein produced)¹

Beef (EU average) 150
Beef (Ireland/Canada)²
Milk (Canada)
Eggs (Canada)
Wheat (Canada)
Potatoes (Canada)
Pulses (Canada)
Hazelnuts (Italy)

¹ Figures for intensive production using artificial fertilisers. Less intensive production methods may lead to reduced carbon footprints. In the case of sustainably produced hazelnuts, it would be possible to achieve a negative carbon footprint (more carbon sequested in the soil and trees then emitted in nut production). Figures are for production only and exclude the carbon footprint associated with transportation, processing and retailing.

² The C02 footprints for Irish and Canadian beef are broadly similar. This can be assumed to be the case for eggs and potatoes. The milk figure for Ireland is probably lower than for Canada owing to higher proportion of grass in the diet whereas the figures for wheat and pulses may be higher as a result of higher moisture levels in the harvested crop.

Primary source of information (including CO2 footprint of beef production in EU countries): Carbon Footprint of Agricultural Products - A Measure of the Impact of Agricultural Production on Climate Change Desjardins, R.L. Worth, D.E., Vergé, X.P.C., VanderZaag, A., Janzen, H., Kroebel, R., Maxime, D. Smith, W., Grant, B., Pattey, E., and Dyer, J.A. (2014)

Source of information for hazelnuts: Carbon Footprint of Tree Nuts Based Consumer Products, Roberto Volpe, Simona Messineo, Maurizio Volpe and Antonio Messineo (2015) . The figures were derived from an earlier study in California: A comparative assessment of greenhouse gas emissions in California almond, pistachio, walnut and production. Marvinney, E.; Kendall, A.; Brodt, S. (2014). It was assumed production carbon costs and sequested carbon would be broadly similar for hazelnuts as the 3 nuts examined in the California study. The scenario in the Italian study assumed partial use of the shells as fuel (for fossil fuel substitution) which is common practice in southern Italy . The original study considered two scenarios: Business as Usual and Maximum Energy Production (maximum energy recovery from biomass waste). In the latter scenario negative carbon footprints were demonstrated for all three nuts. Irrigation and the use of artificial fertiliser accounted for approximately 60% of total emissions.

So in summary, it costs 4-7 times in greenhouse gas emissions to produce protein from industrial egg production as from potatoes, grain or nuts, 7-11 times as much to produce it in dairy products, and up to 40 times as much to produce it in meat. There is simply no credible argument for trying to maintain a livestock based diet.


Assumptions for Ireland 2060

1 Population is 6 million, with an age demographic similar to 2019, or slightly older

2 The land available for agricultural purposes is broadly similar to that in 2019

3 The climate, both in Ireland and in other food producing regions has changed in line with current global warming predictions

4 Energy imports have fallen to very low levels (owing to collapsing supply/unaffordability)

5 Food and animal food imports have practically ceased

6 Artificial fertiliser imports have ceased

7 Irish agriculture has to be self sufficient in energy. In other words, the energy/fuel required for food production and distribution must be provided by crops (for example grain or oilseed rape).

8 Irish agriculture also has to provide some or all the fuel required for other essential transport services

9 Average per capita protein intake is 77g per day (the current world average)

10 Average per capita food calorie intake is in line with current FAO recommendations

How will agriculture rise to the challenges ahead? Many different scenarios are possible. Business as usual could continue until forced to change by diminishing availability of imported energy, artificial fertiliser or animal feedstocks, or perhaps by a more pressing need to feed the Irish population because food imports have dried up. Unfortunately, a strategy waiting until something goes badly wrong would not lead to a good outcome: many of the required changes will take decades to fully come on stream and will not be achievable during crisis conditions.

Or alternatively we could plan ahead and start to make changes in agriculture now.


Our objective

To reconfigure Irish agriculture to deliver a diverse, nutritious, wholesome and ecologically sustainable diet that will feed the population of Ireland, and specifically:

1 Carbon neutrality (zero net emissions from agriculture) by 2030

2 80% self sufficiency in staple foods by 2035 (with clear intermediate targets for each 5 year period prior to that)

3 100% self sufficiency in staple foods by 2060

Programme for Action

This assumes we are advisers to the government, and the government is suffiently enlightened and empowered to implement the recommendations given!

1 Commissioning of Land Resource Audit

Objective: To quantify all land in terms of its potential contribution to food security. The first part of this task would entail classifying land according to its potential for all conceivable food outputs, for example: high carbohydrate tillage crops, high protein tillage crops, oil producing tillage crops, tree fruit, nuts (here a separate rating should be given for each species), beef, mutton, pork, fowl, dairy plus all non-food agricultural outputs deemed as important.

Although this might seem ambitious, even far fetched, in actual fact almost all the necessary information can be extrapolated from existing land classification data, past and present land usage data, climate data, soil and topographical maps, and would be well within the capability of a small dedicated research team, perhaps supported by a state body such as Teagasc.

The second part would involve matching specific crops/outputs to specific classes of land, and allocating a given acreage for each of these outputs. Given the large number of variables, a number of different scenarios could be presented, including one - if the land resource permitted this - that allowed for a modest degree of agricultural export (to help finance essental imports).

Timetable: To commence as soon as parameters are properly clarified

Time to completion: 6-9 months

Cost: Minisule, when compared to the current annual budget of the Department of Agriculture, which in 2019 is €1.6 billion. Irish agriculture also receives a further €1.2 billion per annum from the EU.


Working example 1

Protein and calorific output per hectare; beef versus cobnuts (hazelnuts)

It takes approximately 1 ha (hectare) of land to raise 1 beef cow. This figure varies according to many factors for example the breed and age of animal, the climate, number of days housed per year and whether animal is fed grass, or with silage, grain or other feedstuffs produced on land elsewhere. For the purposes of this exercise we will take 1 ha as being representative.

Beef Cow Cobnut (hazelnut)
Cows per ha
Trees per ha

Weight gain per annum kg

Yield per annum kg (modest¹)

Hot carcass gain kg (60% of weight gain)

Shelled weight kg

Usable meat kg (40% of weight gain)


Protein kg/ha/yr (26% of edible portion)

Protein kg/ha/yr (15%)
Calories 000s/ha/yr (2500 Cal/kg)
Calories 000s/ ha/yr (6250 Cal/kg)

¹ Much higher yields are achievable

From the table above we can see that land used for cobnuts can produce twice the protein output and eight and a half times the calorific output of land used for beef (and this is without considering additional outputs from the cobnut orchard if used for occasional low density grazing of livestock).


Working example 2

Protein and calories from tillage crops

  Potatoes Wheat Oats

Faba Beans (dry weight)

Ave annual yield (6 year rotation)¹
Yield (t/ha)
Protein (%)
Calories (per kg)
Protein (kg/ha)
Calories (000s/ha)

¹ 1 year of each of the listed crops plus two years of green manures

² Yield adjusted to moisture content of 13%

Working example 3

Comparative protein and calories from livestock, nuts and tillage crops

  Beef Cow Cobnuts Tillage Crops (6yr rotation) ¹
Protein (kg/ha/yr)
Calories (000s/ha/yr)

¹ 1 year each of potatoes, wheat, oats and faba beans plus two years of green manures

From this table it will be clear that in terms of both protein and calorific output, tillage crops are vastly superior to either nuts or livestock. However, nut crops would have an important role on land difficult or impossible for tillage (for example land unsuited to machinery) and also as a carbon sequestrator, as well as providing additional crop diversity and insurance against poor tillage harvests. Livestock would continue to serve a useful nutrient recycling role in mixed arable farming, albeit in massively reduced numbers, in agroforestry systems in combination with timber, nut production and in low density grazing on marginal land unsuited to both tillage and nut crops.


2 Drawing up schedule for implementation

By necessity, implementation would have to be phased over several decades. Firstly, Irish agriculture as currently configured cannot suddenly be switched over to something else. The reducing of stock numbers to sustainable levels will take (at best) 10-12 years. Secondly, a new sustainable agriculture will require new players, new skillsets, new knowledge: things that require wholesale changes in the how food security is perceived and in particular in the role of education as a tool for achieving these aims. Such things will not happen overnight. Moreover, the precise end destination in terms of the mix of crops, livestock and other land uses is unknowable at this point in time, and will be guided/informed by the unfolding situation as regards climate change and also by on-going research on the ground.

A further consideration is the long the lead time to developing key aspects of the new agriculture - for example the propagation and establishment of millions of nut trees, which eventually could contribute more than 10% of the staple diet.

Tree Crops and Food Security

Nut and Fruit Assessment

Unlike forestry species, which are largely propagated from seed or cutting, many nut yielding trees are propagated by stooling or grafting, which takes longer and requires more infrastrucure, a greater degree of expertise and more hands-on skills. At present, a few thousand nut trees are planted in Ireland each year. Over the next two decades, this needs to be ramped up to hundreds of thousands.

With appropriate state supports, an implementation period of 20 years is achievable. An the end of this period, the majority of the necessary infrastructure would be in place. This would include the establishment of tens of thousands of hectares of nut orchards.

Although such changes might seem far fetched, they are not much different in scale from numerous other transformations that have occured in agriculture during the previous 150 years. The transition from horse powered agriculture to tractors took less than one generation. Even more dramatic (and far reaching) perhaps has been the consolidation during the tractor era of land and wealth in the hands of industrial scale agricultural enterprises, at the expense of the small farmers, and the new dominance of the dairy and beef industries. More recently still has been the arrival of all year round animal housing and feedlot meat production (which in only one decade has risen from nothing to now comprising ten percent of all beef produced in Ireland). None of the changes occuring in the last 40 years can be regarded as accidental, but the direct result of often well-meaning but short termist economic and agricultural policies, boosted with generous grants and subsidies.

Cuba is often quoted as evidence that agricultural production can be reconfigured in a very short period of time. During the Special Period, when highly mechanised and oil dependent system of agriculture, which was also bolstered by food imports from the Soviet Union, had to be transformed into a self sustaining and self sufficient one following the collapse and break up of the USSR. Essentially Cuba put food production on the equivalent of a war footing. Much of agriculture returned to being manual. Only essential food crops were grown. Livestock was slaughtered and eaten, and not replaced. A meat loving country became vegetarian overnight. It wasn't pretty - millions of people came very close to starving and the average Cuban citizen lost one third of their body weight - but the strategy succeeded in keeping Cuba's population alive. However, this is not much of a model for surviving climate change. Also, Cuba's sub tropical climate is capable of producing 3 crops per year, and the potential to ramp up output of food staples quickly was far greater than countries with cooler climates.

3 Agriculture and Land reform

This would be an essential pillar of implementation. Among the measures needed would be the following:

1 Phasing out of all state agricultural subsidies that do not have a clearly defined food security benefit. Ideally all EU agricultural subsidies that do not meet this criteria would be phased out too.

2 Introduction of a land value tax

Taken together, these measures would swiftly end the hoarding of land resources solely for subsidies or for land speculative purposes. It would return the price of agricultural land back into the real world and would free up underutilised land for new entrants into agriculture, younger people with new ideas and a new vision of where agriculture needs to go.

The rate of tax on land would need to be sufficiently high to discourage hoarding or speculation (perhaps 2-3%). In Denmark, land is taxed at 1.6-3.4% of its value, while in Estonia it is taxed at various rates up to 2.5%. In both cases the revenue goes to fund local government.

Other recommended measures include the following:

3 Introduction of a carbon tax on agricultural products. The carbon assessment would take into consideration not just the carbon emissions occuring in Ireland but also the external carbon footprint of imported feedstuffs and fertilisers, thereby penalising the most heavily the least sustainable agricultural practices.

4 Parachute subsidy scheme of up to 20 years in duration for younger farmers wishing to transition to sustainable farming. Such a scheme would have to be carefully monitored.

5 Buy-out scheme for existing farmers wishing to get out of agriculture. This would help free up land for a dynamic new generation of farmers, and would take the form of offering a guaranteed minimum price for land (perhaps one third of current market prices). Such a scheme would help avoid a complete collapse in the price of land which although seemingly attractive for new entrants, would also attract speculative vultures too.

6 Generous supports for new entrants who embrace the new agricultural vision

7 Compulsory purchase of all derelict land by local authorities and reallocation for food security purposes (the legal means to do this already exists)


4 Education system fit for purpose

Adapting to climate change will require a new mindset, something akin to being on a permanent war footing. And to help implement that, the education system will need to be completely reconfigured, with priority given to food and energy security, and a secondary role allocated to everything else.

Over the top? Not really. When imported food supplies begin to dry up as a consequence of climate change caused crop failure, it will be 20 years too late to develop alternative supply chains on the scale required at home.

Some of the requirements of a climate change configured education system are listed below:

1 Horticulture/agriculture and climate change studies to be taught as mandatory subjects in schools, with considerable emphasis on practical skills

2 Substantial recruitment of new teachers posessing the appropriate knowledge of agriculture/horticulture and climate change science

3 Immediate establishment of food security focused third level courses to train up the new generation of education professionals

4 Schools (and all post-leaving certificate or third level courses covering horticulture or agriculture) to adopt a new calendar of 4 terms/semesters of equal length, each approximating to a season. Thus the long summer break (which is completely incompatible with any food production objectives) would become the new summer term and the school holidays would take the form of 4 shorter holiday periods between the terms.

The menu above should be considered the minimum requirements.


Individual initiatives towards developing a culture of nut growing in Ireland

These should be considered as independent to anything the government of the day may or may not do. Also, in many cases individual initiatives could serve a pioneering role and bring about change in government policy by good practice and example. Equally importantly, such initiatives are empowering (whereas government actions may favour certain privileged groups and actually disempower anyone outside of those circles).

One of the most frequent questions the nursery receives from people enquiring about growing nut crops (and also from participants at the annual nut growers workshop at the Regan Nut Farm in North County Dublin) is, 'is there a grant for it?'

Unfortunately, grants are a double edged tool. Although they might help new participants in agriculture gain a foothold, there is also the risk they stifle initiative by creating dependency, or contaminate the sector by attracting players who are only in it for the perceived easy money. If I'd waited for grant support before embarking on research into nut growing, a decade of vital hands-on experience would never have begun (and I'd still be waiting!). My advice to any person looking to be part of the Ireland's future agriculture: get started now!

Hands-on time

Most horticultural principles and practices are applicable to a wide selection of plants. For example, skills and environmental requirements for growing nuts are almost identical to those for growing fruit. Even growing vegetables - seemingly very different from tree crops - will confer knowledge and experience useful for those growing nut species which are raised from seed. Here I must mention the concept of 'mastery', which is the threshhold beyond which the practioner might feel they are no longer a beginner. Opinions vary as to how many hours of dedicated practice constitute 'mastery' but a widely accepted figure is 10,000 hours (roughly the equivalent of a 5 year apprenticeship). However, the actual number of hours is somewhat arbitrary: the more important point is that the only hours that truely count are those done diligently and mindfully. Get those hours in!

Work experience, volunteering and interning

These activities may provide an excellent opportunity to benefit from the skills and knowledge of existing horticultural practitioners. Although not always possible, it's good to identify some of the desired learning outcomes in advance (for example if the objective is to learn about nutrient cycles, a good work experience placement would be with a practioner who attempts to minimise nutrient imports from off site).

Acquiring information and networking

Even if other commitments or lack of opportunities mitigate against hands-on activities, there are still opportunities to acquire knowledge via books and the internet. The intending practioner of sustainable agriculture can familiarise themselves with the various species/breeds/varieties, learn about micro-climates, soils and nutrients, and become familiar with the terminology of the different systems of agriculture practised. Such information never goes to waste!

Top tip: don't believe everything found on the internet - learn how to distinguish between fact and fantasy (a well tried and tested way to approach this is to look for the weakest leak: narratives or 'facts' that seem too good to be true. Such misinformation is usually easily refuted elsewhere. Once non-truths are identified, all other statements by the same author can be regarded as suspect.

Network with other people and make the journey towards greater knowledge together. Never be afraid or embarrassed to admit you don't know something. No one knows everything! Even after a lifetime of working with plants, there is scarcely a day when I don't learn something new.

Training and workshops

Workshops and one day introductory courses covering many aspects of sustainable agriculture/horticulure take place at many venues around Ireland.

Although training opportunities specific to nut growing are very limited at present, hopefully this will gradually improve over time. Fruit and Nut nursery holds a one day nut growers' workshop - aimed specifically at novices and intending growers - on the last saturday in August each year.

Establishment of orchards

Modestly sized nut orchards intended for home use are not hard to maintain and can be accommodated in as little as half an acre of land. They are also an invaluable educational tool for anyone considering planting nut trees on a larger scale.

Trialling and experimental work

The only way to find out what will succeed and what won't, and where our environmental/climatic limits lie, is to trial all the potential candidates/methodologies. For anyone already with some practical experience working with nut trees and who can commit to years of dedicated observation and data gathering, this might be considered the next level: become a researcher and contribute something to the nut growers of the future! Or if you don't have access to land and don't want the long term tie, consider signing up as a volunteer with someone already involved in this work.

And lastly...

Cut your carbon footprint by drastically reduce your dietary intake of animal products! In particular target products produced with artificial fertiliser and/or imported feedstuffs. Reduce demand and help force unsustainable practices to end. For those who would still like to occasionally eat meat or dairy products, support local producers who raise their stock by sustainable methods; treat livestock products as a dietary luxury (or optional extra) complementing grains, pulses and vegetables (and when we have them, locally produced nuts!).


Further ideas will be added in the near future. All figures provided are drawn from peer reviewed or official sources and are fully verifiable. Unless indicated otherwise, the opinions and conclusions presented are entirely my own. Apologies in advance for any typos! Andi

PS Feedback and constructive criticism appreciated! One comment already received is that the information is very dense and not easy to follow. As a result several paragraphs have been rewritten, and abbreviations better explained. There is always room for further explanation and clarity so do let me know.

PPS Anyone interested in helping with developing a coherent vision of Irish agriculture's role in a climate changed future - either hands-on, in research or setting up demonstration projects, or in assisting with dissemination of information to a wider audience - please get in touch. In particular I would like to produce a longer and more detailed discussion document on food security and the required transformation of Irish agriculture that expands on the thoughts outlined above. Global warming is now a planetary emergency and the time for tokenism and pretence has long passed: it's time to act.