Charlie McConalogue, Ireland’s minister for agriculture, food and the marine, sees significant synergies between his country and New Zealand as the two nations grapple with many of the same issues.
Speaking on St Patrick’s Day during his week-long visit to NZ, McConalogue said the day is “very much a global celebration, our national day, and it’s something we are very proud of”.
“As part of that, we, as ministers, fan out across the world to engage with Irish communities abroad and to develop and maintain the many friendships we have.”
McConalogue specifically requested to come to NZ “because of the engagement we’ve had over the last few years and the potential that we have in the time ahead, to work particularly closely in the agriculture and food space”.
Historically the two nations have largely been competitors because of their similarities but “our similarities now mean that we are partners in innovation”.
This is particularly true with regard to sustainability and the emissions reductions challenge, he said, noting the two agricultural models are quite similar, given that both are pasture-based.
“A lot of the solutions that we are going to need are common,” he said.
He pointed to an existing joint research initiative, which is being jointly funded by the two countries to the tune of more than €7 million (about $11.9m).
“That’s something we are going to develop and work further on.”
Regarding what the two countries could offer each other he said it was “very balanced and mutually beneficial and we both bring similar attributes to the table”.
Essentially, the goal is to “identify new tools and new technologies that will help us reduce emissions on grass-based production systems”, he said.
“New Zealand is investing significantly on research projects here and we’re investing significantly in projects at home, so it makes sense that we collaborate and invest together.
“It makes sense for us to collaborate in relation to identifying solutions because they’re equally applicable to both countries.”
He said the fact that the countries have alternate seasons also opens doors for year-round research.
McConalogue said a lot of this is being driven by the consumers that “we are all producing for”.
According to him, it’s important that both countries are at the forefront from a sustainability point of view to maximise the value of what farmers do.
Irish farmers, like NZ farmers, are facing cost increases, lower international dairy prices as well as new environmental requirements, putting the sector under pressure.
McConalogue doesn’t see any domestic food security challenges in either country, as Ireland – like NZ – is a highly productive country that exports the bulk of what it produces.
However, he said it’s really important – as significant food-producing nations – that the two countries continue to be productive in terms of producing food.
He also noted global demand for food is only going to rise as the population increases and as climate challenges curtail production in some parts of the world.
“The challenge is going to be to produce that food in a way that has a significantly lower emissions footprint. That’s what we want to achieve.”
He said it is important to be conscious of the impact all of this has on the farming sector itself.
“We are undertaking a significant challenge and a significant need to embrace change,” he said. “It’s a new dimension, that challenge of continuing to be productive from a food point of view, but reducing the emissions footprint of how we do it.”
He said the only way to achieve this is with “everybody pulling the same way on the one rope”.
Against that backdrop, it’s essential the government communicate and engage so everyone is on the same page.
“It’s not an easy process,” he said, but “it’s one we are working very hard in Ireland to achieve”.
He noted it’s easier to generate fear.
“It is easier to make people afraid of the challenge than it is to inspire and give confidence.”
He believes, however, there is a real willingness among farmers to embrace this and that should be acknowledged and their roles respected.
“Too often the focus is on agriculture, too often the finger is being pointed, in an accusatory fashion, and the contribution that is being made and the work that has been done is not acknowledged.”
McConalogue said against that backdrop, there is a need to “dial down the conflict, dial down the heat and focus on the journey and focus on what we are doing”.
It won’t happen overnight but farmers have always been innovative and have always been transformative, he added.
“This is a new innovation and a new transformation [is] required.”