Politicians, people in the agri-food sector and environmentalists face decisions during the first half of 2021 which will determine the future for the next decade and beyond. The main forces shaping that future are already clear: consumers and the major food companies demand sustainably produced food and a clean environment: political decisions such as the European Green Deal (EGD) point in the same direction.

Although the direction of change is clear, the practical policies to implement it remain to be decided. Processes to take these decisions are underway within the EU, UK, Republic of Ireland (ROI) and Northern Ireland (NI). This paper discusses these processes and their timeframes for completion; the agri-environmental challenges shared by ROI and NI; and the opportunities in addressing these challenges.1 

In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Accord were agreed. Since then, there has been a growing recognition of the interconnectedness of policies for food, health and the environment. 

The EGD aims to make the EU the first continent to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. It represents a fundamental political and policy choice and will be central to all other EU policies. The Farm to Fork (F2F) and Biodiversity strategies are integral to the EGD. The detail of how both strategies will be implemented will be decided during 2021. In addition, the EU Commission has identified five ‘Moonshot Missions’ for achievement by 2030, one of which is Soil Health and Food. 

Brexit became a reality on 1st January 2021 and has major implications for the agri-food sector in both the UK and Ireland. The UK will develop its own agriculture/food policy in place of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). New trade deals and tariff arrangements will impact food prices and standards. Future subsidies to UK farmers will be on the basis of ‘Public Payments for Public Goods’. An Advisory Panel chaired by Henry Dimbleby has been developing a National Food Strategy since 2018. Its first report was issued in July 2020 and its second report, due in the first half of 2021, will involve ‘a root and branch review of the food system, the benefits it brings and the harm it does’. The Government has committed to publishing a White Paper six months after the publication of the Strategy. 

In ROI, the 2030 Agri-Food Strategy, along with a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of its recommendations, will be published in early 2021. This will be followed by a two-month public consultation period, after which both documents will be finalised. The 2030 Committee was tasked with ‘outlining a vision required to ensure the economic, environmental and social sustainability of the sector’. Its terms of reference require it to examine three themes, one of which is ‘climate-smart, environmentally sustainable agri-food systems’. 

The Committee has used a ‘food systems approach’ in drawing up the Strategy, specifying an explicit link between policies for the food system, health and the environment. Adopting this approach means that the role and responsibility of each part of the food system – input suppliers, primary producers, processors/ manufacturers, retailers, consumers – in realising the vision for a sustainable food system will be specified. 

In NI, the Executive was re-established in January 2020 on the basis of the ‘New Decade New Approach’ document agreed by the British and Irish governments. A key part of the Executive’s programme is the publication of a Northern Ireland Climate Change Bill and the development of a ‘Green Growth’ Strategy. A public consultation process on the Climate Change Bill was launched in December 2020 and the hope is that the draft Bill will be presented to the Executive in 2021. 

The coincidence of these four processes working in parallel during 2021 is remarkable. They will highlight shared challenges and raise questions as to the scope and political will to cooperate to meet these challenges (For a more detailed discussion on these issues, see my ‘Policies for Agriculture and the Environment on the island of Ireland in the post-Brexit World’. Journal of Cross Border Studies, Volume 15, 2020).

The ROI 2030 Strategy and the NI Green Growth Strategy will reflect the fact that their respective agri-food sectors are under increasing societal pressure to demonstrate their contribution to ambitious national efforts on climate action. The sectors need to adhere to short-term measures to tackle existing problems of water and air quality and loss of biodiversity, within a longer-term vision of reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, and increasing carbon sequestration and on-farm renewable energy. 

Delivering on such measures can be the basis for a new shared vision between the agri-food sector and environmentalists which recognises their commonality of interests, changes the negative narrative that has developed between them in recent years and provides a basis to agree a common future agenda. That agenda should envisage farmers and the sector as being first responders in the climate emergency, ecosystem service providers, producing high quality food, capturing carbon and supporting biodiversity. In the post-COVID world, there needs to be a serious re-valuation of the role that the agri-food and health sectors play in society. 

The outcome of the processes in EU, UK, ROI and NI should provide, by mid-2021, a menu of policy options from which further decisions can be made on what areas of cooperation can deliver the best results. The principles of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) with its three stranded approach – within NI, NI-ROI, and ROI-UK -and the New Decade, New Approach Agreement provide the basis for such cooperation. But the new circumstances of Brexit, including the Ireland/NI Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement, suggest that a fourth strand should be added: the link between tackling certain problems on an all-island basis – reducing emissions, improving soil health – to the major EU policies such as the EGD and the Moonshot Missions. 

A senior EU Commission official, John Bell, Director of Healthy Planet in the DG Research and Innovation, recently outlined a vision of Ireland, North and South, as being ‘The Green Heart of the Green Deal’. At a time when various commemorations are being put in place, can we also look to the future as well as remembering and interpreting the past? Could 2021 be the year when we take up ‘The John Bell Challenge’?.