THE SUSTAINABILITY IMPERATIVE

14 May 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The people of our county take great and justifiable pride in the achievements of Monaghan Mushrooms.

It has long been a flagship emblem for the entrepreneurial flair we believe distinguishes us – a company founded in the 1980s by a local businessman, Ronnie Wilson, with a novel idea and the vision and energy to develop it to the optimum, that has gone on to be a global leader as well as a significant local employer.

Monaghan Mushrooms has commanded a position of majesty in the business world for so long now that custom can stale the savouring of its attainments – and it would be easy to regard its acquisition of Origin Green accreditation under an initiative by Bord Bia to foster sustainability practices in the Irish agri-food sector (celebrated at its Tyholland HQ last Thursday and extensively reported this issue) as just another bauble among its glittering crown jewels.

But that would be to profoundly underestimate the honour and the effort that secured it, and to more grievously debase the sustainability philosophy and how, as an imperative rather than an optional endeavour, the Monaghan Mushrooms example in this regard can and should be emulated – not just by other businesses but also by individuals.

Sustainability is one of those buzzwords that has entered the aspirational lexicon of resource-related productivity almost promiscuously in recent times, being widely used and abused in contexts that often bear scant fidelity to its core values.

It was given chastening definition by Bord Bia Chief Executive Aidan Cotter on Thursday, who summed up its challenges as residing in the dilemma of whether the world starved or whether it burned.

Such imagery is what the naysayers in the debates on global warming and greenhouse gases decry as alarmist. Yet it seems to compellingly point to the potential for future catastrophe if the planet cannot solve the problem of feeding a rapidly growing population without despoiling and exhausting its finite resources of energy and materials.

We once swaddled ourselves in the false luxury of regarding this problem as someone else’s, forgetting that the someone else in question was labouring under the same delusion as ourselves.

The consequences of this have become all too clear at a time that some have feared is all too late – although the acceptance of responsibility for redressing the damage of the past by such sectors as this country’s agri-business and food producers, as demonstrated by the commendably wide embrace of the voluntary Origin Green initiative, and the demonstration by companies such as Monaghan Mushrooms that production practices that respect and restore the environment can go hand in hand with efficiency, are heartening indicators that mankind might yet prove a worthy custodian of the planet rather than its ruination.

No user of natural and finite resources can any longer afford not to practice sustainability, proponents of the philosophy insist. Yet the belief that “green” principles can only be applied by conspicuously wealthy concerns that can absorb the additional costs persists and is often cited by businesses of lesser scale as justification for environmentally objectionable practices.

This canard is left nakedly exposed by the Monaghan Mushrooms example – they many have spent considerably on renewable energy sources and rainwater collection systems among other innovations, but they have in the process generated production efficiencies that have rendered such investment prudent and cost-effective. And many of their most effective sustainability measures have been generated not by financial power but by the innovative faculty of the human brain. As the company’s commercial director George Graham stated on Thursday: “It is a matter of applying our intellect and initiative to find solutions.”

That so many practitioners in the Irish agri-food sphere have bought into the Origin Green concept, many of them individual farms and micro-enterprises, suggests that Monaghan Mushrooms’ ability to make their production practices more sustainable while generating savings and efficiencies embodies a precept that holds true for even the smallest of contributors to what remains a keystone of economic development and employment in this country. The example set by the Tyholland company is therefore one not only deserving but demanding emulation.

The response on a voluntary basis to Origin Green also says something very heartening about those among us who continue to make a living from farming directly or from those industries that depend upon agriculture for their raw materials. The instinct to preserve the land and pass it on enhanced to future generations is still strong in the Irish character, giving substance to the perception of our agricultural practices in the wider world as eco-friendly and the source of natural and healthy food products.

Such a perception is vital for the success of Irish agri-exports – and its fragility has been demonstrated often enough in recent times by damaging food “scares” to behove all those who contribute to this dimension of our economic activity to prize sustainable practices as essential rather than optional.

The consumer, too, has an important role to play here – by the exercise of judicious and informed choice in the support of home produced and quality guaranteed products which have come to the marketplace by sustainable means. Where the consumer does not find the information necessary to make such a choice, they should demand it – and our national and European laws should assist them in its obtaining.

Sadly, there are still legislative deficiencies with regard to country of origin labelling, as has been demonstrated by the frustrations of our poultry sector over the proliferation of imported chicken products able because of malformed regulation to sport a spurious badge of Irishness on the shop shelves.

There have been recent indications that the European law-makers are going to at last make fast the loopholes in this area. It’s a pity it has taken so long – the least that Irish poultry producers and other practitioners of sustainability in food production in this country deserve is the support of the political machinery meant to ensure that the habits of industry best practice are encouraged and rewarded rather undermined.

But even if the politicians are still playing catch up, companies like Monaghan Mushrooms are forging ahead with the sustainability imperative, demonstrating that it’s achievable, profitable and a catalyst for innovation. As our own Monaghan Minister Heather Humphreys remarked on Thursday: “The company’s ambitious and pragmatic approach to energy efficiency, sustainability and recycling is one that many other businesses could learn from.”

 

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