Five Degrees of Change

Alan Matthews: Changing our eating habits can make a huge difference to the environment

The former professor of European Agricultural Policy in Trinity College Dublin tells the Five Degrees of Change podcast the policy and personal changes he believes are needed to protect the environment

Alan Matthews, the former professor of European Agricultural Policy in Trinity College Dublin

Despite now being retired and based in Denmark, Alan Matthews is still one of the most relevant and informed voices on the economics of Irish agriculture, and the green transition the sector is facing.

As a professor of European agricultural policy in Trinity College Dublin for many years, Matthews taught many of the leading voices on agricultural economics in Ireland today.

As part of Five Degrees of Change, the Business Post’s energy and environment podcast sponsored by PwC, Matthews gave his three policy changes and two personal changes for a greener world.

POLICY: Tackle the climate challenge in Irish agriculture

As the largest sector for greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland, the agricultural climate challenge is steep, according to Matthews. His proposal is to focus on three factors: information, innovation, and incentives.

“In terms of information, we need to give farmers the tools to measure their carbon footprint, both their emissions, but also the sequestering of carbon in soils or other biomass such a hedgerows,” he said.

“The second is innovation, because we need to be able to offer farmers tools they can use to manage their carbon footprint and reduce their emissions. We simply haven’t focused sufficiently on innovation to date.

“The third is to do with incentives, because unless we send a signal to farmers that they need to take emissions into account in their farm planning and their cost calculates, then we won’t get the uptake…I would favour integrating agricultural and land emissions into some sort of trading mechanism, because we see how effective that has been at driving down emissions in the industrial sector.”

This third point is the most critical, as it a way of both simultaneously putting a cost on carbon in agriculture sector, and creating a market for carbon sequestration that could see new income streams for farmers.

PERSONAL: Eating more vegetarian meals

Matthews believes he has been fortunate in the sustainable habits he has been able to develop in life.

While working in Trinity, he found it was easy to cycle or use public transport to the very well-connected campus, while now in Copenhagen he doesn’t have to own a car due to the quality of public infrastructure.

“So instead I am deliberately trying to reduce my consumption of meat and to learn how to cook with vegetarian dishes,” he said.

“I find I am more likely to look to alternative cuisines. If you want to have non-meat dishes, it often makes sense to have Thai, or Indian, or Italian pasta. I prefer that to the alternative proteins, as they are called, these alternative meat and dairy products. I think they will play a role in the future, but for me I prefer the more natural approach.”

Far from virtue signalling, Matthews believes if enough people made the personal choice to reduce meat in their diet, it would have a very real impact on the environment.

“It is hugely important that we accompany changes on the food production side with changes on the food consumption side. It is one of the challenges for Ireland, because so much of our food is actually exported off the island. So even if we as a population were to make changes in our consumption habits, it wouldn’t directly impact on our own farmers production.”

POLICY: Use the next Common Agricultural Policy to incentivise sustainable agriculture

The Common Agricultural Policy (Cap) is the EU’s subsidy system for food production across Europe, based primarily on the volume of land a farmer owns. Increasingly, new conditions are being included with the lifeline subsidies for farmers, to take account of nature and climate.

But Matthews believes that when the next Cap comes around in 2028, it needs to be properly reformed to incentivise fully sustainable agriculture.

“Rather than just making a payment as an area based payment, we should link it more to the outcomes that we want farmers to produce,” Matthews said.

As the largest subsidy programme in the EU, it is clear that the CAP is a giant lever by which we can drive sustainable farming. Matthews also believes that if enough of a focus is put on the environmental sustainability ambitions of the CAP, then there is a good chance of securing a much larger budget next time around.

“We would like to see a larger Cap budget, if it is used to help farmers make changes that the regulations require…In my view that means shifting gradually and definitively away from area based payments and towards more results based payments.”

PERSONAL: Get involved in trying to influence policy change

As an academic, Matthews has tried to use his position, his knowledge and his energy to make a difference to policy around agriculture and the environment.

“My message would be to encourage people to get involved. It is important we make personal changes, but we do need whole of government change too, and that only happens if people get involved politically, whether through parties, or NGOs or at local level,” Matthews said.

The record of agricultural economists on influencing policy is particularly good, according to Matthews, because it is a “very policy-oriented discipline”.

“Because of the trade-offs, it depends on people’s value judgements. We do elect politicians to make these choices. I would be a little bit wary of encouraging a technocratic approach, where we say the experts have all the answers, because there is an important role for values,” he said.

“That is where a citizens’ assembly approach…which tries to understand the values that drive different views, is really important”.

POLICY: Make it easier for consumers to make the more sustainable food choices

The evidence in relation to both the environment and public health suggests that the current structure of the food system for consumers does not sufficiently incentivise healthy or sustainable food choices, according to Matthews.

“One of the issues is the balance between how much responsibility we give to consumers, say through nutrition and sustainability labelling…The difficult there is that consumer choices are made in a context of the food environment, “ he said.

“So if your sweets are placed right next to the check-out counter and you have a unhappy child in tow, there is a huge incentive there to just add a bag of sweets to your shopping basket.

“We need to get to a point where the food environment makes the healthy and sustainable choices the easiest choices for consumers to make.”

Matthews admits that food culture is hard to change, as it is often rooted in our identity. But he thinks changes can take place over time with the right regulation and with responsible marketing from food producers and supermarkets.

“In Denmark, there is among the highest consumption of organic products anywhere. That reflects the fact that there was a deliberate effort by supermarket chains in Denmark to increase the availability of organic products and to make them available at a reasonable price. That was very much supermarket-driven.”