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Sustainable Agriculture in Ireland: Origin Green

After acquiring a master's degree in sustainability, Sustainable Sue worked & now writes to help create change in U.S. business practices.

Ireland's rolling grass meadows are perfect for raising healthy meat and dairy animals.

Ireland's rolling grass meadows are perfect for raising healthy meat and dairy animals.

An Unprecedented Environmental Program

Can you imagine a country that wholly accepts responsibility for producing goods in an environmentally friendly way? Ireland is that country; the first of its kind. Its new sustainability program is already changing the country's reputation in Europe from exporting commodity food and drink products to exporting premium, healthy foods that buyers are willing to pay extra for. And it's reducing the country's carbon footprint at the same time. Where Ireland already had a reputation for being "green," now it has one for being sustainable and organic as well.

All this is due to a program launched by Bord Bia in 2012 called Origin Green. This article shows how the Origin Green program works, and how it has benefitted Ireland's local farmers, and food and drink manufacturers.

Board Bia's Origin Green Program

Bord Bia is Ireland's agricultural exports and promotion entity. Based in Dublin, it has eleven other branches in Europe, the Middle East, and China - regions to which it exports food. Although Ireland is best known for its beef and Guinness, it also produces 50% of the world's cream liqueurs and 10% of its baby formulas.

Origin Green was launched in 2012 in the middle of an economic depression. Food exports immediately started increasing. The following year Bord Bia exported food to 175 countries worldwide and sales reached $11.5 billion (10 billion euros) for the first time ever.

Bord Bia developed the Origin Green program to provide tools for the country's entire food and drink industry to go sustainable—to increase the health of its products and the efficiency with which they are produced. The benefits of the program are multiple:

  • Preserves and wisely utilizes Ireland's natural environment and rich soils.
  • Reduces Ireland's carbon footprint.
  • Helps feed an increasingly hungry world with food that is healthy.
  • Increases food exports to counteract the downturn in Ireland's economy.
  • Helps local growers and manufacturers reduce costs and increase profit margins.

The Origin Green program works with its participants to audit and streamline their current production processes. Adding to already existing sustainability data from former work with the cattle production sector, the board started collecting data for all the other sectors too. With it, they developed a sustainability blueprint for each sector and section of the country, so that program participants could compare their own practices with the model and know what to improve. Then they started promoting the program.

The profiles below show how well the program is working so far . . . but first, what is sustainability anyway?

Definition of Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable agriculture requires that high-quality food, drink, and floral products be grown in the following way:

  • Production methods are efficient, utilizing all resources wisely and wasting nothing.
  • The natural environment's health and biodiversity are protected and maintained, even improved where possible.
  • Farmers benefit from increased networking opportunities and their work is paid well.
  • The health and well-being of employees and their local communities are taken seriously.
  • All animals and crops are grown in a way that is healthy and safe for them.

Any good sustainability program takes all of these factors into account. They are all built into Bord Bia's Origin Green program.

How the Origin Green Program Works

When a participant signs onto the Origin Green program, they can expect to take the following steps: Register, host an initial audit, develop a sustainability plan, take action on targets, hold verification audits, and work with the board to promote products and sales.

Simply put, all participants in the Origin Green program develop sustainability plans, then are audited every 18 months to see how they're doing. So far over 70,000 farms have had carbon footprint assessments, 90% of all beef growers are actively participating, all of the nation's dairy farms are undergoing first audits (over 18,000 enterprises), and 372 manufacturers have registered.

The audits are key. Bord Bia's professional auditors and the participants walk the grounds together (see dairy section below) and send back data using handheld devices. The data is automatically added to Origin Green's database, then compared with figures already gathered to find ways of improving current practices. Together they look at such factors as:

  • Carbon footprint
  • Waste management
  • Traceability
  • Biodiversity
  • Feed consumption
  • Daily weight gain or output levels
  • Fertilizer and nitrogen use
  • Energy and water management

The results of this program have been nothing short of amazing. While reducing their carbon footprint, and water and energy use, the quality and quantity of farm and factory output have jumped. Here are several examples of how the program has affected its participants.

Ireland's weather produces healthy grasslands naturally, perfect for raising grass-fed animals like beef, dairy cows, and sheep.

Ireland's weather produces healthy grasslands naturally, perfect for raising grass-fed animals like beef, dairy cows, and sheep.

Sustainable Meat Production: Grass Fed Beef

John Power has been working his cattle farm in County Warford, Ireland for 45 years. He traces back five generations and possibly further that his family has worked the land. He has a passion for what he does.

When John started working with Bord Bia to improve his production, McDonald's Europe contacted him to become a flagship farm for them. McDonald's requires that their producers grow beef in an ethical, environmentally friendly, and economically viable way.

With their guidance added to Bord Bia's, John now gets maximum production from every acre, raising his beef as near to nature's way as possible, with full traceability. Using the calculations tools Origin Green provides, he can produce viable figures of his farm's sustainability, fully accredited, to prove how well it's working.

John also works closely with Board Bia to get the message out to the world that a grower can get maximum production out of every acre of land, while still preserving the environment. The video above right shows the incredible condition his cattle are in. They're heavy and fit with hides that are shiny and eyes that are clear. John says he would never sell anything that he would not consume himself, which bodes well for anyone eating a McDonald's burger in Europe.

Sustainable Dairy Production

The table and video below show the actual process an Origin Green auditor goes through when auditing a participant. This dairy farmer, Brian Daniel of Kilkenny, prepared ahead of time for almost five hours. The audit is detailed and comprehensive, usually lasting two to three hours, starting with a run-through of what will happen and the participant signing permission.

Origin Green Dairy Farm Audit Components

All farms and food/drink manufacturers are checked thoroughly when Bord Bia conducts an audit. Auditors leave a list of infractions and their relative importance with the participant.

Object AuditedInspection Targets

Dairy room

Clean milk tank with proper temperature & sealing. No spiders, flies, bird droppings to contaminate milk. Updated medicines.

Milking parlor

No residue on milking lines and tubes. Clean floor with no water pooling. Lids on feed boxes.

Calving boxes, calf and cubicle sheds

Adequate lighting, cleanliness, functioning water troughs. No sharp projections that could cut cows or calves.


Registration tags on cows, no docked tails, general health & cleanliness. Working water troughs. Protective fencing.

Livestock trailers

Clean, well maintained. Strong, functional ramps.

Isolation pen

Plenty of air space, with separate feeding area. Special tank for effluent collection.


Accurate, up-to-date record keeping, incl. herd counts & medical records. First aid kit. Farmer inputs data re. use of resources to OG website.

Sustainable Crop Production

With its sustainability program, Bord Bia encourages the growth of crops that best fit Ireland's weather and soil conditions. Because the country is well suited to grow cool season crops, blueberries are a special favorite. When Ireland has a cold snap that devastates warmer weather crops, blueberries thrive. They end up larger, sweeter, and juicier than most imported varieties. Ireland currently produces over $23 million worth of blueberries.

The crop producers below grow other cool-weather crops. Here is how Origin Green helps them thrive:

  • Jim Hoey—Hoey Farms in Lusk, North County, Dublin
    This farm produces mainly cabbage—six different kinds. They also grow kale, wheat, and potatoes. Working with Bord Bia enabled them to increase the health and yield of all crops. They tested the soils, available sunlight, water, and other resources, ran the data through Origin Green's calculations, and modified their practices accordingly.
  • Philip Draper—Coolnagrower Organic Farm, Birr, County Offaly
    This 250-acre farm went fully organic in 1994. They grow 120 acres of vegetables like carrots, turnips, beets, leeks, onions, and potatoes. They sell 90% of their vegetables to supermarkets. Farmers' markets and box sales take the rest. Origin Green helped them with better ways to prevent disease and improve the health of the soil, so they didn't have to use synthetic fertilizers or insecticides.
To crop farmers, Origin Green especially promotes cool-season fruits and vegetables, which thrive in the country's rich soils and cooler weather.

To crop farmers, Origin Green especially promotes cool-season fruits and vegetables, which thrive in the country's rich soils and cooler weather.

Ireland's Food & Drink Manufacturing Sector

Many of Ireland's food and drink manufacturers are small companies that started out making and selling products from their own farms. The experiences of the following three are typical of this sector's improvement in working with Origin Green:

  • Daniel Emerson—Stonewell Cider
    Origin Green gave this cider maker a method for quantifying his environmental footprint, then going beyond it. Bord Bia hand-walked Daniel through the assessment process identified key areas to work on and provided extra support for accreditation. With those credentials, Daniel safely promotes his goods overseas to markets worried about the industry's environmental impact.
  • Tom Keogh—Keogh's Potatoes & Crisps
    Working with Origin Green helped Tom increase exports. The relatively rigorous evaluation process also enabled him to cut costs by finding a way to wash potatoes that reduced the amount of water used. Tom believes it's important that Ireland's image as "Green Ireland" be preserved so that buyers know where to go to get healthy food.
  • Breda Maher—Cooleney Farmhouse Cheese
    This small company lacked marketing expertise, so Origin Green's services in marketing its products overseas were a big benefit. The accreditation process took a lot more time than Breda expected but was worth it. Her whole team now has a heightened awareness of costs and efficiency. They reduced their energy use, which was a huge cost savings, and also generated savings with better waste management.

Other small manufacturers note that Origin Green helps them find more sustainable technologies to process their food with. They appreciate the quick and efficient communication and support offered by the program, where consultants help them set targets, and provide training and suggestions for what to work on next. Companies are able to cut back on energy and water use in production and packaging processes.

They also like using the Origin Green label to promote their products overseas. It has great credibility, which is key to marketing products successfully. One manufacturer mentioned how important it is that Ireland can provide high-quality food and drinks, grown sustainably, to regions like the Middle East, which imports 99% of its food.

We did not inherit this world from our parents.

We borrowed it from our children.

One day we will return it to them.

When we do, it should be every bit as bountiful

As it was when we found it.

— Saoirse Ronan, borrowing from Native American tradition

Promoting Sustainability Locally

Ireland is not the only place where food can be produced sustainably. Does your area? What can you do to promote sustainably produced food and drink in your area?

  • Send the link to this article to your state or county representative and encourage them to develop a similar program.
  • Look to see if your local government offers assistance for farmers to grow crops and animals sustainably. If not, suggest it to your local politician.
  • Look for local farmer's markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) where you can buy healthy food and flowers. Alternatively, ask local grocery stores if they offer locally grown food. Spread the word.
  • Grow your own produce, eggs, rabbits, or whatever you have room and time for.

The more sustainably food is grown, the better off the world will be. Disease abounds where food is unhealthy, which hurts everyone. People who feel bad complain a lot, make their lives worse, and sometimes get violent. Environmentally poor areas, like the Middle East, that can't grow their own healthy food, also get violent.

Areas that have plenty of good, healthy food, on the other hand, are generally peaceful and good places to live. With your help and caring government entities like Ireland's Bord Bia, we all can help the rest of the world move in that direction, as well. What can you do?

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.