The rare cloud-free view of Ireland on the right was captured by NASA's Aqua satellite on October 11, 2010. The image makes it easy to see why Ireland is often referred to as the Emerald Isle: intense green vegetation, primarily grassland, covers most of the country, except for the exposed rock on mountaintops.
Ireland owes the extent of its natural grassland to its moderate temperatures and moist air from the Atlantic Ocean, which gives the country between 750 and 2,000mm of rainfall a year.
This environment is at the heart of Ireland's plans to become a world leader in the production of sustainable food drink.
The grassland gives farmers an eight-month long cattle grazing season, which cuts grain feed use and gives the beef a lower carbon footprint.
Agriculture uses 70% of the world's freshwater supplies so Ireland's rainfall makes its farming highly sustainable. In a recent study by Yale University, the Emerald Isle had 0% of its territory under water stress, compared with the UK's 8% and Australia's dangerously high 46%.
This 0% figure will become increasingly important as, by 2025, two-thirds of the world's population could be living under water stress, according to figures from the United Nations.
Add to this the world's growing population, unpredictable harvests and rising food prices and it's clear we're living in an increasingly resource-threatened world, which is pushing sustainability further up the corporate agenda.
To ensure its country is in a strong position to meet retailers' increasingly stringent targets, the Irish Food Board Bord Bia has launched its Origin Green initiative. This aims to stamp the official mark of sustainability on 75% of Irish food and drink exports by 2014. As Ireland exports 80% of its produce, this is no mean feat.
Aidan Cotter, chief executive of Bord Bia, says: "Origin Green will enable Ireland's food and drink industry to add proof and commitment to its sustainability claims, and provide the evidence retailers and foodservice providers around the world are looking for.
"Food retailers have set out five- to 10-year strategies on the sustainability of their supply chains and are looking to suppliers to see how they can help them achieve targets and demonstrate their sustainability credentials."
Bord Bia researched the corporate strategies of Ireland's major blue chip clients including M&S, Sainsbury, Unilever, McDonalds and Subway. They all confirmed the integration of sustainability into their overall business plans.
M&S led the pack with the launch of Plan A back in 2007 and has since vowed to become the world's most sustainable retailer by 2015. Sainsbury followed with the promise to source all of its key commodities and raw materials sustainably by 2020 while Unilever set the same date for using 100% sustainability of agricultural raw materials. And this is to name but a few.
Clearly, sustainability has come into the mainstream with global brand names proudly proclaiming their sustainable status. But it's not enough to declare it. It has to be proven too.
That's why Bord Bia has worked with third parties such as the UK's Carbon Trust and Cranfield University to put the infrastructure in place to gather data and develop independently assessed models of accreditation. Now the Irish food industry from farmers to processors, packagers and distributors can put the weight of proof behind its Origin Green status.
Tom Cumberlege, consultant for the UK's Carbon Trust, says: "Sustainability brings up a complex set of risks and opportunities for the food sector but commitments must be measured. For the first time, an entire farming system has been carbon footprinted. We're very proud of the work we've done with Bord Bia."
Farm to fork
Full traceability is guaranteed as the genetic information of the cows is stored on computers and herds are tagged for identification.
The first model has now been accredited to measure the carbon footprint of dairy farms and the life cycles of beef production from feed mill to processing. In 2013 a model will be developed for chicken, lamb and pork.
Manufacturers involved in the Origin Green pilot include Glanbia, Kerry, Dawn Farms, Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard, Flahavans, ABP, Errigal Seafood, Marine Harvest and Country Crest.
The companies have been set timelines and targets for reducing their energy inputs, minimising their overall carbon footprint, and lessening their impact on the environment.
To develop an accredited model for dairy production, Cranfield University and the Carbon Trust worked with Glanbia a dairy manufacturer that exports one third of Ireland's milk pool to 120 countries across the globe.
"This is a very exciting time in the evolution of the dairy industry," says Jim Bergin, Glanbia chief executive. "Ireland has significant natural advantages such as an eight-month grass growing season, which helps to give us one of the lowest cost production systems in the world."
Glanbia has developed a strong quality assurance programme across an integrated supply chain. All its suppliers are measured via on-farm audits. Farmers are given feedback to ensure they understand the impact of the results, the close proximity of the retailer and the economic rewards good practice will bring.
"We have a highly integrated supplier base," said Bergin. "Our blue chip customers, such as Unilever, have been impressed with the standard of our programme here and the maturity of Irish farmers with their ability to understand the challenges of volatility. We ensure our farmers are aware that sustainability is good economic practice as it's an efficient way of working."
Glanbia's dairy facility in Ballyragget is the largest multi-purpose integrated dairy site in Europe. Glanbia invested euro 7.6M in the installation of sophisticated membrane technology for wastewater treatment. This purifies the water entering the waste stream, which now creates a nutritional organic fertiliser. It also moved from burning coal and oil to installing a gas-fired combined heat and power plant, which reduced its emissions by one third.
"Our plants and operations have very clear targets around energy consumption and waste," says Bergin. "Good practice leads to efficient operations across the plant. This gives us a very strong processing platform from which to develop our routes to market and create more value from our product."
Bord Bia's support has also proved invaluable to Liffey Meats in County Cavan. The firm exports 90% of the beef it processes, 35% to its UK customers, which include Tesco, Sainsbury, Morrisons plus various clients in foodservice.
"The support we get from Bord Bia is crucial to our business," says Ciaran Beirne, Liffey Meats' sales manager for the UK, Holland, Scandinavia and Germany.
"Customers like Sainsbury, Tesco and Morrisons demand the highest ethical standards of animal welfare. The supermarket buyers are taking sustainability for granted now and we have to be part of that. They recognise the Bord Bia scheme so it's essential to our business as the mark that guarantees high standards."
Liffey Meats' site is integrated with an abattoir and processing unit, which enables the firm to guarantee traceability from farm to fork.
"We need to stay ahead of the game in terms of traceabilty to stay ahead of the Brazilians, who have recently taken over the Egyptian and Russian markets," says Beirne.
UK lags behind
But are Irish manufacturers also staying ahead of the UK manufacturers' game? Third party certification organisation Cert ID thinks so.
Richard Werran, md, Cert ID believes there is a gap that needs to be bridged between UK manufacturers and the retailers.
"It would be great if manufacturers could plug into retailers in a deeper way," he says. "There would be a great deal of benefit in them looking over the wall to see what's going on in the retail sector because it's their ultimate client.
"All the major retailers have produced expensive brochures outlining their sustainability strategies, which is a clear signal of their future direction. Food manufacturers need to recognise that there are time-bound compliance commitments and they need to reorientate their businesses to meet them.
"The ones that get there first will have the advantage. Those that don't will struggle to stay in business in 10 years' time.
"This isn't evangelism, it's the writing on the wall. Manufacturers should be thinking of it as an investment in their future."