Monday 26 September 2016

Michael Rea: Why Irish farmers matter in Paris

Michael Rea

Published 10/12/2015 | 13:57

Michael Rea is chief operating officer at the Carbon Trust
Michael Rea is chief operating officer at the Carbon Trust

IRISH farms might not be one of the major topics of discussion at COP21, but Ireland’s approach to sustainable agriculture is setting increasingly high standards for how to practically address one of the most significant sources of emissions.

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Agriculture, forestry and other land use accounts for around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions today.

But while other major sources of emissions such as energy, transport, industry and buildings are being put under serious pressure to become more and more efficient, agriculture remains relatively unburdened by the urgency of addressing climate change.

Understandably, putting food on the table is a more immediate priority for most governments than the prospect of environmental damage decades down the line. Many also want to protect agriculture as an important source of employment and export income, particularly in developing economies.

However, as many other sectors continue to increase efficiencies and introduce innovative technologies in order to address climate change, farming will proportionately become a bigger and bigger contributor to a very big problem.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, livestock currently contributes just under 15p of global emissions and cattle accounts for about two-thirds of that amount.

Global demand for beef and dairy is increasing rapidly and therefore reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint is central to limiting climate change. And to help ensure food security, farmers across the globe will have to switch to more sustainable farming practices.

Encouragingly, we know that huge improvements can be made. In fact, the difference between the best and worst farmers can be remarkable: beef from the most efficient farmers can have carbon footprints around ten times lower than the very poorest performers.

And beef from Ireland tends to be a lot better on average than the rest of the world, particularly from countries where there is deforestation caused by clearing rainforest for pastureland.

Over the past three years Ireland has made great progress on showing what is possible through taking a strategic approach to addressing carbon intensity of farming.

Bord Bia has spearheaded one of the largest agricultural data collection and sustainability programmes ever created, known as Origin Green.

In fact, Ireland is one of the only countries in the world to systematically measure carbon emissions at a farm level, to identify and drive sustainability improvements on a national scale.

The Carbon Trust has supported this by developing practical tools that go beyond purely helping farmers to measure carbon footprints, by showing them how greater efficiency can increase their profitability and competitiveness.

More than 55,000 Irish farms, accounting for 90pc of beef production and half the milk output, have become fully-verified members of Origin Green. So there is clear appetite from the agricultural community to get involved.

But key to the programme’s success is that Origin Green does not stop at the farm gate. Engagement with food manufacturers and consumers are all equally important to ensuring the long term ambition is achieved.

This is helping to confirm Ireland’s position as a world leader in understanding and reducing the environmental impact of agriculture.

This has a significant benefit domestically as agriculture accounts for a large proportion of Ireland’s emissions - around 30pc of the country’s carbon footprint. On an international level this message is a key part of the countries brand on the global food and drink market. After all, last year alone Ireland exported to 175 markets, generating an estimated €10.5bn for the economy. 

Plenty of rainfall, alongside Ireland’s mild climate and fertile land mean that the country has some of the best natural conditions for farming in the world. And this gives Ireland a very real competitive advantage in a global market in terms of its ability to produce sustainable and high quality agricultural products.

As the rapid increase in the global population and the impacts of climate change lead to greater competition for dwindling resources, global food security is becoming an increasing threat. Sustainable agriculture is a critical part of helping to address this. But farmers alone cannot be expected to find the best solution. A collaborative effort will be required across government, business, and consumers to solve this problem. The approach that has been pioneered through Origin Green could be taken as a best practice model to inspire more sustainable food production around the world.

Michael Rea is chief operating officer at the Carbon Trust

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