Climate change is an issue for every link in the food chain - not just farmers

Cows produce approximately 200 litres of methane daily
Cows produce approximately 200 litres of methane daily

Thia Hennessy

The Citizens' Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of Ireland becoming a leader in tackling climate change. Why wouldn't they? Who could vote against preserving the planet for the next generation?

With over one-third of Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions coming from agriculture, it was inevitable that the Irish livestock sector, and especially the much maligned suckler cow, would become the focus.

In trying to strike the balance between tackling climate change and feeding the world's growing population, the debate around climate change has moved to the issue of carbon intensity, that is the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with each kilogram or calorie of food.

Due to the high levels of methane emitted by cows, animal-based food products are relatively carbon intensive. Beef from suckler cows is particularly carbon intensive, as the high levels of emissions from the cow are only associated with meat production compared to dairy cows where emissions are associated with both meat and milk.

According to the Teagasc National Farm Survey, the typical beef farm emitted 147 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2015 and earned a family farm income of €12,660.

However, the farmer received €13,148 in decoupled direct payments which would be paid regardless of production. In other words, the typical beef farmer emitted 147 tonnes of carbon equivalents for a loss of €488 or a loss of €3.30 per tonne.

Compare this to the dairy farmer producing 456 tonnes of carbon equivalents for a profit of €62,141 and direct payments of €20,039 in 2015.

The dairy farmer produced a profit of €44 per tonne of carbon emitted.

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So what is the most effective way to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture?

Over 85pc of the Citizens' Assembly voted that farmers should be taxed for their greenhouse gas emissions and rewarded for climate-friendly practices. But how would a tax work at the farm-level?

Presumably it would be applied at a standard rate per head of animal, any other approach is likely to be too complex to implement. If a flat-rate tax is applied then farmers adopting climate-friendly practices are not rewarded - in fact, there is no incentive to become more carbon efficient.

At what rate should the tax be set in order to encourage farmers to reduce emissions?

Suckler farmers

A carbon tax at any level would push suckler cow farmers further into market-based losses.

The argument is that if suckler farmers quit production, national emissions would fall and the farmers themselves would be no worse off economically as they are already losing money from production.

This is true but it is also important to consider the impact of a contraction in the suckler cow herd for the wider agri-food sector and for rural economies.

First, there is the impact for the upstream industries. National Farm Survey data shows that in 2015 specialist cattle farmers spent almost €1.4bn on farm inputs.

A considerable reduction in beef production would negatively impact on agri-input trade and, while some of these inputs come from abroad, they are traded in local rural businesses thus contributing to rural economies.

Specialist cattle farmers also generated over €1.3bn of beef output. This beef, for the most part, is transported, slaughtered and processed in Ireland.

A CSO study has shown that every €1m of output in agriculture supports 15 jobs directly and 6.2 jobs indirectly.

This means that, in addition to those employed on farm, the output of specialist cattle farms supports about 20,000 jobs directly and a further almost 9,000 indirectly - with most of these jobs based in rural areas.

The regional dimension is also important.

Suckler cow farming dominates agriculture in the west and north-west of the country. Since the removal of the milk quota, commercial farming and agri-food processing activity is increasingly concentrated in the south and south east.

There are now twice as many dairy cows in County Cork as the whole of Connaught and Ulster combined.

Regional imbalance

A significant reduction in suckler cow farming would further exacerbate this regional imbalance in the rural economy.

There is no arguing that climate change is a critical issue that must be addressed immediately. Climate change is one of the "wicked problems" facing modern society.

Wicked problems are defined as those that can only be solved by collective action and behavioural change by large groups of people across different countries and different sectors of business and society.

Farmers are one such group.

They can and should play an important role in tackling climate change but equally other suppliers along the food-supply chain can also play their part and carry some of the costs, namely agri-input suppliers, processors and consumers.

Thia Hennessy is Professor and Head of Food Business and Development at University College Cork

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