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Darragh McCullough: 'I contribute to global warming every single day - and I'm feeling the heat'



Darragh McCullough on his drought hit farm in simmer of 2018 at  Stamullen, Co Meath. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Darragh McCullough on his drought hit farm in simmer of 2018 at Stamullen, Co Meath. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Darragh McCullough on his drought hit farm in simmer of 2018 at Stamullen, Co Meath. Photo: Gerry Mooney

As a farmer, I'm beginning to feel more like an environmental terrorist than a food producer.

It's not a nice feeling, but it's kind of unavoidable when you hear more and more facts on climate change and global warming.

And as somebody with a stake in a rapidly expanding dairy unit, I'm one of the biggest culprits.

Emissions from every other farm sector are steady or in decline. But every extra dairy cow added to the herd is generating more methane, nitrous oxide and carbon emissions that are screwing up the planet for everybody.

This is despite the fact that Irish milk has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world.

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, this is the key reason why I think we should still aim to max out Ireland's capacity to produce milk - Irish dairy products are the least worst option for a global population hungry for more.

If we cap our production, then the untapped demand for that extra dairy product just gets produced somewhere else where it does even more damage to the environment.

Not only would it be a futile exercise, it would cost the national economy big-time.

The 50pc growth in milk output over the last five years has increased employment by 10,000 people and annual dairy-sector spend in the local economy to €3.8bn. The dairy sector now accounts for 10pc of all domestic industrial spend.

One prominent dairy farmer representative told me last week that he thinks dairy cow numbers could hit two million - that would be another 50pc jump in output.

But further growth is wishful thinking if we don't get our act together on emissions.

Irish dairy farmers have increased their collective emissions by over 30pc in the last five or six years.

That's at a time when as an industry, agriculture is faced with a legally binding target of reducing our emissions by 20pc compared to 2005, by 2020.

Up to the recession, overall levels from agriculture were in decline, but in the last year or so we've sailed right past not just our target but also the level that we were at in 2005. And it's all on the dairy industry's head.

But I don't hear many alarm bells ringing in Government circles, so I suspect that policy-makers are secretly hoping that the goal-posts will shift in Ireland's favour over the coming years.

This could be in the form of recalibrating the impact of, say, methane, or some breakthrough technology that allows everyone switch overnight to electric vehicles.

But I suspect big polluters like dairying are going to run out of road long before that.

There is an endless stream of ever-more damning reports from the scientists on the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, lambasting the business-as-usual approach across the world.

It's not like we don't have enough evidence that what they are saying is spot on. The weather has been getting more extreme with every passing year.

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Ireland is also heading for fines that could run into the hundreds of millions for breaching our emissions limits in 2020, and who knows what the penalties might be for missing the even stricter limits set for 2030.

In the same way that the New Zealand dairy industry got a shock when it realised that its aggressive expansion had killed its social licence to expand, it will be too late for Irish dairy farmers to turn around in 10 years' time and promise major reform.

If Irish taxpayers find themselves forking out for emissions fines and carbon taxes then it's highly likely that dairy herds here could be facing a forced retreat. Just look at what's happening in Holland right now.

It's also wishful thinking by the milk brigade that a shrinking beef sector will give dairying room to keep expanding. Maybe if we had 50 years to play with, but the emissions crunch is going to come much quicker than that.

Some may point to the 'smart' farming initiatives designed to encourage more efficient operations. But the notion that these are going to save the sector from harsher measures also strikes me as fanciful.

Most of these measures are basic good farming practices that allow a farmer to be more profitable. It also tends to be fairly standard things like getting soil fertility right and maximising grass intake.

I can't see why farmers who didn't think it worthwhile to try to make their businesses more profitable would suddenly jump to action to make themselves more environmentally friendly.

So then you are left looking at more radical options like banning splash-plate slurry spreaders and urea (in favour of protected nitrogen), but that will probably get shot down by the farmers-say-no gang.

Other radical but thoughtful suggestions came from the agricultural economist Alan Matthews.

His carbon tax is the best way to ensure the 'polluter pays' principle applies to farming, but of course anyone who suggests another tax gets short shrift.

It was only when I heard that the European Court of Auditors had kicked back the CAP reform proposals to Commissioner Hogan, on the basis that they weren't focused enough on the environment, that I felt slightly hopeful.

Surely pivoting CAP payments away from the broken historical area-based system to one that helps Irish agriculture to realise its full potential without becoming an environmental pariah would be a major step forward?

Undoubtedly, farm representatives will be quick to claim that any change to the current system would be terrible and unworkable.

That's where farmers with a clear logic on the true potential of Irish farming need to come to the fore.

Because there are lots of ways of minimising and off-setting farming emissions. But without it being tied into CAP payments, it probably won't amount to a hill of beans.

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