These are do-able, immediate options that the majority of farmers can turn their hands to as the environmental jihad against livestock farming gets ever louder
The environmental noose feels like it’s tightening around farming’s neck. The raft of recent reports stressing the urgency of climate change make distressing reading for anybody.
Farmers are turning on their radios, opening their newspapers and scrolling through their social media with increasing dread.
Meanwhile, the environmental jihad against livestock farming gets ever louder.
We are told this is a climate emergency, and that drastic change is required in agriculture.
However, I’m not seeing do-able, immediate options that the majority of farmers can turn their hands to.
So it was startling to hear the normally sombre economist John Fitzgerald on the airwaves last week imploring the authorities to “stop dawdling” and scrap the licensing system that is choking our forestry industry.
It was such a stark solution to a seemingly intractable problem that I wondered if there are other similarly straight-forward changes that the government could implement on behalf of not just Irish citizens, but the global population that is now staring down the barrel at an overheating planet.
Here’s four things the Government could implement by next month that would set Irish agriculture on its way to carbon neutrality. Let’s start with John Fitzgerald’s daring suggestion.
Every farm has the potential to set aside a few acres for forestry, and planting trees is a sure-fire way of cooling the planet.
But who in their right mind would consider wading into the bureaucratic swamp that is forestry licensing? It can take years to get planning permission to plant farmland, and the real kick in the teeth comes if you ever try to manage or harvest any of it.
And some of the same environmentalists lodging blanket objections to every forestry application then turn around and bemoan the lack of woodland.
This is why John Fitzgerald’s suggestion to simply scrap the licensing system is so interesting. He believes that a simple regulatory regime that sets out the rules and regulations, and punishes accordingly, should be fit for purpose.
Suddenly, whole sections of the Department of Agriculture would be freed up to get on with actual useful work.
This is not a silly idea that should be easily dismissed. It comes from a man who served his time as a regulator, and also understands the economics behind our carbon footprints.
Bring the average age at slaughter for our beef stock from the current 28½ months to say 23½ months.
This would wipe a massive
800,000 tonnes of carbon off our annual output.
That’s a big return for a fairly straight-forward change. The good guys are already aiming for this target because they know it’s more profitable.
Admittedly, there will be the rump that will demand a top-up to cover the potential loss of yield.
But would this not be a better way of allocating some of those EU subsidies, instead of getting farmers to stick up another million bird and bat boxes that may never see as much as a blue tit from one end of the year to the next?
There, I’ve said it. So we can’t keep belching more and more methane into the atmosphere without burning up the planet in the process.
At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to cut dairy output here if it just ends up being out-sourced to somewhere with a bigger carbon footprint.
So let economics find the balance between dairy and beef numbers. Effectively, this creates a bovine quota, which in turn will have a value. But this might be the least painful aspect of making Irish agriculture carbon-neutral over the coming years.
This won’t be popular either, but it would be a fast way of focusing minds on how to reduce this input.
The fact is that there’s lots of ways to reduce a farm’s dependency on fertiliser through the use of soil testing, lime, multi-species swards and better use of slurry, but it tends not to be done because it’s more hassle.
The Government could sweeten the pill by ring-fencing the fertiliser tax receipts to subsidise the extra effort or costs incurred.
In the process, not only would agricultural emissions fall, but nitrate pressure in our waterways might also reduce.
Of course, we could stick to the alternative road where we debate endlessly where we are going wrong and come up with all kinds of worthy ‘just transitions’ into a shiny new Tesla-powered, quinoa-munching world.
Or we can just get on with it, by doing something immediate, impactful and guaranteed to work.
If we are to really believe this is a crisis, let’s see some action.
Darragh McCullough runs a mixed farm enterprise in Meath, elmgrovefarm.ie