There is no 'magic bullet' sustainability solution for Irish dairy herd as it grows to 1.6m cows - report

Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

Dairy farmers have been warned against complacency as a new report sets out a strategy to tackle the national dairy herds' carbon footprint.

The Government has already warned the country is on track for major fines of hundreds of millions of euro unless greenhouse gas emissions begin to rapidly reduce.

Dairy cow numbers in Ireland are predicted to hit 1.6m by 2025 and now, a new report from ICOS, which represents over 130 co-operatives in Ireland including dairy processors and livestock marts, found that mitigation in agriculture and food production will require thousands of farmers implementing more efficient processes and management practices over a sustained period of time.

The report ‘Positive Steps Towards a Low Carbon Future for the Irish Dairy Sector’ said it recognises that there is no magic bullet solution, and that ultimately, the widespread adoption of mitigation measures in agriculture will require significant investment and resources in knowledge sharing programmes.

Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in Ireland today are 3.5pc below 1990 levels and Prof John Fitzgerald, chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council, said the carbon metrics of Irish agriculture and the economic value of dairy to Ireland is unrivalled.

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre Report in 2010 recognised Ireland’s dairy sector as the most carbon efficient in Europe, but today's report warns that Ireland faces a distinct challenge in meeting its 2020 targets compared to other EU Member States due to the composition of the Irish economy.

The agri-food sector is Ireland’s largest indigenous industry contributing to 7.6pc as a percentage of GVA to the overall economy.

Sustainable intensification means that food production will have to increase in a manner that protects the environment, the report says, but that Ireland will find that particularly challenging as it has limited options available to primary agriculture.

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"While recognising the responsibility of the dairy sector to develop in a sustainable manner, the mitigation potential of agriculture is limited with emissions stemming from biological sources," the report states.

Under new legislative proposals issued by the European Commission in July 2016, the Emissions Trading Sectors have been assigned a 43pc reduction below 2005 levels by 2030. This binding legislation covers Irish dairy processors, while the non Emissions Trading Sectors, such as agriculture have a 30pc emissions reduction target under the Effort Sharing Decision.

1.4m Cows

Today, there are 1.4m dairy cows on the ground in Ireland, with the most recent estimates from Teagasc predicting the cow herd would increase by 2pc each year up to 1.6m by 2025 with the milk pool reaching around 8.3 billion litres.

The average dairy herd size has risen from 70 cows in 2016 to 90 cows this year, and is heading for 100 cows in 2018.

Emissions have risen over the past two years as the recovery took hold despite an emphasis on climate change measures. The Government has signed up to reduce carbon emission by 20pc by 2020.

The Environmental Protection Agency figures point to a 3.5pc increase in greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, with an estimated 61.19m tonnes of CO2 equivalent were pumped into the atmosphere.

Increased activity in the dairy sector post the abolition of quotas, the energy industries and the transport sector are all being linked to the rise.

According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), methane accounted for about 16pc of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. Methane emissions from livestock have risen sharply in Asia, while they have declined in Europe.

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