Trevor Donnellan: Dairy expansion cannot continue without a step change on emissions
Agriculture's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are now very much in the spotlight, with the need for a reduction stressed by the Climate Change Advisory Council annual report as well as the Government's Climate Action Plan.
At a recent conference on climate change and agriculture in Dublin the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pointed out that GHG emissions from Irish agriculture have been growing at a significant rate in recent years.
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The EPA says there needs to be a step change in the take-up of actions that improve emissions efficiency and measures that sequester carbon in order to cut agriculture's emissions - echoing a point made by Teagasc in its MACC report in 2018.
So how did we get here?
In terms of its GHG emissions, Irish agriculture had been doing quite well. In comparison with 1990, by 2012 agriculture's GHG emissions had dropped by 10pc, while the total cattle population (the chief driver of these emissions) remained largely unchanged.
There were a variety of reasons for this drop, including a smaller dairy herd, a reduction in nitrogen usage, a trend towards earlier beef finishing and a range of other farm efficiencies.
The decision to remove milk quotas in 2015 has had a number of significant impacts. Dairy cow numbers and milk yields have increased, with a resultant increase in milk production and dairy farm incomes.
On the flip-side, GHG emissions have increased. Additional dairy cows and greater nitrogen fertiliser use have caused agricultural GHG emissions to exceed the 2005 level, the benchmark against which the sector has to make progress.
Improvements in the emission efficiency (carbon footprint) of milk production are evident, but these have been outweighed by the overall increase in farm activity.
Meanwhile, on the beef side there has been a very slow but ongoing reduction in the suckler herd, meaning that an increasing share of the animals presented for slaughter are now of dairy origin.
In net terms, since 2012, the total cattle population increased by about 500,000 head (9pc) by 2018.
Given the environmental targets that now exist for both GHGs and ammonia, developments in the agriculture sector over the last five years cannot be perpetuated in the future.
Teagasc research suggests that without a considerable take-up of actions designed to address GHG emissions, the sector's emissions will continue to increase over the next decade.
This would have adverse implications, not just for the future of agriculture in this country, but for the whole economy, since even more stringent constraints would have to be applied to other sectors, in order to meet national GHG reduction targets.
Globally, the agriculture sector will need to increase its output to feed the expanding global population, while delivering incomes for those involved, and addressing the emissions issue. This is not an easy ask.
Reducing emissions from agriculture is among the toughest tasks facing the world in the coming decades.
We are fortunate in Ireland to have done the research that gives us a better understanding of the scale of the challenge we face and how it can be addressed.
So how should Irish agriculture meet this challenge?
While Ireland has just 17,000 dairy farms, these farms are responsible for over 40pc of agriculture's GHG emissions - and are the source of most of the recent increase.
Dairy farmers are therefore critical to the solution. It is a challenge that they are capable of meeting, given their reputation for adoption of new technology.
Future growth in dairy is going to have to be more than matched by measures to bring about a reduction in emissions.
Some of this will come in the form of actions that continue to reduce the carbon footprint of milk, but will need to be married to other initiatives which sequester carbon.
How beef farmers can contribute to GHG emissions reductions is less clear. Understandably, they are currently more concerned with profitability. However, emissions reductions on beef farms are also necessary.
Yet in many respects beef farmers have less wriggle room. Beef farms already have low stocking rates and low levels of nitrogen fertiliser usage. Scope to implement some emissions reduction strategies may also be limited by the low incomes that this system produces.
Support policies may need to play a critical role here.
There is an irony in berating low-intensity beef farming for being unprofitable and lambasting intensive dairy farming for its impact on the environment.
Each system has its strengths and weaknesses in terms of how it interfaces with the economy, the environment and society.
One of the more achievable ways to reduce emissions from beef farming may lie in further reducing the intensity of suckler beef production.
Another approach is increased adoption of dairy beef as an alternative enterprise to suckler beef, with financial incentives to make this an attractive proposition.
Forestry and agro-forestry also present potential carbon sequestration measures that could be pursued.
Relatively simple changes in the type of fertiliser and the volumes used can also pay dividends.
In a global context Ireland is small, but nevertheless it can play a useful role as a leader in sustainable food production.
Not because our effort will be critical to global success or failure in reducing emissions, but because it will place an onus on larger countries to make similar efforts - some of whom currently afford the issue of climate change a lower level of priority.
Trevor Donnellan is head of Teagasc's economics and farm surveys department
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