The Irish dairy sector's expansion plans should not be constrained by greenhouse gas emission targets, the Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney said yesterday.
The environmental lobby group, An Taisce, has slammed a Department of Agriculture study that claimed that farming would be able to mitigate emissions through 'climate smart' initiatives.
"Our national emissions are unacceptably high, especially in agriculture and transport," said An Taisce's John Gibbons.
"Ireland is falling woefully short of our 2020 emissions target due to a continual lack of political will to set a new course."
However, Minister Coveney, rejected the environmentalists' claims that emissions from agriculture were increasing and that the sector needed to face up to the harsh reality of reducing livestock numbers.
"Emissions from agriculture are actually down over the last five years. Yes, we are going to have to carefully manage the environmental challenges of expanded output over the coming years," he told the Farming Independent.
"But nobody in the Irish administration ever suggested that agriculture was going to reduce emissions long term," he said.
Ireland faces huge fines if it fails to meet EU targets to reduce emissions by 20pc by 2020, compared to levels in 2005.
An Taisce claim that the country has only achieved a 2pc reduction so far.
In response, Minister Coveney denied that he was simply ignoring the targets. He said that it made more sense for the burden of emissions reduction to fall on other sectors of the economy.
"We can still meet the targets but I'm not willing to reduce output from Irish farms to facilitate competitors that are not bound by the same terms.
"It means that there will be a bigger burden on other sectors (of the Irish economy), but that will be a more efficient way of meeting the targets, without compromising the job creation that goes with increasing agriculture's output," he said.
"It doesn't take a genius to suggest that reducing output will reduce emissions, but that just allows other farmers to do it with much more emissions. Instead, we are taking a more difficult, but responsible, line to produce more with less."
Figures produced by An Taisce claim that Irish dairy cattle produce 9pc more methane per head now than in 1990.
"Ireland's Food Harvest 2020 and 2025 policies aim to produce more livestock-derived food to feed a growing global population of wealthier consumers, but they do not respect the environmental limits of the planet or feed the poorest," added Mr Gibbons.
Minister Coveney also warned farmers about compromising the quality of their milk by storing it over long periods prior to the end of the milk quota year.
"Under no circumstance should we tolerate any compromise on quality.
"It is the quality of our product that allows us to sell food at a premium all over the world," he said.