€2bn per year - the potential cost of climate change for Irish farming
Last month's extreme flooding in Donegal is a harbinger of things to come, reports Paul Melia
Farmers know better than most about the devastating consequences which follow extreme weather events.
They don't need to look to Hurricane Irma, which struck the Caribbean and Florida last week, breaking numerous meteorological records surrounding its size, intensity and duration, to see the problems which arise.
Flooding in Donegal last month devastated vast parts of the county. There was extensive damage to holdings including land, buildings and fencing. The physical damage was coupled with loss of crops, livestock and fodder.
Over the longer-term, farming families can expect more of the same.
While at least 50 farms in Donegal were badly affected in the recent flood event, as climate change takes hold, the cost to the agricultural sector could be as much as €2bn a year.
A report commissioned by environment lobby group Stop Climate Chaos notes that agriculture is one of the most climate-sensitive industries in Ireland, as it depends on particular levels of temperature and rainfall.
Farmers need only cast their minds back to the fodder crisis of 2012, when a poor growing season coupled with a long winter resulted in a severe shortage on many farms. The economic costs were put at €900m.
The significant impacts of climate change include: the threat of new pests and diseases including Blue Tongue virus and African horse sickness; a projected 10pc rise in winter rainfall by 2050; a fall in summer rainfall by up to 17pc.
Those impacts are coupled with a projected increase in average temperatures - they have already increased by 0.8C over the past century. The world could be 1.8C warmer by 2050 compared with today unless action is taken. Sea level rise is also expected, and more extreme weather events, including storms.
Apart from the physical impacts, the financial hit will be profound.
"The report projects the total economic costs of climate change in the region of €1bn to €2bn per annum by mid-century," the Stop Climate Chaos analysis found.
In the arable sector, pests and diseases may cost up to €200m a year to manage, and another €350m in the livestock sector; drought and flooding another €150m each. The cost of providing enough resources for animals could add another €350m every year to the bill.
Climatologist in the Department of Geography in University College Cork, Dr Kieran Hickey, says there's no doubt that the climate is changing.
"We seem to be getting warmer and wetter, and wetter is not good for farming. Although our grass growing season has been extended for the last 30 years, that's no good if it's flooded. What we're gaining on one side we're losing on the other.
"The big difference would be our growing appreciation of the links between extreme weather events and climate change.
"I'm involved in an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study working on what is natural variability and how much is due to climate change. It's complicated programming and modelling, and we're going to look at the fodder crisis of 2012. We have had fodder crises before, but there's been no detailed scientific investigations. It will be difficult (to assess) because it's a combination of events. There was a poor season for grass, so there weren't big stocks, coupled with a delayed growing season, so we had to import fodder.
"We may also look at a stormy winter, and a big flood event, perhaps of 2009 or 2016."
He says that while farmers see what's happening on the ground, politically they are blamed for causing the problem.
"From a political perspective they see themselves as being victimised and blamed for it. They feel under constant pressure because they seem to get the brunt of the blame which is bizarre, because we have policies on increasing output. It's two diametrically opposed things."
It's not just extreme storms which pose a risk. Researchers from Maynooth University analysed historical weather records and found that Ireland is "remarkably" prone to droughts and there is a "high likelihood they will occur again".
While farmers see what's happening on the ground, they also see the need to change practices to help prevent the catastrophic impacts forecast as climate change takes hold.
"Clearly the measures such as those contained in the rural development programme, where 87pc have mitigating measures, need to be fully implemented," says Thomas Ryan from the IFA's environment and rural affairs committee.
"That includes re-opening the GLAS programme, and we're going to continue to roll out Smart Farming, which improves farm returns with cost savings of at least €5,000 per farm, while reducing climate impact by 6pc to 11pc. The future is focused on emission-reducing food production."
He said while "no other country" measures farm to fork like Ireland, challenges remain, particularly opening up Glas to new entrants. Some 50,000 farmers are currently involved, with a budget of €250m.
"Many of the climate measures are over-subscribed. This year, over 1,000 farmers will engage in the Smart Farming programme and half are committed to it for 2018. IFA will expect to report that our 2018 programme will be filled by the end of the Ploughing Championships.
"Comfortably, there is at least demand for another 25,000 spaces within the Glas programme. In the context of the compliance obligations and potential fines for missing climate obligations, it's money well spent. It's going to ensure that agriculture will play its part in addressing these challenges."
Kieran Hickey makes the point that supports are needed for the sector.
"Any farming environmental scheme should be encouraged. It's crucially important that support is there as well. It's important for Ireland too - it's not just food, our tourism is based on a green Ireland. We don't want a situation of 250 hectare fields which would be highly efficient from a farming point of view, but not for the landscape."
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