Farm Ireland

Friday 15 December 2017

Analysis: Sustainable farming is a lot more complex than just slashing livestock numbers


Thia Hennessy

Ireland will not meet its greenhouse gas emission targets for 2020, according to a report recently released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Ireland was given a legally binding target in 2009 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 20pc below the 2005 level.

However, the EPA report suggests that the country is likely to achieve just a 4pc to 6pc reduction by 2020 and that Ireland will be penalised financially for not meeting these targets.

This latest report from the EPA shines the spotlight yet again on Irish agriculture, which currently contributes almost one-third of greenhouse gas emissions and which the EPA estimates will contribute 45pc by 2020 with existing measures/policies.

The Government plans to achieve a carbon-neutral agricultural sector by 2050 while simultaneously expanding the output of the sector in line with the Food Wise 2025 targets. Whether both goals are mutually achievable remains to be seen.

There has been considerable investment in both research and farm advice to promote climate-smart agricultural practices but as Laura Burke, director general of the EPA, concludes "there is still a lot of work to be done".

The considerable investment in research and farm advice is paying dividend with Ireland boasting the lowest carbon footprint for milk production in Europe and the fifth lowest for beef, according to international independent research.

Despite our high levels of carbon efficiency, we are still confronted with the challenge of reducing emissions, simply because our agricultural sector is large relative to the rest of the economy. Ireland produces enough food to feed 50 million people, but the carbon associated with their food consumption is counted here in Ireland at the point of production rather than at the point of final consumption.

So if Irish farmers are embracing climate-smart practices and are leaders in Europe at carbon-efficient production, what more can be done to achieve our greenhouse gas emission targets?

Also Read

Cull the national suckler cow herd and let the world eat less meat is the solution being put forward by some.

A growing body of research is pointing to the role of reducing or eliminating meat consumption in order to tackle climate change. Research conducted by the Oxford Martin School found that widespread adoption of a vegetarian diet would lower global emissions by 63pc while the adoption of a vegan diet would reduce emissions by 70pc.

The theory is based on the scientific evidence that livestock-based products have a higher carbon footprint than fruit, vegetables or grain-based foods, mostly due to the high levels of methane emitted by cows. However, recent research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition stresses the importance of looking beyond the calorific value of food stuffs.

The study found that while meat and dairy products have a higher carbon footprint per 100g or 100 calories consumed than plant based foods, the difference is reduced substantially when measured using nutritional density which accounts for the vitamin and mineral content per calorie consumed.

Nutrient density

Furthermore, a recently published index linking the nutrient density of beverages to greenhouse gas emissions associated with their production found that milk performed highly in terms of the nutrient density per carbon equivalent emitted, relative to other beverages.

Within an Irish setting, recent research conducted by UCC and Teagasc examined the carbon footprint of the diet of Irish adults.

Distinct dietary patterns within the Irish population were examined in terms of their emissions profile. The study found that red meat was the food group that contributed most to emissions.

However, the more complex and interesting finding was that those who ate the most red meat did not differ significantly in their carbon footprint compared to the group that consumed the least amount of red meat.

Instead, the total quantity of food consumed was the important factor as was the quantities of processed meat, carbonated beverages, savoury snacks and alcohol within the diet.

The conclusion of the research was that a holistic assessment of diet is required when making dietary recommendations based on climate change rather than focusing on one food group alone.

There is no arguing with the scientific evidence that agriculture and cows in particular are a considerable contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and by consequence climate change.

Continued investment is required to reduce the carbon footprint of livestock-based agriculture and new solutions for sustainable production must be explored. Simultaneously, there must also be a focus on "sustainable diets".

The concept of a sustainable diet is a complex one which goes beyond focussing on just one food group.

Instead, it seeks to optimise health and nutritional considerations, affordability, cultural acceptability as well as the wider environmental impact of the diet in terms of the carbon footprint, water use and the impact on the eco-system.

We need agriculture, food and environmental policies that allow modern society to pursue "sustainable diets".

As long as humans choose to consume animal-based products, Government policies should promote the most efficient form of animal production, from an economic, environmental and nutritional perspective.

International trade should allow food to flow from carbon-efficient production environments to the place of consumption, while appropriate labelling should give consumers the option to purchase carbon-efficient, nutritious foodstuffs at affordable prices.

Thia Hennessy is professor and head of food business and development at University College Cork.

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