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Farming's great growth dilemma - Can farmers maintain growth while delivering on climate action obligations?


Stock image.

Stock image.


Stock image.

Last week's spat in the Dáil between Agriculture minister Michael Creed and Independent TD Mick Wallace was a foretaste of what is likely to be an increasingly emotive debate about the environmental impact of farming.

The Wexford TD described the expansion of the Irish agri-food as a "short-sighted cash generator" on a par with gas fracking in the US and the Polish coal industry.

"Both the beef and dairy sector and the gas fracking sector are carbon emitting - and have to be scaled back massively if we are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally."

Minister Creed responded with what has become the first line of defence for farm leaders and others in the sector: Irish dairy is the most carbon-efficient in the EU and the beef sector is the fifth most efficient.


"What is the purpose of dismantling a carbon-efficient system that can and must do more (on reducing emissions) only to see product displacing it on supermarket shelves that has a far higher carbon intensity?" he asked.



But with agriculture continuing to account for one third of Ireland's total national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and no sign of this reducing in the short term, serious questions are being asked about the agri-food sector's carbon-efficiency status.

The assertion that we are the most carbon-efficient dairy producer in Europe is based on a 2010 European Commission report which was modelled on 2004 figures.

A 2018 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), based on 2010 data, takes an opposite view.

Its Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model (GLEAM) ranks Ireland as the most carbon-intensive beef producer in Europe and third most intensive dairy producer.


However, the Department of Agriculture - in response to query from the Farming Independent - stated it is in "intensive" discussions with the FAO over what it maintains is inaccurate data on Ireland's emissions. It is also questioning the FAO's methodology, which is based on the full life-cycle impact of food produce rather than farm-specific analysis.

"Climate experts in DAFM and Teagasc are engaging intensively with FAO colleagues to ensure that the country-specific data used for Ireland in the model is both appropriate and up to date, as the results differ very significantly from previous Teagasc and international peer-reviewed research, even taking account of differences in methodology," stated the Department.

"The FAO has confirmed to DAFM that the model should not be used for inter-country comparisons at this point. The Department and Teagasc are engaging with the FAO in relation to provision of appropriate country-specific Irish data, replacing initial default data currently used by the FAO and which is understood can have a significant impact on model outputs."

But regardless of the revised FAO GLEAM data on Ireland, questions are being raised about how long milk production can continue to expand untrammelled.

The dairy sector produced a record 7.5 billion litres last year - up 53.5pc in a decade - and is now two years ahead of the Food Harvest 2020 target.

Growth will continue to power ahead under the Government's Foodwise 2025 plan. And while it doesn't have specific targets for dairy output, this plan envisages agri exports hitting €19bn by 2025, up from a record €12.7bn in 2017, when dairy products accounted for over €4bn of this figure.

This should be a good news story reflecting the extraordinary capacity for growth in the dairying sector, which was constrained for decades by EU quotas and is now playing rapid catch-up on competitors such as the Netherlands and Denmark.


Instead, the dairy and beef sectors are now faced with the potential prospect of having to apply the brakes on growth due to the EU's emissions targets.

Ireland accounts for 1.4pc of the EU's GHG emissions, with the farming sector accounting for 0.4pc of total EU emissions. We account for approximately 0.12pc of total global emissions.

This might seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but Ireland has signed up to legally binding EU targets on reducing emissions by 20pc on 2005 levels by 2020 - and 30pc by 2030. We are also a signatory to global treaties on carbon reduction.

Inaction on these commitments could see us labelled a polluter nation, and the long-term reputational damage could be more costly than the short-term financial pain of addressing the climate action challenge.

In the words of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, we are the 'laggard' of Europe on climate action. We are now ranked as the second worst country in Europe for reducing emissions.

Climate Change and Environment Minister Richard Bruton has warned that the potential cost of not hitting the EU's targets could amount to €5.5bn in fines by 2030, and he told last month's IFA AGM that there will have to be "a change in the way farming has to think about itself".

The Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, is projecting that with mitigation measures, agri emissions are projected to increase 3pc and 6pc from current levels by 2020 and 2030 respectively.

In response, the agri-food lobby and farm leaders are pinning their hopes for action on the 27-point mitigation plan published by Teagasc last year.

In an analysis of six different scenarios, Teagasc predict that maximum mitigation measures from agriculture would deliver a 16pc reduction by 2030 on 2016 emission levels.

The IFA has cited the Teagasc plan as being capable of delivering a potential nine megatonnes reduction (46pc) in emissions by 2030.

However, Teagasc says that this figure also includes land-use change measures and energy mitigation and "not all of these reductions are either claimable (in the case of the land use) or will be credited to the agriculture sector (the energy measures)".

And for now the Teagasc plan is just that, a plan.

Addressing the Oireachtas Climate Action committee last December, Trevor Donnellan from Teagasc noted that "across the world there is a poor take-up of GHG mitigation actions by the ag sector" and that while "significant mitigation potential exists, these solutions exist on paper only".

Teagasc director Gerry Boyle told the Public Accounts Committee last October that there is an incompatibility between dairy expansion and our emissions targets.

"We have identified - Teagasc with the Department and other bodies that are researching this area - mitigation and sequestration options. But they will not be sufficient to offset the trajectory in terms of cow numbers; that's the reality," he said.

"That is something that has to be faced up to."

EU Commissioner Phil Hogan has repeatedly warned that climate action obligations could become the 'new quota' system for countries not meeting the EU's 2020 and 2030 targets.

He has cited the example of the Netherlands, which had to cull 160,000 cows in 2017 to comply with phosphates regulations.

The post-2020 CAP reforms are also likely to demand more stringent compliance on environmental measures for Pillar One payments.

The IFA and ICMSA, however, are strongly opposed to any reduction in herd numbers or increased carbon taxes on agricultural output.

A third option would be to lower targets for agriculture in the national climate action plan due to be published by the Government this year, but how politically feasible would it be to ask the rest of the farming sector and society at large to effectively provide a subsidy for dairy expansion?

The Government is expected to publish its climate change action plan within a month. The speculation is that it will contain specific carbon reduction targets for all sectors including agriculture.

The bind that farming finds itself in on emissions is best summed up by Trevor Donnellan in a report he published last year on potential GHG reduction scenarios.


"The analysis highlights the continuing dilemma between policy driven and industry motivated ambitions to increase agricultural activity levels and commitments to reduce emissions," he wrote.

"The resolution of this dilemma is perhaps the most important challenge currently facing the Irish agri-food sector."

The bigger picture is the employment and economic lifeline that farming continues to provide in rural Ireland.

Setting a limit on dairy expansion would be a bitter pill to swallow, but it might also prompt a debate on what is the best direction on prosperity for the country's farmers across all the livestock and tillage sectors.

IFA president Joe Healy touched on this subject at the association's AGM when he said that "all the emphasis is on environmental sustainability without sufficient consideration for economic or social sustainability".

"Where would Ireland be, and rural Ireland in particular, without farming and the agri-sector? We will do more, but the Government approach must be more carrot and less stick".

Looking at the hard data, it's likely that doing more is going to involve more stick than carrot.

Indo Farming