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'The canary in the mine' - Storm Emma is the harbinger of things to come unless we tackle emissions, with farming community most at risk



Professor John Sweney near his office on the Maynooth University campus. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Professor John Sweney near his office on the Maynooth University campus. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Professor John Sweney near his office on the Maynooth University campus. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Farmers have had a dreadful week. The havoc wreaked by Storm Emma has left thousands out of pocket, with many forced to dump milk and others losing livestock as nature ravaged large parts of the country.

And while the sub-zero temperatures which struck cannot be directly linked to climate change, extreme events will become more commonplace, Professor John Sweeney said. That's bad news for the farming sector, which is particularly vulnerable.

"The extremes are the first harbinger of changes in climate," he said. "There's a lot of research indicating that the jet stream is weaker and wobbling more than it used to due to the Arctic warming up more quickly. If that's the link being established, we should expect to see more extremes of all kinds of weather.

"Farmers are perhaps the best people of all to appreciate subtle changes in weather conditions. They will be conscious that Ireland is 0.5C warmer than 30 years ago and there are changes in when they can sow and put cattle out on the land. To an extent, they're the canary in the mine.

"We've seen increases in rainfall intensity and events in Donegal, Mountmellick and Galway. The winter of 2014 was the stormiest on record, and the wettest winter on record was in recent years. That's significant for agriculture because it's very vulnerable to extremes. I think the current weather will result in grass growth being retarded. I suspect there will be fodder problems in the near future."

Professor Sweeney's climate credentials are well-established. He was a contributor to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 4th Assessment Report, which set out the causes and effects of climate change. It was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Emeritus Professor of Geography at Maynooth University, he says that emissions must fall across the economy, and we need to be "realistic" about agriculture.

Emissions generated here affect weather patterns in Africa, and vice versa, and while there has been an enormous amounts of work undertaken to make farming more efficient and less polluting, it's moving in the wrong direction.


"We cannot tackle climate without tackling agriculture. A free pass isn't an option," he told the Farming Independent. "Farmers have to see what message they're sending to a small farmer in Malawi who is struggling to feed their family - the message we're sending is 'tough luck farmer'.

"We have to question the model of farming. Intensification is not something I believe Ireland can compete with other countries on. We should look to an alternative model based on our clean green image, of high quality produce, rather than going down the cul de sac of intensification and the effects which arise on climate and water quality. They [farmers] are generally conscious of what they're doing, looking after long term sustainability, but they're being pressurised. There's a feeling that agriculture has come through a rough patch, and it has. One sympathises with farmers who have had a tough time with low milk prices, but prices are very high again.

"There's a feeling we can cash in on this, by expanding milk production, but everywhere in Europe is likely to take the same view and we could end up with oversupply with consequences for milk prices. This idea about endless expansion and intensification needs to be looked at."

He says too that Government plans to increase food production were not subject to a proper assessment of the potential impact on the environment, saying that while they did talk about output, they never addressed cattle numbers. Efficiency means nothing to a stressed climate, he said.

"Irish agriculture is in the upper echelons of efficiency, but the atmosphere doesn't recognise efficiencies, it deals with emissions," he said. "It's also true that efficiency for milk production in terms of methane hasn't improved in the last ten years." There are areas where agriculture and the environment could work together.

"Expansion of the GLAS scheme would be very welcome because it safeguards the environment quite successfully," he said, adding that CAP reform should focus on rural development, with a particular emphasis on the smaller farmer.

"It's important that the focus isn't on short term solutions, where everything is ploughed into pillar one to compensate for the Brexit effect. We need to look after pillar two," he said.

"We're a bit away (from an honest debate), but it's important we look at alternatives now, before a crisis comes. There's no doubt agriculture emissions will become a crunch issue.

"It would become very unfortunate if urban dwellers felt they were paying fines for an agriculture sector which is not paying the cost of its agricultural pollution. If we don't meet them (target emissions), we will find that Irish agriculture is vulnerable to climate shocks like in other countries. "Ireland has such enormous potential to cash in on its image, not as a marketing tool, but to show we can develop in a diversified, sustainable way."

Indo Farming