Agribusiness finds it's not easy going green
Action needed as Ireland faces threat of huge EU fines for missing emission targets
The Government is facing a number of challenges as we enter 2019. And while Brexit is one of the biggest, another is how to square the circle of protecting and growing our agribusiness sector while meeting EU environment commitments and targets that we have already signed up to.
While protecting the environment is a global issue, Ireland has committed to ambitious 2030 climate and energy targets, where all sectors, including agriculture, have to make a contribution.
These EU targets include a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 40pc by 2030, based on 1990 levels; to have 32pc renewables in our energy mix and to improve energy efficiency by 32.5pc
The Commission also plans to adopt a long-term EU strategy to achieve zero-emissions by 2050. In addition, failure to meet targets set for 2020 would mean hundreds of millions of euro in fines. Unfortunately, it is the Irish economy's focus on beef and dairy that is one of the key components of our emissions problems.
Ruminants, such as cattle, produce carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), livestock are responsible for 14.5pc of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Some experts put the livestock sector up there with transport in relation to emissions. For example, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the transport sector is responsible for 14pc of emissions.
As highlighted by European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan, agriculture accounts for 10pc of emissions across the EU, but here in Ireland the figure is 33pc.
And while scientists across the globe are working on ways to reduce those emissions including the breeding animals that burp less by adjusting their diets, given our current Government policy it would seem that we are on a collision course with the EU as we struggle to meet these targets.
A key plank of Government agriculture policy is Food Wise 2025 under the subtitle Local Roots, Global Reach, reflecting the emphasis on export.
According to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Food Wise 2025 identifies ambitious and challenging growth projections for the industry over the next 10 years including an 85pc increase in exports to €19bn as well as a 65pc hike in primary production to €10bn, plus the creation of 23,000 jobs along the supply chain.
But increasing exports means increasing the size of herds - and that means more emissions, while the removal of milk quotas here has also resulted in big increases in the size of dairy herds.
"Food Wise 2025 recognises that a significant increase in food production cannot be considered in isolation from its environmental impact, particularly in relation to the depletion of natural resources and the potential impact on climate change," Hogan told the Sunday Independent.
"But there is a gulf between this welcome rhetoric and the operational reality. The Environmental Protection Agency has warned that Ireland needs to adopt a much greater sense of urgency about reducing its dependence on fossil fuels after official figures showed a 3.5pc increase in greenhouse gas emissions in 2016.
"Ireland is one of only four countries in the European area where greenhouse gas emissions are still above 1990 levels. A failure to tackle the issue could cost the country large sums of money in relation to carbon credits by 2020," he said.
There is no question that the agribusiness sector is a significant contributor to our economy and it needs to be respected as we navigate these choppy climate commitments.
For example, agri-food exports in 2017 were €13.6bn, an increase of 11pc over 2016 including beef access to China and the opening of the Qatari market to beef, lamb and poultry. There are 300,000 people employed in the agriculture industry. In addition, our reputation as a quality food producer with high standards of food safety and traceability needs to be maintained - there's a reason why Kerrygold is a household name in other countries and our rolling green fields with happily grazing cows are used to sell Ireland.
But it seems there is a Government policy malfunction in relation to marrying environmental commitments and the development of the agriculture industry.
"Farmers need government support to be there and that support hasn't been there - you need farmer and community participation when it comes to policy," said Joe Healy, president of the Irish Farmers Association.
"We need the various links in the chain to be joined up. We've requested the Taoiseach to provide the climate leadership required by coordinating a 'whole of government' approach to the delivery of climate abatement potential of the Teagasc climate roadmap which is a scientific report that contains 27 measures that the agri-sector can implement with the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nine megatonnes of Co2 equivalents by 2030.
"It can be very frustrating for farmers when they hear European officials pontificate on climate change and the need for farmers to get real at the same time as the European Commission for Trade, Cecilia Malmstrom, is doing all in her power to negotiate a trade deal with Mercosur countries of South America where, for example, in Brazil they are four times less carbon efficient than Europe in the production of beef.
"Climate change is a global issue, we are the most carbon-efficient producers of dairy product in Europe and the top five in beef and if we don't produce those products to satisfy the growing demand from an increasing world population, less efficient countries will produce it," he added.
He believes that sometimes it seems that farming is an easy target when it comes to environmental issues, as there are other contributors like the energy and transport sectors.
The agriculture sector is already facing challenges in relation to farm incomes and the potential impact of Brexit on food prices but according to environmental scientist Dr Cara Augustenborg, many farmers are willing to make changes but need help in relation to diversification planning, and other areas.
"Many of the farmers I talk to are eager to do something and are looking for ways to diversify out of intensified beef and dairy," she said. "But we do need to change the model. It isn't working. We should be looking more at renewables and biogas too." While at an early stage and small scale, there are plans to use cattle slurry to produce enough gas to power 56,000 homes in Mitchelstown, Co Cork. Gas Networks Ireland (GNI) has confirmed its multi-million plan to pump the renewable gas into the national grid near the north Cork town. Its large number of cattle as well as access to the national grid made Mitchelstown the choice for the plant.
The IFA's Healy also pointed out that there are other programmes in place and being developed to make the agriculture industry more environmentally friendly. Its Smart Farming Programme is run in association with the EPA, and involves farmers participating in carbon monitoring while Bord Bia's has its Origin Programme and forestry is also used as a way to mitigate emissions.
"We cannot ignore climate change, the farming community saw that with the fodder crises in the past and it is a global problem," said Augustenborg. "As long as we keep increasing herd sizes we keep increasing absolute emissions but no matter how efficient we make agri production it will make no difference. That's been the problem with the narrative from the agribusiness side for a long time," she added.
So it seems there's recognition from all sides that we need a joined-up plan in order to address the problems facing the agriculture industry if it is to meet EU targets.
Finding a palatable way for taxpayers to address the climate change issue and pay the price might need to involve a carrot approach, for example, carbon credits as is the Canada plan.
The momentum is growing for changes worldwide and, earlier this month, environmentalist David Attenborough urged world leaders to tackle "our greatest threat in thousands of years" at the COP24 summit in Poland.
In the meantime, Hogan said that the European Commission Common Agriculture Programme reform proposal for 2021 to 2027 can be a help for Ireland. "The proposal aims to increase the environmental performance of the Cap in relation to three clear objectives: contributing to climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as sustainable energy; fostering sustainable development and efficient management of natural resources such as water, soil and air; and contributing to the protection of biodiversity, enhanced ecosystem services and preservation of our habitats and landscapes," he said.
"A new delivery model fundamentally redesigns not only the tools to achieve better climate and environment outcomes, but also, crucially, the designation of responsibility.
"The goal is to increase flexibility and enhance effectiveness by ensuring that problems are addressed at a level where they are best understood.
"So instead of complying with a standard list of requirements from Brussels, Irish farmers and other key stakeholders will have the opportunity to be involved in the process of identifying local climate and environment challenges and outlining the best way to take action in a national 'Cap Strategic Plan'."
Sunday Indo Business