Tuesday 16 January 2018

Irish food sector has massive green opportunity

Irish agriculture may contribute 32pc of Irish emissions, but agriculture worldwide contributes only 12pc, and no one is looking at Ireland's natural ability for carbon sequestration during beef production

After more than 30 years, the lifting of dairy quotas this year opened the door to increased export revenue
After more than 30 years, the lifting of dairy quotas this year opened the door to increased export revenue
CEO of Dawn Meats Niall Browne

Niall Browne

This year has already brought many challenges and opportunities for Irish agriculture. An industry with an annual output of €24bn employing over 150,000 people in Ireland, agriculture has played a pivotal role in leading the country's economic recovery and delivering a much-needed dose of national confidence.

After more than 30 years, the lifting of dairy quotas this year opened the door to increased export revenue and the potential for considerable job creation. Opportunities also continue to open up for Irish beef exports, with markets such as China and the United States lifting their bans on exports of Irish beef this year. The opportunities for the sector will continue to emerge as Ireland's association with quality, traceability and sustainability strengthens.

2015 has also been an important year in the global debate on the pace and effects of climate change. With the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris approaching in December, many critical issues will be debated in the months to come. COP21 will be an important conference, with a focus on achieving a new international agreement on the climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.

At a national level, agriculture is a significant contributor to Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions. It accounts for approximately 32pc of our total emissions, a figure that underscores the role Irish agriculture plays in our economy. The Irish government has set out ambitious targets for further growth and development, so as to take full advantage of the opportunities for our industry. The challenge is to drive Irish export growth and feed a growing global population while respecting our environmental limits, not to mention legal obligations to reduce greenhouse gasses.

Irish agriculture has come under the spotlight of late as stakeholders examine ways to square this circle. There is the belief in some quarters that the objectives of initiatives like Food Harvest 2020 (which includes a target to increase beef production by 20pc) are incompatible with Ireland's legal greenhouse gas reduction obligations.

There is criticism of what some view as government rhetoric around emissions reductions and a lack of concrete proposals to achieve these. There is also a fear that attempts to protect "privileged sectors", such as agriculture, will result in unfair concessions for food producers and a disproportionate effect on other sectors of the economy. The blunt solution suggested by detractors is that Ireland should, as a responsible global citizen, reduce food production in order to meet the mandated emissions targets.

The truth is that Ireland's high rainfall combined with our grass-based feeding system makes for a sustainable beef production environment compared with other regions of the world. Within the European Union the average CO2 output per kilogram of beef is 22.1kg, whereas in Ireland it is 14pc lower at 19kg. Put simply, swapping an Irish cow for one somewhere else in Europe will actually increase the overall global carbon footprint, even if it helps Ireland hit emissions targets.

It is worth considering the broader sector context. While Irish agriculture contributes 32pc of total Irish emissions, agriculture worldwide contributes only 12pc, with energy production contributing 75pc. This gives an idea of the scale of the challenge facing us all.

Ireland also has a natural advantage in terms of carbon sequestration - the removal of carbon from the atmosphere and its long-term storage. The carbon released in the production of beef for example, is offset by that carbon being stored by the grassland, soils and forestry on Irish farms. Our climate is naturally ideal for grass production, and carbon sequestration should be taken into account when looking at national emissions - currently it is not.

Reducing emissions is important, and at Dawn we have made huge efforts to address the environmental sustainability of our business. We introduced a group sustainability plan in 2009 which made core commitments to reduce our environmental footprint including: a 50pc reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020; a 40pc reduction in water and energy use by 2020; and a 50pc increase in recycling of waste by the end of this year.

To date, we have achieved annual water savings of 56m litres and reduced thermal energy consumption by 50pc across all sites. Among the most ambitious projects to date has been our development of a seven-acre wetland and eco-park in Carrolls Cross, Co Waterford, a low-carbon effluent treatment method, improving biodiversity and also sequestering carbon. Carrolls Cross was also the site of our first fossil fuel-free plant in 2014 reducing our dependency on non-renewable energy and the associated carbon emissions.

Dawn Meats and many of our industry peers have supported and driven initiatives such as Bord Bia's Origin Green programme which is helping Irish food producers demonstrate to international customers the verifiable achievements being made to ensure supply chain sustainability. The industry has recognised and advocated the importance of a proactive, innovative approach from an early stage.

Origin Green is a global first, with Ireland taking a leadership role in making a commercial virtue of climate-smart agriculture. Irish food producers continue to take huge steps in this area, and given the collective goal of reducing global emissions it would be an exercise in futility to reduce Irish beef production to meet emissions targets, and shift production to less-sustainable production systems overseas.

There is a tendency to view sustainability purely in terms of carbon emissions. Whilst measurements like these are important, sustainable production should be viewed in a more holistic way, recognising the benefits that it can bring to the Irish economy, at a national level, and in towns and villages all around the country.

Finally we need to consider the global food security threat that we face, with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) forecasting a 50pc increase in food demand by 2030. Few would dispute the urgency of the emissions reduction challenge facing Ireland and countries all over the world. It is important, however, that sustainability should take into account the significant contribution to addressing this challenge that Ireland's rich and varied agri-business sector is making in an environmentally responsible way.

We also need to remind ourselves that any drop in food production in this country will quickly be filled by other, less-sustainable locations.

Niall Browne is Chief Executive of Dawn Meats

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