Farmers must act on 'off-kilter' emissions
Boss Arnold believes more forestry required if ag sector wants to maintain national cattle herd
Farmers have been warned to stop 'codding' themselves into thinking that their lower-than-average greenhouse gas emissions will save them from any limits on expansion in the future.
By 2020, the EPA environmental watchdog has estimated that industries, including agriculture, will be releasing 6-11pc more carbon than allowed under the national emissions ceilings.
Based on current trends, farming will be responsible for 45pc of those emissions in Ireland, with transport the next most important sector.
"Somebody is going to pay for this, and it's time for us to be honest," said Tom Arnold, the former Concern chief executive-turned-boss of the Institute of International and European Affairs. "Agriculture is not going to get a freepass on this, even if Irish producers are among the most carbon efficient in the world.
"There may have to be a trade-off between the size of the national herd and the forestry sector in the medium to long-term future to allow Ireland to become more sustainable," said Mr Arnold, who addressed the ICOS sustainability conference in Dublin.
"Obviously trees consume carbon and cows emit it. At the moment, the balance between the two is off kilter." The warning comes as Bord Bia yesterday launched new 'green' targets for the country's multi-billion euro agriculture industry.
Bord Bia claimed Ireland's beef industry could become the most carbon efficient in Europe, while generating an additional €300m on-farm income a year. The analysis claims greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture could be slashed by 6pc, or a million tonnes of carbon if sustainability measures on the lower-performing beef and dairy farms reached the national average.
Currently Ireland's dairy herd has the joint-lowest carbon footprint in the EU, while the beef herd is ranked at number five.
Discussions have been intensifying ahead of world leaders meeting in Paris next month to strike a global deal on curbing emissions over the coming decades.
Mr Arnold said that the industry needed to start analysing the numbers behind the latest growth plan in Food Wise 2025 for the food sector.
"We are not going to be able to cod ourselves on this," he added.
He also stressed the importance of delivering higher genetic merit animals to reduce emissions.
"That should be the priority before adding to numbers. We can make great strides through better breeding programmes and that has to be a priority," he said.
Eddie Punch, the ICSA general secretary, said there was a compelling case to maximise production of beef and dairy in Ireland as it is a sustainable grass-based system.
Mr Punch said that grass also sequesters carbon but it was often "ignored" in the debate. Both Harold Kingston, the IFA's environment spokesman, and the ICMSA's John Comer argued that simply reducing emissions to cut production would be counter productive as it would be produced in less efficient areas.
Mr Arnold warned that the environmental issues go beyond the farm gate, and processors and retailers also have a role to play. He added that incentives would have to be put in place to ensure farmers invest in biomass crops such as forestry.
Former ESRI Economist John Fitzgerald said the odds are "stacked against farmers" who want to grow biomass crops.
Mr Fitzgerald said there was "no simplistic" answer but a system was needed that benefitted both farmers and the environment.
"We need more biomass carbon-consuming production. Do we need to reduce our cattle numbers for that? It is much too early to tell. We need more research," he said.