Climate Action and Low Carbon Development in Agriculture

In Agriculture, Blog, Environment by Denis Naughten

Speech by Denis Naughten TD,

Dáil Éireann

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

While agricultural production emits methane into the atmosphere, we also need to acknowledge that food production takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The key issue, therefore, is not methane production but the increase in the overall volume of methane produced from agriculture. We must also note that throughout the EU, between 2005 and 2016 there has been an 9% reduction in overall cattle numbers. Those who focus on farming being the climate problem conveniently ignore this fact.

In Ireland, our climate action plan set a target for reducing agricultural emissions by 10% between 2017 and 2030. Based on suckler cow numbers, emission reductions of close to 10% were achieved in 2018 and 2019 alone. While we have achieved the 13-year target for the suckler sector within 24 months, albeit for the wrong reasons, and while this may help us to meet the national climate target, in a perverse way it will do more to damage the planet in terms of global warming. That is because we count climate emissions based on the country where the food or product is produced, not where it is purchased or consumed. Even though 90% of our beef is exported, Ireland is penalised for being the most carbon efficient beef exporter within the EU because the rules state the responsibility is on the producer rather than the consumer. Relatively carbon-efficient beef production in Ireland can, therefore, be replaced throughout the Union with beef that is 35 times worse for the environment from the Amazon basin. That is okay, according to climate mathematicians but not the atmosphere.

We have a CAP that regulates food production in member states, except when it comes to climate emissions when we have a national cap, not an EU cap. This completely undermines carbon efficient food production in favour of cheap food, regardless of its climate impact and regardless of where it comes from. We need an EU-wide methane cap for agriculture that supports carbon efficient beef production in Ireland, which is good for reducing global climate emissions, and grass-fed beef on low-intensity grassland such as that produced in Ireland that has a lower negative impact on soil erosion, biodiversity and nutrient leaching than other beef production models – another fact that is conveniently ignored by those who focus on farming being the climate problem.

Grass-based systems on disadvantaged land types in much of Ireland remove carbon from the atmosphere and convert it into human protein on land that is not suitable for tillage crops. That does not mean that agriculture and farming should have a free pass. The fact is that managing our land use better can take even more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing its harmful effects on the climate and the oceans far quicker than shutting down farming. For example, those who were so jubilant about the closure of Shannonbridge and Lanesborough power stations ignored the fact that one of the key objectives behind co-firing of the stations was to build up demand rapidly for locally-sourced biomass. The principal reason for the lack of biomass in Ireland has been the absence of any proven demand for energy crops that would attract farmers. If we were to operate our current peat-fired plants with 100% locally-sourced biomass, this would reduce agricultural emissions on local farms by 600,000 tonnes of carbon each year. This would be the equivalent of the removal of 130,000 cars from our roads, generating €372 per ha with the price of carbon at €80 per tonne. This would create 4,000 seasonal jobs in harvesting while guaranteeing the income to farmers right across the midland counties.

Another good example is Gowla Farms outside Ballyforan, County Galway where members of my family worked in the 1970s producing dried grass for animal feeds.

With one of the best grass production systems in the world, we should be focused on the development of new grass-based solutions to meet our current and future food and energy needs, but our research community is behind the curve. Everything seems to be dictated by Food Wise 2025, which is about supporting existing agribusiness rather than the viability of family farms and our environment. The centralised nature of research and development funding in Ireland through Teagasc is creating a knowledge cartel. Research needs to move closer to the farmer and include and reward a wide range of farmers to get involved. That is why, with the support of the Minister and the Cabinet, I established the climate action fund to support new thinking and innovation, with the sole focus of reducing Ireland’s emissions. This is the largest per capita sovereign fund of its type globally.

In light of what I have just said about methane, will the Minister commit to immediately reviewing the current scientific basis for enteric methane emissions from our national herd, as well as the impact of grassland, soil and hedgerow management on carbon sequestration in advance of any restructuring of the CAP? The carbon value of soil, hedgerows and other farm stock needs to be measured and monitored and any increase in value returned directly to farmers’ pockets.

I welcomed the announcement last October by the Minister for Finance of an allocation of €3 million for piloting new agri-environmental schemes this year. The goal was to reduce emissions from the agriculture sector while improving biodiversity and water quality and supporting farm incomes. Has this money been drawn down and, if so, was it drawn down under existing or new pilot schemes? Would it make sense to consider expanding the current, successful smart farming pilot, led by the EPA, which has seen a 10% reduction in carbon emissions from all farm types, and to support new initiatives such as carbon-neutral beef production? Has consideration been given to designing an agricultural system around nutritional sovereignty? This would mean Ireland would move to being an 80% to 100% food-secure nation. The supply chain should be incentivised to embrace localised food systems and resources should be mobilised to ensure that new horticultural industries are developed to support such a goal.

We need to try to generate, innovate and support new thinking about the climate challenges we have in this country. The difficulty is with those who are promoting the climate agenda to date. They take an initiative that has been developed elsewhere in continental Europe and try to shoehorn it into the model in Ireland, which just will not work because we have a very different model of agriculture. We have a dispersed rural population, which is not the case anywhere else in Europe. We need to engage at EU level with the type of challenges we have here and to try to put forward specific innovative solutions. That will require support from the research community here and answers to the questions I have just asked.

The Minister will argue that the research community is doing its bit for the agricultural sector. His officials will be aware of the collaborative working group on sustainable animal production, established by the EU standing committee on agricultural research. It is collating data that will, ultimately, feed into EU policy development. It has produced a study on the drivers of change and development in the EU livestock sector. That is very important in Ireland because, in terms of agricultural activity, we are more dependent on livestock than any other EU country, at 74%. I read the committee’s report. The committee had asked 251 experts from across the EU to complete a questionnaire, based on their expertise as an economist, agricultural scientist or member of a farming association, to consolidate knowledge about EU livestock policy throughout Europe. Of the 251 surveys sent to every EU member state, I was surprised when I saw the number of responses from Ireland considering that it is so dependent on livestock.

Not a single questionnaire was sent back from Ireland. If the Irish research sector cannot advocate for us in Europe among its own agricultural research community, what hope do farmers have of getting a fair deal out of the CAP?