Report shows urgent need need for Irish agriculture to change to produce healthy food with low emissions

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The new IIEA/RDS report on “climate smart agriculture”, which has been launched by Michael Creed TD, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

It shows that Irish agriculture urgently needs to transition towards producing far healthier food with far lower climate emissions.

“This report makes it clear that a healthy planet requires a shift away from large-scale red meat and dairy production and consumption and also that a healthy diet means consuming far less of highly climate-polluting and land intensive foods such as beef and sheep-meat.”

Fintan Kelly, An Taisce’s Natural Environment Officer

Farmers must be supported to use less polluting methods that can support increasing biodiversity and water quality.

This is a very different direction from current policy. The report shows the stark need for large changes in Irish agriculture away from its current livestock focus.

A different course is needed to help address the pressing challenges of increasing global food security and ensuring climate stability.

These realities challenge directly the misleading rhetoric and misguided facts in Department of Agriculture statements and in Bord Bia’s Origin Green marketing programme, which inaccurately claim that business-as-usual, livestock-focused agriculture is climate smart and sustainable.

Overall, current Irish agriculture is neither climate smart nor sustainable.

An Taisce’s Natural Environment Officer, Fintan Kelly, said: “This report makes it clear that a healthy planet requires a shift away from large-scale red meat and dairy production and consumption and also that a healthy diet means consuming far less of highly climate-polluting and land intensive foods such as beef and sheep-meat.

“Unfortunately, government policy is focused in exactly the opposite direction to this report’s analysis by programmes that increase climate emissions and detract from food security, environmental integrity and public health.”

Fintan Kelly continued: “Current policy is unfairly prioritising the profits of the major food producers that export beef and infant formula milk powder predominantly to relatively wealthy consumers.

“It is failing to protect the well-being of very many farmers, the health of the public and the world’s poorest people.

“It is failing to deliver reductions in emissions and to redress the serious negative impacts of agriculture and forestry on biodiversity and water quality.

“These policies need to change in accord with producing healthy food distributed fairly on a planet with a stable climate future.”

The IIEA/RDS report supports An Taisce’s stance that total emissions from agriculture need to fall steadily and rapidly to meet climate targets, including Ireland’s commitment to serious and urgent climate action in line with the Paris Agreement.

Efficiency gains will not lead to cuts in emissions if there are more cattle. Ireland’s herd is now expanding to over seven million cattle with a 30% planned increase in higher emissions dairy cattle.

The new report emphasises the importance of reducing emissions to increase food security and reduce hunger and the need for coherent approaches.

Feeding fertiliser-boosted grass and feed to ruminant animals, cattle and sheep, produces large amounts of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas adding significantly to global warming. This is not climate smart agriculture.

Furthermore, the significant additional compliance costs for failing to meet EU emissions targets to 2020 and 2030 are likely to be borne by the Irish taxpayer even though most of the consumers of Irish beef and dairy are in other nations.

However, the IIEA/RDS report fails to fully detail the shortcomings in the current policy plan to allow increased afforestation and biomass energy use to make up for the projected failure in emissions reduction from continued, large-scale, livestock agriculture.

This plan is contrary to climate science which shows that forestry cannot provide the essential permanent removal of carbon dioxide that forestry cannot provide.

It also depends on deeply flawed EU accounting for emissions from burning biomass that are incorrectly being counted as carbon neutral when in fact it often has very high emissions.

Speaking for An Taisce, Fintan Kelly continued: “A different food future is possible, one that supports farmers to produce more food and that genuinely addresses food security with far lower impacts on climate and the environment.

“A rapid transition, away from large scale livestock production, is needed toward more mixed farming with high nature value grazing, higher value-added outputs in specialised areas where markets welcome extensive rather than intensive production systems, and increased native forestry.

“Ireland’s agriculture would then really begin to cut emissions and deliver for healthy diets. Farmers, the public and the environment that sustains us would benefit greatly from this change.”

Despite some confusing contradictions evident in its opening framing, in its main section this report solidly details the research-supported reasons why Ireland’s current agriculture is failing to be climate smart, and why it is not delivering for public health, global food security or for the security of farmers.

The current policy increases the likelihood of future shocks in the food system here and in much poorer nations.