Where greenwashing meet brainwashing

The piece below appeared in mid-December on the investigative website, DeSmog UK. I wanted to shine a light on the subtle agri-industrial marketing machinery which is cranking out ever increasing quantities of material aimed at the youngest and most impressionable target audience – primary school children – and meeting virtually zero resistance or even basic oversight from either civil servants, regulators or teachers’ unions, who you might think would be concerned at the dubious provenance of much of this cleverly packaged propaganda material. It is being developed and distributed almost exclusively by the intensive livestock (beef/dairy) sector in a bid to fend off growing public concern at the ecological and climate impacts of this type of  farming. Rather than addressing the actual problems and coming up with solutions to protect biodiversity and reduce emissions (ie. steps necessitating a fundamental re-think of the business model) the focus is instead to dial up the greenwashing, in the hope of creating sufficient public confusion that effective regulation is delayed or watered down. For lobbyists to make their case through the usual channels is fair enough. I am a lot less convinced of the ethics of direct marketing of industry talking points to young children.

BIG AG PROPONENTS are influencing classrooms in Ireland with learning materials that misrepresent the role of agriculture in contributing to climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss, DeSmog can reveal. This undue influence is occurring due to a lack of government oversight of educational resources provided to primary schools.

Agriculture industry-funded organisations have for decades been operating at a low level in the educational field in Ireland, but this has been ramped up this year. The industry has introduced a range of elaborate materials, from workbooks and posters to children’s rhymes, to counter public concern over the environmental and climate impacts of livestock agriculture in particular, and to counter the growing popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets among the young.

Globally, the livestock industry is under pressure, as the production of just meat and dairy products generates 14.5 percent of all emissions  greater than the emissions from every car, bus, lorry, train, aircraft and ship in the world. Last year’s special report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presented plant-based diets as a major opportunity for climate mitigation.

Ireland’s National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is charged with advising the Minister for Education & Skills on “early childhood education, primary and post-primary schools”.

However, a spokesperson confirmed that “the NCCA has no remit in deciding what materials are sent into schools. Schools receive numerous different offers of schemes, programmes, projects, competitions, initiatives etc. and it is for schools to decide themselves what materials they use to provide children with appropriate learning experiences.”

Agri Aware

In the absence of expert independent educational scrutiny, a number of agri-industry-funded initiatives have been developing what they describe as “curriculum-ready” materials, which are then generally distributed free of charge to schools.

One such organisation, Agri Aware, is a charitable trust controlled and funded by a consortium of agricultural industry players, including Ornua, Glanbia, Kerry, the Irish Food Board and the Irish Farmers Association (IFA). Last month, the group distributed a series of four 60-page workbooks under the title “Dig In” to over 3,200 primary schools.

In the workbook’s section titled “Healthy trees, healthy air”, it explains that: “The animals on the farm inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Animals and humans need oxygen to stay alive and healthy.” However, there is no mention of the key greenhouse gas emitted by ruminants like cows and sheep: methane. A graphic accompanying the section shows what purports to be a circular flow of trees emitting oxygen, which is taken up by cows, who breathe out CO2, which trees then absorb.

Commenting on this section, Professor John Sweeney, a climatologist at Maynooth University, told DeSmog: “The simplistic and one-sided language in this publication presents a misleading educational message. There is no acknowledgement for example that the ‘animals on the farm’ also exhale high levels of Ireland’s most problematical greenhouse gas, methane, which is 86 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year period”.

Sweeney also rejected the notion that trees cancel out Irish ruminant emissions, pointing out that the latter is four times greater than all emissions removed by forestry. The workbook also describes Ireland’s carbon footprint as “relatively small”. In fact, Ireland has the third highest per capita emissionsin the European Union.

DeSmog sent a detailed list of questions to Agri Aware CEO, Marcus O’Halloran, including about an October tweet where the group claimed that methane “only lasts for 10 years in the atmosphere”. While the gas breaks down over the course of roughly a decade, methane continues to have a lengthy and powerful warming impact long after that. O’Halloran declined to comment.

The “Dig In” workbook series also downplays biodiversity loss, with language such as: “Farmers also protect the environment by caring for the hedgerows, which ensures that biodiversity is protected”.

Commenting on Agri Aware’s long-running schools programme, which was first launched in 2013, Pádraic Fogarty, campaigns officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust, described its materials as “part of the industry-funded greenwashing campaign that sets out to gloss over the serious environmental problems associated with agriculture in Ireland”.

Fogarty added: “In hoodwinking people into believing our farming model is environmentally friendly, it provides cover for catastrophic biodiversity loss, including extinction of species, pollution of waterways and emissions of climate changing gases. This type of greenwashing is therefore especially pernicious”.

Agri Aware also issued a recent poster on “Organic Farming Facts”, which infers low-impact, nature-friendly farming is the norm in Ireland. In reality, though, barely 2 percent of Irish land is farmed organically  among the lowest in the EU.

The director of Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency, Laura Burke, last month delivered a blunt assessment of the true impacts of the sector: “The economic growth in recent years is happening at the expense of the environment as witnessed by the trends in water quality, emissions and biodiversity all going in the wrong direction.” Ireland’s “green” reputation, Burke added, “is largely not supported by evidence”.

Despite its controversial contents, the “Dig In” programme is supported by Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, as well as the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), which has a member on the board of Agri Aware; Agri Aware, in turn, is closely tied to the powerful agri lobby group, the IFA, its CEO is a former IFA employee.

National Dairy Council

Another lobby group, the National Dairy Council (NDC) also actively promotes industry messaging to schools. Its “Moo Crew” programme features school materials such as posters and booklets. One poster claims: “Grasslands soak up carbon from the atmosphere, helping to partly offset some of the carbon emissions produced by agriculture”. However, according to EPA data, Irish grasslands are a net source of nearly 7 million tons of CO2 annually.

The NDC also claims that “Irish dairy farms have one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world”. Regional variations aside, livestock-based agricultural systems are almost invariably much more carbon-intensive than food production for direct human consumption. This is why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explicitly called for a major dietary shift towards a more plant-based diets.

This point was borne out in a 2017 study published by the European Parliament, which found that Irish agriculture (which is dominated by beef and dairy production) was the least climate-efficient in the EU. Irish agriculture was found to produce the most greenhouse gases per euro of output.

The Moo Crew project is supported by the Department of Agriculture and includes such overt marketing tactics in the educational materials as directing teachers to “ask pupils to think of new ways they can incorporate milk, yoghurt and cheese into their diets”.

Despite describing itself as a “national council”, the NDC is in fact “a private, farmer-funded marketing agency”, which is deploying dairy industry marketing strategies in the classroom to influence young children, using materials that are presented as purely educational.

An NDC spokesperson told DeSmog that it “engages with teachers on a regular basis, including focus groups, to ensure the resources are appropriate and developed in line with the Irish Primary School Curriculum”. The NDC, she added, “is aligned with the Department of Agriculture to deliver the EU School Milk Scheme to primary schools in Ireland”.

Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue recently stated he was aware of the pressures farmers feel from environmentalism, animal welfare activists and what he described as “the anti-dairy brigade”. Because of the political strength of the agri-food lobby in Ireland, ministers rarely challenge or seriously attempt to regulate the sector and instead are more likely to repeat industry talking points.

Irish Farmers Association-funded booklet

Another senior politician, foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney, took time out from Brexit negotiations to endorse a booklet called “Irish Food A-Z”, which is currently being distributed to over 3,000 primary schools and teacher training colleges, with funding from the IFA as well as meat factories and other agri-industrial interests.

The booklet, written by a former CEO of Agri Aware, is described as “curriculum-linked” and “science-based”, but its content is largely a series of industry PR points presented as rhymes, such as the following:

“Carbon comes from the fuel in a car, bus or plane, It even comes from our lovely cattle walking down the lane! Irish food is mainly grass-fed, with animals grazing as they grow. Our family farming on Irish land helps keep carbon emissions low.”

The author, who has a PhD in ruminant nutrition, declined to provide DeSmog with a copy of the Teachers’ Notes that accompany the booklet into schools.

When Education Minister Norma Foley was questioned on 8 December in Parliament on her views on the “proliferation of non-curricular publications seeking to target primary school children”, she confirmed the government’s laissez faire approach. She said the department “does not have a role in approving, commissioning, sponsoring or endorsing any content in any private programme delivered in schools … teachers and principals are best placed to determine the suitability of a resource for the children that they teach.”

This approach has allowed private commercial agri-industrial lobby groups, with the overt support of government departments and in some cases, EUfunding, to flood Irish schools with misleading educational material supporting commercial agendas.

This is despite a report last year by the joint Oireachtas (Parliamentary) Committee on Climate Action which pointed out that today’s children will be more impacted by climate change than any other generation. At the time, it recommended “they be given the necessary educational training on climate change and its consequences, both nationally and globally”.

Posted in Agriculture, Biodiversity, Global Warming, Irish Focus | 1 Comment

Agri emissions plan a roadmap to nowhere

In the absence of action, the next best thing is to look busy, and Ireland’s agri-industrial sector and its many boosters in politics and the civil and public service have elevated this frenzy of inaction to something of a performance art. This reached new levels of theatre with the publication earlier this month of the latest report to engage in the pretence that it is possible to rein in agri emissions while expanding the ruminant herd, including the most emissions-intensive of ruminants – dairy cows. My report below was published in the Business Post.

IF THE ISSUES at stake were not so serious, it would be almost enjoyable watching politicians, department officials and agri industry lobbyists attempting to talk up the publication this week of the government’s woeful ‘Ag Climatise’ Roadmap.

The agri sector is in fact awash with roadmaps. Barely two weeks ago, Teagasc, the state agricultural research authority, published its ‘2027 sectoral roadmap’ for the dairy sector. Too many roadmaps can, it seem, leave you driving around in circles.

Perhaps in describing its report as a roadmap ‘towards climate neutrality’, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine was subtly telegraphing a plan that would appear to be constantly in motion, while never actually arriving at any destination.

The sense of temporal vagueness is also reflected in the foreword by Minister Charlie McConologue, who talks about “the medium to longer term” and things having to “evolve over time”.

It is only against this background of soothing waffle can the true intent of this latest report be fully understood. This dazzling yet elusive future where all the problems of the industry will merge and vanish into a policy singularity is caught later in the report, when it breathlessly explains how advances in science, tech and innovations are “merging the physical, digital and biological worlds”.

No amount of verbiage can disguise the sheer vacuity of this report, which could be summed up with the phrase: we’ve tried nothing, and now we’re all out of ideas. Yet the central problem – spiralling agri sector emissions and pollution largely fuelled by rapid expansion of dairying – is simple to identify, yet seemingly impossible to remedy.

The reason Ag Climatise is dead-on-arrival is hidden in plain sight in Teagasc’s dairy roadmap. Here, it explains, in the midst of Ireland having declared a climate and biodiversity emergency, how milk output is going to increase by some 1.5 billion litres by 2027.

More milk means more cows. More cows mean even more methane, more ammonia and more fertilizers. All the industry limbo dancing about “efficiencies” cannot escape this basic equation. Between 2016-2019, the Dutch government was forced to cull its dairy herd by 11 per cent to combat spiralling phosphate pollution which breached the EU’s Nitrates Directive.

This hasn’t happened in Ireland – yet – but the writing is on the wall. The EPA’s submission to the consultation on Ag Climatise warned: “the environmental sustainability trends for water quality, air quality, greenhouse gasses and biodiversity are all going in the wrong direction.”

The overall success of Ag Climatise, the authority added, “will depend on the ability of the sector to reverse these trends in a measurable, verifiable and reportable manner”. The burning question remains: can this be done while ruminant numbers continue to climb?

This was answered in a Teagasc report from June 2018 which explained how “any reductions attributable to improved emissions intensity of produce would be partly or fully negated due to increases in total animal numbers and could even result in an increase of national GHGs”.

They went on to warn about the “rebound and backfire effects from increased efficiency”. In other words, as long as the herd grows, so too do all the associated problems of emissions and pollution.

This point could hardly be any clearer, yet the Ag Climatise report twists and turns through 30 pages and 29 ‘Actions’, even noting that 80 per cent of emissions are “related directly to the number of animals”, yet is never once prepared to take the cow by the horns and propose calling a halt to the policy of dairy expansion and intensification.

Teagasc employs many of the best agricultural scientists in the country and carries out valuable research and training work. Yet, on this crunch issue of curbing emissions, its Roadmap is hopelessly misguided and clearly out of step with even the work of its own scientists. Why?

Teagasc is governed by an 11-person Authority, five of whom, including the Chair, are dairy farmers. Tillage farmers I have spoken with feel like second class citizens. Despite being far better for domestic food security, pollution and emissions, the sector has been sidelined in the rush for ‘white gold’. How innocent do you to have to be to imagine that the over-representation of dairy interests on its Authority has no impact?

It would however be entirely unfair to blame Teagasc for the dismal failure that is Ag Climatise. That is owned by the Department of Agriculture itself, which has for years stymied meaningful climate action at every turn.

This shambles also turns up the heat on the Green Party. Junior minister, Pippa Hackett was rolled out to welcome the “ambitious actions” in the roadmap, but shortly afterwards, sent an email to party colleagues to try to explain away its abject failure of ambition, noting the plan for a 15 per cent agri emissions cut over 10 years was an awful lot less than the 7 per cent per annum the government has signed up to.

Next year, she says, things will be different, when the Climate Bill is enacted. Parliamentary party colleague Neasa Hourigan TD tweeted her dismay at Ag Climate, which she called “deeply worrying”, a sentiment that is shared far beyond the party.

Even within the hobbled ambitions of Ag Climatise, there are commitments that stretch credulity. For instance, it proposes 60 per cent low emissions slurry spreading by 2022, but in the entire last 20 years, barely 4 per cent has been achieved.

It didn’t have to be like this. A 2008 paper by Teagasc scientist, James Humphreys noted the marked improvement in Irish agriculture’s performance on emissions and ammonia, stating these were “as a result of declining ruminant livestock populations and declining fertilizer nitrogen use”.

The economic crash later that year changed everything. The incoming Fine Gael-led government in 2011 decided economic growth was all that mattered, and wrote the agri-industrial sector a blank check to engage in headlong expansion, a policy even Fine Gael’s wily European Commissioner, Phil Hogan warned would eventually end in tears. He wasn’t wrong.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
Posted in Agriculture, Agriculture, Economics, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Irish Focus | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Epic Arctic meltdown portends radically altered future

I first wrote about the fate of the Arctic region in April 2008, in the wake of huge melt events in 2005 and September 2007. I returned to the topic in September 2012, a year in which an area of sea ice 41 times larger than the island of Ireland disappeared in late summer, setting off alarm bells globally. The ominous trend has continued, with 2019 tied with 2007 and 2016 as the worst years. And, right on cue, 2020 recorded the second lowest sea ice summer minimum ever. My report below appeared this month in the new climate supplement to the Sunday Times. We won’t truly realise just how much we depend on the Arctic ice cover until it’s gone.

EARLY LAST month, a small metal cylinder was found washed up on the shores of Bloody Foreland in Donegal. It was a time-capsule that had been embedded in the ice at the north pole in August 2018 by the crew of the ice-breaker ‘50 Years of Victory’, with a view to it being uncovered in the distant future by other Arctic explorers.

Instead, in a little over two years, the capsule had broken free from the rapidly melting polar sea ice and drifted over 3,700 kilometres before finally beaching near Gweedore.
This extraordinary incident is a stark reminder both of how dramatically the Arctic is now destabilising, as well as how intimately Ireland is connected by the ocean currents to this seemingly remote and distant region.

The Arctic ocean has been continuously covered in ice for the last 2.7 million years. This long climatic era is now coming to an abrupt end, with profound and far-reaching consequences. The impacts of this epic unfolding event are already being felt across the entire northern hemisphere.

This vast area covers around 20 million square kilometres, which is more than twice the size of the USA. Arctic temperatures have been rising three times faster than the global average, with record-smashing heatwaves sweeping the Arctic Circle in 2019 and again this year.

From January to June this year, much of Siberia was gripped by an intense heatwave, which scientists estimate was made 600 times more likely as a result of global warming. The Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, well inside the Arctic Circle, saw temperatures hit 38º Centigrade this July. This is nearly 5ºC warmer than the hottest temperature ever recorded in Ireland.

The extreme heat has fanned unprecedented wildfires, with more than 14 million hectares of Siberian peatlands burned this year. Scientists have detected ‘zombie’ peat fires from 2019 which continued to smoulder under the snow and ice right through last winter and which, as soon as the ice began to melt last spring, once again burst into flames.
In the Canadian Arctic, scientists discovered that permafrost in the region is thawing out some 70 years earlier than projected. They calculate the area is now warmer than at any time in at least the last 5,000 years. Ominously, this permafrost contains vast amounts of frozen carbon.

Researchers estimate that as much as 240 billion tons of carbon dioxide and methane – both powerful heat-trapping gases – may be released this century as the permafrost continues to thaw. This will accelerate dangerous climate change globally and greatly hamper efforts to stabilise the climate system.

While permafrost melt is a serious concern, equally grave has been the dramatic loss of summer sea ice. Its levels in 2020 were the second lowest ever recorded. Sea ice helps keep the Arctic region cool, while also reflecting up to 80 per cent of incoming sunlight.
As this ice melts, the exposed dark ocean waters absorb up to 90 per cent of sunlight, triggering a self-reinforcing cycle of warmer water melting more ice, leading to further warming and melt. Scientists had warned that the Arctic ocean could be completely ice-free in late summer towards the end of this century. However, revised recent estimates say this may now occur by 2035, or possibly earlier.

This will have a profound impact not just on temperatures, but also on ocean currents and weather systems. While there remains great uncertainty as to how this will play out, renowned climate scientist, Dr James Hansen and colleagues have published some deeply worrying projections.

The giant Greenland ice sheet is also experiencing rapid melt; last year, it lost an estimated one million tons of ice per minute. This vast influx of cold fresh water into the north Atlantic risks shutting down major ocean currents. Paradoxically, this could lead to average temperatures in north western Europe falling by around 5ºC. For Ireland, this would likely result in a climate akin to Newfoundland (which is at a similar latitude, but is not warmed by the Gulf Stream), with several months a year of freezing conditions and regular snowfall.

Worse, Hansen argued that the sudden increase in the temperature gradient between the tropics and the north Atlantic would fuel “super-storms, stronger than any in modern times…all hell would break loose in the north Atlantic and surrounding lands”, he warned.
The great Arctic meltdown portends a radically altered, infinitely more dangerous world.

The outcome of global efforts to sharply cut emissions over the next decade or so will likely decide its future – and ours.

– John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism

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Biden throws floundering global climate action a lifeline

The article below appeared earlier this month in the Business Post. One crucial first step in tackling the climate crisis is for politicians to say ‘no’ to dirty money from the powerful fossil fuel lobby (who notoriously have spent freely in recent decades to spread denial and disinformation about climate science). In the lead-in to the election, Biden made all the right noises, though there has been dismay at his recent appointment of a senior adviser with a long track record of taking money from oil, gas and chemical industry interests. Still, given his monumental achievement in freeing the US (at least for now) from the grip of authoritarianism, there is good reason to cut the incoming president some slack in sorting out his new team.

FOR A LIFE-LONG centrist, Joe Biden’s climate agenda is surprisingly radical. And there was no clearer statement of intent than his campaign’s outright refusal to accept funding “from oil, gas and coal corporations or executives.”

Tangling with the US fossil fuel industry is a high-risk strategy. In the 2018 US mid-term elections, the industry flooded $84 million in funding for Congressional races, with almost all the cash going to candidates opposed to environmental regulation. Far more money will have been spent this year.

Then, in the final presidential debate, Biden went further than any other candidate in history, when he stated bluntly: “I would transition away from the oil industry, yes… this industry pollutes significantly and it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”

Donald Trump pounced on what was seen as a potentially fatal gaffe, playing up the perceived threat to jobs in swing states, Pennsylvania and Texas, both major fossil fuel producers. Biden held his nerve, and, more importantly, went on to flip Pennsylvania.

Biden’s progressive $2 trillion ‘Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution’ aims to put the US on the path to 100 per cent clean energy and net zero emissions by 2050.  Part of his plan is to end domestic fossil fuel subsidies, while using US influence to push for a worldwide ban.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), globally, fossil fuel subsidies are actually increasing, and their associated ‘negative externalities’, such as public heath, environmental and climate impacts, amounted to a staggering $5.3 trillion in 2015 alone.

Under new leadership, Biden proposes that the US can be “the world’s clean energy superpower”, with millions of jobs in sunrise renewable energy industries delivering a post-Covid boost towards US economic recovery. China today outspends the US by a ratio of 3:1 on clean energy investment, a gap Biden is determined to bridge and close this decade.

If this all sounds too progressive to be true, Biden has a powerful ally on climate action from an unlikely quarter: the US military. In early 2019, the Department of Defense warned that climate change posed a “national security issue”, both in terms of its direct negative impacts on military assets such as bases and in worsening regional and global political destabilisation.

The US military defines climate change as a “threat multiplier”, one that magnifies geopolitical and extreme weather-related risks worldwide. In response, Biden has committed to designating climate change as a national security priority.

While Trump and his science-denying administration had completely disengaged the US from global climate diplomacy, most notably the Paris Agreement, as well as scrapping Obama era environmental rules such as the Clean Power Act, these were done by a series of presidential executive orders, which Biden has already committed to immediately reversing.

Determined to restore US leadership on the international stage, Biden commits in his first 100 days to convening a summit of major carbon-emitting nations to pressure them to commit to more ambitious national emissions targets in line with the science, and to extend these to global shipping and aviation.

Among the earliest major environmental initiatives on the Biden agenda are to block oil and gas leasing on federal lands. He has also committed to reversing Trump era moves to weaken emissions standards for the electricity and transport sectors.

Actions like these can be pushed through via presidential executive orders, but risk being challenged in the increasingly conservative US courts.

That’s the easy bit. After that, it’s a distinctly uphill climb, given that Republicans are likely to regain control of the US Senate and will be keen to stymie the new president at every turn.

What is likely to remain elusive for Biden is the implementation of wide-ranging climate legislation. That would require firm control of Congress, which is unlikely to happen this side of the 2022 mid-term elections.

Biden was vice-president in 2009 when Barack Obama used up much of his political capital steering the Affordable Care Act into law. By the time he tried to enact comprehensive climate legislation in 2010, the opportunity was lost.

While Biden has been in national politics for five decades and previously showed limited interest in climate as a political issue, as the situation has grown graver in recent years, his thinking has clearly shifted towards far more transformative action.

The fact that climate impacts disproportionately affect people of colour and poorer communities has also coloured Biden’s view, framing it as a social justice issue as much as a scientific one.

While the coal industry-funded Kentucky senator, Mitch McConnell is likely to trip Biden up in the Senate, the incoming president, in the words of one energy lobbyist, “gets the racket” and knows how to build alliances on Capitol Hill like few others.

And, where Obama failed a decade ago, the crucial tail-wind that Biden now enjoys is that the US public is today far more concerned about climate impacts than it was back then. A recent study found that 26 per cent of Americans were “alarmed” about climate change, with a further 28 per cent “concerned”.

Notably, the number of “alarmed” Americans has more than doubled in just the last five years, as extreme weather events, from record-smashing fires, heatwaves, droughts and hurricane activity have all ratcheted upwards.

Behind the Trumpian rhetoric and partisan flag-waving, in reality, fewer than one in five Americans are actually “dismissive” or even “doubtful” about climate change. The ultimate test of the Biden presidency will be whether he can parlay this new-found awareness into concrete action.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism

 

 

Posted in Global Warming, Sceptics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Stirring up tensions between farmers and environmentalists

This piece appears  in the current edition of Village magazine. As a rule, I steer clear of articles focusing on individuals, preferring when possible to stick to the issues rather than personalities. Given the central role of RTÉ presenter Damien O’Reilly in this story, I’ve had to bend that rule somewhat, but the issues involved have nothing whatever to do with him as an individual; rather, they involve the commercial and editorial nexus between our national broadcaster and lobbying organisations.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT in October that RTÉ’s radio programme ‘Countrywide’ had entered into a 12-month sponsorship deal with the Irish Farmers Journal (IFJ) represents an unusual, arguably unprecedented departure.

The IFJ is bound at the hip with Ireland’s most powerful agricultural lobbying group, the Irish Farmers Association (IFA). The two organisations share the same premises in Bluebell, Dublin and are historically intertwined.

The IFJ pays the IFA annual fees running into tens of thousands of euros for what it says are access to the Association’s resources. That’s how close the relationship is. Essentially, therefore, RTÉ has entered a sponsorship deal for its flagship agricultural current affairs programme with the publishing wing of agri industry lobbyists.

The fact that both the IFA and IFJ have actively promoted climate denial and, more recently, used almost identical selective information to play down the role of methane as a powerful greenhouse gas underlines their unity of purpose.

Given that emissions reduction is the number one challenge facing the agricultural sector, it no surprise this is also a major source of conflict.

In recent years, the expansionary ambitions of the dairy sector in particular have drawn it into ever greater conflict with environmental and ecological limits, from emissions to air and water pollution.

For instance, since 2015, overall agricultural emissions have risen by around 8%, at a time when they were legally mandated to fall. In the same period, marked decreases in air and water quality have been largely attributed to aggressive dairy sector expansion and dramatic increases in the tonnage of nitrogen being spread on Irish grasslands.

Overall, Ireland’s agricultural sector accounts for around 34% of national emissions, a share wholly disproportionate either to the size or economic value of the industry. The problem overwhelmingly relates to methane emissions from ruminant agriculture, principally dairy and beef cattle.

The relative contribution of Ireland’s tillage and horticulture sectors to pollution is, in contrast, negligible. Pollution therefore is tied closely to the type of agriculture a country chooses to concentrate on, and Ireland has gone squarely for the most emissions-intensive form of agriculture (intensive dairying) at the worst possible time from the point of view of our national efforts to cut emissions.

Despite spending tens of millions of taxpayers’ money on PR strategies such as Bord Bia’s ‘Origin Green’ programme portraying Ireland as a producer of clean, ecologically low-impact food, the spin has been at variance with the facts.

EPA director general, Laura Burke recently confirmed that Irish farming’s “green” reputation is simply not supported by evidence. “Taking the (agri) sector as a whole, the economic growth in recent years is happening at the expense of the environment, as witnessed by the trends in water quality, emissions and biodiversity all going in the wrong direction”.

Burke wrote this in the EPA submission to a new agri-food strategy that is being driven by a 31-person committee made up almost entirely of industry players and agri-food lobbyists, with one solitary seat at the table for the entire environmental sector.

In recent years, the agri-industrial sector’s expansionary plans have been challenged by a loose but determined coalition of environmental NGOs*, activists and scientists. This in turn has led to tensions and accusations on both sides of bad faith as well as some name-calling.

Conflict of this kind, given the diametrically differing perspectives of the two sides, is inevitable. I also believe that it’s a sign of a healthy democracy that powerful commercial interests can be called to account for their actions and inactions by concerned citizens, journalists and activists.

It’s worth considering the astonishingly asymmetrical nature of the conflict. On the one side are ranged multinational PLCs, billionaire meat barons and powerful, politically connected lobbyists.

These groups hold deep sway over a host of state and semi-state bodies, from Teagasc to Bord Bia, the Department of Agriculture and the National Dairy Council as well as university agriculture faculties. They also enjoy almost revolving-door media access to promote their messaging.

On the other side are a handful of mostly volunteers, sparsely funded and largely reliant on people donating their time in the public interest.

***************

RTÉ Radio’s flagship agri show, Countrywide airs every Saturday morning, and enjoys a solid audience of predominantly rural and agricultural listeners. Its magazine format gives it appeal to a wider audience.

The formula works. This year, Countrywide won a prize from the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists for a segment titled: ‘Climate change and Irish farming’. As the RTÉ report on the event stated, the judges noted the challenge of bridging the topic of climate change for an audience of both farmers and non-farmers, with one judge adding: “I always appreciate Damien O’Reilly’s knowledge and willingness to ask difficult questions”.

Climate change is the political hot potato for the entire agricultural sector, and Countrywide makes some useful contributions towards bridging the divide. The show’s host, Damien O’Reilly is also a long-standing columnist with the IFJ, the new sponsors of his show.

O’Reilly’s column, titled ‘Backchat’ is ostensibly a light round-up of his weekly musings. However, he does appear to have a particular agenda in mind, as I discovered on examining the IFJ archives.

For instance, in the September 29 edition of the IFJ he wrote: “As we grapple to tackle climate chaos, the incessant attacks on farmers border on the absurd. In the same way alcohol contributes to alcoholism, food production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, yes. But we don’t say ban alcohol to stop alcoholism, but we do say ban beef and dairy to stop climate change”.

He doesn’t identify the exact source of these incessant attacks, other than to pin them on “some environmentalists” who he believes are keen on “sullying ordinary farmers with sweeping broadsides against what they do under the guise of being caring for the environment”.

Quite how O’Reilly is able to mind-read the precise singular intent of these nameless environmentalists is unclear, but he continues: “Like getting in a sly kick in a stampede, the mask often slips and they can’t hide their contempt, using climate change as a handy vehicle on which to push their real agenda which is to rid the planet of animal farming altogether”.

He concludes the column by explaining that those who “peddle the waffle that veganism is the solution to climate destruction antagonise farmers, and understandably so”.

The waffle that globally a major shift away from meat-based diets is essential is also being peddled by almost every major scientific institution globally, as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Last year an IPCC special report on climate change and land described plant-based diets as a “major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change” and the report included a policy recommendation to reduce meat consumption.

And also last year, the influential EAT-Lancet Commission urged a dramatic reduction in the consumption of meat and dairy and a sharp increase in plant-based foods, including the virtual elimination of red meat, both for health and planetary resource reasons.

Two months earlier, in late July, O’Reilly was once again facing down what he calls the “pointed anti-farming sentiment online, which does constructive environmentalists a complete disservice”. As he makes it clear here and elsewhere, what O’Reilly is defending is not agriculture per se, but livestock and dairy farming.

What he identifies as the “core ideology” of the “fiercest critics of livestock farming” is, he argues, clearly irrational. “Place all the complexities involved in the global food chain on a spreadsheet and draw Venn diagrams and you’ll discover that replacing animal production with grain and vegetables to meet a growing global demand for food from a dwindling arable land area is full of contradictions if protecting biodiversity is the goal”. This view is, to say the least, highly debatable.

A month earlier, in late June, O’Reilly argued that “farming is to Ireland what car manufacturing is to Germany”, adding that we need to “pull up our socks in terms of transport, industry and yes, farming”. So far, so reasonable. From here, he digresses into “anecdotes” of children apparently being ashamed to admit they come from farms, adding darkly about “easily impressionable young people… being fed anti-farming propaganda”.

O’Reilly acknowledges that it is possible to have genuine concerns about agri intensification and its impacts on biodiversity, air, soil and water quality. Rather than leave it there, he immediately qualifies it by adding: “But it moves to a more sinister level when it’s used as a cover for hidden agendas or campaigns about animal welfare or big agribusiness. On some of these profiles, peel away a layer and you’ll find profound hatred for everything conventional livestock stands for. It’s dangerous, unsubstantiated and an anathema to what genuine environmentalists and scientists stand for”.

It is characteristic of O’Reilly that he makes concessions but not when he is attacking what he defines as extreme environmentalists, campaigners or journalists.  He almost never actually names them so it is not unfair to infer he is engaging in ‘straw man’ criticisms.

O’Reilly then calls on environmental stakeholders to “shoo away the urban dog whistlers with their self serving anti-ruminant bile”. It might, at this point, be worth reminding readers that these are the considered opinions of RTÉ’s main agricultural presenter. In a column in May 2020, he observed, apparently without irony: “It’s no time for finger pointing”.

Last March, he noted: “There is a dangerous communication vacuum between agriculture and society which is being filled with misinformation and anti-farming sentiment that does nothing for the viability of food production or the environment”. Filling this vacuum with anti-environmental sentiment is probably not helping either.

These outbursts occur again and again in O’Reilly’s column. Going further back, to February 18, he acknowledges that more efforts are needed by farmers on emissions cuts, adding that “any contribution which careless farming makes which negatively impacts on water quality, wildlife and biodiversity can no longer be tolerated”. These are all reasonable points.

From here, it again degenerates quickly. Apparently the message of how hard farmers are working to improve environmental performance is not getting through and as a result, “farmer bashing by trolls and extremists is rampant. The bashing is not so much to criticise farmers regarding climate change but rather to get the hell off the land altogether”.

He pauses briefly to acknowledge the existence of “logical and sensible” environmental campaigners and scientists, before returning with gusto to his theme: “anti-farming extremists are conveniently using the climate emergency to push through their own real agenda which is to rid the world of livestock farming. Peel away the outer layer and you will find that some of those pointing the finger at farming for climate destruction just hate farmers and would otherwise be campaigning on some extreme animal welfare platform”.

Once again, O’Reilly displays an uncanny ability to gaze into the very souls of those with whom he disagrees, to reveal the red-hot core of their irrational, burning hatred for farmers. As an environmentalist and frequent outspoken critic of the negative environmental impacts of the rush to expand the dairy sector in particular, it’s hard not to feel personally affronted by O’Reilly’s rhetoric.

Unlike O’Reilly, I actually grew up on a farm. My late father was a prominent NFA/IFA activist back in the 1960s, at a time when such activism carried real risks: the government was openly threatening to criminalise NFA members by declaring it a proscribed organisation. Probably my earliest childhood memory was the trauma of our family home being raided at dawn by the Special Branch in April 1967.

Just as farmers were marginalised, demonised and pilloried back in the 1960s, in certain quarters some environmentalists are apparently now fair game.

It is hard to imagine that O’Reilly would ever consider making statements like these on his RTÉ radio programme, yet, in the confines of the Farmers Journal he feels able to ventilate at length his apparent loathing for certain environmentalists, vegans, animal rights activists etc.

As previously reported by Village, the IFJ has degraded its hard-won reputation by promoting climate denial in recent years, giving editorial oxygen to crackpot theories and platforming the lunatic fringe of science denial.

In a column last January musing on the role of agricultural journalism, O’Reilly noted: “The discussion about the role of agriculture in global warming is quite adversarial. It is divisive and bitter and on more than one occasion in recent times, I’ve found that the messenger is being shot”.

It does not seem to have occurred to O’Reilly that his constant use of incendiary language and inflammatory allegations may perhaps be in some way contributing to this divisiveness and bitterness.

What people who O’Reilly disagree with, he suggests, “really need is a crash course in diplomacy. I know from whenever we discuss the issue on radio that there is an unseemly and unlikeable underbelly of anger and aggression among a minority who literally – let’s call a spade a spade – detest livestock farming and detest farmers with withering diatribes”.

Diplomacy does indeed seem to be a commodity in preciously short supply here. Returning to his agri-journalism observations, O’Reilly talks about people like himself at the “coalface of agri journalism (having) an important challenge to do our best to present the facts and dispel with the myths and spin as best we can. But it is worrying when campaigners ignore the balance in favour of the narrative which best suits their agenda”.

In the almost two years of O’Reilly columns I read in preparing this article, there was scant evidence of him balancing his concerns about the obvious irrationality, agendas, etc. of environmental activists with any similar concern about spin and nonsense from the agri-industrial sector in playing down year after year of egregious failure on emissions and pollution.

This pattern of demonising one side continues right back into 2019. Three days after the massive children’s climate strikes on March 15 of that year, O’Reilly announced to his readers that: “there’s a new stick in town and it has climate change written down the side”.

Spiralling methane emissions from Ireland’s rapidly expanding dairy herd, it turns out, is merely “conveniently providing campaigners and movements who profoundly dislike the way of Irish farming with amble (sic) opportunity to deride them”. After all, “It plays beautifully into the barrow of key ideological and political influencers who’ve long held anti-farming agendas”.

And in January last, he railed against the “aggressive thugs and anti-farmer zealots shouting down the rest of us with their confirmation bias and offensive language”. Thugs – seriously? Do exchanges between the sides on Twitter sometimes get heated? Yes, after all, there is a lot at stake. But, contrary to O’Reilly’s analysis, I have found there are at least as many trolls, bully boys and zealots on either side of the argument.

The recent online demonization of respected agri-journalist, Ella McSweeney for having the temerity to run a carefully researched and balanced article in the Guardian pointing to deep problems in Irish agriculture is a case in point.

On Twitter, Matt O’Keeffe, a farmer and editor of Irish Farmers Monthly, called her article an “ill-considered diatribe”, adding that it “must bring into question her objectivity or lack of it” on RTÉ’s ‘Ear To The Ground’. These are serious, potentially career-ending, allegations.

This attack was supported on Twitter by former IFA president, Joe Healy among others, as well as the (anonymous) ‘The Dealer’ column in the IFJ, whose headline screeched: ‘Ella’s inside job deeply damaging’.

Again back in January, O’Reilly was decrying the decline in standards: “They (activists) can just spew it all out unfiltered on Twitter. It may have always been thus but the undermining of traditional journalism – by influential politicians and campaigners in the climate debate in particular is leaving ordinary citizens…quite confused”.

Having witnessed plenty of spats on Twitter, few of the online exchanges I’ve seen can match the level of name-calling and vitriol of any of half a dozen or more recent Damien O’Reilly columns in the Irish Farmers Journal.

Ahead of publication of this article I sent O’Reilly a detailed letter setting out 10 questions arising from both the IFJ sponsorship deal and O’Reilly’s own columns in the Journal. Among other things, I asked if, as presenter of Countrywide, he had “any concerns about having a publication so closely aligned to a major agriculture lobbying organisation sponsoring Countrywide”.

I also pointed out that his weekly IFJ column put him in the “unusual situation of working for and being paid by the company sponsoring Countrywide, the show you present.”

While we are not in any way suggesting that O’Reilly is involved in promoting the IFJ on Countrywide itself, Section 5.2 of the 2020 RTÉ Guidelines for Journalists states: “Our audiences should not be able to tell from our output the private, personal views of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area”.

I asked O’Reilly whether he had any concerns about so publicly airing his “private, personal views” in an area directly relating to his on-air work in RTÉ, via his IFJ column. My final question was: “how do you feel as an RTÉ presenter about stirring up animosity between farmers and environmentalists by repeatedly demonising the latter and claiming to understand their deepest motives and intentions, which are, in your view, apparently invariably malign?”

At the time of going to press, O’Reilly had not responded.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and is a volunteer* with An Taisce’s climate change committee, but writes here in a personal capacity
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Close, but no cigar: Climate Bill comes up short

My report on expert reaction to the eagerly awaited Climate Bill was published for a British audience on DeSmog UK in mid-October.

A DRAFT climate change bill designed to put Ireland on a path to net zero emissions has been criticised by leading climate experts as “weak” and full of “get-out clauses”.

The new bill was promised by coalition partner, the Green Party, as part of its pledge to deliver ambitious climate action within its first 100 days in office, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin describing it as “truly ground-breaking”.

But the reaction from climate advocates has been lukewarm. Maynooth University emeritus climatologist, Prof John Sweeney described the legislation as being full of “weasel words, loopholes and get-out clauses”.

Comparing the bill with the 2015 Act it is designed to strengthen, Prof Sweeney told a recent online seminar: “I’m looking at this new bill with a sense of deja-vu because I consider it contains a lot of the weaknesses of the previous bill”.

Sweeney noted that the phrase “have regard to” appears 11 times in the new bill, while there are 43 instances of the term “may”. This, he argued, provides “ready-made excuses” for a future government or minister to delay or fudge strong climate action.

Ireland remains among the highest per capita carbon emitters in the EU, with an average of 13 tonnes per person. In 2005, the EU set Ireland a 2020 target to achieve an overall 20 percent cut in emissions by 2020. However, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Ireland has probably achieved no more than a one percent overall cut in the last 15 years.

Lagging behind its neighbours

The preamble to the bill notes: “The State shall pursue the transition to a climate resilient and climate neutral economy by the end of the year 2050”. In an earlier draft circulated several months ago, this read: “The State shall pursue and achieve the transition”.

The removal of the requirement that the State actually succeed, rather than simply have an ambition to “pursue”, has caused widespread concern.

Dr Andrew Jackson, an environmental lawyer at University College Dublin who was involved in the successful action taken by Climate Case Ireland to the Supreme Court earlier this year, told DeSmog: “We’ve got one shot at this, one real chance to revise the weak 2015 framework. We need to get the governance framework right. We owe that much to ourselves and our kids”.

Dr Jackson described the new bill as “very weak compared to its international counterparts”, pointing to its lack of enforceable interim emissions targets. He added that it could “easily be strengthened” and claimed that both the 2008 UK and 2009 Scottish climate legislation were more robust than what Ireland is proposing in 2020.

Ireland is engaging in what he described as “symbolic carbon budgeting, which is simply not meaningful”. In contrast, Scotland sets annual targets, and ministers are accountable to the parliament for delivering them. The country achieved a 50 percent emissions reduction between 1990 and 2020, driven by enforceable legislation.

 The UK’s 2008 Act states that it is “the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that the net UK carbon account for 2050 is at least 80 percent lower than the 1990 baseline”, increased last year to “net zero” emissions.

Ireland’s new draft bill, on the other hand, does not make the achievement of the 2050 decarbonisation target an explicit duty of either a minister or any future government, according to analysis carried out by Sadhbh O’Neill on behalf of the NGO coalition group, Stop Climate Chaos.

The repeated use of the term “have regard to” critically undermines the bill, she added. “This language must be strengthened to impose clear, unambiguous ex ante duties on the Minister and Government as is the case in the UK and Scotland Climate Change Acts.”

Preferential treatment for farming

Another major cause for concern is the special treatment given to the agricultural sector, which produces some 34 percent of Ireland’s total emissions and has been an influential opponent of climate action. The “special economic and social role of agriculture” is noted in the bill, the only sector to receive such preferential treatment.

The agri-industry and elements of the farming press in Ireland have been engaged in an ongoing campaign to downplay the climate impacts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas and by-product of ruminant agriculture, the dominant kind of farming in Ireland.

In response to this lobbying effort, the bill notes “the distinct characteristics of biogenic methane”, which the bill says is referred to in the IPCC special report published in October 2018. The report does not claim that biogenic or “enteric” methane is any less serious a problem for the climate than other forms of methane, however.

Speaking last week at the parliamentary committee on climate action, Dr Diarmuid Torney of Dublin City University noted that while the bill set out a clear procedure for setting five-yearly carbon budgets, there was “no clearly stated obligation on government to comply with these carbon budgets,” unlike in the UK.

He added that there was nothing in the bill to prevent a future government from setting carbon budgets that are “explicitly inconsistent with the 2050 objective”. Dr Torney also cautioned that the wording of the bill may not actually cover all forms of greenhouse gases.

Having been handed a painful defeat in the Supreme Court earlier this year, there is a suspicion in some quarters that much of the government’s work involved in drafting the current bill relates to preventing future legal challenges rather than achieving its objectives.

In his submission to the parliamentary committee, Jackson argued the bill had been “crafted with a view to avoiding legal accountability”. He added that “litigation based on fundamental rights cannot be avoided by adopting a woolly climate law framework.”

Posted in Agriculture, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Green in name, but not in nature

Despite huge ongoing investment of both political capital and marketing euros in selling the message that Irish agriculture is green, climate-friendly and sustainable, it still keeps on running into the knotty problem that this simply isn’t the case. Recent comments from the EPA simply confirmed Ireland’s worst-kept secret: our food production system isn’t clean, nor is it especially green. I teased out these issues for the Business Post in mid-October.

ON PAPER, Ireland is a world leader in sustainable food production. The statistics are impressive: according to Bord Bia, Ireland’s food board, some 53,000 farms and 320 major food and drink companies are part of ‘Origin Green’, which it describes as ‘the world’s only national food and drink sustainability programme’.

On the ground, the situation is a great deal more complex. Since 2012, millions of euros of taxpayers money have been spent on developing and promoting Origin Green, yet paradoxically, in the same period, Ireland’s air and water quality has continued to decline, while agricultural pollution and emissions have both spiralled. For instance, 269 Irish waterways fell in quality between 2015 and 2017, as a direct result of increased nitrogen and phosphorus levels from artificial fertilizers.

For years, environmental NGOs have been pointing out that Origin Green, despite its impressive statistics, appears more about marketing and perception than concrete actions to address either pollution or emissions from the agri-food sector.

Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust has described the programme as “a sham that should be scrapped”, adding that instead of being a tool to improve environmental performance, “it is simply a smokescreen for greenwashing the significant environmental problems we face”.

However, shielded by a phalanx of government ministers and multinational agri-food giants, it was highly unlikely that sniping from NGOs was ever going to derail the Origin Green juggernaut. Similarly, occasional negative publicity, including a recent piece in the Guardian outlining the deep problems in the sector, is routinely met by a wave of anger and denial, the clear insinuation being that Irish journalists need instead to “pull on the green jersey”.

This week, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) delivered a devastating critique. Contrary to years of spin, the agency confirmed that the race to intensify agricultural production, specifically dairy, “is happening at the expense of the environment as witnessed by the trends in water quality, emissions and biodiversity all going in the wrong direction.”

Tackling the idea of Irish agriculture being essentially ‘green’, as promoted in Origin Green and similar labelling schemes, EPA director Laura Burke added that scientific evidence made it clear that such claims are “largely not supported by the evidence”. Burke said the case for agricultural sustainability is actually weakening year by year, as air and water quality continue to decline.

Setting off alarm bells right across the sector, Burke added: “Pending evidence and implementation of effective solutions to ongoing unsustainable air and water emissions, any plans for further intensification/expansion of the dairy herd would be difficult to sustain.”

Untrammelled dairy industry expansion has been an article of political faith, with an extra half a million cows added to the national herd since the lifting of milk quotas in 2015. The muscle of the dairy sector within agriculture has grown commensurately.

For instance, Teagasc, the state agricultural research body is governed by an 11-person Authority. Its chair, Liam Herlihy, is a dairy farmer, as are four other members. There are zero representatives from non-dairy agriculture or any environmental or sustainability expertise represented on this Authority. Meanwhile, Bord Bia’s board of directors is chaired by the former chief executive of Carbery Group, and includes the CEO of Dawn Meats and a representative of a company owned by Kerry Group.

Strangely, for an organisation that touts Origin Green as its crowning achievement, there are no environmental or ecology experts on its board. And uncomfortably for Bord Bia, Carbery, which is a verified Origin Green member, was successfully prosecuted by the EPA for environmental offences in 2018 and fined €23,373.

Another Origin Green member, Dairygold, was fined €19,000 by the EPA earlier this month for emissions into the river Gradoge. A key aspect of Origin Green is that it is entirely voluntary, and there appear to be no sanctions for failure, however egregious.

The committee to which Burke submitted this analysis is charged with developing Ireland’s agri-food 2030 strategy. Of its 31 members, there is just one representative from the entire environmental sector, and its inputs have been by largely ignored by the committee which is a who’s who of corporate Ireland, including no fewer than five Ibec-affiliated groups.

This committee is building on earlier agri-industrial expansion plans (Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025) which were, in the remarkably candid assessment of Bord Bia CEO, Tara McCarthy, “industry-owned.”

What this committee appears determined to ignore is the EU’s Farm to Fork 2030 strategy, which sets out a series of strong actions to cut agricultural emissions, reduce pollution and boost biodiversity. It demands a minimum 20 per cent cut in artificial fertilizer usage, as well as a 50 per cent reduction in pesticide use.

Perhaps most dramatically, Farm To Fork calls for a quarter of the EU’s farmland to convert to organic agriculture, which is critical to allowing biodiversity to co-exist with farming.

Organic farming generally offers farmers decent margins, but presents far fewer opportunities for companies selling expensive inputs, such as fertilizers and sprays to farmers. This may help explain why barely two per cent of Ireland’s land is farmed organically, a crushing fact that reveals our ‘green’ credentials to be largely an illusion.

Tellingly, Bord Bia issued a tender in 2019 inviting companies to help it “win (vegetarian) customers back or reassure them regarding food choices”. Rather than reflecting and embracing shifting consumer tastes, Bord Bia likely feels huge pressure to support the overwhelmingly dominant beef-and-dairy model that Ireland has doubled down on.

As this week’s devastating response from the EPA highlights, Ireland’s agri-food policy is adrift from ecological and climate reality and facing an ever-strengthening tide of public concern on the wider impacts of food production.

Globally, livestock rearing and feed are among the leading drivers of biodiversity loss and rainforest clearance and account for around 14.5 per cent of total emissions of dangerous greenhouse gases.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that dietary shifts away from meat and dairy could free up several million square kilometres of land for nature, while cutting global emissions by up to 8 billion tonnes a year. The challenge for Irish agriculture is to either embrace change or risk being marginalised and losing its social licence.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
Posted in Agriculture, Biodiversity, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A race between climatic and political tipping points

Some weeks back, in the course of researching an article on ecological grief, I reached out to US author, David Wallace-Wells for comment, and this led to a wide-ranging discussion that ran to over 90 minutes. I had filed a mixed review of his book for The Irish Times in February 2019, so welcomed the opportunity for a deeper dive into his thinking, and the resulting interview was published in early October, also in The Irish Times.

WHAT MOST disturbs best-selling science author David Wallace-Wells about climate change isn’t so much that the worst-case scenarios may come to pass. Rather, it’s how astonishingly dangerous even the so called best-case scenarios actually are.

When he began his deep dive into the science of climate change in 2016, his initial fear was that Earth was on the cusp of runaway climate change, also known as the Venus syndrome, where the planet transitioned from being capable of supporting life to a cauldon with a mean surface temperature of over 450ºC and an atmosphere mostly comprising the heat-trapping gas, carbon dioxide. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Media, Sustainability | Tagged | 1 Comment

Eco-plenary indulgences won’t save our souls or environment

The below is a guest post from an occasion ToS contributor and concerned citizen who uses the pseudonym ‘Jeremy Hughes’. He takes a wry look at the new trend towards establishing tiny pockets of biodiversity while the bigger picture is one of relentless decline.

IN THE Catholic Church, an indulgence is a way for a person to reduce the punishment from God for their sins. The recipient of the indulgence has to perform a good act to receive it. They became notorious during the Middle Ages when indulgences could be bought from clergy to atone for sins and the sale of indulgences eventually led to the Reformation.

Biodiversity areas have sprung up in many towns, villages and parishes but I’m wondering if they are the eco plenary indulgences of modern times – a good environmental deed designed to make people feel better about their excesses and wipe out sins of their consumer lifestyles that are wreaking havoc on our natural environment. Continue reading

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Under Trump, Republican war on science escalates

The below comment piece ran in the Business Post in mid-September, tallying the all-out war the Trump regime has waged not just on client science but on decades of cross-party consensus on basic environmental protection. US elections almost always feel consequential, but this time the stakes have probably never been higher. 

THE EYES OF the world are fixed on Tuesday, November 3rd, with the future of the US as a democracy now on the ballot. However, a potentially even more ominous deadline looms the following day.

On November 4th, the US is scheduled to formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the key intergovernmental accord negotiated in 2015 in a bid to prevent global temperatures from breaching dangerous and likely irreversible thresholds.

If president Trump hoped his withdrawal would lead to the complete collapse of the Agreement, he has been disappointed. Perhaps underlining the decline in US influence since he came to power, not a single country followed its lead. Continue reading

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‘Our relationship with nature is broken’

The below piece ran on TheJournal.ie in late September. It was inspired by a combination of the surreal imagery emanating from the western US and the release of the 2020 Living Planet Report, which chronicles ever sharpening declines in planetary vital signals.

ONE OF THE most iconic scenes from the science fiction film Blade Runner 2049 featured the eerie bright orange skies over a future Las Vegas.

This dystopian vision became all-too-real in recent days as smoke from the hundreds of wildfires raging out of control in the western US blotted out the midday sun, casting entire states into a perpetual twilight.  A video clip featuring drone footage filmed over San Francisco overlaid with the score from Blade Runner 2049 quickly went viral.

Picking up the movie theme, Georgia Tech climate scientist Dr Kim Cobb said: “A year like 2020 could have been the subject of a marvellous science fiction film in 2000. Now we have to watch and digest real-time disaster after disaster after disaster, on top of a pandemic. The outlook could not be any more grim. It’s just a horrifying prospect. It’s going to get a lot worse.”

A broken world

While scientists have been warning for decades that climate breakdown could have dire consequences for humanity, in reality, for the rest of nature, the apocalypse is already in full swing, as vividly detailed in recent days with the publication of the WWF’s 2020 Living Planet Report. Its findings are clear: “Our relationship with nature is broken”.

Abandoning the normally ultra-cautious language used in scientific reports, WWF director general, Marco Lambertini set it out bluntly, pointing to: “unequivocal evidence that nature is unravelling and that our planet is flashing red warning signs. Humanity’s destruction of nature is having catastrophic impacts not only on wildlife populations but also on human health and all aspects of our lives”.

The scale of the destruction almost beggars belief. Since 1970, global populations of wild mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have collapsed by an astonishing 68 per cent on average. Although not directly tracked by the Index, scientists believe the situation for insect populations is equally dire. The phrase ‘insectageddon’ has been coined to describe the collapse in arthropod numbers.

In addition, around 12 million hectares of agricultural land is being lost to soil degradation and desertification globally every year, that’s an area greater than the island of Ireland.

According to the WWF, the way we produce both food and energy as well as humanity’s blatant disregard for the environment entrenched in our current economic models, has, it warns, “pushed the natural world to its limits”.

Incontrovertible evidence

Late last year, the United Nations published a major global assessment report, which found that nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times more than the average over the last 10 million years.

As a result of the carnage, around one million species now face extinction, with almost unimaginable consequences for the web of life itself.  The report described the likely impacts on humanity as “ominous”. These include freshwater shortages and ever more extreme weather resulting from climate destabilisation.

Today, some 75 per cent of the land surface of the planet has been sequestered for human use and significantly altered from its natural state. Animal agricultureinvolves the feeding and slaughter of some 50 billion land animals a year and is among the major global drivers of deforestation, water and air pollution, biodiversity loss, freshwater depletion and marine dead zones. In fact, 70 per cent of all the birds in the world today are farmed chickens.

The widespread use of herbicides and pesticides in intensive agriculture has allowed for dramatic increases in food production but at the price of ecological devastation, including depleting key microbes and invertebrates in the soil as well as wiping out insects and birds.

Many of these novel chemicals also work their way into the human food chain, leading to a host of serious health issues.

The EU recently published strategies to promote biodiversity and to transform food production to make it work with, rather than against, nature. The WWF has strongly welcomed these moves, describing them as “potential game-changers”. It added that the EU’s global footprint, which it notes is “driving the destruction of forests, grasslands and other precious ecosystems outside of Europe”, needs to be reduced.

The EU’s so-called Farm to Fork strategy’s ambitious aims are to reduce dependency on pesticides and antimicrobials, reduce excess fertilisation, increase organic farming, improve animal welfare, and reverse biodiversity loss.

One key target is to increase the amount of EU land farmed organically to 25 per cent by 2030. Organic farming is crucial to the survival and well-being of wildlife, yet Ireland has among the very lowest amount of land in the entire EU(barely 2 per cent) farmed organically. Despite our carefully managed ‘green’ image, over 90 per cent of Ireland’s protected habitats are classified as being of “unfavourable conservation status”.

According to the National Biodiversity Centre, one-third of all Irish bee speciesmay be extinct by 2030, while 50 per cent of our freshwaters are polluted, leading to sharp declines in aquatic species.

Ireland’s biodiversity crisis

There is no mystery as to why Irish wildlife is now endangered like never before. It is due mainly to “the effect of monoculture and the drive to ever-higher levels of productivity characterised by a loss or neglect of hedgerows, farmland edges and scrub”, according to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NWPS).

The level of political contempt in Ireland for biodiversity and wildlife protection can be evidenced in the fact that the total annual NWPS budget is just €11 million, compared with state funding for the greyhound industry of €16 million a year and €64 million to the horse racing industry.

Whether we realise it or not, climate breakdown and biodiversity loss are two sides of the same blade that is now held to the throat of all life on Earth, including humans. What will it take to finally awaken us to take radical action?

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator who specialises in covering the climate and biodiversity emergency. He is a contributor to The Irish Times, The Business Post, The Guardian and DeSmog.uk and is a regular commentator on broadcast media. He blogs at Thinkorswim.ie and also runs the website Climatechange.ie and is on Twitter.

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Good grief: grappling with eco distress

The feature piece below appeared in this week’s Business Post Magazine, under the heading ‘Distress signals from Earth: the new condition of ‘eco-grief’. This is a subject that has long been close to my heart and no doubt for most people who have been paying attention to the parlous state of the biosphere and the relentless slide towards climate breakdown. Rather than just navel-gazing on the subject, I decided instead to draw on the thoughts of four interviewees, each with a unique perspective to share.

IN GREEK mythology, the Trojan princess, Cassandra was given the gift of prophesy by the gods, only to be cursed that she would never be believed. Today’s Cassandras are the scientists and activists who have been warning for decades that the Earth is hurtling headlong towards an ecological abyss. Yes, they were right; no, we haven’t listened.

The ever-intensifying drumbeat of relentless environmental collapse, from rapid ice melting, record-smashing wildfires and ongoing rainforest clearance to species extinctions and global plastic pollution is now also taking a heavy toll on our collective mental health. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Psychology, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Can the farmer and the environmentalist really be friends?

The piece below ran in the Farming Independent in early September. It started out life as a rebuttal of a recent piece by a Findo columnist and dairy farmer, which did a lot of indignant huffing and puffing about an An Taisce press release highlighting escalating levels of dangerous ammonia air pollution as a result of Irish dairy herd expansion and intensification. I opted instead to pitch a (short) piece to the regular farmers out there, many of whom no doubt do genuinely care about pollution, climate change, sustainability and the collapse of biodiversity, and who must wonder why those claiming to speak for farmers so often carry on as if nature were the enemy, rather than the most vital ally of farming. 

A LINE IN THE musical Oklahoma! posed the thorny question: could the farmer and the cow-man ever get along? ‘One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow, but that’s no reason why they can’t be friends’. Continue reading

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Overshooting ourselves in both feet

How much money have you got in your current account? What about your savings? Imagine if by now, you had already spent all your income for 2020, and you were forced to live on borrowings for the next four months.

Now, imagine if that was happening year after year. Pretty soon, the debt would be crushing and, barring a Lottery win, you would be pushed into bankruptcy and ruin. This, in a nutshell, is what is happening to our planet right now.

Today, August 22, is Earth Overshoot Day, the date by which scientists calculate that humanity has used up “all the biological resources that Earth can renew during the entire year”. In fact, it is calculated that the last time humanity was living within its ecological means was half a century ago, in 1970. Continue reading

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SUV fad puts us into fast lane towards climate breakdown

I’ll admit to having never been a big fan of SUVs. It’s fine if you’re one of a tiny handful of people who actually need a 4×4 in your trade, but there seems little reason for regular folk to be driving around in these hulking great gas guzzlers on the commute or school run. And, as the piece below explores, the climate is paying an especially heavy price for this, at the very moment we’re supposed to be slashing emissions across all sectors globally. This was the theme for my second piece for the Business Post, which appeared in early August.

AMID ALL the recent brouhaha about electric cars, hybrids and fuel efficiency, you could be forgiven for thinking the global transport sector was among the shining stars of the new low-carbon economy.

Looks can, however, be deceiving. Behind the hype, one ugly fact emerges: vehicular emissions are in fact spiralling globally, and the chief culprit is the sports utility vehicle, or SUV.

Since 2010, booming demand for SUVs worldwide has seen their market share more than double, to 39%. According to analysis by the International Energy Agency, fast-growing demand for SUVs in this period was the second largest contributor to increases in global greenhouse gas emissions.

This was borne out by the European Environment Agency’s report on CO2 emissions from cars and vans for 2019, which noted that average emissions for new cars in Europe have risen for the last three straight years.

All the motor industry’s gains in fuel efficiency over the last two decades have been wiped out by the rise of larger, heavier SUVs, which now contribute over 700 million tonnes of emissions a year. Put in context, this is almost as much as the pollution from the entire global aviation industry. Were SUV drivers a country, they would be the seventh most polluting nation on Earth.

A report published by UK think tank, the New Weather Institute last month called for a ban on all media advertising of larger and more polluting SUVs, arguing that this was essential in order for Britain to meet its international climate obligations. The report noted that some 150,000 SUVs sold in the UK in 2019 were more than 4.8 metres long, meaning they don’t fit into a standard parking bay.

Using the analogy of banning tobacco advertising, the Institute’s report argued that while ‘SUVs are marketed as providing protection for drivers, their physical size, weight and pollution levels create a more dangerous and toxic urban environment for both drivers and pedestrians’.

Arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, pressure is growing around the world, including Ireland, to limit vehicular access to city centres to make more room both for pedestrians and for restaurants, cafés etc. to use outdoor seating areas. Logically, the larger the vehicle, the less suitable it is for our typically narrow city centre streets, which were built long before the advent of two-and-a-half tonne Range Rovers.

Apart from congestion, heavy traffic brings air pollution into densely populated areas. As a measure to tackle severe pollution, mainly from diesel engines, central London has introduced Ultra Low Emissions Zones(ULEZs). While electric vehicles are exempt, most cars, motorcycles and vans are charged £12.50 to enter an ULEZ.

The dangers don’t end with pollution. A study published in the US in June found that while 54 per cent of pedestrians struck by a car travelling at 64km/hr or more died, the mortality rate rose to 100 per cent for those struck by SUVs at similar speeds. The high fronts and rears on typical SUVs mean reduced visibility for drivers. This also leads to a greater risk of small children in particular being crushed in car parks and driveways.

In physics, momentum is calculated as mass multiplied by velocity. In a typical collision, that explains why SUVs do so much more damage than regular cars. Larger commercial vehicles are often speed-limited for this reason, but, so far, SUVs have escaped such regulation.

Innovations such as electronic pedestrian detection systems are being trialled in a bid to mitigate the danger, but a major downside of such systems is that they may actually lull drivers into paying even less attention to the road.

Driving an SUV may in itself alter driver behaviour. A study by Monash University in Australia found that drivers of large SUVs had the highest ‘aggressivity rating’ of any road user. The study concluded that ‘while not improving crashworthiness overall, SUVs put other road users at a higher risk of severe injury’.

In 2008, Ireland switched its VRT and motor tax system from being based on engine size to carbon emissions. However, as emissions were calculated on the misleading NECP standard, an Oireachtas analysis found there was a loss to the Revenue of €1.7 billion from 2008-2018 with only limited emissions savings, which are now being wiped out by the proliferation of SUVs.

That standard has been scrapped in favour of the more realistic WLTP benchmark, but the Revenue have yet to implement the new system, which industry sources believe could see new car prices rise by €2,500 as well as big increases in motor tax based on the more stringent WLTP standards. Given the motor trade is enduring a torrid 2020, it’s unlikely the axe will fall in the immediate future.

As the climate crisis deepens, this is the worst possible time for a ruinous global infatuation with SUVs.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
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