All talk, no action: agri sector’s spin over substance

My article, which ran in the Irish Examiner in early February, is below

IRISH agriculture faces enormous threats, both from direct climate change impacts and the urgent need to sharply reduce emissions, yet the sector has been remarkably slow to engage with climate reality. Unfortunately, the latest report, published by the dairy industry lobby group, ICOS is virtually silent on how to achieve significant cuts in total emissions from the sector.

The presence of the chairman of the government’s Climate Change Advisory Council, Prof John FitzGerald, at the launch of ‘Positive steps towards a low carbon future for the Irish dairy sector’ may have given the media the impression that it was an earnest, scientifically-led document. If so, they were misled.

The report was published as the industry’s response to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. It was developed by a 20-person working group, all from the dairy industry, with no apparent NGO or named academic input whatever, and zero dissenting voices. And it shows.

Further, five members of this working group represent companies (Carbery, Dairygold and Arrabawn) that the EPA named-and-shamed last September as being among Ireland’s worst offenders for serious environmental breaches. Incidentally, these same three dairies are also certified under Bord Bia’s ‘Origin Green’ scheme.

The gist of the ICOS report is that business-as-usual, in the form of the oxymoronic ‘sustainable intensification’ is absolutely fine. Yet just last week, EU Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan warned the sector that milk supplies have “unsustainably increased”, and that dairy farmers “have a responsibility to look at the market signals and heed them and to plan accordingly”.

Hogan, in other words, is warning of an imminent ‘milk bubble’, to which Ireland, whose milk production shot up by almost 10% in 2017 alone, is a major contributor. These warnings do not even factor in the multi-billion euro costs to the taxpayer of massive EU fines for Ireland failing to reduce its emissions. Does the dairy sector expect the ordinary Irish public to foot their carbon bill while they pocket the profits?

ICOS president Martin Keane claims that emissions from the agri sector are declining, measured against a 1990 baseline. However, agricultural emissions, having fallen in the early 2000s, increased by 10.2% between 2011 and 2016 and, thanks to an additional 300,000 dairy cows being added to the national herd, will continue to grow between now and 2020. At a time when Ireland is legally mandated to cut total emissions by 20%, this makes a mockery of our climate commitments.

Any slight improvements in carbon efficiency per litre of milk produced are irrelevant when the total number of cattle is spiralling. The ‘polluter pays’ principle was overwhelmingly endorsed by the recent Citizens’ Assembly recommendations on climate change, which included taxing high-carbon forms of agriculture and subsidising low-carbon alternatives.

This just, equitable approach agreed on by a randomly selected group of ordinary Irish citizens with no axe to grind was dismissed as “deeply flawed” by ICOS. It apparently prefers to present as facts self-interested views developed and uncritically endorsed by a group drawn exclusively from the dairy industry.

I attended the Citizens’ Assembly as a media observer, and was struck by their earnestness and search for real solutions to the thorniest challenge we as a society now face. Maybe if Mr Keane had also taken the time to see deliberative democracy in action first hand, he might be less dismissive.

Ireland’s agriculture sector produces some 19 million tonnes of emissions each year, around a third of our total national pollution, yet this sector, using its political clout, has written itself a ‘free pass’ from any responsibility whatever to do its fair share.

The only viable future for our agriculture sector is to pursue a low-carbon transition pathway. Our twin national obsessions with beef and dairy have led to a situation where many Irish farmers only survive thanks to CAP payments. A EU Parliament study in 2017 found that Ireland produces the most emissions per euro of agricultural output in the EU. And, at 1%, the amount of Irish land growing vegetables is the lowest in the entire EU. As for our ‘green’ credentials, just 1.6% of our land is farmed organically – the second lowest in the EU28.

Holland, a country barely the size of Munster, produces over 80 times more vegetables than Ireland. Rather than being a ‘food island’ our intrinsically inefficient agricultural model means that, unlike Holland, Ireland imports far more total net food calories than we export, according to 2011 data from the UN’s FAO.

Ultimately, where’s the sustainability in an agriculture system that can’t even feed our own people?

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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8 Responses to All talk, no action: agri sector’s spin over substance

  1. Nick Spencer says:

    The Irish government proposal to increase Ireland’s population by a million by 2040 will leave Ireland even more vulnerable in terms of its food production versus consumption deficit. Why governments do not see dependence on foreign food sources as a serious strategic weakness I do not understand, especially when climate change offers an unpredictable threat to world crop production and the global population is ever increasing. No-one can guarantee that world food markets will continue to operate as they have in the these pressures increase.

  2. hugh says:

    Very good article. I was struck by your mention of the 19 million tons emitted by agriculture. I had not known it was one third of the total emissions for Ireland. That is a stunning amount. I don’t believe it is anywhere near that percentage in the U.S. but it is substantial and tends to be blamed on cattle and dairy cows although transportation and seeding and harvesting crops, etc contributes a great deal.

  3. John Gibbons says:

    @Nick Yes, it’s mind-blowing to hear our government laying down plans for 2040 without even the barest grasp of sustainability and resilience in food production and distribution, among other crunch economic sectors. Societies have risen and collapsed time and again over their ability or inability to secure adequate food supplies and access to potable water. Somehow, we have collectively fooled ourselves into believing we have achieved escape velocity from the harsh ecological limits every organism, species or society must ultimately operate within.

  4. John Gibbons says:

    @Hugh Our agri emissions numbers are shocking alright, all the more when you consider that it’s the largesse of EU taxpayers, via CAP payments, that’s pretty much keeping much of our agri sector above the waterline. Most beef farmers lose money on their core business. One of these days, you can start adding in massive annual EU fines for our abject failure to reach legally mandated targets, and this agri situation is going to look a whole lot worse again.

  5. George O'Malley says:

    Just listened to you on RTE1….your analysis is spot on, though I suspect not palatable in several quarters. Insane land use and almost total lack of primary producer representation has led us to this abyss.

  6. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks George, I imagine you’re on the money. The IFA, speaking largely for the mega-producers these days, is very unhappy indeed at anyone drawing attention to the gaping holes in their logic of high emissions with low margins for producers. The association has lost touch with regular farmers, with the tillage guys, the organics sector and many more besides, but get very tetchy when one dares to point out that their monolithic view is not in fact the only opinion from the agri sector that deserves to be heard. Having had it their own way for so long, it’s hard for them to transition to actually listening to the views of others…but those voices are not going away, in fact, they’re getting stronger all the time.

  7. Louise Byrne says:

    Self sufficiency in Food production, especially the vegetables, can bring down the total emission in percentage terms. Encouraging residential property owners to produce vegetables, at least a portion of their requirements at their premises, may help in this regard. Still, the large increase in dairy cows is a cause of worry.

  8. Pingback: Mainstreaming doubt and nurturing climate denial | ThinkOrSwim (the Blog)

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