Agriculture and Climate Change: Transformation or Decline

The Irish agricultural sector accounts for 40% of domestic sector emissions (those emissions not covered by the emissions trading scheme), or 27% of overall Irish greenhouse gas emissions. This is much higher than any other EU country, and among developed countries only New Zealand compares internationally.

Although EPA projections forecast a marginal decrease in agricultural emissions by 2020, the abolition of milk quotas combined with higher global demand may limit any reductions. A recent Department of Agriculture Paper states that the increased output envisaged in the national dairy herd could increase emissions by 12%.

The uncomfortable reality is that an increase in emissions from Ireland’s largest polluting sector would scupper Ireland’s climate change policy and render achieving Ireland’s target impossible.

It seems to me that this is an issues that does not receive anywhere close to the attention it deserves.

Like them or not, there have been emissions reduction strategies developed for the other large polluting sectors – transport, power generation and residential energy use. Yet nothing for agriculture.

What will be required of the agriculture sector – much like transport, buildings and energy – is a comprehensive mitigation strategy aimed at the transformation of the sector. Because of the relatively high proportion of emissions from agriculture in Ireland, immediate and significant emissions reductions are required in the period to 2020. This should not, however, be looked upon as a threat – it can be used as an opportunity to develop the skills, expertise and knowledge required for sustainable food production on a mass level.

This is a process that we tried to galvanise in the IIEA, with the Farm to Fork report, the result of a stakeholder engagement.

Change can be intractable in Irish society, and this is especially the case in the agriculture sector. Nonetheless, thought leaders in industry, Bord Bia, Tegasc, and the Department of Agriculture have begun to engage with the scale of transformation required.

The Department of Agriculture’s A vision for Irish Agrifood Fisheries 2020 recognizes climate change as “the biggest environmental challenge that we collectively face” and sets out to apply the smart economy to the agri-food sector in Ireland.

It proposes linking particular farming practices to the national emissions inventory, and using life-cycle analysis to demonstrate the carbon intensity associated with Irish food and drink products. As the paper acknowledges, agriculture stakeholders would need to be given the appropriate advice, information and incentives to enable altered production methods and the reduction of carbon intensity per unit of product. This could also result in increased profitability. Finally it is acknowledged that research in the area of GHG emissions from agricultural systems presents a business opportunity for Ireland. This paper is a promising start which must be built upon. As part of a comprehensive climate strategy the agriculture sector must take on realistic yet challenging emissions targets.

While an animal’s digestive process cannot be manipulated to reduce methane emissions cost-effectively, reducing emissions from manure management, particularly oil-based synthetic fertilisers, should be the focus to 2020. This is important for food security and energy security, as synthetic fertilisers are entirely dependent on imported oil. Reducing and eliminating fertiliser will require a number of tactics, including use of clover and joining up waste management with agricultural policy.

One million tonnes of waste must be diverted from landfill in the coming years in order to comply EU directives and one of the waste treatment options is Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) and the use of MBT can and should become more popular in Ireland in years to come. One of the by-products of this process is bio-fertiliser which can be used as a substitute for synthetic products.

Strategies at the farm-level will be required, embracing numerous mitigation reduction strategies, such as: extending the grazing season, reducing animal finishing times, changes in slurry management and tillage techniques, organic farming, the use of nitrification inhibiters, and dietary manipulation. These may be complemented by sequestration practices such as afforestation on marginal land, which has significant potential in Ireland, and the cultivation of energy crops.

To reward farmers who move to more sustainable production systems, a domestic trading scheme should be established for the sector, as has already occurred in New Zealand, the only developed country with an emissions profile similar to Ireland’s, and one of Ireland’s main competitors on the international stage.

As with energy policy, Ireland can move forward with addressing this challenge or it may be forced to do so by the EU in any case. The EU is eager to reform CAP which sucks in 40% of the EU budget, and to align supports with the provision of public goods (see: research paper published by Commission).

The CAP reform and budgetary reform processes are ongoing, and the increased linking of agriculture and environment policy will be opposed by the agricultural lobby. Nonetheless the direction is clear in the medium term, and Ireland inc must be aware of this regulatory risk  – Irish farms are among the most vulnerable to changes in direct support.

While the immediate priority is to protect Ireland’s transfers from the EU, a longer-term strategy must be devised for the sector cognisent of the realities of climate change policy and ongoing EU CAP and budgetary reform processes.

It’s either transformation or decline.

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2 Responses to Agriculture and Climate Change: Transformation or Decline

  1. Paddy Morris says:

    Thanks Joe – interesting article.

    This is worth a look as well:-

  2. Joseph Curtin says:

    @ Paddy

    Thanks for the link. Have invited Rockstrom to IIEA several times but not successful yet. We really really need to start the thinking on this. The climate bill will help if it ever sees light of day!

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