Climate hoofprint of ruminant agriculture under spotlight

The Farming Independent sought two contrasting views on the merits or otherwise of continued expansion of Ireland’s dairy herd, so I contributed the below, wearing my hat as a volunteer member of An Taisce’s climate committee. This article was published in late February.

AT LAST, the world seems to be getting serious about tackling the climate emergency. The EU has set the ambitious goal of cutting emissions by more than half by 2030, with the upward ratchet on targets to accelerate until net zero emissions are achieved.

Hitting these targets will be tough but essential, since the certain price of failure is global climate destabilisation and the horrific social and economic consequences that will ensue.

Agriculture is the industry most exposed to climate breakdown and extreme weather, for the obvious reason that it is almost entirely weather-dependent. You would think therefore that Ireland would be working hard to reduce total agricultural emissions, rather than just tinkering with efficiency tweaks. You would be mistaken.

Take Teagasc’s 2027 dairy road map. It envisages milk output rising by around 18 per cent to 9.5 billion litres a year. That’s an increase of in our most emissions- and pollution-intensive form of agriculture, at the very time these need to be falling sharply.

Agriculture accounts for a third of Ireland’s total emissions, so if it fails to act, all other sectors must hugely over-achieve to compensate. Should we take every car off the road, ban all flights and ration home heating so the dairy sector can continue to expand with impunity?

By far the most problematic agricultural emission is methane from ruminants, despite efforts in some quarters to pretend otherwise. Agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue recently made it clear that herd expansion is incompatible with meeting our emissions targets, adding that the environmental costs of dairy expansion are being passed on to other farmers.

Teasgasc’s scientists know this too, but their organisation is directed by an 11-person Authority, of whom five, including the chairman, are dairy farmers. There are no tillage or beef farmers represented, nor anyone from the organics or environmental sectors. Does this strike you as balanced?

Today, Ireland produces the most greenhouse gas emissions per euro of food output in the entire EU. Thanks to major dairy expansion, by 2027, this is hardly going to improve.

In December, an Environmental Protection Agency report on water quality found an astonishing 33-fold increase in the number of river sites where nitrate levels have increased since 2015.

EPA director, Laura Burke last October stated that Ireland’s ‘green’ reputation is “largely not supported by evidence”, adding that livestock sector growth “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.”

In business, as in life, reputation is everything. Like it or not, the ecological and climate footprint of intensive livestock agriculture is now under close scrutiny.

One major farming organisation recently rejected calls for EPA pollution licensing for large dairy farms, while working to undermine essential CAP reforms aimed at funding eco schemes and boosting organic farming.

Refractory leadership like this leaves agriculture at real risk of losing public support and becoming viewed as a pariah sector. This is surely not the future most farmers want?

  • John Gibbons is volunteer PRO for An Taisce’s climate committee

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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