AN TAISCE is rightly concerned about Ireland’s ongoing failure to meet its greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets and has accused the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, and his officials of misleading the Oireachtas about a relative reduction in dairy-related emissions.
The environmental organisation claims that dairy-related greenhouse gas emissions are skyrocketing in tandem with the rapidly rising number of dairy cows and – very much to the annoyance of those in the industry – has called for a production cap if dairy emissions are to be reduced to meet climate targets.
Agriculture accounts for over a third of all greenhouse gas emissions and is a significant player in the overall scheme of all things environmental. Notable efforts are being made within the industry to reduce the carbon footprint involved in producing milk – the Carbery Greener Dairy Farms Programme in West Cork being a commendable case in point – and there is no doubt that most farmers are acutely aware of the importance of the sustainability of their enterprise for passing on to the next generation.
However, the increase in the size of the national dairy herd that has occurred in recent years, especially in the wake of the abolition of the EU milk quotas over three years ago, cannot but have led to increased emissions from the sector. An Taisce believes that the Dáil record needs to be corrected by Minister Creed on foot of an answer he gave to a parliamentary question in April that ‘in the five-year period 2012-2016, dairy cow numbers have increased by 22% and corresponding milk production by 27% while emissions increased just 8% demonstrating a level of decoupling is occurring.’
That dairy emissions have been decoupled from milk production is what has annoyed An Taisce, whose own analysis of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, is that dairy CO2e (CO2 equivalent) emissions increased by 24% from 2012 to 2016. This increase, it maintains, would be strongly coupled with the 22% increase in dairy cow numbers and the jump in milk production of 27%, and shows minimal change in dairy efficiency, going back even as far as 2009.
The Minister’s office – in response to An Taisce’s questioning of his figures – stated that the 8% increase in emissions referred to the growth in total agriculture emissions for the five-year period in question and reflects that, ‘while dairy numbers (and emissions) are increasing, emissions from other sub-sectors of agriculture are contracting.’ Mr Creed maintains that ‘it is valid to consider the sector as a whole in presenting this data.’
However, An Taisce remains dogged in its assertion that that Ministers and officials are repeatedly using ‘largely unrelated numbers in a deeply misleading way that obscures the reality of the dairy expansion and the lack of any significant efficiency improvement’ and that this is unacceptable. It maintains that the Department is ‘brazenly repeating a false narrative about dramatic decoupling of dairy production that is completely and demonstrably without foundation.’
An Taisce has, over many years, become a bête noire in the eyes of farmers and the agricultural industry in general, so its call for a cap on dairy production will be seen as somewhat extreme. However, if it does focus minds on what more needs to be done to reduce emissions in the agriculture – and the dairy sector in particular – it will have served a purpose.
In The Southern Star’s Great West Cork Farming Survey carried out last March, 59% of farmers locally thought that the criticisms of farmers over greenhouse gas emissions were ‘somewhat justified,’ so there is an awareness that climate action is needed on their part.
Asked about sustainability, 41% of West Cork farmers have a sustainable farming strategy in place at the moment, while 30% admitted that – while they don’t have one in place – they know that they need it. The fact that this level of consciousness exists on the ground is encouraging and needs to be built upon, using a carrot rather than a stick approach, to expedite improvement in the area of emissions reductions in the sector.