EDITORIAL:‘Climate-smart' agriculture must be a top priority

August 6th, 2016 10:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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MINISTER for Agriculture Michael Creed’s ambition for Ireland ‘to be a global leader in sustainable food production’ is reflected in the report, ‘A Climate-Smart Pathway for Irish Agricultural Development – Exploring the Leadership Opportunity,’ which advocates a very different direction from current policy. What it means, in a nutshell, is that Irish agriculture urgently needs to transition towards producing far healthier food with much lower climate emissions.

However, this would come at quite a financial cost to producers and An Taisce, in welcoming the report, which will cause plenty of debate and controversy, stated that farmers must be supported to use less-polluting methods that can support increasing biodiversity and water quality. The Minister maintains that we have ‘a climate-efficient agriculture sector, but more needs to be done to ensure that we are, and remain, the most sustainable producer in the world of milk, beef and other agri-food products,’ which is reflected in the report, but which An Taisce describes as a misguided statement.

Moving on from the well-intentioned sound bites, climate-smart agriculture will involve quite a sea change from current methods, as participants in the Leadership Forum on Climate Smart Agriculture, which focussed on the new policies, technologies, practices, and financial frameworks that need to be deployed in response to emerging challenges, found out. The stakeholders were under no illusion that there is a huge amount of work needed in the way of new policies, practices and particularly technologies, if we are to establish Ireland as a climate-smart leader internationally.

The Minister acknowledges that ‘innovative thinking and ground-breaking solutions’ will be necessary, but will his rhetoric be matched by action? An Tasice maintains that a shift away from large-scale red meat and dairy production and consumption, means consuming far less of highly climate-polluting and land-intensive foods, such as beef and sheepmeat, for a healthy diet – and is what climate-smart agriculture should be all about.

However, this is totally counter-intuitive to current government policy and it is difficult to envisage any politician taking on the powerful vested interests in Irish agriculture to try to make such a radical change. Farmers, meat and dairy processors are not going to have an overnight Damascene conversion and move away from the current focus on livestock, especially as there is such a drive on at the moment to increase our agricultural output and food production to meet expansion targets set out in plans such as Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025.

Already, we are likely to miss our greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets set by the European Union for 2020 and the whole issue has been long-fingered with new targets set for 2030 instead. What is to stop us ignoring these too and just continuing regardless with expanding our food production at the expense of sustainability?

Our national herd has now expanded to over seven million cattle, with 30% more dairy cattle now that EU milk quotas have been done away with and production has increased exponentially in the past year. This is likely to increase further once milk prices recover further towards the end of this year.

While acknowledging that there are some serious and most commendable efforts being made within the agricultural sector in Ireland to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint, the question still has to be asked: Is enough being done?

Farmers and processors will opine that they are doing everything they can, but environmentalists are insistent that this is simply not enough if Ireland wishes to become regarded as the truly climate-smart agricultural country that Minister Creed and his Department aspire to. He acknowledged that ‘we must not only be environmentally, socially and economically-responsive, we must also be co-ordinated and ambitious.’

The prospect of all of us suddenly becoming vegans to save the planet is remote, but it must be acknowledged that food security, and its fair distribution, are becoming increasingly pressing issues and, in order to succeed, climate stability is paramount for its production. Government policy is going to have to reflect these realities and the debate that the ‘Climate-Smart’ report on agriculture has sparked must not only deal with how we are going to modify our policies, but – more importantly – how quickly?

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