There is "real intent and seriousness" among farmers and those in the food industry to meet ambitious EU targets to reduce climate change emissions, according to Aidan O'Driscoll, secretary general of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
Addressing a conference to review the Government’s Food Wise 2025 strategy to rapidly expand agricultural production, Mr O’Driscoll rejected the view articulated by some environmental NGOs that “people in the sector are not truly committed to sustainability”.
Expansion and meeting climate obligations were doable, he said. “We have no choice, so we must a find a way to do it,” he added. But there was also a need to be able answer questions raised about the expansion of the dairy and beef sectors, and to be “persuasively sustainable”.
EPA director general Laura Burke said agriculture was a core part of what Ireland was about but it was placing very serious pressure on the Irish environment from a climate and a water perspective.
She expressed concern that greenhouse gas emissions were going up as the national dairy herd was rapidly expanding and nutrient discharges into water was increasing. “If we are saying we are a green nation, we have to address this issue,” she said.
Irish agriculture and food industry must do much more to address its climate obligations, according to Pierre Bascou director of sustainability and income support with EU Directorate General for Agriculture. Total EU emissions from agriculture had declined by 21 per cent since 1990 – in Ireland they have increased in the past two years.
Mr Bascou said reducing production was not the right response, given growing global demand and population growth. Measures should instead be concentrated on improved breeding of livestock; better nutrient management including fertiliser use, grazing improvements and use of forestry to sequester carbon.
Kevin Lane, chief executive of Ornua, Ireland's largest exporter of Irish dairy products, said consumers had become a lot more knowledgeable about the foods they eat. They wanted authenticity, transparency and food companies to take responsibility for their own health. This was reflected in greater awareness of the environment and sustainability, and their wish that companies act responsibly in that regard.
Charles Stanley-Smith of An Taisce said the issue of climate change in Europe "is real" but it was impossible to meet climate change targets if the world did not stop eating beef or cut down substantially. Ireland was putting all its eggs "in the beef basket". There was a big move to organic farming reflected in demand in Germany but Ireland could not supply that demand, he said.
Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Michael Creed admitted more needed to be done to spell out what Irish farmers were doing to support environmental sustainability.
He added: “We have to do more to articulate the tremendous contribution farmers are already making to the management and improvement of the natural environment with the aid of the Rural Development Programme, and the efforts of industry through Origin Green [certification programme]. However, we cannot allow any negative association between the sector and the environment to get traction - therefore we all need to do more.”
He told over 500 conference delegates from the farming and food sectors, he would ask the his department's Food Wise Environmental Sustainability Committee to engage with those involved in both sector to identify and implement policy interventions, "to ensure that our environmental obligations are delivered".
There had been calls for a moderation of the Food Wise ambition in the light of Brexit but he believed this was no time to step back. “The targets set for 2020 in the previous iteration of our current agri-food strategy, are on course to be achieved well ahead of schedule, and they too appeared optimistic at the time.”
The conference, he said, underlined the collective determination of all in the sector to achieve the growth and sustainability ambitions in Food Wise 2025. “Our ambition is to deliver jobs for our people, maximise the incomes of our farmers, and protect and enhance our rural environment. With a collaborative approach, I am confident that we can achieve these objectives.”
IFA president Joe Healy said rather than ending up having to pay fines for not meeting climate change targets, the sums likely to be involved should be invested immediately by the Government in renewable energy initiatives. The pursuit of "smart farming" could also play its part in helping to reduce emissions and increase profits for farmers.
He defended the performance of farming in addressing emissions issues. In the 2009 to 2015 period, in which Irish farming had increased output by 40 per cent, emissions were cut by 6 per cent. “Compare that to transport industry,” he added.
The achievement of the 2025 targets for agricultural expansion would be very dependent on what happens in the Brexit talks over the coming days, Mr Healy said.
“The future of the entire agriculture sector to 2025 and beyond is at stake. The Government needs to hold the line and work to achieve a solution where the whole of the UK stays in the single market and the Customs Union or a similar arrangement,” he said.
For the Foodwise 2025 Strategy to succeed, farmers needed to be properly rewarded for their work and investment, he said.