Alternative food strategy sets out how to cut agricultural emissions

Report by 70 environmental and climate groups puts Green Party in difficult position

Ireland’s proposed 2030 agri-food strategy is out of line with the Government’s economy-wide emissions reduction targets for the next decade, according to a report by 70 environmental and climate groups.

They warn that, if adopted, the strategy would force impossible cuts on other sectors.

Having left the "industry-dominated" group drawing up the strategy – published in draft form by the Minister for Agriculture last week – the Environmental Pillar (EP), Stop Climate Chaos (SCC) and Sustainable Water Network (Swan) have published an alternative report which sets out how to "drive down agriculture emissions while simultaneously restoring our depleted biodiversity and water bodies".

Their report puts the Green Party in a difficult position, given its support base, as the party has backed the strategy, which is open for public consultation.


The agri-food strategy, which was criticised by the groups as “entirely inadequate from a climate and environmental perspective”, is broadly aligned with the Climate Bill.

Methane reduction

Analysis by the Irish Farmers Journal suggested the target of cutting methane by 10 per cent by 2030, as proposed, would translate into a cut of up of 400,000 cattle and slash fertiliser use on farms. The analysis also said prioritising 10 per cent of farmland for biodiversity would equate to the total land area of Tipperary.

In their report, the 70 environmental and climate groups call on the Government to provide a detailed strategy for the agricultural sector, setting out how environmental targets and commitments as they relate to biodiversity, climate, soil, air and water quality “will be met and enforced, and how primary producers will be supported in achieving these targets”.

The report calls for an independent body – “ideally the EPA” – to establish and implement a robust monitoring framework to assess the environmental impacts of food production at farm, catchment and national level.

It recommends phasing out environmentally harmful subsidies, and discontinuing Bord Bia’s Origin Green programme “because of the conflict of interest between the marketing aims of the programme and the role of Bord Bia in producing their own sustainability assessments and metrics”.

SCC policy co-ordinator Sadhbh O’Neill said the Government strategy’s climate measures were “woefully inadequate and do not amount to a fair share of effort to achieve our national emissions targets”.

If adopted, she said, it would mean “the rest of the economy and society would have to slash emissions by 73 per cent to meet our national target of halving emissions in that time. That’s not fair on anyone and would be particularly hard on low-income households.”

Rural livelihoods

There was a need for sustained, year-on-year emissions reduction in agriculture linked to measures for biodiversity restoration and diversification while supporting rural livelihoods, Ms O’Neill said. “The Department of Agriculture has to show us exactly how it plans to get there in a revised roadmap for the sector, with concrete targets that are in line with established science.”

Separately, energy specialist Dr Hannah Daly of the MaREI centre in UCC confirmed the lower the mitigation ambition in agriculture, "the greater lengths the rest of the economy will have to go to meet the overall target of halving emissions by 2030".

“The 2030 agri-food strategy for climate aims for a 10 per cent drop in methane emissions and a reduction in the use of chemical fertilisers, which would require electricity, heat and transport collectively to decarbonise by around 70 per cent in a decade, beyond a level which is credible,” she added.

“The strategy is therefore not in line with the Government’s economy-wide emissions reductions targets. The negative rhetoric which frames the climate challenge for agriculture in terms of ‘herd losses’, should switch to more constructive discussions of how emissions can be reduced while increasing farm incomes and protecting the environment, in a way which farmers are happy with,” Dr Daly said.

Environmental NGOs reluctantly withdrew from the department's stakeholder committee, when it became clear their concerns were being ignored, said EP co-ordinator Karen Cielsielski. But they were open to dialogue with the Government on recasting the strategy, she confirmed.

Their report could play a role in revitalising rural and farming communities, “who time and time again have been let down by misaligned agricultural policies and roadmaps”, she added. “Past policy and strategy have failed our climate, our biodiversity and our farming community. We need a drastic change of course, and we can see the path before us is one that is restorative for both our wildlife and our rural communities.”

There has been a long-standing failure to align the sector with Ireland’s obligations under environmental law, the report concludes.

Productivist model

“Current policies that prioritise a productivist model of agriculture (ie focused on specialisation and intensification) lock farmers into an unsustainable commodity-driven food production system which leaves them economically vulnerable. These policies have also undermined Ireland’s international reputation on food security,” it says.

Other recommendations include:

– Reward nature-friendly farming by rolling out generous results-based agri-environment schemes to restore threatened wildlife and habitats on all farms;

– Review the legal mandate of Teagasc with a view to reorienting its research and advisory activities towards "a sustainable agroecological model", ensuring environmental expertise is immediately represented on its board and management;

– Cease drainage of wetlands and peaty soils and implement a national agro-forestry programme to protect native woodland;

– Implement regulatory, voluntary and combined measures to rapidly bring down sectoral methane and nitrous oxide emissions and reverse dairy expansion and introduce a cap on nitrogen use;

– Conduct risk assessments of all intensive farms in sensitive catchment areas. if necessary, make certain areas ineligible for high densities of livestock to protect water quality;

– Support scaling-up of local nature-friendly food production, especially in fruit, vegetables, cereals and pulses for human consumption;

– Ensure Ireland’s food production policy promotes global health and greater dietary intake of sustainably produced organic produce and plant-based foods, while guaranteeing Ireland’s international development commitments are not undermined;

– Put in place a comprehensive public engagement programme to design and deliver an alternative, fairer model for Irish agriculture.

Swan co-ordinator Sinead O’Brien said more than half of Irish water bodies were in an unhealthy state, with agriculture by far the predominant cause. The EPA had linked it to recent further declines in water quality, she noted.

“A ban on wetland drainage is a critical step in achieving this restoration, and the great news is that it would also deliver immense benefits for biodiversity, climate and nature-based flood management,” she said.

“We also need to take a close look at the nitrates derogation for very intensive farms and ensure that from now on it’s only granted where it can be proven it isn’t causing water pollution.”

Water quality

This was vital to meet mandatory water quality standards Ireland has signed up to under the EU's water framework directive and "to preserve one of our most precious natural resources".

Oonagh Duggan, head of advocacy for BirdWatch Ireland, said: "The draft strategy's half-hearted proposals for biodiversity are a failure to recognise the scale of the biodiversity crisis. Agriculture is the main driver of losses of habitats of farmland bird and wild bee populations in Ireland, but it also has the power and funding to address this."

Generous schemes to support nature-friendly farming to restore ecosystems and threatened wildlife were urgently needed in combination with measures to cut emissions and restore water quality, she said.

“From the basics of enforcing environmental law to safeguarding existing habitats, and protecting and restoring woodland and wetlands, there could be a bright future for nature in Ireland. The key is to put this front and centre in agriculture policy and work from there,” Ms Duggan suggested.

The report offers a better future to Irish farmers rather than a continuation of the agribusiness model, said John Brennan, manager of Leitrim Organic Farmers Co-op and member of Talamh Beo, which represents farmers, growers and land-based workers organising for change in Irish food and agriculture systems.

“Currently our whole agri-food system is industry-designed and led and we need to make it farmer- and community-led – this document gets us moving in that direction,” he said. “Ireland has careened down a path of specialisation and intensification and has left farmers locked into an unsustainable commodity-driven food production system, leaving them exposed to an array of vulnerabilities.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times