Further expansion of agrifood sector backed despite climate change challenges

State strategy does not set target to reduce sector’s main source of carbon emissions - livestock

A strategy for the redirection of Irish agriculture and food production over the next decade strongly backs further expansion through Ireland becoming a global leader in sustainable food production.

The draft agri-food strategy to 2030, published by Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue, commits to a 10 per cent cut in biogenic methane over the next 10 years and climate neutrality by 2050, but does not set a target on reducing livestock numbers – the sector’s main source of carbon emissions.

It does, however, support a range of specified measures on reducing the carbon footprint of farming including reduced use of chemical fertilisers, enhanced water protection and greater set aside of land to enhance nature.

The Government has committed to a 51 per cent total emissions reduction by 2030.


In spite of a rapid expansion in beef and dairying under the previous FoodWise 2025 strategy coinciding with rising emissions, the 30-person expert group headed by agricultural economist Tom Arnold sets out a course to "sustainably develop Ireland's food and drink offering, with new ambition for value-add and new markets with a view to agri-food exports reaching €21 billion by 2030". Irish food, drink and horticulture exports amounted to €13 billion last year.

As the document was being signed off in February, the Environmental Pillar, a national coalition of 32 environmental and climate groups, resigned from the stakeholder committee, claiming it was “full of lofty language about sustainability but the actions aren’t there”.

The strategy "must set us on a path of transformation for a diverse and resilient food system in line with planetary boundaries", said pillar spokeswoman Karen Cielsielski, who confirmed it had reluctantly left the committee.

“We want to take our time going through this document over coming days and fully analyse its proposals.”

Green reputation

The future source of competitive advantage for the Irish agri-food sector lies in being able to demonstrate it meets the highest standards of sustainability and can be considered among the world leaders in this field, the report underlines.

“This is the basis on which Ireland can meaningfully build on its ‘green’ reputation and aspire to gaining market share in expanding high value international markets and in certain cases, gaining a premium price for what it sells,” it concludes.

The current AgClimatise strategy “makes clear an increase in the national cattle herd above current levels will jeopardise the achievement of the sector attaining climate neutrality by 2050”, the committee accepts.

With more than 30 per cent of emissions arising from agriculture – notably beef and dairying – Green ministers have flagged that AgClimatise would be insufficient to deliver on the Government’s decarbonisation targets and curbs on livestock numbers were necessary.

On the national herd, the report proposes “detailed plans to manage the sustainable environmental footprint of the dairy and the beef sectors” should be produced by June of next year.

This, it adds, must take into account their respective environmental footprints; plans for reduction in methane, nitrous oxide and ammonia emissions; impact of management practices and existing technologies at farm level, as well as emerging methane and ammonia mitigation technologies; promotion of better pasture management, including reducing chemical fertiliser use; deploying genetics and enhanced feed additives.

Lack of awareness

Climate scientist Prof John Sweeney said the report displays an alarming lack of awareness of the need for substantial change in the direction of Irish agriculture in "facing up to our national and international obligations in the field of climate change and biodiversity".

Projections of a 10 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 were unconvincing and largely aspirational, he said.

"The Harvest 2020 estimates proved wide of the mark and Foodwise 2025 similarly did not stem the growth of agricultural emissions based on similar voluntary practices. There is no convincing evidence that this pre-emptive strategy will do otherwise," he added.

“If agriculture is offering 10 per cent, that leaves all other sectors having to reduce their emissions by 70 per cent to reach this legally-binding target...Who do they expect to take up the slack? Is it the car driver or urban dweller that will be expected to shoulder reductions of up to 70 per cent through increased taxation to meet the national carbon budget? If not, is the sector proposing to ignore carrying its fair share?”

Mr McConalogue insisted the strategy’s “mission-led food systems approach has sustainability in all its forms, environmental, social and economic, at its core”– and urged participation in a period of public consultation on it.


Minister of State for agriculture Pippa Hackett said: "Achieving climate neutrality by 2050 will be challenging, and will certainly require changes in the way our land is used and farmed, but it will deliver gains as well."

The strategy sets out practical actions for the sector to become climate neutral by 2050, she noted, “but it is also about restoring and enhancing biodiversity; improving water quality; and developing diverse, multi-functional forests. We need to hear from everyone interested in these issues”.

Given, however, the committee was dominated by agri-food industry representatives, and refused to accept more than one Environmental Pillar representative from the outset, it inevitably produced a one-sided report “which advocates essentially a ‘business as usual’ trajectory of continued intensification”, Prof Sweeney said.

“This has already led to exceedances of national ammonia and greenhouse gas emission limits and deterioration of river and lake quality throughout Ireland, as confirmed by the EPA,” he added.

He said hard-working farmers of Ireland were once again being led into a policy cul de sac.

“Having invested heavily in equipment and facilities to accommodate powerful food industry strategies, they run the risk of carrying unproductive high debt and even having stranded assets in the years ahead. The farmers of Ireland deserve much better.”

CAP reforms

While the common agricultural policy (CAP) will continue to be of crucial importance – with radical reforms due to be signed off next month – the sector will be influenced by, and should benefit from, a wider range of EU policies over the coming decade, the draft report underlines.

The European green deal (EGD) represents a fundamental political and policy commitment towards Europe becoming the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, it says. The EU farm to fork (F2F) strategy at the heart of the EGD; addresses "links between healthy people, healthy societies and a healthy planet".

The F2F, circular economy and biodiversity strategies taken together, “will require substantial change in how we farm and fish, manage our forests and how we process, distribute and consume food and bio-based products”, it adds.

While the 2030 strategy supports the direction of these policies, “Ireland will need to proactively engage to influence the direction of the implementing regulations under each of these initiatives, to take account of national circumstances and legitimate interests and concerns. In addition, detailed impact assessments will need to take place,” the report warns.


“Carbon-farming” offers a potentially new source of income for farmers but is still at early stage of development, it notes, while the AgClimatise roadmap proposes a pilot scheme for on-farm carbon trading to reward farmers for “the public goods” they provide.

“This should align with the proposed EU Carbon Farming Initiative as set out in the F2F strategy, whereby a new regulatory framework for certifying carbon removals will underpin a payment to farmers,” it says.

The strategy backs scale-up of renewable energy sources, especially anaerobic digestion, solar and energy efficiency.

“Roll-out in 2021 of an enabling framework for micro-generation which tackles existing barriers and establishes suitable supports, as foreseen in the climate action plan 2019, will be crucial to the delivery of this action,” it says.

The Government is committed to overall emissions reductions of 51 per cent from 2021 to 2030 and to achieving climate neutrality no later than 2050, taking into account the special role of agriculture and the distinct characteristics of biogenic methane.

This stakeholder-led strategy is a significant milestone, according to the Department of Agriculture. “When finalised this summer, [IT] will need to be consistent with the ambition set out for agriculture in the programme for government and the [NEW]climate action plan 2021, and the sectoral targets to be adopted under the Climate Bill,” it added.

Draft agri-food strategy to 2030 - Specific targets:

Biogenic methane: A reduction of at least 10 per cent;

Air quality: Reduce ammonia emissions below 107,500 tonnes;

Water quality: Agriculture will reduce nutrient losses to water by 50 per cent;

Biodiversity: 10 per cent of farmed area prioritised for biodiversity spread across all farms throughout the country;

Exports: Sustainably develop Ireland’s food and drink offering, with new ambition for value-add and new markets with a view to agri-food exports reaching €21 billion;

Forestry: Increase afforestation and double the sustainable production of biomass from forests (by 2035);

Seafood: Achieve 30 per cent of marine protected areas;

Organic farming: Reach at least 7.5 per cent of utilised agricultural area;

Food waste: Halve per capita food waste;

Verified sustainability: A strengthened Origin Green (operated by Bord Bia) with emphasis on strong metrics and evidence.

The strategy’s missions and goals include:

1. A climate smart, environmentally sustainable agri-food sector.

- Develop a climate-neutral food system by 2050 and improve air quality

- Restore and enhance biodiversity

- Protect high status sites and contribute to achieving good water quality

- Develop diverse, multi-functional forests

- Enhance the environmental sustainability of the seafood sector

- Embed the agri-food sector in the circular, regenerative bioeconomy

- Origin Green and sustainable supports to reflect higher ambition

2. Viable and resilient primary producers with enhanced wellbeing.

- Improve competitiveness and productivity of primary producers/farmers

- Improve the creation and equitable distribution of value

- Increase primary producer system diversification

- Improve the social sustainability of primary producers

3. Food that is safe, nutritious and appealing, trusted and valued at home and abroad.

- Prioritise coherent food and health policies to deliver improved health outcomes

- Enhance consumer trust, providing evidence of a safe, ethical food supply

- Create value-add in food through insight, innovation and product differentation

- Develop market opportunities at home and abroad

4. An innovative, competitive and resilient sector driven by technology and talent.

- Move to a challenge-focused innovation system

- A strategic funding approach for research, development and innovation

- Develop a dynamic knowledge exchange environment

- Enhance use of technology and data

- Maintain/improve competitiveness and resilience

- Attract and nurture diverse and inclusive talent

- Policy coherence in sustainable food systems between Ireland’s domestic policy and its development cooperation and foreign policy

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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