Irish farmers ‘have as much responsibility as car industry’ to cut emissions

Expansion of beef and dairy production having impact on pollution, hearing told

In the committee of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on March 6th, Kerry TD Danny Healy-Rae stressed that proposed climate change measure could damage Ireland's farmers. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

Betting the future of rural Ireland on ever-increasing production of beef and dairying is a “big gamble that is not sustainable, economically, socially or environmentally”, according to an environmental group.

A changing climate “poses a threat to all of us in Ireland, to all parts of the country and society, and to all sectors of the economy,” Stop Climate Chaos Coalition spokesman Oisín Coghlan told the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

“Agriculture is not exempt from these climate risks and threats. In fact, agriculture is particularly dependent on a stable climate. We have seen this in the damage done by flooding and the fodder crisis, and in recent days by the damage done by the combination of Storm Emma and the ‘Beast from the East’, “ he added.

Mr Coghlan stressed the coalition wanted to see “a vibrant and diverse economy in rural Ireland, sustaining flourishing communities”. But he cited research which found climate change could cause economic losses to the agricultural sector of between €1 to €2 billion a year by mid century if Ireland failed to reduce its emissions immediately.

‘Not exempt’

“Just as it is not exempt from climate risks, the agricultural sector is not exempt from climate responsibility,” Mr Coghlan told committee members who are examining likely impacts of climate change on the agriculture, food and marine sectors.

“Transformation” had been used to describe the scale of change needed to prevent runaway climate change, he said. “Transformation in how we generate electricity, heat out homes, plan our cities, towns and rural areas, in how we move from A to B, and yes also how we produce and consume food.”

The “national position” stipulates an 80 per cent reduction in emissions from electricity generation, buildings and transport, but only carbon neutrality in agriculture and land use, he said. “That is to say by 2050 all our annual emissions from agriculture have to be offset by enhancements to our treecover, our peatlands and grasslands in such a way that sucks carbon pollution from the air and locks it in for the long-term.”

The Government strategy for agri-business was, however, for ongoing expansion of beef and dairy production. “And already we are seeing the impact on pollution. Emissions have risen by an average of 2 per cent a year over the last two years, when they need to be falling by 2 per cent a year to even begin moving towards carbon neutrality.”

“Sustainable food production” did not mean what some representatives of Irish agri-business think. “It does not mean ever-increasing exports of beef and dairy products from Ireland,” he said.

Irish agricultural exports, notwithstanding their quality and value, did not contribute to sustainable food production and global food security, added Mr Coghlan, who is director of Friends of the Earth Ireland. “They are, as Simon Coveney put it when he was Minister for Agriculture, ‘premium products for premium markets’. It is the rising middles class in emerging economies that we see as our growth markets, not the hungry in Africa. ”

Dr Matt Crowe director of the EPA Office of Evidence and Assessment said currently land in Ireland was a “net source of CO2”. Over time this had to reversed so it became a carbon sink. While farming had to happen in harmony with the environment, actions had to work for farmers and rural communities while bringing multiple benefits under nature, water and quality, and climate change headings.

Already a crisis

Trócaire director for humanitarian programming Noreen Gumbo said climate change was already a crisis in most countries where the aid agency operated. She compared a week of snow in Ireland with a complete season of drought in East Africa, on top of drought that also occurred the previous year.

Hunger was caused by poverty, not by inadequate food supply; “poverty in the form of lack of economic resources to buy food, and or lack of the resources, such as land and tools, to grow it”, she said.

“If we are concerned about food security in the context of a changing climate, we must be concerned first and foremost with ensuring that all countries, including Ireland, fulfil their obligations under the Paris Agreement to hold the rise in average temperature to well below 2 degrees, aiming for 1.5 degrees,” she added.

She reiterated the view, “Ireland has been a champion of efforts to counter hunger, but today one cannot be a leader on hunger without also being a leader in climate change”.

‘Emissions-free’

Independent TD Danny Healy-Rae said that if Ireland became “emissions-free” it would merely contribute a reduction of 0.13 per cent in emissions globally. Within the Irish context, he claimed farmers were being unfairly targeted “based on some people’s views on climate change and global warming”.

Already, €480 million in carbon taxes was being raised every year but he did see it going into “what the climate change crowd are talking about”.

Farmers had been pushed into intensification and then “set aside...with cameras in the sky watching over them if they did not do it”. He said working people including those in rural communities would be forced to pay for actions being demanded by climate change campaigners; “there’s no Mother Teresas and no leprechauns”.

“The notion that they cannot burn turf or peat after 2030 is very unfair,” Mr Healy-Rae added, while he was not convinced of the merits of the electric car. He disputed if it could deal with the type of floods he had successfully negotiated in Co Kerry recently using his diesel car.