Farming and greenhouse gases: is it time to take the bull by the horns?

Agriculture is the State’s biggest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions

The Italian government is seeking an exemption for luxury supercars from the total ban on combustion engines from 2035, pleading that these powerful fuel-guzzling sportscars are a special case.

So what is Ireland’s Lamborghini or Ferrari? Undoubtedly it is agriculture, which has been given a free pass when it comes to climate change and, arguably, pollution.

On Friday the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its greenhouse gas emissions numbers for Ireland during 2020, which showed that agricultural emissions are going in the opposite direction to other sectors.

Last year agriculture’s emissions increased by 1.4 per cent – up 12 per cent over the last 10 years – driven by increased fertiliser nitrogen use (3.3 per cent) and increased numbers of livestock, including dairy cows (3.2 per cent).


Over the past decade the number of dairy cow in Irish milking herds has increased by 45.5 per cent, with a corresponding milk production increase of 60.3 per cent.

Agriculture is the State’s biggest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, the largest cause of nitrogen pollution in Irish rivers and waters, and the source of of virtually all ammonia pollution, blamed on fertilisers.

Ireland has been exceeding the legal limit each year since 2016 and by increasing margins, contradicting the bucolic and green image of Irish agriculture long beloved by promoters.

The image is becoming harder to maintain against growing evidence of its industrialisation, particularly dairy farming, despite the natural advantage bestowed by a mild climate and a plenitude of grasses.

But that advantage only brings it so far. The predominant grassland for many years now has been monoculture or rye grass, highly dependent on nitrogen fertiliser, and with adverse consequences for biodiversity.

The Food Harvest 2025 agriculture strategy placed competitiveness and environmental sustainability as equally important pillars, but those now, say critics, are nothing more than words on a page.

The evidence is that the significant economic expansion of agriculture, particularly driven by the end of milk quotas in 2014, has come at a significant environmental cost.

Nitrogen pollution is closely linked to intensive farming, and the more nitrogen used the more of it that will be found in rivers and streams. Since 2013, nitrogen emissions have risen.

Half of all of the State’s 4,900 rivers, streams, lakes and estuaries are sub-standard ecologically, the EPA told the Oireachtas Agriculture Commission this week, with 1,000 polluted by nitrates.

Most of the latter occurs in the south and southeast, the heart of Ireland’s dairy sector. Many iconic rivers – the Bandon, Lee, Blackwater, Suir, Nore, Barrow and Slaney – are polluted, the agency said.

We face tough decisions between levels of dairy viability and profitability on the one hand, and environmental damage on the other

Ireland enjoys a derogation under the EU Nitrates Directive that allows intensive farmers (dairy farmers, mostly) to apply 250kg of livestock manure per hectare, rather than 170kg. That derogation comes up for review at year’s end.

The continuation of the Irish derogation is “a conundrum”, says Dr Oliver Moore from the Centre for Co-operative Studies in UCC. “Only Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark still have this out of 27 EU member states.”

A recent EU Court of Auditors study showed that since 2014 the area covered by the derogation increased by a third, coupled with a 38 per cent increase in the number of animals.

“We face tough decisions between levels of dairy viability and profitability on the one hand, and environmental damage on the other,” Dr Moore told The Irish Times.

Just 2,000 nitrates inspections take place on farms each year, the EPA told the Oireachtas Committee, which complained that compliance with good farming practices “varies from county to county, but it is generally considered to be low”.

Still, Ireland wants to continue the derogation.

“We will be working to ensure we maintain it,” says Charlie McConalogue, the Minister for Agriculture. “We need the capacity at farm level to be able to use higher levels of nitrate.”

In other moments McConalogue has talked about the fragility of nature and the need to cut down on agriculture’s carbon footprint.

“Nature is fragile and needs to be nurtured and given space... Every sector will have to play its part in climate change.We all have to play a role.”

But what role for agriculture? McConalogue wants a variety of measures, including a move to grass less dependent on fertiliser or the use of protected urea which releases nitrogen more slowly.

Meanwhile, the Minister favours the use of low-emission slurry-spreading, better farm and storage management, and the creation of a chemical fertiliser register.

Pointing to a pilot scheme to encourage farmers to use different types of grass and clover on the one field, McConalogue argues that 10,500 farmers applied, 10 times more than had been expected.

Like politicians from the three major parties, McConalogue believes farmers respond better to carrots rather than sticks, but critics argue that the evidence to back that up is mixed at best.

Dairy farming has twice as big a carbon footprint than those with suckler herds, especially because dairy cows are producing more milk annually, and thus more methane

Take, for example, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Until now dairy farms – the biggest polluters in farming – have been minimally involved with environmental schemes.

Politicians such as Roscommon-Galway East TD Michael Fitzmaurice argue that it is the big dairy farm operations in the south and southeast that are most to blame, not the smaller farmers on poorer land in the north and west.

Under the current CAP, just 13 per cent of dairy farms have signed up to the GLAS environmental scheme – 10,000 farms are not signed up to any CAP scheme, including some of the State’s biggest intensive dairy operations.

However, McConalogue says things will change under the next CAP where farmers must sign up for environmental measures in order to get a quarter of their basic CAP payment.

For a dairy farm, however, that might require nothing more than to plant three native trees per hectare each year. For a 50-hectare farm that would require planting 750 trees between 2023 and 2030.

In the meantime agriculture will be asked to reduce emissions by a minimum of 21 per cent under the new Carbon Action Plan under the Common Agriculture Policy.

The Department of Agriculture believes it can do it without reducing the herd, but others are sceptical. McConalogue says there are signs the national herd is stabilising, but the latest EPA report shows a marked increase again in 2020.

Dr Hannah Daly, lecturer in energy systems in the department of engineering, UCC, says: “ What we are doing is increasing methane emissions.”

The Government constantly argues that Ireland has the most sustainable dairy industry in the EU, but the data for that dates back to 2005, and many changes for the worse have happened since, argues Daly.

Dairy farming has twice as big a carbon footprint than those with suckler herds, especially because dairy cows are producing more milk annually, and thus more methane.

Meanwhile farmers are slow to think of new ways, reluctant to diversify into pigs or apple trees or any other type of farming, says the Cork-based academic.

In time, however, farmers will be the first group affected by climate change. “They will be the first ones to be hit when there is drought or adverse weather. Diversification is a strategy to mitigate against that,” she says.

But for now the cows are milking well, and there is plenty still in the field. While it lasts there is still a strong residual reluctance to stop driving the Lamborghini.