Irish agri-food growth moving environmental trends ‘all in wrong direction’

State’s reputation for low economic footprint from food production at risk, says EPA

Methane, which comes from ruminant animals, accounts for 67% of emissions in agriculture. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Methane, which comes from ruminant animals, accounts for 67% of emissions in agriculture. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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Ireland’s reputation as a food producer with a low environmental footprint is at risk of being irreversibly damaged by continued growth in the agri-food industry, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has warned.

In a hard-hitting assessment on the environmental sustainability of current agricultural practices, the EPA has stated that economic growth in the agri-food sector in recent years is happening at the expense of the environment, with trends in emissions, water quality and biodiversity “all going in the wrong direction”.

The EPA has been invited before the Oireachtas Committee on Environment and Climate Change on Tuesday to discuss how Ireland can meet its 2030 emissions targets. In her opening statement Sharon Finegan, an EPA director, will inform the committee this could cause significant damage to Ireland’s reputation as a green food producer.

“Business-as-usual scenarios will not reverse these trends. New measures must go beyond improving efficiencies and focus on reducing total emissions by breaking the link between animal numbers, fertiliser use and deteriorating water quality,” she will say.

Agriculture is responsible for about a third of national greenhouse gas emissions and more than 99 per cent of national ammonia emissions in Ireland. The sector has also been identified as imposing the largest pressure on water resources in Ireland.

Methane emissions

The EPA last week published projections that showed Ireland would meet its EU 2030 target if all measures in the 2019 action plan were implemented. That would result in a 2 per cent annual reduction in emissions, or 24 per cent overall between 2018 and 2030. However, new legislation before the Oireachtas will commit Ireland to targets more than three times higher than that: 7 per cent annual reductions.

The EPA says adhering to the 2019 plan will involve putting almost a million electric vehicles on the road; relying on 70 per cent renewable energy; installing 600,000 heat pumps; and retrofitting 500,000 homes. In agriculture, there would need to be substantial efficiencies in fertilisers, feeds, slurry spreading and pasture.

Meeting the targets by 2030 would result in a 47 per cent reduction of emissions in the residential sector, 25 per cent in energy, 13 per cent in transport and 11 per cent in agriculture.

Material supplied to the committee, chaired by Green Party TD Brian Leddin, also notes that the most obvious effects of Covid-19 were decreases in transport emissions and increases in residential emissions.

Methane, which comes from ruminant animals, accounts for 67 per cent of emissions in agriculture. The opening statement warns that actions need to be adopted quickly and effectively to stabilise methane emissions. It also emphasises that the data must be “measurable, reportable and verifiable” and supported by on-the-ground verification.