Is the proposed ‘smart’ agricultural policy too good to be true?

Analysis: Motive behind climate study admirable but may prove to be wishful thinking

It seems too good to be true. A ‘smart’ agricultural policy that allows an increase in agricultural production while at the same time fulfilling our Green House Gas emissions targets.

It is a little like a new diet that allows you to eat all the desserts and chocolate you like while still guaranteeing weight loss.

A report promoting climate-smart agriculture has claimed that by embracing a new approach to the sector - encompassing technology, land-use changes, exploring of efficiencies, and employing new methods - Irish agriculture could score a “triple win” of increased production, lower emissions, and adapting and building resilience to climate change impacts.

The report emanates from the Climate-Smart Agriculture Leadership Programme, a joint endeavour between the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) and the Royal Dublin Society. It was written by the IIEA's senior research fellow Joseph Curtin and the former head of Concern, Tom Arnold.


The motive and rationale behind the study is admirable. Each sector must rack its brains to come up with the smartest, most efficient and least costly solutions to reducing emissions in order to meet the demanding targets set out in the Paris Global Summit on climate change.

For these highly aspirational targets to be achieved it would require many massive advances in technology as well as a complete sea-change in the way the agriculture and food industries operate.

The document does spell out the grim reality that there is a gap between our emissions and our targets that is growing increasingly wider.

Wishful thinking

That said, the report involves a fair deal of wishful thinking. It does not present climate smart agriculture as a silver bullet. Yet, it doesn’t stop far short of doing so.

The use of the phrase “triple win” is over the top. Viewed through the prism of what is available today, that gap is unbridgeable.

Even if many of the changes transpired, and the amazing technology breakthroughs on feeds and fertilisers happened, there would still be insuperable difficulties.

The core one is that increasing output while hoping to reduce emissions is a contradiction for which there is no solution. The report fully acknowledges that.

Still, it will be seized on by politicians from bigger parties who want to run with the hare and chase with the hounds on this issue.

Is climate-smart agriculture as presented a total solution to Ireland’s greenhouse emissions conundrum? The complete answer to that is ‘No’ for the present, and ‘unproven at best’ for the future.

There is no doubt that agriculture presents the biggest challenge for climate change policy in Ireland.

Irish emissions are above the European average per capita and agriculture comprises one third of all greenhouse gas emissions (and almost half of the State's emissions outside the Emissions Trading Scheme).

The EU targets for 2020 and 2030 (when decided) are onerous. So too are the global ones agreed in Paris in December.

Ireland will face substantial financial penalties for failing to meet the targets. They just cannot be met by leaving agriculture out of the equation.

Notwithstanding this, Irish agriculture output (and emissions) are set to increase over the next decade under the Food Wise 2025 and Food Harvest 2020 programmes.

The ending of milk quotas will increase the dairy herd. The Government has said these programmes will create thousands of jobs.

Government policy until now has been to argue for Irish exceptionalism. We depend on agriculture more here than in other EU States.

The Government has argued we are very efficient at producing beef and dairy and if that is jeopardised, producers from less efficient countries will step into the breach.

The argument has been viewed as seeking a free pass by other governments and by climate campaigners. There is more than a grain of truth to that criticism.

As the authors note, efficiency in itself is not good enough:

“There is a tendency to see carbon efficiency as a static indication of good standing rather than a potential yardstick to measure and drive further progress.”

Food security

The Government has also used a food security argument in the face of a growing world population.

Agencies such as Trocaire have argued that food security for poorer countries is strongest when they increase their own food production rather than "receiving exports of Irish agriculture that are destined for the emerging middle class".

The report details a wide range of measures that can be adopted, including existing and future solutions. It also argues that Ireland should become a world leader in this area, and help drive progress.

It includes more proven solutions such as carbon sinks, or afforestation. An additional half a million hectares would need to be afforested. The problem is that dairy calving will compete for some of the land and some marginal quality land might not be suitable. Even that, the most do-able of all the solutions presents big challenges.

There has been a move towards better use of technology and efficiency, much of it driven by Teagasc.  This includes the GLAS scheme, the use of data and genomics in the beef sector, a farm carbon navigation system and the Origin Green scheme, which has been developed jointly between farmers and the food industry.

Technology will allow more efficient use of land, methods and feed to minimise waste. It will lead to improvements in feed (leading to a reduction in methane emissions) and less harmful fertilisers.

Other possible solutions include extending the grazing season; using clover to fix nitogren, better systems for spreading manure, soil biology and precision farming.

Another big solution is a wholesale transfer of emphasis from suckler calfs to dairy-beef. That would have an appreciable effect but would be hard to sell politically (without financial incentives).

It is very hard to measure what cumulative impact all of these smart measures detailed would have on emissions. Existing measures have had an appreciable impact but one that is still tiny given the magnitude of the challenge.

The reality right now is that agricultural emissions are not decreasing but going the other way.

Every measure included in this very detailed and comprehensive report should be embraced.

However, the environmental impact of increasing production can not be fully tucked away by smart agriculture.

The nettle of lowering emissions in the sector should be grasped and the most realistic solution seems to be a move away from dairy and beef.

That is not politically sellable and none of the major parties seem willing to do it.