Published in 2010, using data from 2004, one of the most cited pieces of beef and dairy research is now well over a decade old. According to Bord Bia, the report, compiled by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC), finds Ireland to be "the most carbon-efficient producer of milk in the EU (a position shared with Austria) – and the fifth most carbon-efficient producer of beef".
A reassuring message in the context of a climate emergency and growing numbers of reports arguing that the animal-based protein we eat is linked to worsening environmental conditions.
Many climate experts believe, however, that reassurance is unhelpful. While in no way questioning the validity of the report, titled Evaluation of the Livestock Sector’s Contribution to the EU Greenhouse Gas Emissions, nor the JRC’s work, they worry about ongoing references to it.
"Using those JRC rankings might have a tendency to stifle debate, rather than spark it," is one view from the Environmental Protection Agency's scientific officer and adviser to the Climate Change Advisory Council, Dr Phillip O'Brien.
Another risk is poor policymaking, says NUI Maynooth physical climate science professor Peter Thorne, who is director of the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Units.
“The Department of Agriculture and Bord Bia are certainly very attached to the JRC report, doubtless in part at least because it supports their intentions to expand the market for Irish beef and dairy produce globally,” he says. But, because the report’s findings are now dated, there is a greater chance of “making decisions with adverse consequences”.
The JRC's answer is similar. In an email response, its project officer, Franz Weiss, says the data used is "basically 15 years old, and the larger the time gap becomes the higher is the probability that relevant things have changed".
Asked why it relies so heavily on the JRC report and whether it might be outdated, a Bord Bia spokeswoman said the JRC paper “is sometimes referred to… it is a comprehensive comparison of carbon footprints between all EU states for the relevant agricultural outputs”. It did not offer any alternative research references.
Alongside its age, climate researchers also point to the fact that the JRC report’s findings are varied rather than conclusive. The report itself notes that the “results are assigned with considerable uncertainty”.
NUI Galway carbon foot-printing and life cycle assessment specialist Dr David Styles says rather than a single definitive ranking, the report offers several options. His modelling of the different possibilities sees Irish beef's ranking rise as high as third or fall as low as 11th. Equally, Irish dairy can rise to first or fall to 11th.
Thorny measurement issues include “permanent grassland sequestration” and “land use change”. The first was included by the JRC at the time of the report but it has not become Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) standard, Weiss added. That means, “it is reasonable to consider this assumption as obsolete, which would considerably lower the comparative advantage of Ireland’s beef and milk production”.
Land use change emissions data would have had a similarly positive effect on Ireland’s ranking. The method increases emissions in countries where large areas are used to produce feed for livestock. But again, Styles says, it involves uncertain assumptions that deviate from IPCC guidelines.
Given the number of moving parts, Styles says the crucial point to bear in mind is that results of this kind are uncertain “and dependent on specific choices about what to include, or not, in the footprint” measurement.
Other analyses of Irish beef and dairy emissions are available too, but all come with caveats. One of the best known alternatives to the JRC report is the global livestock environmental assessment tool – known as Gleam – developed by the UN food and agricultural organisation.
The most recent Gleam results extracted by Alan Matthews, emeritus professor of European agricultural policy at Trinity College Dublin, show Ireland's national dairy and beef emissions to be some of the highest in Europe. By comparison, the lowest ranked is Finland for dairy, Belgium for suckler beef and Finland again for dairy beef.
Whatever the findings, O’Brien, Styles and Matthews all agree that rankings only go so far. Or, in O’Brien’s words, “whether we are first or second or third is really angels on the head of a pin”.
But GHG emissions rankings have another role. They are used to support an argument known as “leakage”. In a leakage situation, proponents say any reduction of dairy or beef production in well-ranked Ireland will lead to production increases and larger herds in poorly-ranked countries. And that will increase overall global emissions.
O’Brien agrees the 2010 JRC rankings have played into the leakage argument, which he says is a plausible one. What is lacking, he adds, “is more evidence that would happen. We can’t be sure it would to the extent that total global emissions would increase.”
Nor does the leakage argument do much to help Ireland's progress on lowering emissions to meet national and EU targets. But there is something that might, around which there is at least some expert agreement and which Bord Bia describes as "central to accelerating" progress. It's called the marginal abatement cost curve, developed by Teagasc.
At its most basic, the cost curve can be described as an way to think about emission reduction routes, from the lowest cost per tonne to the most expensive, says Teagasc's head of the rural economy development programme, Dr Kevin Hanrahan.
Customised for Ireland’s farmers, it offers 27 technologies and management practices. If fully implemented over the years 2021 to 2030, Hanrahan says it could see agricultural emissions, currently just over 20 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, fall to about 17 million tonnes.
Good news, because at farm level there is a growing emphasis on practicalities over conflicting bits of research.
"Yes, of course we should be using the latest science. But the problem these days is that if there is a piece of research people don't like, they will just discredit it," says organic farmer and Green Party Senator Pippa Hackett.
One solution to the resulting confusion, she says, is to focus on what we know. “We all know that too much fertiliser can damage the soil, air and water. We know intensive animal agriculture can reduce animal welfare, and harm biodiversity. We need to take a holistic approach.”
North Tipperary farmer Maurice Deasy agrees. "It is very hard to know what is the right way to go. There is lots of misinformation or selective cherry picking," he notes.
The other problem he sees is that much of the research tends to feed into the narrative that expanding production means more profits. “Yet in last 70 years the opposite has occurred. Farm income is lower than it was in the 1960s and output is higher.”
Deasy’s response is a mixed farming approach that includes sheep, tillage, ducks, turkeys, chickens and a brewery called Canvas. It’s not easy, and the farm’s produce comes with higher prices, but Deasy says shopping is a political act.
“Beer is a good example. You can buy our beer, which is more expensive, but it is totally different to the one euro or less beer you buy in the supermarket. And when you buy it, you are voting for a small producer.”
It’s the same with turkeys, he says. “If you are buying a €10 or less turkey, what are you voting for? Our turkeys would cost around €70 to produce. It’s good to think about what kind of producers we are voting for.”
Bord Bia credit scheme
Last month, in a separate development, Bord Bia indicated it is creating a credit scheme that would reward farmers implementing pro-climate initiatives.
After farming sector criticism, it described the scheme as “an online platform to quantify the totality of farms in Ireland implementing environmental, biodiversity and sustainability initiatives”. The proposed farm sustainability platform would be voluntary and the launch date is yet to be confirmed.
The platform would allow farmers to “track their chosen sustainability measures” and act as “a centralised hub to record the scale of participation” in the “numerous national and regional programmes operating at farm level”.