Irish agriculture is at a crossroads. How it addresses its obligations in decarbonising beef production and dairying, while ensuring a viable income for family farms, will determine if it is re-directed on the right route.
Department of Public Expenditure secretary general Robert Watt pinpointed the issue in a letter to senior government officials during April 2019. Some key targets in the Government's climate action plan were "not credible", and it should cut the national herd rather than "ignoring" agriculture emissions, he suggested in correspondence that emerged this week.
Given that agriculture accounted for a large portion of emissions, he said, the plan should include a “negligible” 5 per cent cut in herd numbers. Ignoring agriculture would increase costs for other sectors and for the economy as a whole. Watt’s diagnosis was correct.
There is a Teagasc masterplan to cut agriculture emissions and an all-party Oireachtas committee has endorsed a fundamental redirection of agriculture, but too many actions are aspirational. Livestock numbers are already declining due to changing dietary preferences driven by health and climate concerns, and lack of returns in beef production.
Yet the sector needs to be able to show that it can be a leader in producing milk and beef with the lowest possible carbon footprint and in protecting the environment. That would enable Ireland retain a reputation for high- quality food.
For that to happen the methane issue has to be faced up to. It has a much greater warming effect than CO2 though its atmospheric lifetime is much shorter. Ireland has a particular problem given the predominance of agricultural methane.
Farming organisations claim greenhouse gases from bovines are being accounted for inappropriately. New Zealand, with a similar farming profile to Ireland, has shown how separate targets to CO2 work.
But they need to be legally binding and deliver steady reductions in methane as well as nitrous oxide emissions arising from fertiliser use. This is not a get-out-of-jail card. A national conversation about methane is urgently needed.