(Published in the Sunday Times, November 9, 2014)
In a week when the International Panel on Climate Change said that current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have not been seen in at least 800,000 years the European Council agreed to set no specific targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction in the agriculture sector. The move was instigated by the Irish government who persuaded other leaders that agriculture should be given special treatment.
Irish authorities are keenly aware that a startling 32% of Irish emissions emanate from agriculture already. Ambitious targets to expand dairy production outlined in the Harvest 2020 document would be impossible without the deal.
A 2014 Environmental Protection Agency report states that emissions from Irish agriculture will increase by 9% between 2012 and 2020. The EPA report asserts: ‘This is predominantly driven by a projected increase in dairy cow numbers of 14% between 2015 and 2020 following the abolition of milk quotas in 2015’.
The proportion of emissions from Irish agriculture is higher than for any other EU state, and second only to New Zealand’s among developed countries. This is because of the dominance of cattle and other ruminants in our farming sector. There are almost seven million cattle in Ireland, and a mere 8% of agricultural land is devoted to crops, fruit and horticulture production.
Livestock are responsible for significant emissions for a variety of reasons including their digestive process, fossil fuel inputs in feedstuffs, and clearance of forests and jungle for grazing and feedstuffs.
Calculating their global impact is a complex exercise. Estimates will depend on criteria used which could include historic loss of forest cover and mitigation strategies.
A 2014 UN report, that leading environmentalists have questioned, estimated that the proportion of emissions emanating from livestock had dropped to 14.5% of total anthropogenic emissions compared to 18% calculated in a 2003 report.
At first glance this suggests livestock emissions have declined by nearly 20%. In reality an increase in emissions from other sectors in the intervening period has masked the livestock sector’s apparent decline of a modest 5%.
At the other end of the scale, a 2009 World Watch report authored by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang estimates that livestock account for 51% of global emissions.
It might be argued that unlike, for example, air travel all human beings require food, making agriculture untouchable. The Irish government advances the further claim that emissions from Irish livestock tend to be lower than elsewhere, although the intensification envisaged in Harvest 2020 could erode that argument.
This one track, industry-driven approach ignores the value and simplicity of encouraging a dietary shift towards food alternatives with far lower emissions profiles. Essentially this means human beings eating more crops directly as opposed to animals expensively converting grass or grain into flesh.
A 2014 Oxford University study found that an average ‘vegan’ (or ‘plant-based’) diet in the UK had emissions less than a third those of a person on a diet with a heavy share of meat. Considering the near convergence of UK and Irish food supply chains we can assume those figures apply in Ireland too.
A change in the profile of our agricultural production would cost far less than a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Thus, the decision to remove the agricultural sector from the emissions reckoning could harm the wider Irish economy as industry, households and transport sectors will be compelled to bear the entirety of scheduled reductions.
There is an onus on the Irish state to protect marginalized rural communities. But the current arrangement is not even rewarding most farmers. Despite annual subsidies of over €2 billion in direct farm payments, four-fifths of farms actually lose money. Just last week meat packaging plants were blockaded around the country.
Minister Simon Coveney has publicly blamed low European demand for beef on the economic downturn but it could be indicative of a long-term trend as ethical, environmental and health arguments weigh in against meat consumption particularly in more affluent countries.
The global dairy industry has marshaled powerful nutritional arguments that feature in many government’s nutritional recommendations, but nutritional epidemiologists are increasingly questioning their validity. For example the Harvard School of Public Health states on its website: ‘It’s not clear … that we need as much calcium as is generally recommended, and it’s also not clear that dairy products are really the best source of calcium for most people.’
It has become almost axiomatic that Irish agriculture cannot produce anything bar animal products. But our history defies that assessment: only after the Famine did the extensive commodification of cattle for export begin. Today Irish farmers have access to a global seed bank and a warming climate offers prospects for novel crop varieties.
Reducing emissions is arguably this generation’s most significant challenge if we are to believe the assessment of 97% of climate scientists who say that human activity is responsible for climate change and that there will be devastating consequences. It is surely regrettable that any sector should be given a free pass, especially if the food alternatives are healthier and far simpler than implementing reductions in other sectors.
Moreover, there may be a creeping obsolescence in Irish agriculture’s overwhelming focus on producing animal products as opposed to healthy crops for direct human consumption. Irish rural life should be protected but the argument for substantial agricultural reform is compelling.