By Dara Doyle and Rachel McGovern
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar got a hostile reception from Irish farmers last year when he announced he was cutting back on his meat eating partly out of concerns for the environment.
Cattle breeders brought more than 500 supporters and a prize Angus bull to demonstrate outside Cork City Hall when he turned up for a meeting. “Where’s the beef, ya vegan!” shouted one protester, as police held back the crowds.
Now rural voters are on edge again as Varadkar seeks to bring the Greens into government as part of the nation’s first grand coalition. Farming communities fear that plans drawn up by Greens to lower greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture will lay waste to their industry.
“It’s not fair to pick on the farming and agriculture industry to look for a massive cut -- it’s an easy target,” said 53-year-old Eugene Donnelly, financial controller of a cattle mart in the North-West of the country. “We can’t keep pillaging the world that we live in, so I have no issue with them setting their stall, but then you have to look at the practicalities of it.”
As the coalition talks unfold in Dublin, battle lines are already being drawn, with lobby groups opposing Green policies on energy, road building and, most clearly, agriculture, in a microcosm of a wider fight across the European Union. The outcome in Ireland, where farming accounts for a third of emissions, may offer a clue as to what’s in store for heavyweights like France where, despite the industrial base, almost 20% of emissions are still from farms.
While EU emissions have dropped about 20% since 2005, in agriculture, the decline has been just 2% and that places the industry in the sights of the burgeoning political Green wave across Europe.
In Ireland, the environment is another wedge issue that divides urban and rural voters who used to fight over ethical questions such as abortion and divorce. Speaking to farmers in January, one of Varadkar’s ministers reportedly called some Green party members “nutters.” “We have to come to the point of a culture war, us versus them and that has to end on both sides,” said Conor Mulvihill, director of lobby group Dairy Industry Ireland. “Right now, farmers and dairy companies feel persecuted for doing what they have successfully done for generations.” The predominance of farming partly explains why Ireland is on track to miss its reduction targets between 2021 and 2030 by more than 25%, according to Varadkar’s government.
Against that backdrop, the Greens are demanding a 7.6% reduction in emissions each year for the next decade, far outstripping Varadkar’s 2% target. Trouble is, it’s difficult to meet that goal without slashing animal numbers, a sticking point in the party’s talks with Varadkar’s Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. The parties aim to agree a program for government by Sunday.
So far, successive Irish administrations have backed away from aggressively confronting the industry compared to New Zealand, where agriculture accounts for close to half of the country’s emissions. There, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last year threatened to place extra taxes on farmers if they don’t reduce pollution within five years. She’s offered incentives to those who adopt technology like new feeds that reduce the amount of methane cattle produce.
Ten of the Green’s 12 members of parliament are from urban areas and to some, that highlights the divide between the two sides. Ciaran Cuffe, a Green member of the European Parliament representing Dublin, rejects that.
“There’s a false narrative out that pits the Greens against farmers,” said Cuffe. “We do need to diversify away from beef and dairy, we do need to move away from live cattle exports, but everyone can win, it doesn’t have to be confrontational.” Cuffe says the coronavirus pandemic and response illustrate the opportunity to push ahead with the Green agenda. Meeting the climate-neutrality goal is a key aim of the European Commission’s 750 billion-euro ($850 billion) economic recovery plan.
To win funds, EU member states need to show projects are in line with the Green Deal goal to phase out net greenhouse gas emissions.
Back at the cattle mart, Donnelly remains skeptical.
“I can’t see how you can just walk in and pick a figure and say ‘Oh, we need to just wipe off a massive percentage of the animals that we’re producing’ and kill the industry,” he said.