Feeling effects of four-fold human expansion in 90 years

Does the EU’s Joint Research Centre science and knowledge service know something we don’t, when they predict livestock farming will decline by 2030 in Ireland, the Netherlands, the UK, Austria, Latvia, Estonia, Sweden and Finland, while expanding in Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia?

Their report entitled Trends in the EU Agricultural Land Within 2015-2030 looks at trends in acreages for livestock production, extensive livestock, mixed crop-livestock systems, arable crop, and rice production in each member state.

Across the EU, arable land and livestock grazing are expected to decline by 4% and 2.6%, respectively.

Mixed crops are expected to expand by 11%.

From 2015 to 2030, arable crops are expected to enlarge by more than 20% in Belgium, the Baltic States, Spain and Malta, while shrinking in Slovakia and Germany.

The JRC’s predictions are probably as good as anyone’s, at a time when climate change, greenhouse gas mitigation, Brexit, trade wars, and other factors make it harder than ever to tell the future.

One of the more unusual JRC predictions is expansion of more than 15% of agricultural land in Scotland, Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Latvia, owing to (presumably favourable) climate change.

As for Ireland, with the highest share of all member states for livestock farming, at over 80%, perhaps the JRC reckons the only way is down.

Maybe the Joint Research Centre is telling European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan what he’d like to hear.

He recently gave some examples to illustrate the scale of the environmental challenge in EU farming.

Speaking in Dublin, he said agriculture accounts for 10% of emissions across the EU, but here in Ireland the figure is 33%. Then he turned to the Netherlands, saying they have had to reduce their dairy herd by around 122,000 cows in nine months, cutting the milk supply by 1.5%, to cope with their phosphate problem.

In Denmark, said the Commissioner, dairy and pigmeat account for almost 90% of carbon emissions from agriculture, whereas the share of production value and share of employment for these products compared to the total agriculture sector is only one-third. He said the EU agri-food sector, and specifically the dairy sector, must also rise to the challenge of 60% of water bodies not achieving “good” water quality status.

Our own Environmental Protection Agency also summed up the situation well recently.

It said it took 3.5 billion years before multicelled life appeared on our planet, another 525 million years before the first human walked the Earth. But our numbers have grown nearly four-fold, by 5.5 billion, in only 90 years. Each of us is using more and more, exhausting finite resources, and depleting those otherwise sustainable. We have more than halved the number of vertebrates since only 1970, with several species becoming extinct each hour, which adds up to the greatest and fastest mass extinction the planet has ever seen.

The final blow is climate change. For 350 million years, carbon dioxide was drawn down by our biomass and locked away as fossil fuels. We only started burning these about 250 years ago, with most of the growth in resultant emissions of greenhouse gases occurring in the last 50 years.

Trapping long wave radiation, energy is being added to our atmosphere at a rate equivalent to a few Hiroshima bombs per second.

And as energy in our atmosphere makes ‘weather’, extreme weather is becoming more serious and frequent.

But should ordinary people pay for the sins of big business? Staff in the climate change unit of Ireland’s Department of Public Expenditure and Reform have noted the difficulty of persuading hundreds of thousands of farmers, 2m road users, and owners of 1.7m homes and about 200,000 commercial properties to individually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, compared to persuading our 103 big power and industrial companies which produce just over 25% of total emissions in Ireland.

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