There is genuine concern among farmers about the EU-Mercosur deal.
The tonnages involved may not be a major concern, but the long-term effects can be very serious. Adherence to EU regulations, and traceability, has meant what we produce meets rigorous standards. Have we forgotten the origins of the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001?
There is also concern about the perceived greenhouse gases emissions from agriculture.
As the result of involvements in an EU-Latin America research project on fuels and platform chemicals from biomass, I and colleagues have travelled extensively in the four Mercusor countries — Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay — and we have been able to observe cattle in the fields and in government research stations.
The cattle in fields were of poor quality, in comparison with those in our Irish pastures. In contrast, the qualities of those we observed in research stations were excellent, but these were fed on grains and under controlled conditions.
I have given seminars in S America. Even 20 years ago, audiences expressed concern about the production of maize and soya beans by US consortia. The long-term monoculture practices were depleting the soil organic matter (SOM) reserves, and leading to soil infertility and degradation.
Also, account is rarely taken of the fact that the significant resulting evolution of carbon dioxide (which is not replaced) from the SOM is fossil carbon, and it is a significant contributor to the increasing levels of CO2.
Concern has been expressed about deforestation in Amazonia for ranching. Many consider that this practice should end, and replaced by world-wide financial contributions for the conservation of the rainforest.
Extensive environmental damage has been caused by deforestation. Perennial rhizomatous elephant grass can allay the damage. The massive annual yields of lignocellulosic feedstocks that the elephant grass (and also bamboo species) can provide for the emerging biorefining industry could provide a far greater return than cattle ranching.
The biomass yields will equal, at least, the sequestration of CO2 that was provided by the lost trees, and the biorefinery products would provide massive yields of platform chemicals to substitute for all that we now get from petroleum.
Farmers with suckler herds are dismayed by the suggestion that their herds will need to be significantly reduced to meet greenhouse gas emissions. Their concerns would be allayed if publicity were given to the technologies that exist for lowering emissions of ammonia from slurries and for decreasing the methane emissions from ruminants.
Different organisations are aware of technologies that can contribute. All that is needed is to formulate a programme that will greatly lower emissions without decreasing herd sizes. Then it will be appropriate to invest in developing systems that will lower the emissions and the investment cost will be far, far less than what may be forced on us through fines or loss of production.
Research Professor, Carbolea Group
University of Limerick