Sustainable food is key to protecting the environment

The international climate agreement concluded at COP21 in Paris was an important compass which aims to guide global temperature increases to ‘well below’ 2C and to focus all parties to the agreement to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5C.

Significantly for Irish agriculture, Article 2 of the agreement emphasises the principle that food production must not be threatened by climate mitigation measures.

Ireland is a world leader in sustainable food production and this is independently verified by Carbon Trust UK, Bord Bia and Teagasc.

In delivering a credible climate change policy that addresses the food-security challenge, sustainability must also consider the impact of limited availability of resources, such as water, in many food producing countries.

The United Nations predicts a 40% worldwide water shortfall and a 55% increase in demand for water within the next 15 years. There is increasing global demand for the protein-based foods produced by farmers in Ireland, and our grass-based production model ensures that beef and milk production is among the most carbon efficient in the world.

Therefore anything that limits or reduces livestock production in Ireland would actually increase international greenhouse gas emissions as less sustainable regions such as South America would deforest further vast areas of Amazonian rainforests to meet this demand.

Each year more than 95,000 farmers right across the country produce beef to the highest international environmental and animal welfare standards, which makes a substantial contribution to the €10.5bn of agri-food exports each year.

The ill-thought-out proposal from some quarters to replace this high-value and sustainable beef production with forestry lacks environmental credibility and would result in severe job losses and damage to the rural economy.

This Paris climate agreement reaffirms the position adopted by Europe in October 2014 and strongly supported by the Government that agriculture has multiple roles, to produce food, fuel and energy in addition to protecting the environment.

The reality that is accepted in the Paris agreement is that emission- efficient regions such as Ireland must be supported to develop its food production.

The IFA also welcomes progress on carbon sinks particularly for forestry in the Paris Agreement. There is recognition of all agriculture carbon stores such as permanent pastures, of which Ireland has the largest in Europe as a proportion of our agricultural land.

Forestry and biomass need to be developed as economic crops. There is a dividend in carbon sequestration from new forestry and a dividend for the farmer if it improves income. It is not a dividend to count a reduction in livestock numbers as a reduction in emissions if the demand for beef and dairy is fulfilled as emissions are a global issue, not just an Irish target.

However, farmers want to build on our strong environmental credentials.

Ireland is the only country in the world that monitors, measures and manages carbon from farm to fork, through initiatives such as the IFA-led Smart Farming initiative and the Bord Bia beef and dairy carbon auditing schemes.

These programmes are showing results. Emissions from the sector have fallen by 9% since 1990, while other sectors such as transport continue to spiral out of control. There is no question of agriculture getting a free pass. Farmers want to play their part and recognise there is work to be done. I encourage farmers to look at and see how they can achieve the double dividend of reducing emissions and cutting costs at the same time.

The agri-food sector is Ireland’s largest indigenous sector, with over 300,000 people employed directly or indirectly in the agri-food industry. This high-quality food is produced to the highest environmental standards and farmers in Ireland intend to build on our position as global leaders of sustainably-produced food.

This is an important element in global food security. There is demand and a need for a variety of goods. It may be possible to feed everyone with wheat and soya, but people want fresh fruit and vegetables, olives, salads plus meat and dairy.

The grandstanding of the environmental NGOs is over. International leaders have agreed a path forward which acknowledges and accepts that food production must not be undermined when addressing the global climate challenge.


Dr Sarah Miller is the CEO of Dublin’s Rediscovery Centre, the national centre for the Circular Economy in Ireland. She has a degree in Biotechnology and a PHD in Environmental Science in Waste Conversion Technologies.‘We have to give people positive messages’

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