Ireland may lose milk quotas this year, but could instead have been shackled by carbon quotas were it not for a breakthrough in October that should not be overlooked in any review of 2014, suggests Stephen Cadogan.
Up to the October meeting of EU prime ministers, Ireland faced tightening targets for reduction of our greenhouse gases (GHGs).
Because one third of these gases come from our agriculture (compared to 10% in most of the EU), we faced a worst-case scenario of ‘carbon quotas’ for agriculture.
These quotas would curtail Irish agricultural production, in order to bring our national GHGs output within targets.
Meanwhile, the global demand for food would continue to rise. And the growing demand would be satisfied by farmers who leave a bigger carbon footprint than Irish farmers (scientific research has shown that the carbon footprint of Irish food is amongst the lowest in the world).
But, with carbon quotas restricting our efficient farmers, they would not be allowed to produce more food in Ireland, to satisfy growing global appetites.
The end result of carbon quotas would have been less food, more greenhouse gases, and more climate change, according to Teagasc researchers Dr Rogier Schulte, Trevor Donnellan, and Dr Gary Lanigan.
Teagasc, along with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Bord Bia, deserve credit for the sound scientific presentation they put together, which helped Taoiseach Enda Kenny bring about a fundamental shift in the debate on agriculture and climate change, when EU prime ministers gathered in Brussels to agree a 15-year plan to tackle climate change.
The clause proposed by Ireland and now accepted by Europe, ensures that food security concerns are put on an equal footing with climate change. This takes blunt instruments that reduce emissions at the expense of food production off the table.
And it commits Europe to look into a different way of dealing with agriculture, one that recognises not only the negative, but also the positive impacts that farming has on the climate.
The details of such an alternative approach are yet to be worked out — which buys valuable time for Irish agriculture.
But the approach opens the way for Ireland to address our GHG targets by storing more carbon in the soil, for example through incentives for afforestation.
This storage of carbon (called sequestration) is particularly effective in permanent grasslands and forestry, so it is very promising for Ireland.
Until October, European climate policies hadn’t allowed for these positive effects of agriculture to be counted.
But it has now become part of the EU’s presentation in December 2015, in Paris, where all the countries of the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change will meet to hammer out a global plan to combat climate change after 2020.
Climate change challenges remain. Individual country targets have yet to be allocated and it is unlikely that Ireland’s 2030 target will be less onerous than our 2020 target. But, at last, credit will be given to agriculture, where credit is due.
Credit must be given also to all in our farming industry who have contributed to our improved efficiency — which has reduced by 15% the greenhouse gas carbon footprint of a meal of Irish food, compared to 1990.
Through longer grazing seasons, more productive animals, and nutrient management planning, we have reduced the carbon footprint of our produce, the amount of gas we produce per litre of milk, or per kilogram of meat.
If we continue this progress, it is possible to grow agriculture in line with our Food Harvest 2020 plan, while at the same time ‘flat-lining’ greenhouse gas emissions.
The even better news, according to Teagasc, is that all the actions that reduce the carbon footprint also reduce costs on the farm.
Last year, the Teagasc National Farm Survey showed that the most profitable dairy farms were also the farms with the lowest carbon footprint.
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