How sustainable is Irish agriculture?
It’s going in the right direction for pesticides and antibiotics, but the trend is not so good for fertilisers, or for organic farming.
That’s the situation relative to the EU Green Deal, the hugely ambitious bid to become climate-neutral by 2050 which the EU Commission announced in December 2019.
The Green Deal requires major readjustment of the entire EU food chain, from more stringent controls on production through to major changes in eating patterns.
The food chain has a very long way to go, according to a recently published major report commissioned by the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.
“EU agriculture and food practices are currently not on the right track to meet the Green Deal ambition,” the French experts who prepared the report told MEPs.
Their analysis extended down to member state level, and revealed mixed results for Ireland in their assessment of the Green Deal challenges for European agriculture and food.
While greenhouse gases from agriculture were not considered at member state level, some conclusions can be drawn from the overall findings. Only 11% of EU emissions is attributed to agriculture, and it is acknowledged as a difficult area in which to achieve further substantial GHG reductions.
The report to the European Parliament estimated methane from livestock at 40% of agriculture emissions, with cultivated soils nearly as significant a source.
However, another 12% can be attributed to livestock under the heading of manure management.
So cultivated soils are a larger source of emissions than many may suspect.
As for soaking up carbon, conversion of arable land to forest or grassland has a positive effect on soil and biomass carbon stocks.
But conversion of grassland to arable land, and of agricultural land to non-agricultural use, reduces carbon stocks in soils, and adds to emissions.
The domination of grassland in Ireland can therefore be seen as a positive, while our large livestock population is a negative.
However, the EU agriculture emissions picture is clouded by lack of information.
For example, EU inventories do not take into account emissions associated with the large quantities of imported materials such as soya for animal feed and palm oil for human consumption.
The report says it is also important to consider the possibility of “carbon leakage”, due to a reduction in European livestock being compensated for by extra imports of animal products from non-EU countries.
One of the Green Deal’s answers to that will be of course to get us to eat less animal product.
And a carbon border adjustment mechanism envisaged in the Green Deal may also tackle these emissions grey areas.
Overall, the report concluded it will be difficult to reduce agriculture emissions, unless animal production is markedly reduced, and significantly less fertiliser is used for crop production.
Also addressed by the Green Deal is environmental degradation of European agro-ecosystems.
Farmland birds decreased 20% in 30 years, and flying insects declined about 75% in 25 years.
Over 9% of European bee species face extinction.
In 2019, only 40% of EU surface water had good or better chemical status (it’s still over 50% in Ireland).
Soil erosion affects about 13% of EU arable land, and EU feed and food imports are blamed for some of the global deforestation trend, causing an estimated 10% of global deforestation if imports of timber and rubber are included.
At home in the EU, to combat environmental degradation, the Green Deal would reduce use and risk of chemical pesticides by 50%.
The Commission’s pesticide Harmonised Risk Indicator demonstrates a 20% decrease in risk from pesticide use in the past five years in the EU-27. Actual tonnage sales were unchanged from 2011 to 2018, but use of more risky pesticides reduced enough for the 20% Harmonised Risk Indicator to decrease significantly.
Sales significantly increased in Cyprus, Austria, France and Slovakia.
But sales substantially declined in Portugal, Denmark, Ireland, the Czech Republic, and Italy.
Eurostat figures indicate sales fell 30% in Ireland.
Surprisingly, Eurostat found sales increased 50% in Austria, the EU country with the highest percentage of organic farming.
Such variation in figures raises the issue of how to set national Green Deal targets for pesticides.
The Green Deal target for fertilisers is to reduce nutrient losses (nitrogen and phosphorus) at least 50% by 2030, without deterioration in soil fertility.
This implies reducing use of fertilisers by at least 20%.
Using nitrogen balance as a measure of nutrient losses, the Green Deal report to MEPS (entitled “The Green Deal and the CAP: policy implications to adapt farming practices and to preserve the EU’s natural resources”) shows the balance increased from 7.4m tonnes in 2009 to 8.2m tonnes in 2015.
The Green Deal target is about 4.5m tonnes.
Again, there are sharply contrasting trends among member states.
And Austria is again a surprising “offender”, with the nitrogen balance rising about 65% from 2009 to 2015, exceeded only in the Czech Republic.
But next comes Ireland, with an increase of about 45%. By 2015, Ireland’s nitrogen balance reached about 200,000t (of input exceeding output), which is similar to other smaller countries like Belgium, Denmark, or Hungary, but dwarfed by nearly 1.4mt in Germany.
Meanwhile, the N balance tumbled 50% in Romania.
Less detail is given for phosphates.
Eurostat data suggest that the gross phosphorus balance has decreased significantly, from 3.9kg per hectare of farmland in 2004 to 1.2kg. That is welcome news, because phosphates from agriculture and other activities contribute to surface and seawater pollution, with dramatic impact for example in the Baltic Sea, where the lack of oxygen due to pollution has resulted in the world’s largest man-made “dead zone”.
Another Green Deal target is to reduce overall EU sales of antimicrobials (or antibiotics) for farmed animals and aquaculture 50% by 2030.
The Green Deal mentions antibiotics (used against bacteria) while its Farm to Fork section mentions antimicrobials (used against a larger spectrum of microbes, such as parasites, viruses and fungi).
Significant progress to such targets was made over the two last decades.
Among 25 European countries providing data, overall sales of antimicrobials fell by around 33% from 2011 and 2017, and the EU as a whole could therefore be on track to reach the Green Deal target by 2030.
Falling sales can be partly explained by the EU banning growth-promoting antibiotics.
Figures for 2010 to 2017 show the downward antibiotic sales trend continuing in Ireland.
New EU veterinary medicine regulation in 2022 will change the regulatory framework around supply and use of antimicrobials, to promote responsible use.
The pressure is on to reduce in-feed or in-water medication for the intensive pig and poultry sectors with premix or oral remedy antibiotics, which make up an estimated 66.6%of animal antimicrobial use in Ireland.
There has been lack of investment in water delivery systems which allow for appropriate treatments at the correct dosage and duration. A significant proportion of antimicrobials is used routinely in the pig sector at the weaning time.
However, the pig and poultry industries say they are making progress, with poultry producers moving from routinely medicating each batch of broilers to not using any antimicrobials in over 90% of the birds they place on the market.
The Green Deal envisages at least 25% of the EU’s farmland under organic farming by 2030, and organic aquaculture increasing significantly. That’s a three-fold jump from the EU-27’s 8% in 2018, having increased 5.9% in 2012. That trend indicates 12.3% by 2030, but the Green Deal wants that speeded up 100%.
“This ambition is perhaps not out of reach, given the rapid progression of organic farming in several member states over the most recent years,” MEPS were told.
Achieving it would, of course, contribute to the other targets for chemical pesticides and mineral fertilisers, prohibited on organic farms, and antibiotics, restricted on organic farms.
As for emissions targets, MEPs were told they are lower per hectare in organic agriculture, but generally higher per kg of product.
Current shares of farmland under organic farming vary substantially.
Ireland may well be earmarked as a place to increase organic farming, because 2018 figures showed us third from the bottom of the EU-27, with only about 2.5%, compared to about 24% in Austria, the leading organic member state.
Many Irish farmers would say their current farming systems are not far from meeting organic requirements, especially in hill farms and rough grazing areas.
Protected areas are the final measure of how green EU farming can be.
The aim is legal protection of at least 30% of the EU’s land area; strict protection of at least 10%, and establishment of ecological corridors.
Member states must also ensure no deterioration in conservation trends and status by 2030 of all species in the EU’s Birds and Nitrates Directives, and improvement for at least 30% of habitats and species not currently at a favourable status.
At least 10% of farmland must be high-diversity landscape including, for example, fallow land, hedges, non-productive trees, and ponds (but not precisely defined).
Today, legally protected areas are already 26% of the EU. But strictly protected areas are only 3%.
Habitats with unfavourable status have increased by 68.7% from 2007 to 72.1% in 2018 (the Green Deal target is 50.5%).
Species at an unfavourable status should decline from 55% to 38.5% by 2030.
In summary, the Green Deal makes it imperative to reduce all farming inefficiencies that lead to excessive use of water, fertilisers, pesticides and antibiotics.
It also requires re-design of farming systems, to rely more on biological cycles and less on external chemical inputs.
Farmers’ incomes could suffer, unless consumers are willing to pay for higher quality products. Consumers must also accept diet changes for health, climate and environmental reasons, as part of the Green Deal.
The higher cost of better-balanced diets, especially for low-income households, must be tackled.
The food and retail industries must facilitate a shift towards more desirable eating patterns, by way of product reformulation, responsible marketing, and advertising limitations.
Public policies that increase consumers’ awareness of the health, climatic and environmental impacts of food choices, and help them adopt healthier and more plant-based diets, are all part of the Green Deal.
Objectives go far beyond the farm gate, with a whole food chain approach, in line with circular bio-economy principles, reducing food waste and losses, and encouraging a shift towards healthy and environmentally friendly food diets.