Opportunity to deliver ‘much-needed change’ to agricultural policy 

Need for 'deeper discussion' on a new model of agriculture for Ireland...
Opportunity to deliver ‘much-needed change’ to agricultural policy 

A new report highlights how farmers should be rewarded for ecological restoration and rewilding initiatives. File Picture. 

A report ‘Towards a New Agricultural and Food Policy for Ireland’ sets out recommendations to government in the hope that it will deliver much needed change to Irish agricultural policy.

The report by the Environmental Pillar, the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, and the Sustainable Water Network sets out a list of recommendations that will help to develop a Policy Framework Aligned with Ecological Limits and Environmental Commitments and provides the groundwork for “deeper discussion” on what a new model of agriculture for Ireland could look like - a model that works within the ecological parameters essential to a healthy society, economy and planet.

“Agriculture is by far the most significant pressure on Ireland’s nature, water and air, and greenhouse gas emissions,” the report adds.

“There has been a long-standing failure to align the sector with Ireland’s obligations under environmental law.

“Current policies that prioritise a productivist model of agriculture ie focused on specialisation and intensification, lock farmers into an unsustainable commodity driven food production system which leaves them economically vulnerable.

“These policies have also undermined Ireland’s international reputation on food security.” 

Farming and Climate 

Meanwhile, Agriculture is responsible for 35% of Ireland’s annual greenhouse gas emissions and is the single largest sectoral contributor to Ireland’s overall climate impact.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states in its most recent emission projection reports that emissions from the sector are increasing, and that they are driven by rising dairy cattle numbers and associated nitrogen inputs.

The dairy sector currently contributes half of all of Ireland’s agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and has been driving the increase in agricultural emissions in recent years. 

Recent CSO data shows that there was a 41% increase in dairy cows from 2010 to 2019, making Ireland an outlier in comparison to other EU member states.

The Teagasc dairy strategy to 2027 envisages further growth in herd numbers.  

According to the report, reliance on the uptake of voluntary efficiency measures drawn up by Teagasc and the more recent AgClimatise Roadmap - published in late 2020 - fail to adequately address the underlying drivers of emissions: cattle numbers and nitrogen inputs (fertiliser and animal feed).

“Agriculture is at the forefront of the fight against climate change,” the report continues.

“Simultaneously, farmers are directly exposed to the impacts of extreme weather events, rising input costs and workloads, and related stresses on animal health and welfare.

“In comparison to other sectors of the Irish economy, the farming population experiences serious income inequality, with over a third of farms economically vulnerable and at risk of severe poverty.

“Yet, discussions on reducing agricultural emissions have been broadly perceived by the sector as a threat to farmers’ income and livelihoods.” 

Towards a New Agricultural and Food Policy for Ireland goes on to highlight the need for government to ensure that Ireland’s food production is in line with commitments to the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals; the Paris Agreement; the EU Green Deal; and current legal obligations to protect biodiversity and water quality.

“It must phase out all environmentally harmful subsidies in the agricultural and food sector, the report continues.

“This means re-orienting subsidies so that public money is channelled into the delivery of public goods.

“Public funding should deliver permanent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and protect and restore water quality and biodiversity.

“It should also support rural livelihoods and communities.” 

Biodiversity 

The report adds that biodiversity protection on farmland is being undermined by incoherence between agriculture and biodiversity policies, and the failure by the Government to enforce existing nature laws.

It points to how approximately 33% of the agricultural area in Ireland has High Nature Value (HNV) characteristics.

“On HNV farmland, grazing is important for the healthy grasslands that create favourable habitat for many species.

“Maintaining the viability of these farming practices must be a priority for Ireland’s rural development policy.

“Farmers should be subsidised for farm and landscape-scale ecological restoration and rewilding initiatives, where appropriate.

“In carrying out their proposed national land use review, the Government should examine how best to protect existing HNV systems; how best to improve biodiversity values on more intensive farms; and where and how best land use could be transformed from food production to restoration and rewilding to enhance the provision of ecosystem services.”

Recommendations 

The reports highlights a number of recommendations to Government.

  • It must commit to ambitious restoration of biodiversity on farmland and at landscape scale.
  • It must also implement the EU target of protecting 30% of land area for biodiversity by ensuring that, at the very minimum, 10% of agricultural area is under high diversity landscape features by 2030.
  • The State should reward farmers for the public goods HNV farmland provides and ensure the socio-economic viability of rural communities.
  • Scaling up locally adapted and financially attractive results-based agri-environment payment schemes will be important for restoring biodiversity on all farm types.
  • As part of the proposed land use review, the Government should assess the potential for ecological rewilding at farm, catchment and landscape level.
  • Ensure that Agriculture Delivers its Fair Contribution of the 51% Reductions in Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2030 Committed to in the Programme for Government.
  • A revised roadmap for agri-related emissions reductions and a declining cap on total national reactive nitrogen usage.
  • Reduce sectoral methane and nitrous oxide emissions Compensatory measures for farmers should be put in place to incentivise herd reductions.

“Achieving these goals will require that semi-state agencies, such as Teagasc, perform their functions in a manner consistent with Ireland’s environmental obligations.

“Policies that support carbon sequestration, though highly important for carbon storage in trees, soils, hedgerows and wetlands, are neither reliable nor permanent methods to offset greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture or fossil fuel combustion.

“Relying on carbon storage or anaerobic digestion technologies carries risks, uncertainties and high costs.

“Changing the types and quantities of foods we consume could also have a significant impact on emission reductions,” concluded the report.

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