The danger of a polarised debate on ‘more or fewer farm animals in Ireland’ is highlighted by findings in the 2015 Irish Examiner ICMSA farming survey.
On one side would be the three out of four farmers in the survey who disagreed when asked if Irish farmers should cut back production in order to reduce global warming.
On the other side would be the more extreme environmentalists who want the world to eat less meat.
The environmentalists may ignore the fact that ruminants are the only animals that can give us food from grasslands which cover about one third of the world’s surface.
But farmers who don’t want to cut production are out of line with fellow taxpayers who will pick up the bill when the Irish Exchequer has to purchase carbon credits to keep up with EU obligations.
Nor does Irish farmers refusing to cut back production to reduce global warming does not go down well when G7 leaders have agreed to abandon fossil fuels by the end of the century; and more than 5,000 mayors across Europe have all pledged to meet the EU’s carbon reduction objective.
Producing food to the highest environmental standards to feed a growing world population, while limiting the impact of global warming and climate change, is the farmer’s task.
Irish farmers, in their defence, can point to the carbon footprint of Irish-produced food being among the lowest in Europe or the world.
But at the very least, farmers who don’t want to cut production have to relentlessly focus on farm efficiency and on low-carbon animal production systems, said Teagasc scientist Prof Rogier Schulte at the recent Agricultural Science Association conference.
That means improving animal health, better nutrient management, better grassland management and improving breeding and genetics.
Prof Schulte, who chairs the FAO steering committee on benchmarking the environmental performance of livestock systems, and leads the Teagasc working group on greenhouse gas emissions, held out hopes of a big break for Irish farmers, in the form of recognition of the carbon sequestration value of forestry to offset emissions.
In the 2015 Irish Examiner ICMSA farming survey, the most support for cutting farm output to reduce global warming came from farmers aged over 65.
Tne message for younger, more ambitious farmers is that the climate change challenge has utterly changed the context for agricultural expansion, said Trinity College economist Prof Alan Matthews, a member of the National Climate Change Advisory Council, addressing the ASA conference.
He has advised farmers to look out for developements such as a carbon levy on their emissions, if they are unwilling to cut back production in order to reduce global warming.
The proceeds of such a levy would be recycled back to the farming sector, and it would be a powerful demonstration of commitment to environmentally sustainable production.
If introduced across the EU, it would increase the competitive advantage for Irish producers.
Or there may be targeted subsidies to encourage farmers to build up carbon stores in soils and biomass, to offset their emissions.
The picture will become clearer after the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, which starts on November 30, to to agree on action to keep the global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius.
The EU will pledge a binding, economy-wide emissions reduction target of at least 40% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.
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