Alan Matthews, formerly professor of European agricultural policy at Trinity College, Dublin, and now Professor Emeritus, has estimated that the cost of the “credits” we would have to buy to offset our failure to reach 2030 greenhouse gas emission targets could be as much as 18% of the milk price, or 30% of the beef price.
So, on the one hand, we have optimistic projections for our food sector out to 2025, based substantially on increased dairy and beef sectors, and on the other hand, we are likely to be emitting increased quantities of methane greenhouse gas, preventing us from attaining our climate change targets.
How can this conundrum be resolved?
How Climate Smart Agriculture can come to the rescue is being considered by a think-tank in the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) in Dublin. They are due to present a comprehensive report for policymakers next year, including how we compare with competitors, and clear policy prescriptions on what needs to be done.
A central role in this project is being taken by Joseph Curtin, an economist in the IIEA, but also in the Department of Accounting and Management at UCC.
One of the issues we may have to face, which the think-tank may consider, is whether our beef industry should continue to grow.
Or should it be allowed or encouraged to downsize.
Most of our farms engaged in cattle and sheep production cannot produce an acceptable income. And most of their income is EU subsidies.
The farms engaged predominantly in suckler beef production yielded an average income of only €10,300 in 2014.
Farms predominantly involved in cattle fattening yielded an average income of just €13,800.
These income figures include various EU subsidies, which exceed the farm income achieved from cattle farming.
In other words, without the subsidy, these farms would not have generated income.
The beef industry therefore is not “economically sustainable”.
Neither is it “environmentally sustainable” — because of its greenhouse gas emissions.
The dairy sector is defensible, because it does provide (in a normal year!) adequate incomes on farms, thanks to growing demand for dairy-based products to feed expanding world populations. In contrast, beef products contribute little to reducing or ending world hunger.
In order to maintain or even increase our output of dairy products, while also reducing our share of greenhouse gas emissions, we might have to sacrifice our beef sector or a goodly chunk of it.
Other countries will be faced with similar choices — for example, coal mining in the USA.
What would happen to the cattle farmers and the land?
There may be a climate-smart alternative — short rotation forestry.
Ireland has one of the lowest percentages in the EU of land devoted to forestry.
There has been a long term policy aim to increase this percentage, but this policy is clearly failing.
A stated objective of Government policy is to expand the productive forest area to about 1.25 million hectares, or 18% of the land area, by 2046.
This would require annual afforestation of 16,000 hectares per annum.
The current programme to increase forestry planting to about 7,300 ha annually for the next six years is less than half the planting rate required to meet the 18% forest area target in 2046.
But annual planting of the order of 20,000 ha has been achieved in Ireland in the past, and is therefore technically and logistically feasible.
Forestry is climate-smart because it absorbs carbon, and planting 20,000 ha per annum would reduce agricultural emissions by half, according to Teagasc.
In the past, forestry did not count as an agricultural enterprise for getting the Single Farm Payment, but that changed in recent years. Also, there is now EU agreement on the potential of forestry for offsetting against greenhouse gas emissions.
Finally, forestry pays. Studies have shown that the economic return over a 15-20 year period for short rotation forestry is substantially greater than for beef.
Short rotation forestry has yet another advantage.
Ireland also has to meet increasingly difficult targets in the energy sector, forcing us to generate more energy from renewable resources such as hydro, wind and biomass.
Short rotation forestry to fuel existing Bord na Mona fuelled power stations would be substantially cheaper than a corresponding increase in wind energy. Wind power requires almost six times the investment in forestry and would contribute little to rural development.
The case for replacing our sucklers with trees gets stronger and stronger.
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