The United Nations “are not wrong” in urging people eat less meat and dairy, said Joe Healy, president of the Irish Farmers Association (IFA).
Responding to latest findings that Ireland has again missed its targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Mr Healy accepted agriculture’s key role in the failure.
Emissions by farmers rose 1.9% last year, according to provisional figures from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Minster for Climate Action Richard Bruton has said farmers will have to make “significant changes” to how they operate.
The rise coincides with an increase in the country’s dairy cow herd as part of a national policy to expand milk production.
Mr Healy said he accepted that agriculture is the largest industrial contributor to Ireland’s gas emissions, but said farmers make up the “largest indigenous industry” in the country.
“Obviously, agriculture will always be responsible for a large percentage (of emissions),” he said.
However, he took issue with how it is measured, saying the industry should be gauged in terms of emissions produced compared to the amount of food produced.
He told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland:
“Irish dairy farmers are the most carbon efficient in Europe, while beef farmers are in the top five.”
Mr Healy said farming “without a doubt” wants to start reducing its carbon emissions, but he was unable to say when this would happen. The industry was working to a 10-year “road map”.
On the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which recommends switching away from meat and dairy to a plant-based diet to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Mr Healy was asked if they were wrong.
“No, they’re not wrong,” he said.
“But I would always say where you go to is the WHO (World Health Organisation).
“If you want advice on proper food, proper nutrition, proper diet go to the WHO, the food pyramid that is there highlights what people should eat at various stage in their life, whether they are young people, teenager or adults. Make your diets, make your choices based on that.”
Mr Healy said meat and dairy is necessary in a balanced diet.
However, Minster Bruton said: “Clearly we have set a target for agriculture to reduce their carbon footprint and that is in the climate plan” he said.
“It will involve very significant changes in our methods of farming, in terms of nitrogen use, slurry spreading, afforestation, livestock management."
“Over time, we will see more energy self-sufficiency within farms, we will see bio-economy potential being developed in agriculture.
“So we are going to see a very significant shift in that sector too. By no means can we say we are alright, and we don’t need to make changes. I think farmers recognise that because consumers are telling them so.”