Farming can’t ignore climate crisis - The future of agriculture

THIS morning, Ireland’s great harvest festival — the National Ploughing Championships — opens on an 800-acre site in Offaly. Described as Europe’s foremost outdoor event, last year’s record attendance of 281,000 is likely to be surpassed over the next three days.

Despite the optimism around the carnival, the community it celebrates is increasingly pessimistic. There is a particularly heavy cloud colouring dairy farmers’ assessments. The Irish Examiner/ICMSA Farming in 2016 national opinion poll shows that while 64% of dairy farmers remain optimistic that ratio is down nearly 20 points from last year’s 81%. Pessimism grips other sectors too: just 57% of livestock/cattle farmers remain optimistic, while 59% of tillage farmers feel the same way, down from 78%. Almost 90% of farmers believe Britexit will have a negative impact. But is it possible that the sector has its head buried in the sand and is ignoring the greatest, unavoidable challenge it faces over coming decades?

Despite concessions on climate control targets and deadlines won over recent weeks, it is impossible to match the plans for Irish agriculture with climate protection obligations. This assertion-cum-accusation cannot be made, however, without recognising that agriculture is an agent industry that produces food to satisfy consumer demands. Agriculture may be the immediate source of huge quantities of destructive emissions but the sector is built on our demands. The imperative of trying to slow climate change brings huge challenges and we all will have to radically modify behaviour if that objective is to be even partially realised. The figures are so very startling that they cannot be ignored.

Each Irish person, on average, is responsible for emissions of 12.6 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year. This is around 40% more than the UK or Germany, and 40% more than the EU average. Ireland produces more greenhouse gases than the poorest 400m people in the world. Agriculture and transport are the primary sources. Lobbyists have ensured that the long-delayed Climate Change Bill treats different sectors very differently. The household, energy and transport sectors are to be decarbonised by 2050 — just half a short lifetime away — and all our non-industrial emissions will go to farming. Emissions from this sector — just 1.6% of GDP — may not peak for a decade. Despite this imbalance, any fines or purchases of carbon emission quotas for breaching 2020 reduction commitments will be levied on the general taxpayer.

As these taxpayers contribute to the €55bn-a-year Common Agriculture Policy, it is hard to imagine that commitment would continue if the sector does not reduce its contribution to climate change significantly. It is likely too that this will be a European decision where empathy with all things rural may not run as deeply as it might in this small country. The price of milk, beef or barley may be the talking points at Screggan over the next three days but it is well past the time that Irish farming — and Irish consumers — looked at the bigger, more pressing picture and prepared for a world that will change radically and faster than we ever thought it might.

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