The end of business as usual: Why agriculture in Ireland needs to change

Magazine | Mon 2 Jan | Author – Business & Finance
Design by Moira Malone

Under the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021, Ireland’s objective is to achieve a 51% emissions reduction by 2030 compared to 2018 and a climate neutral economy by 2050 writes Ciaran Brennan, Editorial Assistant, Business & Finance Magazine.

Note: This piece was originally published as a cover story in the December 2022 issue of Business & Finance magazine.


Emissions increased by 4.7% from 2020–2021 according to the Environmental Protection Agency and are projected to increase further. The agriculture, energy and transport sectors are key contributors to the issue. 

In 2021, agriculture was responsible for 37.5% of GHG emissions in Ireland due to methane from livestock, nitrous oxide from nitrogen used in fertiliser and manure management. 

Dairy production is of great concern to environmentalists as the abandonment of the milk quota in 2015 coupled with planned milk expansion under Food Wise 2025 has seen a huge increase in milk production. 

From 2015 to 2021, dairy cow numbers increased by 22.6% and milk production increased by 36.9% according to EPA data. 

The growing numbers lead to an increase in methane and nitrous oxide which are harming the environment. 

Transparency

Dr Aideen O’Dochartaigh is an assistant professor at DCU and former PhD Research Fellow at the UCD College of Business and the BiOrbic Bioeconomy Centre.

O’Dochartaigh posited that agri businesses need to be held accountable for necessary change to be made. 

“We don’t talk about corporate accountability with regard to the agri food sector much,” she said. 

“We don’t talk about the manufacturers or retailers and all the pressures they put on the producer through the supply chain.” 

By highlighting what agri firms are doing instead of talking about farmers, we may see a shift in agriculture’s response to climate goals. And that time may be approaching. 

“There are about to be a lot more instruments that will force companies to disclose more data on their GHG emissions,” said O’Dochartaigh. 

She named the Corporate Reporting Directive, EU’s proposed forced labour ban and national level carbon budgets as ways to hold them accountable.

However, it is not a simple matter of asking the agricultural sector to go green and reduce emissions. Agriculture is a driver in the economy in Ireland which complicates the issue. 

It employs approximately 167,500 people and contributed 0.99% of the GDP in 2021.

For O’Dochartaigh, agriculture can be part of the solution but it cannot continue with business as usual:

“The industry really needs to transform. If they’re saying agriculture can be promoted as part of the solution, yes absolutely.”

The answer as to why agriculture is progressing in its current manner is a simple one for O’Dochartaigh. 

“Because it’s very profitable to do business in the current manner,” She said. “If we don’t address this, there are no profits on a dead planet.”

Agricultural and the response to climate action

Offaly-based agri-trading business J. Grennan & Sons recently sparked debate with a billboard on the N7 that stated “Promote Irish farming to decrease global warming.” 

The billboard was in response to recent government regulations aiming to reduce agricultural GHG emissions by 25%. 

“The world and his mother knows that’s not possible without a significant reduction in food produced from agriculture,” said Paddy Casey, Wholesale Fertiliser Manager of J. Grennan & Sons. 

Casey opined that this will mean the production of food will be transferred to less eco-efficient countries. 

“At a time when we’re a very efficient producer of food from a carbon point of view, we’re going to transfer the resource to a lot less efficient economies in the world,” he said. 

Casey also spoke about the difficulty of meeting those figures: “It would’ve been easy to achieve 18 to 20%. That last 5% is going to be more difficult.”

He continued: “I’m not suggesting for a minute that we don’t follow reducing emissions as much as we can. Farmers are definitely trying new products to bring down emissions.”

Casey outlined a number of methods the agricultural industry in Ireland is adopting to reduce emissions. 

He cited more efficient methods of applying slurry, the use of protected urea which reduces Nitrous Oxide, bio stimulants in feed and the development in dairy and beef genetics to produce more efficient cows as measures farmers are taking. 

He said that an education on the “value” of agriculture is essential and that farmers are working to reduce emissions.

“We want it to be achieved in the most fruitful way possible,” he said. 

Agricultural efficiency

Speaking in a personal capacity, Paul Price, a researcher in climate science and policy at Dublin City University, said a lack of accountability and limits on production are driving more emissions. 

“In terms of actual accountability there is unfortunately very little,” he said. “It is up to the [government], but if they are influenced by outside forces — as they always are — then where does the accountability lie?”

The current production climate in agriculture model is facilitating increased emissions which is preventing Ireland from meeting climate goals, according to Price:

“A key thing in meeting the targets is getting Methane and Nitrous Oxide down.”

“In the EPA modelling, milk output and methane output are directly related. If you increase the dairy output you increase the methane. That’s exactly what’s happened,” he added.

The DCU-based researcher said reductions must be made in methane, CO2 and Nitrous oxide at “big scale” otherwise there will be “no hope of meeting the target.” 

“We are becoming increasingly unsustainable,” he said. One issue which Price raised was the inefficient use of nitrogen in Ireland. 

“We need to get back to the 2010 level of total nitrogen coming into the country through fertiliser and feed very very quickly,” he said. “From there we need to continue to reduce the imports of active nitrogen consistently.”

“We have intensified a system that is inherently inefficient.”

Price also said that the efficiency that people talk about with regards to agriculture was a red herring which was a sentiment echoed by O’Dochartaigh. 

“We need to be working within limits and therefore efficiency counts. If you have no limits, efficiency doesn’t matter because there is a production increase.”

“We have climate goals to meet and we’re going in the wrong way,” he added.


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