New report shows Irish agriculture is neither ‘climate-smart’ nor sustainable

Irish cattle less climate-efficient than European average and emissions per head up from 1990
The Environmental Pillar and Stop Climate Chaos and have published a new report titled “Not So Green: Debunking the Myths around Irish Agriculture”. Drawing heavily on scientific evidence, the report challenges government and industry claims and shows that Ireland’s current agriculture and land-use policy is neither ‘climate-smart’ nor sustainable.

According to the study by the two NGO coalitions Ireland’s cattle-based agriculture is actually less efficient than the European average – in terms of the level of greenhouse gases emitted per calorie of bovine food produced – and methane produced per head of cattle has increased in Ireland since 1990.

Commenting on the biodiversity implications of Ireland’s proposed strategy to offset emissions from intensive agriculture by intensifying afforestation, Oonagh Duggan, Policy Officer with BirdWatch Ireland said:

“Both agriculture and forestry can be significant pressures and threats to birds and other biodiversity in Ireland. Environmental integrity is lacking in policies that are being rolled out for these sectors. We need to re-align agricultural policy so that the environment is at its core. The claims of sustainability in agriculture that we hear about regularly are not substantiated by the reality for many upland and lowland farmland birds and other environmental or sustainability indicators”.
Spokesperson for the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, Catherine Devitt, said:

“Based on detailed evidence, our analysis clearly shows that Ireland’s livestock agriculture is less efficient than claimed, and does not contribute to global food security. In fact, due to increasing emissions, the livestock sector is actively contributing to increased climate pollution and global food insecurity, putting the lives and livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest populations at risk. For reasons outlined in our report, meaningful efforts to address food security should aim to support small-scale producers.”

Allowing an increase in emissions, inevitable under current policy plans for expansion of the livestock sector, will mean that Ireland will fail to do its part in meeting its EU and Paris Agreement climate targets. The report outlines that intensive livestock production is an extremely climate, calorie and fertiliser intensive way of producing protein at scale. The extent to which the current model of production actually provides a sustainable livelihood for Irish farmers is also called into question.

The report also identifies glaring inadequacies in the government’s claim that afforestation presents a viable option to offset increasing emissions from the agricultural sector. Land-based carbon sequestration cannot count as climate mitigation because it cannot guarantee the permanent carbon dioxide removal required to limit global warming. Continued coniferous afforestation and timber harvesting on the existing model also presents significant threats to Ireland’s biodiversity and water quality. Preserving Ireland’s carbon rich peatlands needs to be a far higher priority than afforestation; climate action requires a halt to peat extraction.

The new report just comes days before the European Commission publishes its proposed national shares of the EU’s 2030 target. The Fine Gael – led governments since 2011 have made a concerted lobbying effort to have Ireland’s 2030 target watered down based partly the special place agriculture has in the Irish economy. Stop Climate Chaos and the Environmental Pillar call on the European Commission to ensure that Land Use and Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) is dealt with in a separate pillar to ensure that all sectors including agriculture reduce emissions first rather than making unjustified use of offsets.

Stop Climate Chaos and the Environmental Pillar believe a change in direction in current agriculture and land-use policy is necessary and possible. However, a first step must be to accept the reality of the sector’s past and projected impacts on climate, food security and the environment. A re-aligned policy pathway is needed to plan for sustained year-on-year reductions in absolute emissions from agriculture, to avoid reliance on forestry for emissions offsets, to restore past damage to biodiversity and water quality, and to truly contribute to achieving food security for the world’s poorest.