Since time began, the objective of farming has been to maximise output in the most efficient way possible.

Land use has evolved with time, reflecting the arrival of mechanisation.

Tractors replaced horses and, in the process, most small holdings ceased to grow grain primarily as animal feed and pasture became the predominant land use apart from the 5% to 10% of land where rainfall, topography and soil type combined to produce ideal tillage land.

Livestock farming is the main land use and the generator of 33% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

At first glance, reducing the number of livestock may appear the most logical way for Ireland to play its part in the global need to reduce emissions.

Yet, this is a serious oversimplification. GHG emissions from agriculture are calculated at the source of production unlike, for example, energy which is calculated at the point of use. Ireland, for example, imports oil from Saudi Arabia and it is also a large market for Irish butter exports. For both of these products, Ireland is liable for the GHG emissions.

More not less

If we consider the reduction GHG emissions as a global issue, then it would be most logical to concentrate agricultural production in parts of the world with the lowest amount of emissions per kilo of output. The reality is that the world will require more beef, sheepmeat and dairy a decade from now than it does today.

According to the 2022 OECD FAO Agricultural Outlook report, the world will consume almost 118m tonnes more dairy, 5.7m tonnes more beef and 2.4m tonnes more sheepmeat than it does today. This will be produced somewhere with Brazil leading the increase in global production and exports of beef, New Zealand and European dairy output seems to have peaked leaving the US as the country with expansion probability.

New Zealand and Australia are close to optimum sheepmeat production. China is something of an unknown quantity but it is safe to assume that they will increase output to feed an ever-increasing domestic demand.

National solution doesn’t solve global problem

The problem with Ireland in isolation choosing to reduce emissions for agriculture by 25% before 2030 means that livestock production and output has to be reduced.

In a KPMG/Irish Farmers Journal study in 2021, it was identified that a 21% cut in emissions would cause a €1.1bn hit to the rural economy and a loss of 10,000 jobs. All agricultural policy in Ireland is now designed to remove land from productive livestock-based agriculture.

Huge Government support is being directed towards encouraging the growth of organic farming and this will indirectly achieve a reduction of production and less livestock. Rewetting of grassland that has either been drained or reclaimed over the past 200 years will also mean less cattle and, obviously, less emissions.

While current policy will achieve the narrow objective of reducing emissions by 25% by 2030, the irony is that it will probably contribute to an overall increase in global emissions.

All agricultural policy in Ireland is now designed to remove land from productive livestock-based agriculture. \ Donal O'Leary

Turning to Saudi Arabia again, it has a significant dairy production industry. This is based on housing cattle in air-conditioned sheds to protect cows against the desert heat, importing every kilo of feed they consume and drilling deep into the earth to get water for them to drink.

A kilo of butter consumed in Saudia Arabia that is imported from Ireland has a significantly lower carbon footprint than its Saudi equivalent.

The global demand for livestock-based proteins will continue to grow and that global demand will be met, irrespective of the emissions caused by the process. Ireland unilaterally reducing emissions will simply mean that production will move elsewhere.

According to ABIEC, the Brazilian meat processors representative organisation, their output and exports of beef has increased dramatically in recent decades rising from 159,630t to 2.264m tonnes in 2022, a ten-fold increase.

Contrast this with Irish livestock numbers in Figure 1 where there has been a relatively consistent cattle herd fluctuating between 6.4m and 7.4m head between 1980 and 2021.

Irish land use may change but it isn’t necessarily for the better in a global context.