Having had the need to slash emissions ringing in their ears for years, Irish farmers have noted the irony in the debate that is ongoing around the expansion of Dublin Airport increasing the capacity from 32 million passengers to 40 million passengers.

This will come at a cost, with emissions projected to increase by 20% in the airport’s planning application as a result of the expansion.

While Irish farmers have never been officially told they cannot expand, legislation requiring a 25% reduction in emissions by 2030 is in itself a perfect barrier to expansion.

The case for supporting expansion of the airport and “accepting” the consequent increase in emissions was neatly summarised by Minister for Finance, Michael McGrath, in comments to the Business Post recently.

He described the airport as a “proven engine of growth” and a “significant national asset” that is “central to Ireland’s economic prosperity”.

These points are all beyond dispute for an island located off the coast of Europe that has strong economic ties with the US, which is the next land mass to the west.

Contribution of agriculture

If we were to rewind just over a decade, these same or similar comments were regularly applied to Irish agriculture as it led the national economic recovery from the financial collapse and banking crisis at the end of the Celtic Tiger era.

Since 2010, Irish agriculture has been a proven engine of growth for the Irish economy. Consistently, 90% of Irish agricultural produce is exported, with the value rising from €7.8bn in 2010 to €16bn in 2023.

That agriculture is a significant national asset should be a given, as it is based on the two natural assets that Ireland has in abundance, productive soil and a temperate climate that gives a consistent supply of water.

The majority of Irish farmland is best suited to grassland and ruminant livestock farming, with a smaller but exceptionally productive grain growing sector.

As with air travel, for either business or pleasure, ruminant-based farming creates emissions, accounting for up to 40% of Ireland’s total. Looked at in its most simplistic form, this looks horrendous.

Yet, just as air transport links are essential to an island with an economy based on international trade, the high share for emissions from agriculture reflects the fact that Ireland has never had any heavy manufacturing or mining industry, unlike much of the rest of Europe.

Mitigation measures

Dublin Airport and airlines have been highlighting the significant mitigation measures they have and are putting in place to minimise the increase in emissions as a result of expansion.

This also rings a bell with farmers, as Teagasc research has shown how Irish agriculture can achieve significant reductions through changing fertiliser use and farming practices.

Where Irish agriculture has failed is in persuading the Government that it is of such a strategic national interest that output should be protected parallel to doing whatever is possible to minimise emissions.

Government policy and investment have been directed away from productive agriculture to alternative land uses and organic farming, all of which may be worthy, but will not sustain the production of raw material – never mind increase it – for our flourishing agrifood processing industries.


Part of the difficulty is a growing disconnect between agriculture and the wider population that is now, in most cases, two or three generations removed from farming.

For a large part of the Irish population, economic success is based on technology and pharmaceutical industry, and the workplace is a computer instead of a farm yard.

However, the foundation of the Irish agrifood industry is rooted in farms across the length and breadth of the island, with value added in some of the most remote corners through agrifood processing factories.

On the other hand, our successful new industries, which have headquartered in Ireland, have their foundations in a favourable taxation system and access to a well-educated population.

While an undoubted benefit to the exchequer, this success also brings problems, as the sector is hungry for energy; an increasing cause of emissions and concentration in and around Dublin has meant unaffordable housing for many.

Ultimately, this cannot be an ‘either-or’ debate. Ireland needs connection with the rest of the world, but this cannot be at the cost of sacrificing the one truly indigenous industry that Ireland has in farming and agrifood processing, which incidentally happens to be among the most carbon-efficient in the world.

That is real sustainability, as well as being the main economic pillar in the most rural parts of the country.