I was embedded at COP26 for 11 of the 12 days of its deliberations.
I naturally focused on attending as many sessions as I could that dealt with agricultural and land use matters.
The event itself operated at several levels. You had the big political set pieces. Then you also had negotiators debating on the minutiae of draft texts and jostling over the use of key words and commas.
But the sessions that I found most useful focused on key thematic issues. Here you had the opportunity to listen to the key experts delving into the substance of core issues.
Outside of COP26, you then had disparate groups of protesters. The most notable of these had the 18-year-old Greta Thunberg as their titular leader.
Her “blah, blah, blah” remarks in the early days of the conference had an enduring impact on public debate and reportage throughout the entire event.
And, you know, for this old fogey, and despite my conservative instincts, there was much with which I could agree. Their concern with the need for urgent action, for one, and their impatience with the inevitably slow pace of the negotiating process involving nearly 200 countries was hard to disagree with.
Agriculture’s role in addressing food security and a growing global population was central to the sessions on agriculture and land use. But food production also has to be sustainable.
An overwhelming message was that while agriculture clearly contributes to global warming, it is also very much part of the solution. We know that farmland has a tremendous capacity to store carbon and to grow that carbon stock through good management practices. The planting of hedgerows and woodlands on farms can also add to that stock. It was also emphasised in several discussions that there will be co-benefits through enhancing biodiversity, improved water quality and potential flood relief.
We know that patterns of land use can affect the carbon absorptive capacity of different soils. The rehabilitation of peatlands that have been used for the extraction of turf or converted into grasslands can play a big role. But what are clearly required are the appropriate incentive systems to encourage this rehabilitation.
There will also be significant investment needed to realise the potential benefits of changes in land use.
But we need, as a matter of urgency, to have high-quality baseline data. It’s frustrating for farmers that many activities that can extract carbon from the atmosphere, such as the planting of woodlands and hedgerows, don’t yet count in the national inventory of greenhouse gases.
In time, as evidence accumulates, these factors will be incorporated as negative entries in the carbon budgets but in the meantime their omission acts a disincentive for farmers to do the right thing.
The role of carbon farming and trade in carbon credits also came through in many of the sessions Some recoil from these concepts, and particularly from trading, but these practices are being employed successfully elsewhere and most of the potential obstacles have solutions. In my view we need to build these elements into national policy, and soon.
There was also a lot of emphasis on the system nature of food production and land use. This echoes the focus of Food Vision 2030.
This may seem an esoteric issue but in simple terms it stresses the interrelatedness of a lot of issues involving farming and the production of food.
One compelling example is the relationship between deforestaion and food production. If we don’t want it, not only do farmers in these countries have to be compensated but it also has to be realised that other food-exporting countries, like ourselves, will be required to make up the deficit.
One of the touted successes of COP26 was the declaration to reduce methane by 30% by 2030.
This was extrapolated by some in this country to say that we need to have a policy-driven reduction in animal-generated methane.
The discussions at COP26 emphasised the methane produced by the fossil fuels sector. And it was gratifying to hear the Taoiseach’s sensible views on the matter.
Methane production is an existential issue for the livestock industry; it is not for the fossil fuel industry. And it’s unfortunate to have to hear the continuous stream of highly misleading statements about supposed alternatives to ruminant livestock production.
We have a comparative advantage in grass-based production systems. Some farmers will pursue niche alternatives and should be encouraged to do so. But given land suitability and, most importantly, economic margins, it’s difficult to envisage any mainstream alternatives to livestock production. And it’s surprising to hear those critics of livestock production arguing for additional tillage and horticulture that will add to carbon emissions as the land is ploughed.
Sustainability of livestock
One of the best sessions, I thought, was on the sustainability of livestock production. What shone through for me was optimism that while there are big challenges, there are grounds for optimism based on pipeline research in areas such as feed additives, and especially genetics.
I firmly believe that technological innovation will provide the solutions. There is a Malthusian pessimism about at present that needs to be confronted.
These solutions will take time, and of course investment. For me this underlines the absurdity of having a completely unrealistic target (anything beyond 10%) for the reduction in biogenic methane by 2030. The timescale is wholly unattainable.