With one-third of Irish emissions coming from agriculture and projections suggesting that these will flatline in the next 20 years instead of meeting EU reduction targets, Alan Matthews, professor emeritus of European agricultural policy at Trinity College, proposed a radical levy system to re-orient agricultural production.

"The best way to send a signal is a levy or tax on carbon emissions. Conversely, if the farm is sequestering carbon, the farmer should be rewarded," Prof Matthews said.

He added that his proposal should not cost the industry any money: taxes levied on carbon-intensive productions such as beef would be "recycled" into a flat area-based payment to all farmers, or support for more climate-friendly businesses, such as forestry.

He argued that, just like feed, veterinary medicines or investment in farm buildings, the cost of carbon emissions should be factored into farmers' decisions.

Beef production

Prof Matthews acknowledged that the main effect of his proposal would be to encourage farmers to drop beef production.

"Farmers do not make money out of producing beef. The farmer is surviving because he or she is receiving payments from the CAP," he said, citing Teagasc farm surveys. "If we put a proper cost on these activities, it would not affect income. Farmers would still receive payments if they did not keep the animals – just for a different land use."

He said his proposal should be implemented "carefully", as farmers face the risks of Brexit and dwindling CAP payments in the coming years.

Matthews' proposals were rejected by Co Longford dairy farmer Andrew McHugh, who addressed and presented at the Assembly.

McHugh, who also serves a board member of Lakeland Dairies, pointed out that such a proposal would make Irish farming uncompetitive.

Speaking after the Assembly, McHugh told the Irish Farmers Journal he believed the Assembly had been receptive to, and engaged with, his presentation.

Prof Matthews and Teagasc's researcher on emissions Prof Gary Lanigan both said consumers would have a major role to play in directing agriculture towards less carbon-intensive production if they bought less meat and dairy.

'Serious negatives involved'

Prof Matthews acknowledged that it would not be possible to measure emissions on each farm to implement his proposed carbon levy and suggested this could be done at processor level.

To which Andrew McHugh replied: "No matter how you try to implement that, there are serious negatives involved."

All farmers supplying a given processor would be taxed in the same way, whether they try to improve their emissions or not. If the levy was imposed per cow, grass-based farms would be penalised unfairly as they emit half the greenhouse gases of those in high-input systems.

Growing more grass to reduce carbon intensity

McHugh gave examples of improvements he had made as part of the IFA's Smart Farming programme on his own 200-cow farm, including producing more grass to reduce his emissions per litre of milk produced and energy saving in the parlour, which also increased his profitability. He said the next step for him was to produce solar energy on his buildings' roofs, but no Government policy was currently in place to support this.

Co Offaly organic beef, sheep and forestry farmer Tony Garahy said organics was a solution to climate change. "It means that we have less inputs going into the farm and lower outputs from the farm, which means we are reducing the number of stock. It’s fairer. If you get more money for your produce, you can afford to have less of it and have an income," he said.

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Prof Lanigan said Ireland's different land types suited different types of farming to achieve environmental, social and economic sustainability, showing Teagasc's smart land management map published by the Irish Farmers Journal last year.

The members of the Citizens' Assembly asked informed questions, raising promising Australian research on seaweed feed additives to reduce emissions from ruminants and wondering why the Government was planning to spend large amounts of money on purchasing emissions credits overseas instead of investing into meeting domestic targets. One member asking "what is wrong with our politicians that they won’t pay a feed-in tariff for solar panels" drew a round of applause from the room.

The Citizens' Assembly is due to adopt its recommendations on climate change this Sunday.

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