Ireland is heeding the call to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions as the EU, the US and others strive to make significant cuts in their carbon footprints by the year 2030. More to the point, the UK recently raised the stakes, announcing it is working toward a staggering 78% less carbon emissions by 2035.
With such an ambitious goal, no stone should be left unturned, especially given what’s at stake for our planet. Unquestionably, efforts to grow Ireland’s herd should be met with apprehension.
Additional cattle will lead to more methane and more warming in our atmosphere.
But is reducing the size of Ireland’s cattle herd an easy and effective solution? Ultimately, that’s for Ireland to work out. I can only provide broad context on this proposed solution, which I have been asked to do by the Irish Farmers Journal.
Ireland needs to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with animal agriculture; we all do
Ireland’s animal agriculture programme is enviable. The sector, which includes a cattle herd of 7.3m, produces enough to feed 50m people, despite the country having a population smaller than that figure by 10 times. What’s left over is exported to the UK, the EU and third countries, altogether into about 180 other countries.
Certainly Ireland needs to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with animal agriculture; we all do. But reducing the number of Irish cattle may not be the panacea one might believe it to be.
Though cattle are well-known for emitting the powerful greenhouse gas methane, in reality, reducing the national herd would lead to only marginal improvements
For starters, the scale of climate change is simply tremendous, and the magnitude of how much emissions need to be eliminated is correspondingly huge.
Though cattle are well-known for emitting the powerful greenhouse gas methane, in reality, reducing the national herd would lead to only marginal improvements in climate emissions.
There is a further problem with limiting the number of cattle, and it’s a phenomenon known as carbon leakage. Put simply, it refers to the act of reducing emissions in one place only to see them increase elsewhere in response.
Ireland supplies food to 180 countries
One need not look beyond the US for an example of carbon leakage. The country has shifted manufacturing to India and China, in part to adhere to US environmental regulations, leading to greater overall emissions.
As mentioned previously, Ireland supplies food to 180 countries. If Ireland were to reduce the size of its herd, many of these nations would simply source beef and dairy products from another nation or nations.
Perhaps the new exporters would be farther away and/or less efficient than Ireland is in raising cattle, resulting in potentially increased emissions and a significant loss of Ireland’s economic power and job opportunities.
While this may bode well for Ireland’s climate targets, the reality of climate change is that it requires global, not national, adaptation.
As Professor Frank O’Mara noted: “It’s not climate leadership to say we will stop producing food to bring our emissions under control and not worry about where that food might be produced elsewhere.”
Rather than simply reducing the number of cattle, the focus of Irish climate policy as it relates to beef and dairy should be placed on improvements via innovation. US farmers lead the world in this regard, having steadily increased output since 1950 while holding inputs steady.
As an example, there were 16m fewer dairy cows in 2018 compared to 1950 (25m vs 9m cows) and yet, US farmers have been able to increase milk production by 60%.
Reducing the herd size before increasing efficiencies is akin to putting the cart before the horse, so to speak.
Research is currently being conducted on dialling back emissions, particularly methane, through improved manure management and feed additives that can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by livestock.
Furthermore, improving the fertility, health and genetics of cattle can lead to a reduction in the number of animals required to produce the same amount of meat and dairy.
At the Alltech Ireland Environmental Forum, Emma Swan and Dr Stephen Ross noted that the carbon footprint of Irish dairy farms could be reduced by 20% through changes in areas such as grassland management, improved fertiliser efficiency and more efficient milk production via nutrition and genetics.
Domestically, limiting cattle would raise economic issues as well
Reducing herd sizes may make sense if there are policies to incentivise innovation, which can lead to improved output levels so fewer animals are needed to produce the same amount of products in order to meet the demand and avoid carbon leakage.
Domestically, limiting cattle would raise economic issues as well. It would obviously affect the agriculture sector and those who raise animals, but other areas as well.
For instance, one would expect higher prices for beef and dairy products, which will disproportionately affect low-income populations who are often malnourished and on calorie-rich and nutrient poor diets.
Without question, we have work to do. Fighting climate change is more than a national effort, more than the responsibility of a single industry. At the same time, while animal agriculture is certainly a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, putting herd reduction ahead of improved efficiency will not serve the purpose of combating climate change, a global challenge.
Progress is already being made through research into feed additives that can reduce methane, creating lower emission animals and improved manure and land management
A government policy limiting herd size might offer modest progress toward the Irish 2030 climate target, but ultimately those gains would likely be nullified by carbon leakage and at the expense of Irish economic power and people’s access to affordable, nutritious food.
Instead of hoping to reduce emissions by limiting the number of cattle in the country, the focus may best be directed toward innovation and research.
Progress is already being made through research into feed additives that can reduce methane, creating lower emission animals and improved manure and land management.
Beef and dairy production isn’t going anywhere, and given the problems with attempting to limit it (carbon leakage, higher prices, affecting jobs), it is more prudent to focus on improving it instead.
Climate change is a massive problem, and it will require changes, but in my opinion, these changes should be measured and targeted.
Dr Frank Mitloehner is a professor and air quality specialist at University of California, Davis, focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cattle. He was invited to contribute a regular column to the Irish Farmers Journal.