Farmers across the island of Ireland have a great future if they embrace pasture-fed systems that produce livestock with the lowest carbon footprint possible, the chair of the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) told MLAs on the Stormont Agriculture Committee last Thursday.

Giving evidence, Lord Deben, the former Tory Minister John Gummer, set out a vision for a livestock industry based around lower-input, grass-based production.

“Fundamentally the move to feedlots and to feed animals food that they don’t naturally have, it needs to be reversed,” he said.

He maintained that artificially produced meat will be a reality, but that farmers who embrace the issues around lowering emissions, animal welfare and naturally reared will be able to compete.

In NI he said if carbon emission targets are to be met, a lot more will have to be done to restore peatland, plant trees and reduce reliance on red diesel.

The CCC target for NI is for a 48% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels), and an 82% reduction by 2050, as part of an overall net zero carbon target for the UK by that date.

The CCC does not expect NI to hit net zero by 2050 due to it being a significant net exporter of agri-food. However, he was questioned on that by a number of MLAs including Green party leader Clare Bailey who suggested that the current output from the sector is not sustainable.

“We will do everything in our power to help you do better than your target,” responded Lord Deben.

“My job as chair of the CCC is to present that which can, with real difficultly, be achieved. Otherwise we will have people saying, ‘eat drink and be merry, because tomorrow we die as we cannot achieve that’,” he added.

He also acknowledged that it would be untenable to expect local farmers to lower emissions and take on higher costs only to be undermined by cheap imports. In particular, he was critical of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who he described as a “dangerous activist in the other side” due to continued rainforest removal in that part of the world.

“Why we should support that by importing product from them seems to me to be intolerable,” he said.

He also took aim at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) who have set a goal for agriculture in England and Wales to be net zero by 2040. According to Lord Deben, the NFU programme is flawed, and double counting in some areas.

“Climate change is happening, it is very serious, it is the biggest threat we have and there is no vaccine to stop it. We are all in this together,” he concluded.

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