Output from NI livestock farms will reduce if a private members bill on climate change makes its way through Stormont, a key architect of the proposals has acknowledged.
Phil Carson from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) told MLAs last week that there was scope for a “less but better” approach to livestock production in NI.
He suggested that dietary change, where less meat and dairy is consumed in the UK, would help achieve “climate ambition and public health benefits”.
“The reduction in output doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing for a farm business. If you reduce output in line with your land’s natural carrying capacity, it reduces your input costs and makes your business more sustainable,” Carson maintained.
There is nothing in our bill that will harm the agriculture sector
The bill, which was tabled by Green Party MLA Clare Bailey and is supported by Sinn Féin, SDLP, Alliance and the Ulster Unionist Party, will make it a legal requirement for NI to reach net-zero carbon by 2045.
Bailey, along with representatives from the Climate Coalition NI umbrella group, briefed Stormont’s agriculture committee about the proposals last week.
“There is nothing in our bill that will harm the agriculture sector. Agriculture is listed along with all other sectors where there needs to be a reduction in emissions, but nothing in this bill mandates any immediate changes,” Bailey said.
Agriculture can have a much more gradual transition
The South Belfast MLA said that specific targets have not been set for each sector of the NI economy at this stage.
“Infrastructure, energy and transport are ready to move much more immediately, and they can do the heavy lifting over the first few years. Agriculture can have a much more gradual transition,” Bailey maintained.
During the question session, DUP MLA William Irwin raised concerns that the proposals will lead to NI emissions being moved overseas, as more food will need to be imported to make up for reduced output from local farms.
In her response, Bailey suggested that increasing imports from the likes of New Zealand or western Europe was less concerning as there is already “very stringent environmental legislation” in these countries.
“We have a responsibility as a developed nation to act and do our best, rather than join Brazil in a race to the bottom. The [carbon] leakage issue can be addressed by differentiating NI products based on quality and environmental credentials,” she argued.
During private meetings with various farmer representatives, South Belfast MLA Clare Bailey has received some support for her private members bill on climate change.
The Green Party politician told Stormont’s agriculture committee that Farmers’ For Action and the NI Agricultural Producers’ Association (NIAPA) both backed the plans.
“The Ulster Farmers’ Union have been very resistant and have big concerns about the bill,” Bailey admitted.
Representatives from the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) were selected to speak to the Stormont committee last week about how they supported the proposals.
The group’s chair, Co Antrim hill farmer Michael Meharg, suggested that lowland farmers should free up 10% of their land area for natural habitats.
I am not a typical farmer in that respect
“In uplands, systems here will need to focus on supporting farm biodiversity, quality landscapes and water management,” he said.
However, all the NFFN members that spoke to MLAs are farming large areas, well in excess of the NI average farm size of 100 acres.
“I am not a typical farmer in that respect. Most farmers have a certain amount of land that they have to maximise their income from,” acknowledged Strangford arable grower David Sandford.