"The creation of a narrative that alienates our farmers is unhelpful," according to Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue when he addressed Seanad Éireann on Monday 22 February.
He stated that he believes the livestock sector "has come in for some unfair criticism in recent times" and that we need to counter the narrative that "eating a hamburger is more detrimental to our planet that getting on an aeroplane".
He commented that farmers are custodians of the land who wish to have a positive effect on the environment.
This is backed up by a point which the minister is very proud of - "that the agriculture sector is the first sector in Ireland to produce a credible road map transitioning the sector towards our long-term ambition of climate neutrality by 2050".
The implementation of new technologies such as low emission slurry spreading, breeding more methane-efficient animals, maintaining the tillage area, increasing the area under organic land and changing to fertilisers such as protected urea are all part of the plan to reduce emissions, while the plan to move towards climate neutrality will also improve water quality.
The Minister also emphasised the importance of reducing carbon emissions from soils and measuring carbon storage and sequestration in agriculture.
However, he noted that the industry needs to work together and that CAP cannot do it all.
He added that all stakeholders need to play their part and commented on the forward thinking of the agri-food sector for initiatives such as biodiversity payments on milk cheques.
Joined-up thinking needed
Senators made some hard-hitting statements after the Minister’s address.
Senator Paul Daly commented that food security should be of paramount importance and that we need to promote our tillage and horticulture sectors.
On this, he added that the cessation of peat harvesting has led to the importation of peat from Scotland and having spoken with one vegetable grower, he noted that this has added to costs on farms which cannot compete.
The Senator reported one case where a farmer would not be growing pumpkins or onions as a result this season.
“We have to bring the sectors with us. We have to have a bit of joined-up thinking and it has to be cross-departmental,” he commented.
Senator Daly also added that farmers need to be paid for hedgerows, trees and areas of scrub or there will be no incentive to keep them there.
“There are 382,000km of hedgerows which farmers are not getting credit for. They are the bedrock of our biodiversity and they’re providing an unbelievable amount of sequestration.”
Mullen warns of food price increase
Senator Rónán Mullen was in agreement with Senator Daly’s peat comments and the Minister’s comments on certain groups demonising farmers.
He stated: “I strongly support the highest standards of animal welfare and ethical practices, while believing that we need to stay rigid in reality and challenge this extreme rhetoric head on.”
On the document itself, Mullen described it as “far from perfect”, but overall “a fair set of goals”.
However, he made some strong points on the cost of these goals.
“Many of the burdens on reducing carbon footprints fall on farmers.
“In other words, Government policies are often based on the notion that we can preserve current food prices at the current low levels and that carbon footprints can be reduced from the supermarket backwards along the chain, while placing burdens on farmers through new regulations and paperwork.
“There is only so much that farmers can be expected to do and the job of reducing carbon footprints needs to spread more equally along the production and supply chains and this will inevitably lead to higher prices for consumers.”
He added that: “Teagasc has done a lot of valuable research which shows that significant reductions in nitrogen has a strong negative effect on the profitability of dairy farms and hammers the already limited profitability of suckler and sheep farming.”
Mature discussion on livestock numbers
While the Minister was keen to defend livestock farmers, in his closing remarks he did state: “I will be watching livestock number trends very closely and, as I indicated very recently at the IFA AGM, we are approaching the point where a mature discussion is needed to ensure environmental compliance costs are not transferred from expanding farmers to all farmers."
He added: “In terms of overall environmental trends, it is clear that water quality, while good overall by EU standards, has come under pressure in certain catchments.”
Initiatives such as the Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme and the Teagasc Signpost Programme will help to meet these targets and demonstrate model farms.
The Minister added that he is “keen to explore the opportunities in this space for farmers”.
He commented: “Carbon farming is a term that we will all become very familiar with over the coming years.
"It will be possible for farmers to reduce emissions substantially over the coming decades and I am keen to find ways to reward these farmers for taking such positive actions.”
Very importantly, he stated that Ag Climatise is a living document, which will continue to be reviewed and updated with the latest developments.