Livestock numbers in NI will have to be cut regardless of which emissions reduction target is eventually included in legislation, a senior agricultural scientist has said.

“Using all existing tools and current circumstances, to meet net zero by 2045 will very, very likely involve a reduction in livestock numbers. Increases in productivity may offset some of that, but even the CCC’s 82% target calls out a reduction in livestock numbers,” said Dr Elizabeth Magowan.

The director of the Agri Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) said she was confident that new technologies will be developed which will help farmers reduce emissions, although she suggested targets should not be developed in expectation of scientific breakthroughs.

“From a science perspective, there will be new solutions going forward. It would be important to have a mechanism which would keep targets and the climate change action plan under review,” she said.

Speaking at Stormont’s agriculture committee, Magowan repeatedly made the point that greenhouse gas emissions are a global problem, so cutting food production in NI while increasing food imports from abroad will not address climate change.

“The global net zero goal is very, very important. While NI absolutely needs to make a significant contribution to that, we would highlight the fact that achieving the global and national goal of net zero is as important as achieving the local goal [of net zero],” she said.

In a question session with MLAs, Magowan acknowledged that some farms in NI could already be at net zero, but she suggested this probably requires a low stocking rate and an area of forestry.

“It’s not impossible for some farms to be carbon-neutral, depending on their specific circumstance. However, this game that we are talking about is the national goal,” she said.

Radical changes

In his briefing with MLAs last week, Paul Armstrong from conservation charity The Woodland Trust argued that “radical changes” were needed in policy making to cut emissions and support biodiversity.

During questions, Sinn Fein MLA Declan McAleer probably did not get the answer he was looking for when he asked if the CCC’s 82% reduction target was enough, or if more was needed.

“Going back to Lord Deben’s contribution, he has made it clear that 82% will require radical changes. It’s not as ambitious as net zero by 2050 or 2045, but we are not the experts on what the target should be,” Armstrong responded.