NI farmers have made significant advances in driving down carbon emissions associated with each litre of milk or kilogramme of meat, but major challenges still lie ahead if we are to secure the industry for the next generation, the latest food industry report has concluded.
Produced by business consultancy KPMG, in association with the NI Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), the Balancing Act report outlines the results of a survey of 35 NIFDA members on issues relating to sustainability and the environment.
At company level, most respondents believe they are reasonably well placed to respond to the wider sustainability agenda, with 83% having a dedicated team or individual in place and 80% measuring at least some elements of the carbon footprint of their supply chain.
Nearly three quarters ranked decarbonisation as their highest sustainability priority, while “regulation” was listed as the top driving factor ahead of the likes of retailer pressure.
However, when asked about preparedness of the wider NI food and drink industry, responses tended to be more negative.
Only 14% believe the industry is well prepared to meet market and regulatory pressures relating to sustainability, while 86% do not think there is sufficient government support being provided to deliver relevant initiatives.
Summarising the results at a launch event on Monday, Russell Smyth from KPMG said there was a clear feeling among NIFDA members that the lack of a Stormont Executive is holding back progress.
“We do need political direction to really drive this,” said Smyth, who contrasted the situation to that in the Republic of Ireland, where various government programmes are now in place.
Despite the frustration around progress, Smyth pointed out that our carbon footprint is lower than many of our competitors and if we can innovate and adopt new technologies, there is a “massive prize” to be won.
However, if we stand still, Smyth warned that our advantage will be quickly eroded.
“The sector in NI needs to go on a journey and maintain a European, if not world leading position, on efficiency,” he added.
However, he also accepted that the focus on decarbonisation and wider environmental sustainability must be balanced against the need to have a secure supply of nutritious and affordable food.
Roll-out of carbon benchmarking
The roll-out of carbon benchmarking across NI farms will begin in the new year, Norman Fulton from DAERA told Monday’s KPMG/NIFDA event.
“If we are going to change, you have to know where you are starting from,” said Fulton. He accepted that current greenhouse gas (GHG) calculators are not perfect, but as science and understanding around the likes of carbon sequestered in soils and hedgerows evolves, the measurement tools will improve. The alternative might be to wait on the science, but we could end up missing out on three to five years of progress, he suggested.
“It will take time and it will not be easy. Let’s do the things we can do,” he said.
However, he also warned against pursuing a single agenda around GHG emissions, which he maintained could lead to unintended consequences for water quality, biodiversity and ammonia emissions.
“We have to get on with it” – Whelan
In recent weeks, Dale Farm has launched its new sustainability programme under the heading “Future Strong”, with the co-op committing to a 30% reduction in the carbon footprint of their milk by 2030. According to Dale Farm CEO Nick Whelan, there is a need for a lot more momentum around carbon benchmarking, ultimately to lower emissions from NI agriculture.
“We can’t talk our way around this. We have to get on with it,” he told the KPMG/NIFDA event on Monday. However, he pointed out that it is not just about farming more efficiently and other issues need to be addressed, including bovine TB, which can have a major negative impact on the footprint of an individual farm.
Whelan is also keen that we work with one carbon footprint calculator in NI (currently Agrecalc developed by Scotland’s Rural College is the preferred option).
“We are on the right side of this debate at the moment. Dairy UK has five calculators giving five different results. It is really important we stick to one in NI,” said Whelan.