“We have moved out of a period of milk quotas and into a period of carbon quotas,” Professor of European agricultural policy at Trinity College, Alan Matthews, told the ASA conference delegates.

Research shows that the footprint of pigs and poultry, in terms of water and carbon, is much lower than for ruminant animals. Ruminants are less efficient but they can convert edible protein.

Rogier Schulte, Teagasc researcher at Johntown Castle, pointed out that while we are scientifically proven to be efficient producers, the climate change debate constantly gets stuck at the same point about our total emissions targets versus productivity.

Putting carbon efficiency into euro

“It’s true that we are the most carbon-efficient producers of milk and beef. But what’s the point in talking about it if we can’t put it down to euro and cents,” said Prof Matthews. “The pace of change in terms of climate policy is exponential and we need to be thinking about this now,” he said.

Prof Matthews pointed out that we are already 6% to 11% over our 2020 emissions targets. As a country, we will be faced with paying significant fines regardless of whether we are the most efficient producers in the world.

Padraig Brennan, managing director of sustainability development with Bord Bia, encouraged a more positive angle to create a constructive discussion. He identified the fact that sustainable farming practices exist here in Ireland already and it is merely a case of rolling them out nationwide. “We need to see how we can adopt practices already on farms more widely,” said Brennan.

However, it was also outlined by Prof Charles Sable, of Colombia Law School, that we are agreeing to many climate mitigation targets without knowing what the costs of reduction are. “We have no idea what costs we are agreeing to,” he said. “So, no one is going to do anything beyond what they are already doing.”