Last week, the Department of Agriculture held its long-anticipated conference on climate change. The science was understandably covered, but so were the trading consequences for farmers and industry.
The science of climate change is, for many people, settled. The accepted narrative is that temperatures are increasing, extreme weather events are more common and that the damage is being caused by human activity.
The thrust of present policy is that human effort can reduce the damage that many are forecasting and that it is worth making drastic changes to the way society produces energy, arranges its transport structures, and even farms and produces its food.
However, not everyone accepts that the science is settled and we are constantly meeting scientists and engineers who are extremely well qualified, who point out that the world has always had periods of heating and cooling, that increasing carbon dioxide levels increase plant growth and yields and that the Céide Fields were producing cereals in enclosed fields in north Mayo when temperatures were about 2°C warmer than today. From a farmer’s point of view, this is all largely irrelevant. We will have no option, but to live within the new policy constraints on emissions put forward by Government.
For me, the most heartening parts of the day by far were the reports showing the clear effectiveness of some key additives in reducing methane emissions in livestock. Some are already in production and more are in the pipeline.
To me, at any rate it is clear that while feeding regimes have to be ironed out and peer reviewed scientific papers have to be produced, that together with the work already done by Teagasc on protected urea and slurry handling, that the 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions can be comparatively easily achieved within a short number of years. Herd reductions on this basis are unnecessary and would be economically and socially damaging.
Whatever the disagreements about the science of climate change, it is becoming clear that corporate customers are becoming increasingly focused on environmental sustainability in the broadest sense.
As farmers we have little option but to go along with the apparent unstoppable trend. The role of Government, apart from its regulatory function, will have to ensure that farmers are not left to do more for no real benefit.
Ultimately, farmers are price-takers, with little bargaining power in the face of strong corporates. One of the essential roles of Government and the CAP is to rebalance the scales.