The Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) published a press release this week suggesting more needs to be done more quickly for Ireland to reach legally binding climate targets. I believe farmers want to do more and can do more, however, currently food producers and farmers just seem to be getting more ‘negative’ signals than anything else.
The Climate Council is an independent advisory body tasked with assessing and advising on how Ireland can achieve a climate-neutral economy.
That involves much more than just farming – transport, energy etc all come under the Council’s remit. It doesn’t lack expertise.
The Climate Council is chaired by Marie Donnelly who has extensive experience working with the European Commission. Its board includes Teagasc Director Frank O’Mara, the EPA boss Laura Burke, and Professor John Fitzgerald among others.
However, I fundamentally believe there remains a big disconnect between what some legislators want for farming and what farmers feel they can or want to do. A farm business is so much more than just a herd of cows, a flock of sheep or a cereal crop.
It can be an energy generator, it can be a wetland, a forest, it can filter water, filter nutrients and it can change the crop mix from year to year. However, currently farm businesses are split into separate cake slices such as food and farm, energy, waste, land use change and more.
To get straight to the point, only the greenhouse gas emissions from the ‘food and farm’ slice of the cake are recognised. Any of the positive changes possible from any other slices are not recognised or at least isolated away from ‘food and farm’.
To bring this back to brass tacks – a farmer milking 100 cows, or with 50 sucklers or 200 sheep effectively has animals that produce methane. If we need to cut this by 25% – how is this done?
Farmers can and will look to science; better genetics, better health, maybe new methane reducing feed additives to reduce methane per animal. Farmers can and will spread less nitrogen and use different fertilisers to reduce their emissions.
However, ultimately as a country or as a farm, to reach the targets we have to reduce numbers to reduce the amount of methane produced. Let’s assume we reach a 25% reduction. What happens after this? Another 25%? Even less animals?
The ARCZero project, funded partly by the farmers, partly by an EIP three-year project that had seven farms across Northern Ireland, led by John Gilliland, came to an end recently.
One of the clear outcomes is that for farming and food production to exist on this island, it is essential that not only are farm emissions counted but carbon build up, waste, energy production and farm management changes all need to be recognised as part of the one cake if farming is to have a future.
It makes compelling sense. If farmers are incentivised, they will change. It has to be results driven. They need to be able to see the future and how they can balance emissions rather than just cutting heads to get less emissions.
If we accept that we will make our climate targets by just accepting the decline in the suckler herd as per the Teagasc MACC report last week, then ultimately we are just kicking the can down the road.
Inevitably the most profitable farmers and the most profitable enterprises buy out smaller, less profitable enterprises. The big will get bigger because they will have the capacity to grow and build up environmental assets.
There is a huge difference between farms already, no two farms are the same. The ARCZero study summary explained to us that the seven farms manage 516,166 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, and that 97% is within the soil.
If measured again in five years, will the seven farms have 550,000 tonnes of carbon equivalent locked up? What incentives or rewards will the farmers get to increase carbon in their soils? How will they know how to increase carbon in soils?
To get the results that the Climate Council correctly call for, we need a step change in policy and regulators working with farming as possible solution makers.
Broad brush climate strokes or majoring on negative type regulation won’t effectively harness the power of farmers and the change they can bring to the climate story in Ireland.