Against the grain

Emissions-heavy feed imports soaring to fuel dairy boom

Noteworthy analysis shows 50 million tonnes imported in the last decade as our tillage industry falters from lack of State support.

Design for AGAINST THE GRAIN featuring grain dispersing from a combine with the sky in the background.

“FARMERS ARE PREPARED to lead out and face this challenge head on.”

This bout of confidence was how, in March 2022, the Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue opened the inaugural meeting of the National Fodder and Food Security Committee.

Set up to tackle an animal feed supply crisis in the wake of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, a key global grain exporter, a €12 million package soon followed to incentivise our farmers to grow more crops. 

This stemmed the issue short-term, but failed to address a bigger problem – our growing dependence on imports as livestock expands rapidly in line with a State drive to ramp up meat and dairy exports. 

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In our AGAINST THE GRAIN investigation, we dug through a decade of industry trade data and stats from national and EU agencies to lay out the true scale of animal feed imports that are growing year-on-year. 

Tractor in a field of maize cutting and harvesting the crop on a sunny day Irish farmer harvesting maize but most of the crop used as animal feed is imported David Creedon / Alamy Stock Photo David Creedon / Alamy Stock Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

Feed imports increasing year-on-year

In the last 25 years, our analysis shows that we have never produced enough cereals – wheat, barley and oats – to meet livestock needs. While grass, hay and silage makes up around 80% of what our farmed animals eat, cereals are an important staple in their feeding regime.

The livestock diet also relies heavily on maize and high-protein soya – nearly all of which is imported. Based on our dive into industry and trade data, we estimate that around 50 million tons of animal feed was imported since 2012. Over 21 million tonnes of this was maize and 10 million tonnes was soya feed.

Over one million of this maize and soya was imported from Northern Ireland but likely originated elsewhere. This is because these two core imports come from the Americas. Argentina alone accounted for over four million tonnes of soya imports. Around one million tonnes also came from North America.

Canada and the US also dominate the maize market, with over four million tonnes of unmilled maize coming in from North America since 2012. A further 3 million tonnes of distillers maize grain – a by-product from the drinks industry – came in from the two countries.

Overall, our analysis shows that imports are only going in one direction – up. In the 2000s, imports hovered around 3 million but they have not fallen under 4.5 million since 2017.

High carbon footprint of imports

The reason, in large part, is the drive for dairy, the jewel of our food industry since the removal of the milk quota in 2015. In 2010, 26% of animal feed went to this sector. By 2022, this figure was almost 40%. The amount of feed eaten by dairy cows jumped from 939,000 tonnes to just under two million tonnes.

“This is a matter of concern,” according to Fionnuala Murphy, an Assistant Professor in the UCD School of Biosystems and Food Engineering. This is because it is directly ”leading to an increase in imported feed” that has a higher carbon footprint than cereals and crops grown locally.

These emissions are often overlooked as they are not counted as part of our national emissions. Yet, Murphy said, it certainly counts when you look through the lens of a full lifecycle assessment.

This examines the environmental impact of the feed along each rung of the production chain, from growing it all the way up to when the animals eat it. Feed production in the dairy sector accounted for 11% of the average farm’s carbon footprint in 2022, Murphy said.

Calculations by Dr Murphy and PhD student Luis Alejandro Vergara show that Irish cereals and beans have lower emissions than imports, in particular soya from Argentina.

Teagasc also estimates South American maize produces 20 times the level of emissions per hectare that domestic tillage. Our analysis shows that over 1.8 million tonnes of unmilled maize has been imported from Brazil since 2012.

This, Dr Murphy, said is down to the “repercussions of deforestation due to land use changes” during growing in South America, where a large portion of our feed comes from year in, year out.

It is difficult to get firm figures on how much of our imports are touched by deforestation. But a recent European Feed Manufacturers’ Federation analysis did find that 26,000 tonnes or 4% of Ireland’s soya imports from South America in 2019 may be linked to areas with a higher risk of deforestation.

Native production can close the gap

While domestic growing is too small to meet the full feed demand, a stronger market would bridge the gap and reduce our carbon footprint. On top of this, the EU recently brought in rules to tackle imports linked to deforestation.

These are all key reasons why the State has rolled out an ambition target to hit 400,000 hectares of tillage land by 2030 – an increase of over 50,000 hectares from where we are today.

“It’s increasingly important that we have a reliable industry and a reliable source of native products,” according to Andy Doyle, the chair of Tillage Industry Ireland with four decades in farming under his belt. 

“It’s ironic that we’re trying to set out our [meat and dairy] export industry as a grass-producing nation, yet we have this growing level of food imports.” 

Andy Doyle, Tillage Industry Ireland, wearing a shirt with a grain field in the background with quote: Sooner or later, someone is going to ask - whats the story here?

State supports need to go further 

Expansion in the native tillage industry, Doyle said, could see native grains and protein crops supplying 50%-plus of the overall animal feed supply chain. 

Yields are starting to increase in line with State support. Financial incentives through the protein aid scheme, for example, saw spring bean planting triple in volume since 2014.

Another support to chop straw and incorporate it into the ground has put more money in farmers’ pockets, improved soil quality, and ensured land has remained in tillage. 

In general, however, State support is geared toward growing more animal feed, the price of which is dictated by the international market. This leaves the tillage sector at the whim of fluctuations in prices and, with this, volatile swings in farm income year-to-year. 

In 2022, average tillage farm income was €77,000, mainly due to artificially high prices in the international market. This year, income is expected to drop to €37,000 as prices fall and input costs rise. 

Brighter future outside of animal feed

Tillage experts, such as Andy Doyle, told us that, for the sector to survive, the State needs to support diversification into other markets. “As we look to raise economic sustainability, we look towards the industries that have expansion capability,” Doyle told us, with eyes firmly on distilleries. 

“They have been relatively proactive in trying to get a good product and to recognise the requirement of sustainability there by paying [farmers] a bit extra,” he said, also “looking with interest” to human foods. 

“There are so many different research organisations now looking towards plant protein as a source of protein,” Doyle said, pointing to research from Teagasc and Irish universities.

Teagasc sees “tremendous potential for future growth” into new markets for human consumption as sustainability targets get more ambitious. The public is also growing increasingly concerned about the climate impact of their food, alongside changing dietary habits in favour of more plant-based options. 

There is still distance to travel to bring back traditional industries such as milling for bread, however, according to Clive Carter, a tillage farmer in Co Laois and secretary of Irish Grain Growers.

“Once an industry goes, it’s very hard to get it back. We’ve lost the last of the food grade industries for the tillage sector and we’ve become very reliant on animal feed,” said Carter, who himself has successfully branched out to grow beans, gluten-free oats and grain seed on his farm in Co Laois.

This could be replicated across the sector, he said, but only with the right support to establish markets, mills and production facilities. The State has now formed a tillage stakeholder group to set out recommendations for the State to do just that. 

As its chair Matt Dempsey told farmers at Teagasc’s crops forum last month, the proof will be in the pudding as to how firmly policymakers stand behind tillage when the group’s report lands on the Agriculture Minister’s desk later this year.


Against the Grain

Part one reveals how tillage is being squeezed out by dairy land rental

Grain dispersing from a combine harvester

By Niall Sargent of Noteworthy

Noteworthy is the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform from The Journal. This investigation was proposed and funded by you, our readers, alongside direct support from our investigative fund.

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