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climate action

‘A cold lesson for farmers’: Panelists say agriculture must lower emissions but sector needs support

The Journal hosted a panel in Athlone this evening to discuss COP26 and Ireland’s role in climate action. / YouTube

THE AGRICULTURE SECTOR must lower its emissions to meet climate targets, experts have said, but its workers need to be supported along the way.

At a live event hosted by The Journal, MEP Grace O’Sullivan said that a swerve in agricultural policies have dealt a “very hard and cold lesson for farmers”.

Climate expert Peter Thorne emphasised that although more than a third of emissions come from the agriculture sector, that means the other two-thirds do not – and other sections of society shouldn’t think they can “wash their hands” of it.

As part of The Good Information Project’s cycle on climate, The Journal hosted a panel discussion in Athlone and over a livestream this evening to discuss COP26 and Ireland’s role in climate action.

DCU Professor David Robbins, an expert in the media and climate, led the conversation with climatologist Professor Peter Thorne, MEPs Grace O’Sullivan and Colm Markey, and campaigner Dr Deirdre Duff.

On agriculture, a key – but divisive – sector in climate conversations, most of the panelists believed that significant action is needed to reduce emissions, but that farmers have been let down by the government in the shift away from previous national and European policies.

Thorne, the director of Maynooth University’s ICARUS research centre on climate, said that his “biggest fear is that the conversation [on climate action] becomes all about the farming sector”.

“It is absolutely critical to note that agriculture in totality is about 30 to 35% of our emissions. If the conversation becomes on a sustained basis, all about agriculture, everyone else thinks,‘right I can wash my hands of this, it’s all about agriculture, the farmers get on with it’ – absolutely not,” he said.

“65% of our emissions, the majority of our emissions, is not from the agriculture sector. So let’s have a conversation about those because those are going to be equally challenging.”

He said the number of cows in Ireland should be reduced, but not as a policy in itself -instead, it should happen as the consequence of policies that “lead to that being the logical choice of the farming community by that policy and niche markets providing alternative means of income for the farming community”.

Similarly, Grace O’Sullivan said she think it has been “very difficult for farmers who have, because of policy – not only national, but European policy, the Common Agricultural Policy, that was pushing towards production at any cost, and the cost we see is the cost of people and the cost of planet so that’s a very hard and cold lesson for the farmers”.

“I agree we need to diversify in terms of farming and food production and I also think we need to acknowledge the role and the contribution that farmers and fishers make in producing good food,” she said.

Agriculture is the sector with the highest greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland, making up 35% of national emissions, followed by transport at 20%.

Of agriculture’s emissions, cattle account for almost all of them at around 85%. 

The Climate Change Advisory Council, a panel of climate experts, has advised that reducing the number of cows in Ireland would have a substantial impact in reducing emissions.  

Deirdre Duff echoed that we “can’t blame farmers for having followed the policies that were directing them towards more – more dairy, more beef”.

I think by pushing for policies that are so focused on expansion, we’re in denial that we need to look at herd levels. Nobody is saying we need to cull the national herd – that inflammatory language isn’t helpful at all – but we do need to gradually phase down on the numbers.

“If we’re kind of deluding ourselves that we can kind of engineer our way out of this without reducing numbers gradually and without diversifying, we’re just letting down farmers because it’s mixed messaging if the policies are going one way and where we need to be is going another way.

However, Colm Markey, the former President of Macra na Feirme, said that he believes that change in the agriculture sector is about reducing methane emissions and not “the national herd”

Markey said that we should “focus on the science of how we can find solutions in every sector”.

He pointed to measures such as more efficient use of fertilisers, saying he thinks it’s about methane, not “the national herd”.

“The reality is, we have to reduce our methane, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s ways we can do it by reducing the level of methane within the system, as opposed to this kind of ideology of it’s all about a herd cut,” he said.

“If we believe in science, we believe in research and what we can achieve, by more precision agriculture, by feed additives, by genetics by getting efficiency in terms of a more productivity within the system, the footprint of meeting can be reduced.

“If we can have short supply chains, get greater efficiencies in the system, use the research that we have, I think that’s the road to go, rather than getting caught up in an ideological debate around whether or not we need herd cuts.” 

At a European level, the EU is trying to cut emissions in half by 2030, but they should be trying for zero emissions, Duff said.

She said that “Europe has polluted so much for so long” and it needs to “act a lot quicker than poorer countries who on a historical level have contributed practically nothing”.

Thorne believes the target is “simultaneously too much and not enough” because it’s both challenging to achieve but crucial.

“It’s hugely challenging, it’s nothing short of a revolution in how we live,” Thorne said, but there “will be many positive benefits”.

“We should have started in 1980 when we knew there was a problem – we would have been able to make gradual changes.”

O’ Sullivan said that committing climate finance to developing countries – are following through with it – is key.

“We have to see it happening… This is where we really have to have the legally binding targets and say enough of the blah blah blah.” 

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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