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'They're telling us the herd needs to be reduced by 50%': Ireland's farmers and the climate crisis

Beef farmers in Ireland are facing low prices and pressure to reduce emissions – Is the model broken?

The number of cows in Ireland is the subject of great debate.
The number of cows in Ireland is the subject of great debate.
Image: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

SEAN GORMLEY IS a suckler and sheep farmer with about 75 hectares of farmland not far from in south Roscommon, not far from Athlone.

On a bright afternoon earlier this month he took TheJournal.ie through his fields, spread out across the countryside. Gormley is a 5th generation farmer – his family has been on the lands for well over 100 years.

He has a herd of 50 cattle and about 200 sheep and Gormley works long, hard hours to ensure his herd is well looked after, especially during calving and lamb season in the spring.

Farming is in Gormley’s blood and he is passionate about the land. But in recent years he said he has found it almost impossible to make a living. 

“At the moment we’re getting squeezed left right and centre. We’re not getting any support from the minister or we’re not getting any support from the main lobbying organisation in this country,” Gormley said. 

We wouldn’t be that optimistic about the future. It’s nearly becoming a thing where you need a good job to support the farm. It’s just not viable to farm on its own.

Gormley got involved with the ongoing Beef Plan movement earlier this year, protesting and picketing meat processing factories, calling for a better price for their beef. 

IMG_5029 Some of Gormley's herd in on his farm. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

“We’re basically getting screwed over by the factories and retailers and we’ve had enough,” Gormley said. 

Adding to farmers worries are concerns over the impact Brexit will have on the industry, as well as concerns over cheaper South American beef hitting the country as a result of a recent trade deal. 

But there’s another overarching issue facing traditional beef farmers as they protest over their livelihoods: climate change and the need for Ireland to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to play its part in averting worldwide climate catastrophe.

“They’re telling us the suckler herd needs to be reduced by 53%,” said Gormley, referencing a recent report from the Climate Change Advisory Committee. 

“They say it’s because of the emissions from the suckler cow but we’re not believing that. Surely a dairy cow is going to emit similar?” he said. 

It looks like we’re being squeezed out to make room for more dairy. Basically that looks like what they’re doing. 

image Sean with some of his cows. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

How does agriculture affect the climate?

The agricultural sector is the single biggest emitter of planet warming greenhouse gases in Ireland. In 2017, agriculture was responsible for emitting over 20 Mt CO2eq (million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent) into the Earth’s atmosphere. 

This was a third (33%) of all of the country’s GHG emissions that year. This differs from most other countries in Europe (where emissions from agriculture are closer to 10%). 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) predicts that emissions from agriculture will continue to grow to 2020 and 2030, mostly as a result of increasing dairy herd numbers. 

Reducing these emissions so that Ireland can meet its international goals is seen as a particular challenge, especially since government policy forecasts increasing agri-food output over the next decade.  

Food Wise 2025 – the 10 year plan for the agri-food sector – has commitments of increasing production by 65% and food exports by 85% (€19 billion) over 10 years.  

Environmentalists say that this contradicts the country’s goal to reduce our overall emissions. 

Emissions from agriculture come from a mixture of different sources including the use of fertiliser and animal waste.

But the majority (over half of all emissions from agriculture) come, in simple terms, from cows belching, or more specifically from the process of enteric fermentation. 

Cows and sheep are animals called ruminants, and enteric fermentation is the process by which they ferment food (for example, grass) in one of their stomachs. This process releases the chemical methane (CH4) as a byproduct. 

shutterstock_10776367 Cows belching is the leading cause of GHG emissions from agriculture. Source: Shutterstock/leonardo_da_gressignano

Methane is a greenhouse gas (like CO2) that has the potential to trap heat in the atmosphere. It doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere when released, but is significantly more potent over its lifetime in trapping heat than CO2.

The increasing number of cattle in Irish agriculture leads to more methane being released into the atmosphere. Other GHG chemicals like nitrous oxide (N2O) also come from our agricultural sector. 

N2O has a global warming potential 298 times greater than carbon dioxide, and is released mainly from the fertiliser used in farming.

Farming in Ireland 

Agriculture has always played a huge part in Irish society, with many families and communities entirely dependent on it for their livelihoods throughout the country. 

According to the most recent Census, there were about 137,500 farms in Ireland in 2016. CSO figures show that there were 265,400 people employed in the sector, with over 90% of those employed either the farm owner or a family member. 

The agri-food sector (the commercial production of food by farming) provided about 8.5% of national employment in 2016, and generated €13.9 billion to the Irish economy.

The sector is massively dominated by beef and dairy farming. 

Latest figures from December 2018 show that there were just under 6.6 million cattle in Ireland, a slight decrease on 2017 numbers. The country had some 3.8 million sheep and close to 1.6 million pigs. 

Despite a slight decrease between 2017 and last year, in general the national herd has risen over the past five years. This is being attributed to an increase in cattle for dairy. In 2015, EU imposed milk quotas were abolished which has led to milk output being significantly ramped up. 

A committee of TDs and senators found earlier this year that this specialisation in beef and dairy has lead to reductions in biodiversity (variety of plant and animal life), soil fertility and the quality of Ireland’s waterways, as more land is taken up by grass and grazing cattle.  

Irish beef and dairy is a grass-based system meaning our cows primarily rely on grass as food and generally graze in fields outside for about 10 months of the year.

About 84% of agricultural land in Ireland is devoted to grass, with about 9% allocated to cereal and other crop production.

According to CSO figures, in 2017 Ireland imported a large portion of fruit and vegetables including:

  • 72,000 tonnes of potatoes 
  • 47,000 tonnes of onions
  • 29,000 tonnes of tomatoes 
  • 23,000 of cabbage 
  • 15,000 tonnes of lettuce

The sacred cow 

Environmentalists argue that Ireland’s agricultural sector – geared as it is towards maximising meat and dairy exports – is doing huge damage to the countryside as well as contributing massively to our greenhouse gas emissions.

img_1345-1 Source: Michael Kelly

“I think that the dairy herd has really been prioritised by the government to the detriment of the beef herd but similarly we do need to see a herd reduction,” said Saoirse McHugh, recent Green Party candidate in the European elections. 

McHugh said she’s wary of simply calling for reduction in herd numbers, as she feels that environmentalists are generally positioned as being in opposition to farmers.   

“I don’t feel that’s the case. I think most farmers do know there’s no real line between farming and the environment – it’s not one or the other.

I think the real line is between profit driven export and the environment. 

Unlike with peat or fossil fuel burning, which has been well flagged as a source of emissions that needs to be dealt with, agriculture and the size of the national herd has always been more of a sacred cow in Ireland.

Many TDs and lobby groups refuse to call for or entertain a reduction in cattle numbers to tackle climate breakdown. In its final report, the Oireachtas Climate Action Committee stated that there was a need for “a more diversified, resilient, sustainable and equitable model for Irish agriculture”, but it did not call for a reduction the national herd. 

The government – including Agriculture Minister Michael Creed – steer clear of any mentions of herd reductions, as do the majority of the opposition. 

“I do not accept the media and politicians blaming people in the agricultural sector,” Roscommon South Leitrim TD and farmer Michael Fitzmaurice told the Dáil in June during debates around the government Climate Action Plan.

90414269_90414269 Michael Fitzmaurice (right) said that rural Ireland was becoming a victim of environmental policy. Source: RollingNews.ie

“We are told that everything needs to be culled. When it comes to traditional farmers and family farms, successive Governments down through the years have promoted the return of landlordism, driving people into the cities,” he said.

Let us look at where we were and at where we should go.

Like Sean Gormley – who feels as though he and his fellow suckler farmers are being pushed out to make room for more dairy cattle – lobby groups like the Irish Farm Association (IFA), the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association (ICSA) respond negatively to any calls to reduce the national herd.

Last month, the Climate Change Advisory Council annual review found that Ireland was completely off course in achieving its 2020 and 2030 GHG emission reduction targets. 

Chair of the Council, Professor John FitzGerald, stated that:

Reduction of the suckler herd would make an important and cost-effective contribution to mitigation, could support alternative land uses, such as afforestation, raise farm incomes and reduce exposure of the sector to external market shocks.

The reaction from the IFA and other lobby groups to this suggestion was overwhelmingly negative:

“Our farmers are amongst the most carbon efficient food producers in the world, because of our grass-based model of food production,” said IFA president Joe Healy.

Reducing the Irish suckler herd will result in an increase in global emissions, as beef would be produced in countries with less sustainable systems.

This was similar to when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said back in January that he was trying to eat less meat to lower his carbon footprint. 

The Taoiseach came in for criticism from the opposition and farming lobbies, prompting him to row back and say that he wasn’t going vegan any time soon.

The environmental damage of livestock

The calls or statements around reducing the number of cows aren’t confined to Ireland, but part of a wider global conversation about the need to shift how we as a planet grow and consume food in order to respond to climate change and biodiversity destruction. 

In its recent report on worldwide climate change and land, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) painted a bleak picture:

Climate change is threatening the world’s food supply at the same time that the way we produce food is fuelling global warming. It warned that efforts to limit global warming could be wrecked without swift and sweeping changes to how we use the land we live off.

The report found that across the world as much as 37% of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and food production. Meanwhile, about 70% world’s ice-free land is now affected by human activity.

The UN experts found that more people could be fed using less land if individuals cut down on eating meat, moving towards a more plant-based diet (but they stopped short of saying people needed to become vegan or vegetarian). 

“We’re not telling people to stop eating meat. In some places people have no other choice. But it’s obvious that in the West we’re eating far too much,” Professor Pete Smith of Aberdeen University said as the report was launched. 

The IPCC follows on from a number of reports in recent years which all point towards the need to reduce meat consumption across the world

The landmark EAT Lancet report which was released at the beginning of the year devised a way to provide sustainable, nutritious food to the world’s population while tackling the effects of climate change.

shutterstock_323137355 Consumption of meat in rich nations must fall in order to tackle climate change, several reports have warned. Source: Shutterstock/IvanRiver

The report authors state that the way we eat food must “change dramatically” by 2050 to avoid potentially catastrophic damage to the planet. 

Scientists recommend that the consumption of red meat and sugar around the world should halve by 2050, and that the consumption of nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes should double.

A third report released in October of last year and published in the journal Nature said that huge reductions in the amount of meat we eat was needed.

It found that in rich nations people would have to cut their beef intake by 90% and their milk intake by 60% in order to avert climate catastrophe. 

None of these reports or calls were met favourably by the major farming or dairy or beef lobbies:

“We won’t be getting rid of our livestock. We produce the best food in the world, naturally, from animals grazing in fields,” Joe Healy said at the IFA AGM in January. 

We won’t be driven off the land by keyboard warriors, quacks or lifestyle gurus. We are proud to be farmers and we are here to stay.

But it is not just environmentalists and scientists sounding the calls. In Ireland – and across the developed world – vegan and vegetarian diets are on the rise, while consumption of meat and dairy is dropping.

Bord Bia estimated last year that 8% of the Irish population are now vegetarian, while 2% are vegan. Increasing numbers are also limiting meat or dairy in their diets. 

According to the National Dairy Council (NDC), 41% of Irish women and 30% of Irish men are now avoiding or limiting their dairy consumption, with one in 10 believing that cow’s milk is unhealthy. 

shutterstock_621976397 Vegetarian and reduced meat consumption diets are on the rise in Ireland and other countries. Source: Shutterstock/Adisa

Adapting to climate change  

The IFA and farmers across the country recognise the need to reduce emissions from agriculture, there are just vastly different opinions on how this can be achieved.

Last year, Teagasc – the Agriculture and Food Development Authority – published a document which found that GHG emissions in Irish agriculture were set to increase over the period from 2021 to 2030. 

The report identified a total of 28 different abatement (mitigation) measures that could be carried out to reduce emissions. These measures have been flagged by government and the IFA as the roadmap towards reducing Ireland’s emissions from agriculture.  

“Irish farmers are engaged in climate action. We have very efficient food production systems in Ireland from a climate perspective,” the IFA’s Joe Healy said earlier this year.  

We are the most carbon efficient dairy producer in Europe and amongst the top five in beef. It’s important that this sustainable production is not restricted, as it would lead to increased international climate emissions

Among other measures identified by Teagasc, a range of genetic improvements to cattle and technological improvements on farms, as well as changes fertiliser type, better use of land and increased afforestation (growing trees or forests) to soak up carbon from the atmosphere were identified. 

According to Teagasc, these measures if implemented could save 6.19 million tonnes of carbon every year from the atmosphere. 

Other schemes aim to incentivise farmers to be more environmentally conscious. One such scheme – Glas – involves paying farmers carry out a number of ‘green’ measures, like protect habitats, have bird a bee boxes and carry out low emission slurry spreading (among other measures).

But environmentalists say that these measures are nowhere near enough to significantly reduce our GHG emissions in line with global targets, and agree with the Climate Change Advisory Council that a reduction in the nation herd and increased diversification of what we farm is needed.

Mercosur and the environment

Sean Gormley has hedgerows planted along borders of his fields and has boxes for bees to make hives. 

“I would be conscious of the environment. I know we have to protect the environment as best we can,” he said.

We’re in Glas and we have bird boxes up and things for the bees. We wouldn’t be going out with much spray on the land or things like that.

He said said that he and other farmers are being encouraged to plant trees on their land and move into agri-forestry but that he feels his land is of too good quality.

“I’d sooner be going out looking at a lamb or a sheep or a calf growing and getting bigger than going looking at a tree getting bigger,” he said.

sheep Sean working feeding the sheep on his farm. Source: cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

Gormley – like many of the farmers in the Beef Plan and wider sector – sees a glaring contradiction in the government (and EU) putting a focus on reducing emissions while also agreeing to a deal which will increase beef imports from South America.

The Mercosur trade deal – agreed last month – could see 99,000 tonnes of beef per year coming into the EU, at a time when beef prices are hitting the floor.

Both farmers and environmentalists agree that importing beef from countries like Brazil would be supporting an agricultural industry that is partly responsible for mass deforestation in the Amazon, one of the world’s most important carbon sinks (area that absorbs GHG carbon from the atmosphere).   

Recent wildfires across the Amazon have brought this problem into sharp focus, with the opposition coming out to condemn the government and EU for allowing the deal to go ahead. 

“The Mercosur trade deal is bad for Ireland and is a blatant example of climate hypocrisy,” Sinn Féin climate spokesperson David Cullinane said.

It also represents a sell-out of Irish farmers and all of the main farming organisations across the island have consistently opposed this deal because of the serious impact it will have on Irish agriculture. 

Leo Varadkar has also threatened that Ireland will vote against the controversial deal unless Brazil takes steps to protect the Amazon.

brazil-amazon-fires A fire burns in highway margins in the city of Porto Velho, Rondonia state, part of Brazil's Amazon. Source: AP/PA Images

Better because it’s Irish?  

Irish farmers and lobby groups generally point to the fact that the country produces grass-fed beef, which they say is of a higher quality and more environmentally friendly than beef produced in other areas.

While the country’s livestock is primarily grass-fed, Ireland still imported over four million tonnes of cattle feed last year to make up for shortfalls in grass during winter, when cows are kept inside. 

It is also of then stated that the country is proven to be the the most efficient producer of dairy products in Europe and the fifth most efficient beef producer in Europe. 

The study used to back this up is from a 2010 European Commission report based on data from 2004. However other studies have put Ireland as one of the most carbon-intensive beef producers in Europe and the third most intensive dairy producer.

Earlier this year, An Táisce used data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model (GLEAM) to show that Ireland was the most carbon-intensive producer of beef and third most carbon intensive producer of dairy in the EU.

(However the FAO said that the data should not be used to compare different countries, and the Department of Agriculture has disputed the report) 

As well as this, a 2017 report from the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture found that Ireland has the least carbon efficient agricultural sector in Ireland. 

“We’re sold the impression that we’re producing something head and shoulders above other beef but the price isn’t indicating that,” said Pippa Hackett, Green Party agriculture spokesperson. 

“You have to question the type of beef we produce and why it isn’t commanding a better price.

So I think I there was a definite shift away from that particular model of production you would see quite significant changes in emissions, environmental outcomes and indeed farmer incomes.

Hackett – herself a suckler farmer – said that more incentives were needed to encourage farmers to improve sustainability on their lands.  

Beef Plan farmers and meat processing plants have so far failed to reach any agreement on prices, with vice-chairman of the movement Hugh Doyle saying this week that 98% of its members were “disgusted” with the outcome of the talks.

Moving away from tradition 

The issues facing traditional suckler farmers are numerous, but there is a growing movement ecologically conscious farmers exploring different ways of producing meat, dairy and other food products in a way that is local and environmentally sustainable. 

Regenerative farming is the heading under which people with diverse views are grouped. But most have a belief in a system of agriculture that increases biodiversity and improves ecosystems.

Sinead Moran and her partner Mick farm a mixed herd of cattle and chickens on 27 acres in high quality land on their Gleann Buí farm in Mayo.

At the moment they have a herd of twelve 100% grass-fed cows and will begin producing and selling raw milk and dairy products locally from next year. 

“Before that we would have been a traditional suckler farm – that’s what it is in the west of Ireland, particularly at our scale,” Moran told TheJournal.ie. 

But the couple found that it was impossible for them to make money within that system.

“Even though our weights were really good… they weren’t good enough if we hadn’t fed them a grain because being a part of that suckler farm meant we were part of the industrial system,” she said. 

IMG_3174_result Cows grazing on the Gleann Buí farm. Source: Sinead Moran

Moran has a Masters degree in Climate Change, Agriculture & Food Systems and is passionate about the land and ensuring their farm is fully sustainable and works with the environment. 

For Moran, the food that we buy in supermarkets and that ends up on our plate has become separated in our minds with farming and production. 

“Sometimes when you have a conversation about farming it comes away from food. We forget at the end of the day that the whole point of the farming is food,” she said. 

I always say it’s simple: when we buy cheap food someone somewhere has paid for that. 

In the context of rising global GHG emissions and the ongoing biodiversity crisis in Ireland and across the world, Moran sees agriculture at a crossroads of continuing on the same path, towards more specialisation and industrial food production, or towards a more local model. 

“Do we begin to kind of pull the brakes on that and look at feeding ourselves and our communities and within that you’re feeding the global community,” she said. 

Because at the end of the day each and every one of us is local to somewhere and if a local farmer can feed you then they’re feeding the world.

Back in south Roscommon, Sean Gormley is worried about the future of his farm and the livelihood that his family has maintained for generations.

“I have a young lad, he’s 17 and I’d like to pass the farm onto him,” he said.

“As I say, we’re only really minding the farm for the next generation. We want to pass it on to the next generation and we want to leave it in a better shape than we got it. 

“But we’ll be telling the young lad that he’ll have to get a good job along with the farm be able to rear a family.

I’m very worried about the future of the farm… I love what I’m doing… but at the moment the future doesn’t look to bright. So hopefully something will come along to change that.  

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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