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VOICES

Farmer 'We're in danger of becoming the climate scapegoats for fossil fuel interests'

Farmers are not the biggest offenders when it comes to climate change, but they’re taking all the heat, writes Thomas Duffy.

THE FARMER LIVES in a world of competing demands. With eight billion mouths to feed yet a need to reduce the environmental impacts, it can make for quite the conflict.

Droughts, floods, crop failure and animal disease are all what farmers are facing more due to the effects of climate change.

In addition to being one of the most vulnerable sectors to climate change, agriculture is also the most at risk from poorly designed climate policies. This is the first time agriculture has been a primary topic of discussion at COP28. This focus on agricultural emissions is hardly likely to be a coincidence given the efforts by the host Dubai to take the focus away from the burning of fossil fuels, in particular their main export: oil.

There is no doubt agriculture will need to adapt to climate change while reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) rapidly, on the front line of that will be farmers, large and small. Fears are raging among farmers though that we will only become the scapegoats for multi-billion euro fossil fuel interests.

Making this work

The question is perpetual on how best to cut emissions from agriculture. Unlike other sectors where the move from fossil fuels to other sources is challenging but relatively straightforward, agriculture does not have ‘electric car’ solution. Nor do we have the luxury of simply cutting output. We are farmers who need to make a living.

Populations are predicted to rise to 9.7 billion by 2050 at the same time as more land is needed to either be returned to nature or protected from agricultural conversion if species decline is to be slowed or stopped. Instead, a range of measures are needed to address methane mostly from livestock and rice, nitrous oxide from fertiliser and soils and carbon dioxide losses from soil erosion and drainage of peat soils.

However, funding these measures is perhaps the most difficult part of the question. Despite the Common Agricultural Policy being the main source of subsidies to farmers and in theory, the best way to stimulate the transition, it has not even kept pace with inflation. Instead, payments to farmers have stagnated at 2002 levels, all the while the demands of EU citizens have grown.

Not displacing food production has led some to conclude the private market and ‘carbon farming’ may be a suitable alternative funding source.

This raises fears that rather than a genuine cut, fossil fuel interests again will simply try to conceal their emissions through ‘offsets’ rather than make the difficult but necessary cuts needed to keep within safe boundaries. The importance of COP28 to Irish farmers is shown by the fact two farm leaders made the journey to Dubai; Macra President Elaine Houlihan and IFA President Tim Cullinane.

COP28

On Sunday COP hosted its first full day on ‘Food, agriculture and water’ with Ireland front and centre including the Agricultural Minister Charlie McConalogue co-hosting an event on innovation for climate action. This drew criticism from some sections as Ireland has such a large cattle herd, which some argue is incompatible with ‘sustainability’ or climate ambition.

Amongst the farming community, other criticisms were levied, notably whether the government funding is enough to secure the transition to reduce greenhouse gases and meeting the sector’s 25% cut by 2030.

Ireland is certainly an outlier among developed countries for the percentage of emissions from agriculture (38.4% in 2022), with only New Zealand exceeding the percentage with agriculture representing 50% of their domestic emissions. Both countries have large national herds, however, the reality has far more to do with our shared lack of heavy industry taking up higher percentages of national greenhouse gases (GHGs).

dubai-united-arab-emirates-01st-dec-2023-heads-of-states-arrive-dor-the-opening-session-of-worlds-leaders-summit-during-the-cop28-un-climate-change-conference-held-by-unfccc-in-dubai-exhibition Dubai, United Arab Emirates. 01st Dec, 2023. Heads of states arrive for the opening session of COP28. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Indeed, at the global level, agriculture represents a far lower percentage of emissions despite half the world’s population being involved directly or indirectly in food production. Depending on the analysis, agricultural GHGs including land use change represent approximately 18% of pre-Covid emissions presenting 9.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent whereas energy use, including transport, represents 73% of global emissions.

Ireland’s outlier status also makes it an ideal place for climate-friendly food transitions. With a highly educated farming community, Ireland ranks in joint first with France for the level of young farmer educational attainment, alongside an advisory system with good integration with research and education in the form of the semi-state authority Teagasc.

Efficiency gains will not be sufficient though to make emissions reduction targets, not least because a grass-based system makes us already one of the lowest in GHG per kg of product. Instead, Ireland is hoping to improve the climate impact of farming through a mix of genetic improvements, anaerobic digestion for a renewable replacement for fossil fuel gas and cutting inputs of synthetic nitrogen. Additional efforts to reach the 25% target set by government includes developing methane suppressants suitable for grazing, existing ones work only while cattle are housed, and increasing the sequestration of carbon.

The misinformation problem

Climate misinformation is hardly unusual for any sector these days. The internet is filled with myths about electric cars, wind turbines and forestry, but again farmers are a little unique in having misinformation targeted at them and about them.

On the one side, many farmers are targeted by online misinformation spreaders and as of late across Europe politicians hoping to play on an anti-green feeling.

Myths often repeated in online farming groups include exaggeration of carbon sequestration in soils, underestimation or exclusion of GHG related to farming and the persistent misrepresentation of methane, an admittedly complex topic, as making it irrelevant to climate change.

More traditional forms of misinformation are present but rarer, such as myths that temperatures and weather patterns haven’t changed, a more difficult thing to spread given farmers note changes in climatic cycles especially the increase in drought.

While farmers are often targeted for misinformation they are also victims of it. Most notably when it comes to inaccurate assessments of livestock emissions. Frequently, media outlets will compare livestock products to coal for emissions intensity, but this both overplays the significance of livestock and underplays the destructive nature of coal. From sub-Saharan subsistence farmers to modern Irish dairy farmers, livestock emissions total 6.2 billion tonnes CO2eq, which includes both meat and dairy, eggs and draught animals. In contrast, coal combustion contributes 15 billion tonnes a year.

Despite this, pop culture often equates the challenge of reducing meat consumption to weaning off fossil fuels. One of the most popular and influential examples is the notorious ‘Cowspiracy’ found on Netflix.

This program falsely presented the figure of livestock being responsible for 51% of all emissions alongside more accurate assessments of 14.5%. The figure of 51%, unlike the 14.5% used by IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), was created by a US think-tank and never published in peer review.

cowspiracy-the-sustainability-secret-poster-2014-netflix-courtesy-everett-collection COWSPIRACY: THE SUSTAINABILITY SECRET, poster, 2014. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The issue then becomes for farmers not only who to trust but whether they will get the credit if they do improve and make the cuts. My own farm has cut emissions by approximately 25% over the last three years, with aims to cut further without impacting yield. Unfortunately, right now none of those improvements have earned me an extra cent, with substantial costs in some areas.

Thomas Duffy farms in partnership with his parents and sister in Co. Cavan. He is the former President of Macra na Feirme and former Vice President of CEJA, the Council of European Young Farmers.

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