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Opinion: Castigating farmers won’t reduce agricultural carbon emissions

Dr Stephen Onakuse says consumers and processors must also shoulder the blame for their impact on climate.

Image: Shutterstock/symbiot

Updated Dec 10th 2021, 10:33 AM

AS IT STANDS, discourse around our strategy to reduce agricultural carbon emissions has, almost exclusively, centred around telling farmers what they should do.

Worse still, the tone of the commentary surrounding the issue can often be laden with condescension, where farmers are pigeonholed as climate-denying anti-intellectuals who want to do little to limit their emissions.

For media organisations that are set on generating binary debates that drive engagement, it’s an easy narrative to construct.

Too simplistic

However, the truth rests far from jaded stereotypes and overly simplistic narratives. After all, let’s not forget that it was the state that invited farmers to invest heavily in programmes like Food Wise 2025, which seeks to increase primary production by 65%.

Additionally, in anticipation of the lifting of EU milk quotas in 2015, dairy farmers were also encouraged to expand their herds, with the number of dairy cows increasing in Ireland by 46% between 2010 and 2020.

Today, there are over 6.5 million cattle in Ireland, a reduction on the peak of 6.7 million in 2017, with a corresponding 46% increase in milk production during the last decade.
The capital required to fuel such massive growth isn’t cheap, with 64% of all dairy farmers in medium to long term debt, owing, on average, €112,476.

Consequently, many farmers are not in a position to shift from a government-sponsored growth strategy to one that promotes “stabilisation” in a short space of time. Of course, the growth strategies that the State developed, and farmers invested in, are based on anticipated consumer demand, particularly among the middle-class population that has emerged in some parts of the developing world.

However, given that 25% of all food produced globally is wasted, part of this expected demand only exists on paper. Indeed, from a climate perspective, food waste is a major issue, contributing between 8 – 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Who else is generating carbon?

In Ireland, the EPA has calculated that we generate one million tonnes of food waste per year, with households accounting for 25% of that overall figure. Such figures should make us examine the value chains that connect agricultural, industrial and domestic carbon emissions so that we can understand how they intersect and, in turn, develop strategies to reduce them.

In this sense, rather than blaming farmers for not having the appetite to aggressively tackle carbon emissions, we should be connecting the dots along these complex value chains so that we can target specific sources of emissions rather than pitting one section of society against another.

After all, farmers cease creating emissions when they sell their produce or animals to processors, who deploy various methods, including chemistry and biology, to add value to products so that they are fit for consumption. In those processes, many GHG emission activities take place before other actors along the chain like transportation companies, retailers and consumers all add their share.

To put it another way, rather than pointing our fingers at farmers, we need to start looking at the symbiotic relationships that exist between farm and fork in order to tackle agricultural emissions in a sustainable way.

This means working both ends of the problem and meeting somewhere in the middle. For farmers, that might ultimately mean a reduction in the size of their herds as consumers begin to reduce their waste.

In this scenario, profit-driven processors would need to adapt to a new reality in which they are being squeezed at both ends of the value chain. It would be a radically different environment to the one in which we operate today, where processors undervalue the work of farmers and oversell their products to consumers.

Tackling emissions

On paper, at least, this reads like a more equitable way of tackling agricultural emissions. However, as we are all aware, real change is difficult to achieve, particularly if you have to bring together stakeholders that range from small farmers to multinational corporations.

As such, solving the climate crisis isn’t just about developing solutions that benefit one group over another, it’s about questioning how we allocate resources along the value chain so that we strike a balance between farmers, processors and consumers.

Otherwise, we risk creating overly financialised emission strategies that monetise their implementation by rewarding specific sectors. In turn, this could leave farmers and consumers behind as processors reap the financial benefits that arise from achieving greater carbon efficiency.

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Embarking on that path will ferment greater tension between each of the actors along the value chain and make it very difficult to precisely forecast what kind of impact the climate crises will have on our food security.

Dr Stephen Onakuse is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Food Business and Development, Cork University Business School, University College Cork and the President of Agrinatura.

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