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Charlie McConalogue: Farming and climate ambitions can co-exist

The agriculture minister says he’s confident Irish farmers will embrace climate change policies that are needed to tackle the climate crisis.

Charlie McConalogue

CLIMATE CHANGE IS one of the defining challenges of our times, with broad consensus among citizens that urgent action is needed. There is less consensus, perhaps, on the actions that need to be taken to mitigate climate change.

Unfortunately, however, the debate around climate change mitigation often generates more heat than light. It is an almost universal truth that those with views that are polarised on any issue think that right is on their side. Neither sincerity nor passion are in short supply.

For policymakers, navigating the complexities of a subject like climate change requires an honest and objective assessment of the available science. It also requires an understanding of a much broader range of issues.

Policies for all

Where policies involve significant change affecting real people, then human behaviour and sentiment, economic impacts, including on a micro level, and values and vision, are also a vital part of the complex web of policy consideration.

After all, the purpose of public policy is to improve the lives of our people and make our country a better place to live. That means that responding effectively to the climate emergency must be a shared objective.

The challenge around the impact of agriculture on the environment is a perfect example of an issue where all of these considerations are front and centre. The world needs food and Ireland is the sustainable food capital of the world.

The need for sustainable food production is a priority in international policy instruments from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to the IPPC Report on Climate Change.

Irish farmers are world-class and make an extraordinary contribution to the Irish economy, to rural communities and to employment. They supply world class food and raw materials to people all over the globe.

That’s not just rhetoric – that is fact.

The €8.2bn in farm gate output, the €14.2bn in agri food exports to over 180 countries, and the 163,000 agri food jobs in rural Ireland, demonstrate all of that. And, uniquely, farmers can provide a range of ecosystem services that can contribute positively to addressing environmental challenges.

Adapting to change

Farmers are dynamic and innovative – they are adapters and adopters. They have embraced new technologies in areas like animal breeding, soil management and the environment and invested in a variety of innovations in machinery and equipment.

I feel there needs to be a greater recognition that, at an international level, Ireland produces food in a way that is leading the world in terms of sustainability.

Since 2015, with assistance from my Department, Irish farmers have invested approximately €92m in Low Emissions Slurry Spreading (LESS) Equipment. They have embraced environmental action, with more than 55,000 farmers participating in programmes and measures that improve water quality, biodiversity and climate efficiency.

Many of our farmers are also members of the quality assurance schemes which underpin Origin Green’s sustainability credentials.

Their work has shaped the landscape in all of its variety, from lowland pastures to woodlands and uplands, which make Ireland an especially beautiful place in which to live, work and visit. Irish livestock reared on grasslands are among the most natural and carbon-efficient in the world.

I am extremely proud of what our farmers contribute to our country.

Nonetheless, climate change, the loss of biodiversity and water quality are among the great challenges of our time, not just in Ireland but globally. The truth is that if these challenges are to be tackled, every country must make a contribution.

Crucially, every sector must also make a contribution – the narrative that somehow agriculture is the sole source of emissions is absolutely wrong and dominates far too much of the conversation.

What the objective analysis of the EPA tells us in successive annual reports, is that while the environment in Ireland is generally good, critical metrics on greenhouse gas emissions, on water quality, on air quality and on biodiversity are heading in the wrong direction.

Agriculture contributed to this but is, as I said, not the sole cause.

One of many contributors

This is not a value judgement on agriculture, nor has Government policy picked agriculture out for singular attention. Other sectors such as transport, industry and the built environment have all been challenged to reduce emissions and improve environmental performance.

It is clear that the next Climate Action Plan will have to be more ambitious if Ireland is to achieve its targets for 2030, and that agriculture, along with every other sector, will make its contribution.

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We will of course need to improve our understanding of the sequestration potential of Irish farmland, and that work is underway, but we also need to reduce absolute emissions from agriculture. There is no denying this and it will be challenging.

The truth is that agriculture, like every sector, will have to make significant changes over the next decade and beyond. Farmers are up for that challenge because they are true pioneers in this area. I don’t know of a single farmer who does not want to contribute positively to the environment by reducing emissions, improving water quality and enriching biodiversity on their farms, nor do I know of a single farmer who will be encouraged to do so by a narrative that demonises or patronises.

Farmers need to be confident that they will be supported, financially and in other ways, in their efforts, not just by Government, but also by operators all along the supply chain, and by consumers and citizens.

They need to know that they can make a decent return from their farm enterprise and that their value to society and the economy, which is indisputable, continues to be acknowledged.

The challenge is to ensure that we create a policy and commercial framework that meets these complex objectives, so that Irish farmers can continue to produce world-class food, support economic and social development, care for the landscape and improve the environment in the decades ahead.

Charlie McConalogue is Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Fianna Fáil TD for Donegal.

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Charlie McConalogue

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