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John Gibbons In climate policy, agri-lobbyists are the tail wagging the government's dog

Our columnist says that agriculture lobbying has more power relative to the industry’s size.

IS THERE A stranger job in Irish politics than being Agriculture Minister?

Most senior government ministers get to set policy, frame legislation and have regulatory oversight of the sector their ministry is responsible. Within normal limits, the minister calls the shots.

Except in agriculture. Here, the role of the minister is often reduced to being one of a courier or emissary, shuttling instructions from agri-lobbyists to and from the government. Consider the Kafkaesque exchange between agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue to Climate Minister Eamon Ryan.

McConalogue warned Ryan that setting what he described as “impossible” emissions cuts targets for agriculture would undermine the sector’s “well-established green image”, as revealed to Noteworthy by the Department of Agriculture.

If failing to achieve an actual “green” target undermines your image, the problem, I would suggest, lies with your image in the first place.

The Irish taxpayer has ploughed tens of millions of euro into developing and promoting the ‘Origin Green’ branding for Irish food. The problem is that in the years in which this branding was being rolled out and heavily promoted, emissions and pollution from the livestock sector in particular have been spiralling. The “well established green image” is in reality a marketing mirage.

Despite the ‘Origin Green’ branding, Ireland has the second lowest percentage of land farmed organically in the EU, while barely one percent of Irish farmland is used to grow vegetables, the lowest percentage in the EU. Any country serious about its “green” credentials would invest heavily in organics, but in Ireland it remains a Cinderella sector.

As this week’s emissions report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed, agriculture is now by far the largest single source of carbon pollution, accounting for 37.5% of total national emissions.

This rose in 2020 and again in 2021, driven by a 5.8% increase in chemical fertiliser usage, a 2.8% increase in dairy cattle numbers and a 5.5% more milk.

The rapid expansion in Ireland’s dairy herd in the last decade is an absolute outlier in Europe, where concerns about both pollution and emissions have seen governments push to shrink dairy herds.

Last December, the Dutch government announced a €25 billion plan to sharply reduce the number of livestock in the country and the resultant overload of animal manures. This has triggered an angry backlash from some farmers, with street blockades and conflicts with the police.

The Dutch decision followed a court ruling in 2019 that found the government was breaking EU law by failing to reduce excess nitrogen in sensitive natural areas, as a result mainly of intensive agriculture activities. Belgium, Denmark and Germany are understood to also be considering similar actions.

An EPA report published last July found excessive nitrogen levels in 47% of Irish rivers and 25% of groundwater. Water quality is threatened by high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus arising from agriculture and to a lesser extent, waste water. Given the latest increase in the use of chemical nitrogen in 2021, this situation is likely to have further deteriorated.

On the other side of the world, New Zealand also has a vast livestock herd, with dairy exports earning over $16 billion a year. However, a study from Victoria University calculated that the cost of remediating the environmental damage done to New Zealand could be up to $15 billion, in other words, almost as much as the entire sector’s earnings. 

The New Zealand Ministry for the Environment estimates it costs $10.7 billion to remove nitrates from drinking water in order to make it safe for human consumption. Excess nitrogen in waterways and estuaries is also highly toxic to aquatic life.

Last month, New Zealand proposed a ‘burp tax’ on methane emissions that could cost a typical large dairy operation €11,000 a year. The tax is to financially incentivise farmers to adopt climate-friendly practices. 

Due to the almost complete capture of the political process in Ireland by the powerful livestock industry lobby, it is thought highly unlikely such an idea would even be seriously entertained here.

However, if Irish politicians expect gratitude from the sector for their unconditional support of its expansionary plans, they may be sorely disappointed. The IFA this week put out a statement defending continuing rise in agri emissions on the grounds that they “reflect decisions made by farmers, based on Government policy, after the abolition of milk quotas”.

In other words, don’t blame us, we’re only following government policy.

This is somewhat disingenuous, given that it is the industry that has dictated policy to government, not the other way around. This fact was confirmed by former Bord Bia chief, Tara McCarthy, when she candidly described the Food Wise 2025 programme as “industry-owned”. 

The committee that developed the follow-up Food Vision 2030 strategy is similarly overwhelmingly dominated by agri-food industry figures. One solitary seat on a committee comprising over 30 representatives was given to the entire environmental sector. Having seen its numerous recommendations ignored, the Environmental Pillar formally withdrew from the process.

Charlie McConalogue did not create this situation. He’s just doing exactly what every other agriculture minister for the last 40-50 years has been required to do, and doff the cap to the lobby that maintains an iron grip on our political process, even though primary agriculture barely contributes one per cent to Ireland’s gross value added, and is a relatively small employer. 

Its oversized and consistently negative influence on discussions around Ireland’s national climate policy is the clearest possible case of the tail wagging the dog.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

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