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How do you solve a problem like Ireland's cows?

“A farmer will ask himself the question: If it’s expected of me to reduce, how can I sustain an income as a result of me reducing my numbers?”

LAST WEEK, THE government finally published its long-awaited Climate Action Plan, setting out how it intends to meet tight climate targets over the next nine years. 

The challenge ahead is large: the plan is key to achieving a 51% reduction in emissions in the State by 2030. 

The proposed cuts will affect every aspect of Irish society, with experts stating that the targets are both “incredibly challenging and not ambitious enough”.

Marie Donnelly, the head of the Climate Change Advisory Council, the independent advisory group which published the carbon budgets which helped shape the Climate Action Plan, pointed out various challenges in reaching the targets across the different sectors of Ireland’s economy. 

One area of concern for environmentalists is Ireland’s agricultural sector, specifically in relation to the number of cows in Ireland.

“Our herd is very large – it’s more than our population of people. And it is going to be a challenge. It’s one that we’re going to have to look at very seriously,” Donnelly told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

The number of cows in Ireland, and the corresponding GHG emissions from the agricultural sector, is a subject of intense debate, with environmental experts and campaigners calling for reductions, and farming lobby groups and many politicians disagreeing.

The problem with cows

The agricultural sector is the single biggest emitter of planet-warming greenhouse gases in Ireland, making up about 37% of all emissions, according to the latest data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

This contrasts significantly with the rest of the EU, where agriculture accounts for about 11% of emissions on average (the majority of emissions from other EU countries come from energy).

Last year, despite overall emissions in Ireland reducing by 3.6%, emissions from agriculture increased by 1.4%, driven mainly by increases in the number of dairy cows and other livestock, and in the use of fertiliser.

CSO figures show that as of June this year there were 7,358,900 cows in Ireland, up 0.6% on the previous year, again driven by increases in the number of dairy cows.

In the last ten years, the number of dairy cows has shot up by over 45%, with milk production rising by a corresponding 60%. This is due to the abolition of EU-imposed milk quotas in 2015.

These cows contribute hugely to Ireland’s emissions. Over half of all emissions from agriculture come from cows belching, or more specifically from the process of enteric fermentation, which releases methane into the atmosphere.

As well as this, other chemicals like nitrous oxide – which has a global warming potential 298 times greater than carbon dioxide – are used in agricultural production, mainly from fertilisers

As well as greenhouse gas emissions, intensive cattle farming has led to other issues, with studies finding reductions in biodiversity (variety of plant and animal life), soil fertility and the quality of Ireland’s waterways, as a result of land being taken up by monoculture grass and grazing cattle.

The case to reduce the herd

Because of these reasons, environmental experts have long called for a reduction in Ireland’s cattle numbers in order to reduce the country’s emissions, halt the pollution of waterways and increase biodiversity.

Sadhbh O’Neill says that a more “balanced agricultural profile” for Ireland would involve more space for tillage and horticulture and organic farming, and less of the land being dominated by cows.

“But the reality is that the business model that’s been adopted within the agricultural sector in Ireland is very geared towards exports,” says O’Neill, who is an assistant professor at DCU’s School of Law and Government, lecturing in climate policy and politics.

“The reality is that the sector has been very much exposed to the pressures of globalisation, of producing more and more and more to feed evermore expanding markets, in far flung locations across the world.”

Over 80% of Irish agricultural produce is exported, in the form of milk powder, cheese, beef and live cattle, and other products.

Earlier this year, three environmental coalitions – Environmental Pillar, Stop Climate Chaos and the Sustainable Water Network (SWAN) – representing over 70 organisations published Towards a New Agricultural and Food Policy for Ireland.

The position paper set out key policy recommendations for the government to follow in order to “drive down agriculture emissions while simultaneously restoring our depleted biodiversity and water bodies”. 

These include phasing out environmentally harmful subsidies, supporting the scaling up of local nature-friendly food production, and implementing different measures to bring down methane and nitrous oxide emissions and reverse dairy expansion.

It was published after the government published its draft Agri-Food Strategy 2030, which environmental groups criticised as being inadequate from a climate and environmental perspective.

Avoiding the question

Despite these calls, successive ministers for agriculture, as well as many government TDs, and the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, have not signalled any plans to cull or reduce the number of cows.

Last month, at a post-Budget 2022 briefing, Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue responded to questions around whether there could be cuts to the numbers of cattle in Ireland:

“No. I want to be able to continue to produce the foods we produce,” he said.

McConalogue said that while food production would be challenging in the years ahead, Ireland still had to produce food and “the world has to eat”.

“We are very successful and very sustainable in relation to the model we have in place,” he said.

Micheál Martin said in September that government plans were to “stabilise the national herd”.

“I think what’s important is that we continue to invest in research to make sure that we can increase added value, but also make our contribution to the climate change agenda, which is important, and all sectors of society will have to do that, including the agriculture sector,” he said.

More recently, following the carbon budget announcement, Transport Minister Eamon Ryan said that it was likely the number of cows would reduce “naturally” over the coming years, with no need for a cull.

The farming perspective

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.

Farming lobby groups – representing significant numbers of Irish farmers – resist calls to reduce the number of cows, stating that farmers are under pressure from all sides and are worried about the future.

Paul O’Brien – National Environment Chair with the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) – told The Journal that meeting the proposed emissions reduction targets would be very difficult for the sector, which is dominated by small family farms.

“When you look at the sectoral targets… then you are gonna have to say, look, this is individual families with all their individual issues,” he said.

“So it does bring this back down to a very, very kind of micro level.”

“We can use terms like ‘fundamental change’ or ‘seismic change’, but the reality is how do we go on and continue the type of farming that we’ve been doing for years and years, producing food for our export market… with a target that is going to be so high?

“It’s going to be very, very difficult for us to be in a position to still continue that farming model going forward. But what replaces that farming model is probably the question and a worry that I would have.”

O’Brien said that a lot of different measures are converging at the moment, which has farmers very worried. These include the upcoming emissions reduction targets and significant changes to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

He also referenced a recent Economic Impact Assessment report commissioned by the Irish Farmers Journal, which stated that a cut of 30% in emissions would result in the loss of 56,000 jobs and significant declines in farmers’ incomes.

O’Brien and the IFA resist calls to reduce the number of cows, stating that more focus and research should be driven into mitigation measures, such as improving the efficiency of farming practices and investing more into researching carbon sequestration (storing carbon) technologies.

Another argument cited against cattle reduction is that if Ireland cuts its agricultural output, it will be taken up by other countries with worse records when it comes to sustainable farming.

The IFA frequently cites studies which show that Ireland is the most efficient producer of dairy in the EU and the fifth most efficient producer of beef (though the use of this research is disputed by An Taisce and others).

“So the question is, if we reduce our production in an Irish context, will that be taken up by countries who have a less sustainable farming model than us?” says O’Brien.

Sadhbh O’Neill disputes this characterisation, saying the whole world has a responsibility to move away from animal agriculture and towards more sustainable forms of food production.

“The reality is that, even though there is a global rising demand for dairy and beef products, that is not a sustainable diet that is consistent with our temperature goals under the Paris [Climate] Agreement.

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“And there are oodles of scientific reports telling us that if we want to feed the world’s population, especially given that it’s still growing… that we’re going to have to shift towards plant based diets to make more efficient use of the land.”

The way forward

While disagreeing strongly in many areas, both environmental experts and farmer lobbying groups state that stronger communication needs to come from government on what farmers need to do.

Paul O’Brien strongly criticised the government for failing to offer clear direction to farmers.

“I think at the moment that nobody has shown us a clear model of where they believe [we should] go,” he said.

“The reality is that if you are trying to come up with an alternative for farmers to go down a certain pathway, if that pathway is going to be a dead end, then there’s going to be no options. Effectively what has happened is that there’s no clearly defined pathway for farmers at the moment.”

“We have 72,000 members and their families. The vast, vast majority of those are dependent on agriculture for their primary living. And I don’t see anything in proposals coming from CAP, or government in a just transition fund, in order to bring farmers [along].

“So a farmer will ask himself the question: If it’s expected of me to reduce, how can I sustain an income as a result of me reducing my numbers?”

Sadhbh O’Neill is critical of farming lobby groups and the government for not providing clear advice to farmers on the future of agricultural production in Ireland.

She said she firmly believes that it won’t be possible to implement the emissions cuts required by the carbon budgets without reducing the number of cows in the country, and that this needed to be communicated to farmers.

“I don’t think it’s possible, personally, to achieve the carbon budgets, no matter what way it falls for the agricultural sector, without herd reduction numbers,” she said.

“I think we need to be a lot more direct with farmers, because if we keep talking around it in these vague ways, we’re not giving them a clear message as to how policy is going to be implemented in the future.

“And they need to know that, they’re entitled to know that.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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