By An Taisce Climate Change Committee

Assertions made by Prof. Frank O’Mara, Teagasc’s director of research, flatly contradict the climate action advice recently given by the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) in its annual report’s assessment of land use.

Specifically, the CCAC’s analysis excludes any further increase in the dairy herd above the 2018 level, and examines three scenarios showing numbers of beef cattle and beef suckler cows falling by 2030.

The CCAC is categorical in stating the need for a reduction in bovine numbers: “Further expansion of the dairy herd will increase national emissions and may cause other environmental issues.

“Expansion is sustainable only if it takes place within a scenario in which overall agricultural emissions are declining.”

On the contrary, Prof. O’Mara asserts that:

“The targets set in the [Government’s new Climate Action Plan] can be achieved in a scenario where the national herd is similar in size in 2030 to today; albeit with a moderate increase in dairy cow numbers and a moderate decrease in suckler cow numbers – which is a continuation of trends that have been in place for a number of years.”

Does not add up

Simple arithmetic shows that this does not add up.

According to EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) figures, at the launch of the agri-food industry ‘Food Harvest 2020’ strategy in 2011, there were approximately 1.1 million head of suckler beef cows and only a slightly smaller number of dairy cows.

By 2017, there were 50,000 fewer suckler cows but the number of dairy cows in Ireland had increased by over 300,000.

Dairy cows emit 50% more methane per head than suckler cows. Moreover, dairy methane emissions per head have trended steadily ever upward since 1990; therefore, a greater number of higher-emitting cows inevitably increases emissions.

Combining these facts clearly shows that continuing the trends of recent years is very unlikely indeed to deliver any reduction in emissions. Instead, as we have already seen, dairy emissions (strongly coupled to milk production) have rocketed upward, forcing up overall agricultural sector emissions.

We are aware that Teagasc well understands the biophysical limits to reducing cattle emissions and that rebound effects will cancel out savings unless emissions are taxed or synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use is limited.

Therefore, the question is why Teagasc continues to suggest that the proposed efficiency measures will cut total emissions when all evidence to date says they will not unless regulations or taxes are introduced. This would be to ensure that targets are met, which would mean that cattle numbers need to be reduced in any case.

Better options for farmers

Worryingly, Prof. O’Mara’s assertions also repeat the rosy rhetoric of past Teagasc projections that suggested successful mitigation of agricultural emissions could occur to limit any increase in emissions due to production increases; but in reality no such mitigation of total emissions has occurred.

Furthermore, for EPA and policy advisories, Teagasc has repeatedly produced nearly identical projection scenarios with only marginal differences as if there is no real alternative to the industry plans.

Useful advice for decision-makers and the public would instead show a range of scenarios (for example, with increased horticulture, agroforestry or native woodland) that could offer better options for farmers, more employment in rural areas and food production with lower emissions.

Based on Teagasc’s 2012 mitigation analysis, it says that: “Teagasc–FAPRI analysis projects a 12% increase in agricultural GHG emissions by 2020.

Mitigation measures have been identified which could allow the growth targets of Food Harvest 2020 to be achieved without an associated increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Actually, by 2017, agricultural emissions had already increased by nearly 10% relative to the 2007-2009 average, with the trend toward 2020 still strongly upwards.

EPA analysis shows no significant change in dairy GHG efficiency (in terms of methane per unit of milk) since 2005, meaning that the only way to increase production is more grass and feed intake, which also produces more emissions.

Teagasc’s argument that the Food Harvest 2020 production expansion targeting a 50% increase in milk production could be achieved without increasing GHG emissions has proved hollow and misleading.

One might have expected Teagasc to have been more careful in giving such advice originally. And now, when such overly optimistic projections have unsurprisingly proved incorrect, we would expect Teagasc to be far more cautious before making such assertions again.

More in line with agri-industry rhetoric

Given this history, why should the public believe another round of Teagasc projections that once again are more in line with agri-industry rhetoric than scientific reality?

Teagasc now agrees with the CCAC that success in meeting Ireland’s emission targets can only be in terms of reducing the absolute total of national emissions as the CCAC state (though Teagasc has previously argued otherwise).

As in 2012, Teagasc’s new proposed efficiency measures will deliver reductions in total agricultural emissions only if cattle numbers, including dairy cows, go down.

Prof. O’Mara appears to disagree with Teagasc’s own 2018 abatement potential analysis that clearly states: “Improved emissions intensity of produce would be partly or fully negated due to increases in total animal numbers, and could even result in an increase of national GHGs.”

As predicted by An Taisce, the environmental pillar, the Stop Climate Chaos report, Not So Green, the ‘strategies’ designed by the agri-food industry, Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025 – and rubber-stamped by Government – have simply ramped up total emissions, reversing the falling trend during the early 2000s and directly undermining climate policy.

But this failure has been given a free ride by Government, assisted throughout by Teagasc, who states in its 2018 abatement analysis that it spends €4 million annually on research toward reducing emissions, without any success to date in cutting total emissions.

Due to this continuing failure, a massive rise in nitrogen fertiliser use (up 38% from 2012 to 2018 according to EPA data) to drive increased production has also been allowed to fuel climate emissions, overshoot ammonia air pollution limits and escalate nitrate leaching to water; thereby causing even more global warming, air pollution and impacts on biodiversity.

The profits from industry expansion and EU subsidies are mostly going to agri-food processors and large dairy farmers, while increased risks and debt have been loaded onto smaller farmers.

More transparency and accountability

In 2018, over five million tonnes of animal feeds were imported, mostly from South and North America, but also from as far afield as Vietnam, South Korea and Angola. This underlines how, despite unsustainable increases in fertiliser use, Ireland simply cannot grow enough to feed its own animals.

Combined with very weak sustainability criteria in the Origin Green programme, the carefully managed and heavily marketed image of Irish beef and dairy as wholesome, natural and grass-fed products is being fatally undermined.

Judging by these dismal outcomes, one would hope that Teagasc’s 11-member authority, appointed by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, would insist on more transparency and accountability.

However, it is of concern that this authority appears to be dominated by farming, agri-food and Government voices, with no representatives from civil society, climate science, ecology or rural development groups to provide broadly based oversight.

In fact, five of the 11 current authority members, including the chairman, are dairy farmers – an extraordinary skewing of representation towards one sub-sector. How in turn is this impacting on the advice Teagasc gives to Government?

Expert institutions are critically important to a low-carbon transition, but they need to show that they are acting for the long-term good of farmers and the public, as well as the environment that we all depend on, rather than being overly biased toward short-term profits for a handful of large industry players.

An Taisce believes Ireland’s farmers and the public at large deserve better from Teagasc and its authority than providing a fig leaf to allow the current unsustainable intensification of agriculture to continue.

Wake up to the reality

Ireland has correctly declared a climate and biodiversity emergency; as this suggests, an emergency demands urgent, radical action across all sectors.

Agriculture has disproportionately large environmental impacts and costs, including the huge compliance costs of failure to cut emissions which are coming out of general tax revenues.

Businesses must pay the cost of the pollution from production, not just count the profits and pass the costs onto people and nature. Above all we must recognise that pollution limits must be enforced for the good of all.

Farmers, the public and our environment would benefit from less rhetoric and wishful thinking from Teagasc, Bord Bia and the Department of Agriculture.

All these agencies are funded by and accountable to the Irish taxpayer, and not to vested industry interests. Teagasc and its oversight authority need to wake up to the reality of growing pollution impacts and the very real financial costs of damages being caused by Irish agri-industry expansion.

Non-government organisations (NGOs) have been saying this for years. The Citizens’ Assembly on climate change agreed redirection and diversification away from beef and dairy is necessary, and the Joint Oireachtas Committee has called for a new Paris-aligned agriculture plan by the end of this year.

Now the CCAC is also saying urgent change is required to cut agricultural emissions.

The reputation of Irish food is now at stake. An Taisce believes a different way forward is possible, away from profit-harvesting by processors and toward supporting farmers and rural communities in a transition toward more resilient, diversified farming, a future where Ireland is producing rather than importing food.

This would be a future that is far less reliant on imported chemical pesticides, ever increasing amounts of synthetic fertiliser and supplemented by imported feeds, which impact on global food security and deforestation.

To work towards that future, Ireland needs Teagasc and the Government to change direction, and to do so quickly, in line with the best scientific evidence. Transitions take time; delay is no longer an option. We need to start now.