Deputy Barry Cowen has described the “argument” that the agricultural industry “must simply reduce the national herd to play its role” as “lazy and absurd”.

The Laois-Offaly TD was speaking in the Dáil recently on the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021.

Environmental ambition

“The agricultural industry, the food and drink industry, remains one of our greatest assets and exports. It retains its status as a world leader because of its ability to adapt and to change; to embrace diversity; adapt to consumer sentiments; explore new markets; and deliver a quality product,” deputy Cowen said.

“The growing world population, and growing world markets, mean our produce must keep pace.

“It can do so as other industries can, namely, by adapting and aligning production systems to environmental ambition and by recognising, embracing and employing new sciences and innovation to meet that demand.”

Meanwhile, Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan said that while there is no target for herd reduction in the bill, “the reality is that we could reduce the herd by more than 70% and we still would not have to import beef for consumption here”.

‘Unhealthy move to meat-heavy diets’

“What we are doing by not addressing this issue is onshoring carbon emissions from other countries so that they can eat beef. We will have to pay the fines on those carbon emissions,” the deputy said.

“The issue of emissions from farming is a global one. I would put it in the second bracket of global climate agreements because farmers feed the world and the world will have to reverse the recent unhealthy move to meat-heavy diets, and return to a more balanced diet, which existed a generation or two ago.

“Import or export, this is a global community issue. All of us will have to eat less meat. We will have to have less livestock just to survive.”

Facing impact of reducing national herd

Cork East TD James O’Connor said he has a “very logical suggestion for the government” on the matter.

“We have to make sure that medium-sized dairy farmers in Ireland are supported to retain the number of cows they have,” the Fianna Fáil TD said.

“It does not make any sense to tell them to expand if we are talking about reducing the size of the national herd.

“The reality is that for many at grassroots level in agriculture, it has been a case of continual expansion since the milk quotas were abolished.

“I grew up in a country in which there was so much focus on medium-sized farmers. They were told to buy land, build sheds, build new parlours and spend hundreds of thousands of euro to expand their operations,” he added.

“Now we are facing a situation in which tens of thousands of people are working on farms that are under enormous pressure. There is a lack of workers, which has put a great strain on farmers right around the country.

“There is great uncertainty after spending all the money on the advice of the previous two governments, only now to be facing the impact of reducing the national herd,” he concluded.