Opinion

Carbon footprint is a ‘red herring’ for Irish agriculture

The New Year has brought no easing of the pressure on Irish agriculture to push for a ‘net zero’ carbon footprint. And, increasingly, the ruminant sector finds itself in the ‘cros hairs’ of environmentalists – some of whom think they have all the answers!

Tuesday of the week just past saw BBC2 provide a group of ‘luvvies’ with the opportunity of discussing the carbon footprint of the various dishes they were served, courtesy of a three-course evening meal.

And guess what? Sirloin steak was number one in the carbon chart prepared for the programme. I sat there asking myself the question: does anyone ever question the figures trotted out on programmes like this?

But let’s stick with the real facts, where cattle and sheep are concerned.

Grazed grass is the most natural feed that any ruminant animal can eat. The scientists know this and – most importantly of all – consumers know this. Moreover, pasture is the natural vegetation crop for almost one third of the world’s surface, including Ireland.

Surely these are the fundamental facts that our food marketing bodies should be communicating to the world. Yes, carbon footprint is important, but it is not the ‘Holy Grail’ of food production. Farming is all about working with nature.

World picture

Given this fundamental reality, one could very quickly point the finger at the United States, whose farmers have converted million of acres of natural grassland into monocultures of maize (corn) and soya.

The biggest hypocrite of the lot is Brazil. Destroying vast tracts of natural rainforest to allow a few beef barons produce so-called ‘cheap’ beef, breaks every natural and moral law in the book. And yet that country is allowed to trade freely with the rest of the world.

The island of Ireland has a great story to tell when it comes to producing food. Whether or not we are telling it well enough is a story for another day.

Green energy

The good news for Ireland, in this regard, is that the further refinement of wind and tidal technologies could transform this part of the world into a premier supplier of green energy.

And if the scientists get around to cracking the technical challenges associated with the electrolysis of sea water, the opportunities for Ireland to become a global power hub are truly immense (it’s all about hydrogen).

But if our farming sectors become transfixed on carbon footprint, the only option will be to build big sheds and intensively feed animals. By taking this approach, we automatically lose our marketing advantage in countries around the world.

Moreover, we can’t beat the likes of the US and Brazil at their own game. So let’s just keep doing what we do best: growing grass and making sure that we put it to best use!