Reducing the herd size in Ireland “wouldn’t do anything” for the climate, due to carbon leakage – someone else filling the gap in food supply, and possibly less efficiently – according to US scientist Dr. Frank Mitloehner.

Dr. Mitloehner – a professor and air-quality specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis, cautioned against cutting the national herd in a presentation made at last week’s online Alltech Ireland Environment Forum.

“You have five million people in Ireland – but you produce an equivalent amount of food for 50 million people,” the professor noted.

“In other words, the vast majority of what you produce food-wise is not for your own people but you export it. Your main export markets, as you know, are the UK and also other parts of Europe. You’re exporting to 180 countries throughout the world.

“What’s really kind of unfair is that, for agriculture, the location where the food is produced – not where it’s consumed, where it’s produced – is burdened with the environmental footprint of that, particularly the carbon footprint.

“When it comes to fossil fuels, the same is not true. Let’s say in Norway that produces a lot of fossil fuels but sells it to other countries, is not blamed for producing that fossil fuel.

“The countries where that fossil fuel is burned, they are blamed. So, when you compare a country like Norway to a country like Ireland, then what the Norwegians produce is really not a burden to them environmentally, with respect to the carbon emissions.

“But for food production, the place where the food is produced is used in the accounting. That is why Ireland has such a big environmental footprint associated with its agricultural production.”

Turning to the value and volumes of Irish agri-food exports, Dr. Mitloehner highlighted that “if someone was to say let’s reduce our cattle herd in order to reduce our carbon footprint”, then carbon leakage would occur.

“Leakage means what you would now produce less would be picked up by somebody else, lets say Germany,” he explained.

“The greenhouse gas, the methane molecule, the nitrous oxide molecule, doesn’t really care from where it’s produced.

“If you don’t produce it somebody else produces it. So food should really be produced where it’s produced most efficiently – and you’re doing a pretty darn good job on that side,” Dr. Mitloehner added.

What I really want to caution you about in Ireland is that, because you are exporting so much of the food that you produce, any kind of reduction in your herd sizes and so on would be picked up by somebody else.

“If you are not aware of this topic of leakage, I think you should do some research into this because at the end of the day you wouldn’t do anything for your climate by reducing your herd sizes.

“That’s a really important distinction,” the specialist concluded.