Carbon will become the new quota in Irish farming, according to Trinity College economist Professor Alan Matthews.

Matthews was addressing over 400 farming and food industry leaders at the Agricultural Science Association (ASA) conference in Kilkenny recently.

Professor Matthews said following the ending of the 31-year milk quota system, the Irish agri-food sector faces the new challenge of living in a carbon-constrained world where we must reduce and eventually halt net carbon emissions.

“The new government-sponsored agri-food strategy Food Wise 2025 foresees a significant expansion in agricultural output.

“While this would be very welcome for the economic activity, employment and export earnings it would generate, the climate change challenge has utterly changed the context for agricultural expansion,” Matthews said.

Livestock systems are more carbon-intensive compared to tillage systems and because Irish farming is predominantly livestock based, we are a high carbon emitter per hectare or per euro of product produced.

This is notwithstanding the fact that our farmers are more carbon-efficient producers of livestock compared to their EU counterparts, he said.

“Therefore, the structure of Irish farming makes Ireland more vulnerable, especially after 2020 when emitting carbon into the atmosphere will have a direct financial cost to the taxpayer,” he said.

Matthews highlighted the large differences in carbon efficiency between different farming and land use systems and between farmers operating similar systems and stressed the importance of intensive research and advice aimed at reducing carbon emissions per unit of output.

He proposed the introduction of targeted subsidies to encourage farmers to adopt practices which help to build up carbon stores in soils and biomass.

He also advocated the introduction of a carbon levy on emissions with the proceeds recycled back to the farming sector.

I am well aware that the last thing farmers want to hear about is another levy but it would be a powerful demonstration of our commitment to environmentally sustainable production.

“If this were introduced across the EU, it would increase the competitive advantage for Irish producers in the EU marketplace and would be a significant marketing advantage.

“The incentive system for carbon efficiency is woefully inadequate at present, starting at the highest levels in the UN and EU.

“Also, price signals are completely absent in the livestock sector even though that is the single largest source of emissions,” he said,