The huge challenge of decarbonising the global economy has been well articulated and defined by the Glasgow COP26 process.

COP26 has heard, that in its essence, it involves finding alternative energy sources and low / reduced environmental impact production processes in first world / developed economies.

This is while also ensuring that developing economies can deliver increased prosperity for their citizens without the catastrophic negative environmental impact of fossil fuel and land use change.

Moreover, while there are real concerns about the absence of China and Russia from COP26, there has still been significant progress made in regard to specific reduction pledges by the U.S and India for instance, and the definitive pledges by over 40 countries to phase out coal usage.

COP26 and narrow anti-agri agenda

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, the narrow prejudice against Irish agriculture, and Irish cows in particular, dominates what passes for ‘the national debate’.

While across the global international media there are debates on decarbonisation of economies while not disrupting economic growth aspirations, what we get in the Irish media is a rerun of the narrative of the last two years.

This is, in essence, saying… It’s all very well to debate the impact of the abolition of coal mining or coal usage for an economy like Poland, or to reengage in a debate on nuclear power with all of the angst around its low /no environmental / emissions impact, but the huge concerns about safety, but what about Irish cow numbers?

This continuing farce has, at its heart, a number of accusations against Irish agriculture that are worth examining, again.

As ridiculous as it may seem, given that since 1972 we have been part of the EU and since 1993 part of the EU Single Market, along with the fact that 95% of our grocery / food consumption is controlled by six large grocery distributors, the core of the anti-agri narrative derives from a set of beliefs that obsess that food should only be produced and consumed locally.

So, Irish agriculture is guilty of exporting – yes, guilty as charged.

Irish agricutlure is guilty of pursuing dairy expansion – yes, guilty as charged.

Irish agriculture has achieved growth through intensification (or hyper intensification according to the Sinn Féin leader) – no, rubbish and nonsense.

Dairy expansion

If we take the dairy expansion issue, the most repeated accusation is that Ireland has pursued dairy growth / intensification out of sync with other EU countries.

This is followed by a further accusation that growth was only achieved because Ireland’s environmental regulations are weaker than elsewhere in the EU. This is an invented non factual narrative.

EU milk quotas were abolished by EU legislation. At the time of abolition, in 2014/2015 the average dairy herd in Ireland was 53 cows; it is now 86.

The average dairy herd size in:

  • Northern Ireland – 130 dairy cows;
  • Scotland – 200 dairy cows;
  • England – 160 dairy cows;
  • Wales – 50 dairy cows;
  • New Zealand – 500 dairy cows;
  • U.S 2000+ dairy cows.

A number of EU and international studies, both pre-abolition of milk quotas and in recent years, have highlighted that Ireland’s dairy expansion is due to its economic advantage in low-cost extensive grass-based production.

This is confirmed in analysis by the European Milk Forum (EMF) this year, that shows Ireland is the only country in the EU where dairy farming is consistently giving a return higher than the cost of production.

Yet, this false narrative is never questioned, but rather swallowed whole by media and thrown back at what the media insist on calling the ‘farm lobby’.

Patronising dairy farmers

A further twist in this distorted reality is usually provided by a statement from the environmental purist, that they feel sorry for the ‘poor small farmer’ who was misled into recklessly pursuing growth and didn’t realise what they were doing.

Again, the reality, if one cares to examine the facts, is that dairy growth capability was established across Irish dairy co-ops by means of assessment of dairy farmer ambition and capability to grow.

This was with the legal role of the co-op /milk processor being to process all of the co-op members’ milk.

The continuing twisted narrative against Irish ag is further underpinned by the refusal to accept the OECD/FAO report of July 2021, which states that growing global consumption of dairy and meat products will continue strongly.

However the report added that this demand will increasingly be met from production in areas where there is low / no regulatory constraints, such as in India and Pakistan in the case of dairy, where emissions are 20 times higher than in the EU / Ireland.

Indeed, instead of this independent verification that suppressing Irish dairy production will lead to higher global emissions, being correctly attributed to OECD/FAO analysis, it is positioned as the view of the Irish ‘farm lobby’.

The great economist JM Keynes said “when the facts change, I change my mind”… What about you?