Is Ireland’s livestock-based agriculture still under threat for its very existence, or do the proposed sectoral carbon budgets represent the equivalent of agriculture’s ‘electric car’ approach?

In a previous opinion piece, I suggested that the onslaught of misinformation and mischaracterisation of Irish agriculture and food production, mirrored the initial hysteria around petrol and diesel private car usage in the 1990s and early 2000s.

So as of 2021, instead of a clarion cry for the complete ban on and ending of private car usage, with the huge economic and social disruption this would entail, there has been realisation that a more balanced approach would mean re-engineering the fuel usage in cars away from fossil fuels to electric or hydrogen-based renewable fuels.

Applying this more balanced approach to the realities of growing global consumption of meat and dairy products, would mean that instead of the national gesture-based unilateral suppression of Irish agricultural output, priority would be given to targeted emissions-reducing measures.

As with the reality in the auto sector, these measures would represent a balanced, but defensively, emissions-improving and environmental impact-reducing outcome.

Environmental lobby

It would seem from the various pronouncements this week that Ireland’s livestock-based meat and dairy sectors will not be the sacrificial lamb to the environmental lobby.

Nevertheless, the targets themselves are daunting and very real, and must be delivered on. If these targets are not reached, there will be high financial penalties and more stringent limits imposed.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that this is the last chance saloon for Irish agriculture to adopt an efficiency-based emissions reduction programme, versus having to accept a more heavy handed, production or output-limiting one.

Because Irish agri-food companies are integral parts of the supply chain of major international retailers and global food and drink companies across 130 countries, delivering lower emissions and lower environmental impacting sustainable food production is the definitive ‘route to market’ for the foreseeable future.

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Giving away livestock-based Irish agriculture

In addition to unequivocally delivering against the new climate action regulatory framework, Irish agriculture must also reflect on how the sector was very nearly given away… again.

From 2005 to 2008, the driver of the threatened ‘giveaway’ of Irish agriculture was World Trade Organisation (WTO) trade deals.

They were framed on the basis that Irish agri-food and increased access to the EU food market, could be the sweetener for access to global markets for the EU and Ireland’s evolving ‘Smart Economy’ technology capabilities and financial / banking powerhouses.

Indeed, it was more than serendipitous that a row between India and the US scuppered the Doha WTO negotiations in 2007, given the almighty mess that the financial sector made of the EU and world economy subsequently.

The lesson from that fiasco was surely that while Ireland’s economic gurus and body politic needed to better understand and recognise the superficiality of flow through finance and housing bubbles, for its part, Irish agriculture needed to better communicate its modern economy relevance and in particular its unique impact on real Irish economy expenditure.

Is this happening? Not really, on either count.

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Irish GDP

On the one hand, the default position of the economic commentator class is to continue to ‘big up’ Ireland’s infamously overblown gross domestic product (GDP) figure and continue to describe Ireland’s economic performance in terms of percentage changes in GDP.

These have only a tenuous link to jobs and Irish economy expenditure. A unique endless pipeline of inward investment and a rising tide that lifts all boats.

E.g. despite economic and social onslaught from Covid-19, Irish GDP grew by 3.6 % in 2020; the only country in the western world with a positive GDP growth figure and yet unemployment stood at 21% by the year end.

While I accept that this highly distorting misuse of ‘official economic accounting’ diminishes agriculture’s real Irish economy impact, Irish agriculture’s main (if not only), communication platform continues to be around the row in the dressing room.

I am particularly and most stridently (but not solely) referring to beef prices and farm incomes,

A reasonable conclusion by the few sympathetic commentators such as Prof. John Fitzgerald who acknowledges the realities of rural economies, is that the more beef they produce the less income beef farmers earn, and so they should instead be incentivised to get out of beef and move into forestry.

For as long as these twin peaks of misrepresentation of economic impact, resilience and relevance continue to frame Irish agriculture in the Irish economy, while at the same time the agri sector doesn’t positively communicate its unique economic impact and continuing relevance, then the sector will continue to be vulnerable to ideological bandwagons like the environmental lobby.

Looking at the last two years in particular, the absence of an agri sector response that speaks positively about its relevance and responsibility, allowed this bandwagon to drive its own agenda i.e the unilateral suppression of Irish agrioutput and income.