Co-operatives and their farmer members “stand ready and willing to play their part” in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, “but the burden they are asked to carry must be fair and proportionate”.

In response to the publication of the Climate Action Plan 2021, which includes a target range for the agricultural sector to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 22% to 30% by 2030, ICOS has said that the co-operative movement will “do all that is feasibly possible to reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment”.

However, the sector “needs time and support to bring about what will be a transformation in our food systems”.

“Nobody should be in any doubt but that the target range is deeply challenging,” ICOS president Jerry Long said.

“A more specific target will be established in time and should only be agreed following genuine consultation with all stakeholders in the sector and the Department of Agriculture needs to initiate this process as soon as possible.

“It is essential that the list of measures outlined in [the] Climate Action Plan are properly planned, supported and funded as farmers and their co-ops require certainty as to what will be required.”

Protect family farm model

Long said that the transformation envisaged “must protect and strengthen the family farm model of production in Ireland by ensuring that our farming systems are economically, as well as environmentally sustainable”.

“This must include a pathway to facilitate sustainable growth, family farm succession and new entrants into the sector, as no industry can be sustainable if it is constrained into the future in the context of constantly increasing costs of production,” he continued.

“For all other sectors of the economy, their carbon emissions are driven by burning fossil fuels in one form or another and there are technical and engineering solutions to almost completely eliminate those emissions.

“That is not the case for agriculture as we are dealing with biological systems which are necessary to the production of food and for food security.

“The science established by Teagasc and the measures outlined in the Climate Action Plan give the agricultural sector a roadmap that will bring about a considerable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the sector by 2030.

“The uptake of the Teagasc MACC measures such as the use of low emission slurry spreading, changing fertiliser type to reduce nitrogen emissions, the use of clover, improved breeding and grassland management are already happening across the majority of farms at present, and will continue to accelerate over the coming decade.”

Co-ops ‘will not be found wanting’

Long added that co-operatives “will not be found wanting and are committed to supporting farmers along this very challenging journey”.

He added that greater progress to verify the carbon sequestration potential of Irish soils will be required and the role of carbon farming will need to be developed.

“There is also a real potential to move forward with an indigenous biogas industry based on co-operative ownership, if appropriate supports can be provided by government,” he said.

“In addition, it is essential to recognise the latest science in relation to biogenic methane, which is a short-lived greenhouse gas, and that up-to-date emission factors are used to accurately reflect Ireland’s grass based agricultural system.

“This, combined with sustained and early technology adoption at farm level, can lead to the agricultural industry being able to meet these targets and ultimately become climate neutral by 2050.

“Contextually, it must also be noted that in 2015, the EU abolished milk quotas and it was then the government’s policy to encourage and incentivise dairy farmers to significantly increase their production, thereby contributing further to domestic, European and international food security, including an enhanced economic contribution to Ireland through export led growth, on a pasture-based model.”

Climate Action Plan represents a challenging journey

He added that farmers and their families “are very proud to be guardians of the environment”.

“They provide an enormous public good to society by supplying traceable, nutritious and safe food. The Climate Action Plan represents a very challenging journey for everyone and every sector in society,” he said.

“I fully agree with the comments by An Taoiseach, following the publication of the Climate Action Plan, that the framing of the current debate on climate change must avoid the specific targeting of the agricultural sector and an undue focus on the national herd.

“This element of the debate to date has been extremely unfair, unbalanced and detrimental towards any reasonable progress around the issues at hand.”