Climate change: ‘Society may not stand for continued expansion’

One of Ireland’s foremost climatologists has cautioned Irish farmers against continued aggressive expansion of cow numbers going into the future, as climate change continues.

This is both for the insurance of sufficient fodder, and for meeting climate targets, as global warming continues to make its presence felt.

Prof. John Sweeney, Emeritus Professor of Geography at Maynooth University, spoke to presenter Claire Mc Cormack on the latest episode of FarmLand, both on the impact of climate change on Irish agriculture, and the effects of Irish farming on Ireland’s emissions going forward.

Prof. Sweeney highlighted both the challenges and opportunities climate change brings for Irish agriculture in the coming years.

‘Great stewards of the landscape’

“Well I think that farmers – they are themselves I think great stewards of the landscape and there is no group in society better equipped to handle weather and to understand weather and how it impacts on their livelihood than farmers.

Prof. Sweeney noted that farmers react and respond to things that are changing, adapting to situations.

“They will know for example at the moment that our warming has produced slightly longer growing seasons for them in terms of grass and other crops. They will know also that the year-to-year variability will have increased.

“What I would think that farmers have to do is perhaps be more cautious about not taking chances, not gambling on a continuation of the kind of conditions that they grew up with 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

And that means for example maybe having bit more reserve in terms of especially fodder for the future.

“We’ve seen the number of cattle in Ireland since 2011 for example increase by 750,000 and that is obviously cattle that are grazing lands that could have been kept a bit more for maybe having that safety reserve of fodder in years like today.

“So I think we’d have to question whether or not we can go down the road of continuously increasing our cattle numbers at the expense of having that insurance policy for fodder, especially in the years ahead, and also of course looking at opportunities,” the climatologist noted.


Prof. Sweeney also highlighted the potential opportunities that climate change could bring, changing the model of crops grown in Ireland.

Maize is one of the crops which will do very well in Ireland’s future climate and is a more nutritious crop for feeding cattle than for example silage.

“Maybe there is a change in practice required as well to make the opportunities which climate change gives Irish farming, perhaps make them more exploitable than we have in the past.”

Farmers should consider what is likely to be on the horizon in terms of the technology which will be acceptable, the climatologist said.

One good example that I can think of is splash-plate spreading of slurry. It’s something that I wouldn’t be investing in in Ireland in the future.

“I think we’re going to face a lot of calls for removing that, and not spraying ammonia into the atmosphere the way we do, because we’re at the limit of what we’re allowed to do in Europe as well.


“So I think we have to bear in mind the technologies which will enable us to meet the obligations which are going to come from Europe and indeed from our own national Government in many key areas to enable us to be more compliant with the obligations that we have signed up to on climate change.”

“Efficiency in terms of green house gases per kilogram of beef is not a statistic that the atmosphere recognises.

“All it recognises is how much kilograms of greenhouse gasses are going into the atmosphere. So if we’re increasing the kilograms of beef hugely, we’re undoing the benefits of that increased efficiency.

So, I think we simply cannot get away from the fact that, in terms of the amounts of greenhouse gases per calorie of food that we produce, we are the second least efficient producer in Europe, not the most efficient.

“So we do need to look simply at what the greenhouse gas emissions total, and that’s very substantially increased in agriculture.”

Prof. Sweeney noted that emissions have risen by 10% since 2012; it is continuing to rise and expected to rise at present until 2030.

“I think farmers have to be conscious of the fact that society may not stand for that, quite simply.”

They may seek that the burden of controlling the emissions should also be borne by the farming community more overtly than they do at the moment, Prof. Sweeney warned.

There is a crunch coming for the model of Irish agriculture.

“Our greenhouse gas emissions per cow even are increasing because of the increased intensity of feedstock that we give each animal.

“We do have to face the reality that farmers, as was called for in the Citizens’ Assembly, will have to maybe change the model and question whether Food Wise 2025 is the way to go,” he stated.