Coveney calls out ‘sloppy’, ‘ill-informed’ commentary on farming and climate change

The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney, has warned of “well-meaning” but “ill-formed” commentary circulating in national media about agriculture and climate change.

The Fine Gael politician addressed the issue – which has become a regular source of frustration for many farmers, farm organisations, agricultural entities, state agencies and agri-businesses in recent times – at an Irish Guild of Agricultural Journalists event – the Michael Dillon Memorial Lecture – in Dublin.

Addressing an audience of the country’s farming press, the Cork native said:

“One of the real frustrations for me on the climate change debate is, I think there is a lot of well-meaning but ill-informed commentary about agriculture when it comes to climate, mitigation, adaptation, creating carbon sinks and so on.

“To my mind, we have a very good foundation now to move forward in terms of the national Climate Action Plan…the real challenge is now implementing it and adding to it – if we need to accelerate further in certain sectors,” he said.

The Tánaiste acknowledged that reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the agricultural sector is more complex than perhaps decreasing carbon emissions from the energy or transportation sectors.

However, Minister Coveney is confident that results can be achieved through a greater focus on the life-cycle of the animal.

“You are somewhat limited in managing the amount of methane that comes out of a suckler cow in Sligo; but you can impact on the age at which they are slaughtered, their feed conversion efficiency as they grow, their output – particularly, if they are a dairy animal.”

While he says the sector can no longer afford to have inefficient herds; he argues that the solution does not reside in drastically reducing numbers.

This view runs quite contrary to some mainstream media commentators when it comes to the climate change and agricultural emissions debate.

“There is lazy, sloppy commentary at times that says the only way to deal with our climate obligations when it comes to our agriculture is ‘just slash the size of the herd’ or ‘move into feedlot systems’ to drive efficiency and economies of scale.

“Agriculture is about more than the financial bottom line – even though you have got to have profitability otherwise you don’t have agriculture – but it’s also about how the rural communities that agriculture serves continue into the future.”

‘Yes, I do’

The minister then took it upon himself to reveal a few home truths on this outlook for the future of farming in Ireland.

“Do I believe agriculture needs to change? Yes, I do. Do I believe we can manage that change in a way that keeps farms and farming intact? Yes, I do.”

However, he says designing a workable Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) programme for the country for the next round of the policy (2021-2027) is vital to “making that happen”.

“Do I believe we need to restructure the beef industry? Yes, I do.

“Do I think we can continue to expand dairy output; while at the same time be able to prove sustainability? Yes, I do.

But I think we need to be science-based and data-based to be credible; as opposed to relying on an international reputation for green grass and green production.

“Do I believe we can expand [Bord Bia’s] Origin Green programme further and be more demanding of it? Yes, I do,” he said.

Minister Coveney stressed that Ireland has all the natural resources necessary to produce food in a way that is carbon efficient and appropriate is terms of biodiversity.

“We need to pass that on to our children; but we have got to do that with farmers, with farming organisations.

“There is a deal here – and this is how you defend CAP – taxpayers pay money so that food is produced in a way that is safe and in a way that protects the environment.

“That is how you justify spending €1.6 billion with Irish farmers each year – because of the social, environmental and economic dividend that you get on the back of that,” the Tánaiste concluded.