Destructive characterisation of agri-business becoming farcical

Is the often negative characterisation from some quarters of Irish agri-business activity in the context of climate action accurate, contentious…or even farcical?

The answer to this would depend on how well-informed, or otherwise, the speaker is on what is a very complex issue.

Very definitely, the Irish government is determined to push ahead with its target-based Climate Action Bill.

Moreover, the EU Green Deal and even the economic and political fallout from the Covid-19 episode have also changed the dynamic of climate action.

Clearly Irish famers are going to have to implement and adapt in equal parts to the ‘new climate action normal’.

A core concern for Irish farmers and processors has been the long-term disconnect between EU consumer demand for higher compliance/specification and dominant food retail pricing policies.

The EU’s ‘hands-on’ regulatory policy has always favoured verifiable application of food standards and compliance, while the EU’s ‘laissez-faire’ approach to food pricing has been, at best, aspirational, and in reality negligent, as to whether higher regulatory costs are reflected in prices to producers.

And so, legitimate concern regarding acceptance of higher compliance and regulatory costs, despite some shrill voices to the contrary, is far from “climate change denial”.

Taking into account the unique economic impact of the agri-food sector in the real Irish economy (where it continues to provide one job in eight); the global demand for sustainably-produced dairy and meat; and the reality that Irish agri-emissions need to be controlled and abated, one would have to say that this is hugely complex.

The complexity is well illustrated by the further recognition that, in terms of the need to address carbon reduction, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) very specifically recognises the unique equality/duality of food production.

The IPCC Report on Agriculture 2019 said: “Supply-side practices can contribute to climate change mitigation by: reducing crop and livestock emissions; sequestering carbon in soils and biomass; and by decreasing emissions intensity within sustainable production systems.”

It added: “Options with large potential for mitigation in livestock systems include better grazing land management with increased net primary production and soil carbon stocks; improved manure management; and higher-quality feed.”

Simply no substitute for food

While energy usage can be decarbonised, replaced or substituted, there is no simply substitute for food.

This recognition of the need for balance is highlighted in a number of studies by the European Commission published this year, such as “The future of livestock: How to contribute to a sustainable agriculture sector”; and a scenario analysis that looked at whether “coupled agricultural subsidies undermine climate efforts”.

The overarching conclusion, in regard to a proposal to dramatically reduce EU direct payments – or eliminate ‘coupled payments’ in those countries that still apply them – is that a major consideration has to be the ‘leakage effect’.

On other words, if you simply reduce EU livestock and dairy unilaterally, there is a very clear recognition from these EU studies that this will (not just ‘could’) lead to higher global agriculture emissions as dairy and meat demand is met from either higher-emission producers or completely non-compliant sources.

Indeed, one can only regret and wonder why a global accounting of industrial pollution and carbon emissions did not inform the understanding of offshoring, with regard to the heavy industry sectors of the EU and US that were moved to eastern Europe, Asia and Africa in the 80s and 90s as part of the outsourcing strategies of the time.

Recognising the complexity and danger of a ‘lose-lose’ result from unilaterally diminishing EU livestock and milk production is not a response to the climate challenge that favours doing nothing.

But, unfortunately, it is often portrayed as such by the shrill voices of the environmental lobby in Ireland.

A person with a hammer sees everything as a nail

The refusal to accept complexity – and indeed to suggest that any attempt to manage legitimate but competing policy imperatives is a ‘cop out’ – seems to be the sole response of some in the environmental lobby.

There is a saying in policy circles that a person with a hammer sees everything as a nail.

This would seem to be the case with respect to environmental commentators and their national media supporters recently, on subjects ranging from reports on Irish forestry policy to musings about breast feeding and Irish milk powder production.

A report looking at Irish national policy on forestry and the differences between the status of land newly planted versus the overall forest inventory was misrepresented as suggesting that Irish forestry (unlike forests everywhere else on the planet) was emitting carbon rather than sequestering it!

The common sense response by the Department of Agriculture to this gross misrepresentation was: “Ireland’s forests are not a net emitter of greenhouse gasses.

“They are and remain a substantial and growing store for carbon dioxide, and recent suggestions which claim otherwise are misleading insofar as they are looking only at one subset of the estate.

The department added: “While the managed forest lands (MFL) area, because of particular circumstances and timing, will be a small emitter over the upcoming period, the amount in question will be far outweighed by what the rest of the estate is storing and sequestering.”

It continued: “The ‘afforested land’ category [as opposed to MFL] includes all forests that will be 30 years of age or less during the accounting period 2021-2030… Over that period these will be a significant sink for CO2, sequestering well over one million tonnes of CO2 per year…over the period 2021-2025.”

Breast feeding in China

A second, even more tendentious recent outburst on behalf of the environmental lobby, in the opinion pages of a national newspaper, suggested that increased Irish dairy production targeting China was causing Chinese women to stop breast feeding their children and instead use “Irish milk powder”.

This infamy was supposedly compounded, as per the logic of the outburst, by pointing out the Irish government was spending millions on promoting breast feeding (unsuccessfully) in Ireland.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Irish milk powders are not fed to Chinese infants. Infant formula products that use some dairy ingredients produced in Ireland are fed to Chinese infants.

Chinese demand for infant nutrition is increasing. However, Chinese government policy (which tends to have a much bigger impact on these matters than the aspirations of Irish dairy farmers) currently favours promoting Chinese domestic infant nutrition products over imports.

One of the questions that arise about these ill-informed and very dubious characterisations of farming, forestry and food processing is the notion that the person in the street, Joe and Mary Citizen, might actually believe that these characterisations represent reality.

Might people actually believe that Ireland’s forestry plan is secretly aimed at increasing emissions; and that the Irish dairy farmer is blocking mothers in China from breast feeding their babies?

Another thought in terms of the extremes of this ‘perception equals reality’ stance is that Irish agriculture is being targeted with extreme prejudice.

To quote former US President Lyndon Johnson: “If the president was seen walking on water, the media headline the next day would say ‘president can’t swim’.”

Ciaran Fitzgerald is a leading agri-food economist and former chairman of Meat Industry Ireland (MII).