Irish agriculture must not be stymied by global warming arguments in its efforts to reach the food output targets laid down within the Harvest 2020 report, according to IFA President Eddie Downey.

He made the comment while taking part in a debate with An Taisce’s John Gibbons on this morning’s ‘Today with Sean O’Rourke’ programme, broadcast on RTE Radio.

The discussion centred on Gibbons’ claims that Ireland leaves itself open to additional fines from the EU – possibly totalling €1 billion per annum – if the country does not meet its greenhouse gas reduced emissions target by 2020.

“Ireland is uniquely placed to produce food on a sustainable basis,” said Downey.

“And we are doing this already. Irish food output has increased significantly over recent years with the same period being marked by a reduced reliance on fertiliser inputs. The current figures confirm that Ireland’s agri food sectors can feed approximately 30m people. And I see no reason why we cannot build on this for the future.

“Europe must adopt a policy which will allow food to be produced only in regions which can meet this requirement on the most sustainable basis. And Ireland ticks all the boxes in this regard. Europe must recognise that agriculture is Ireland’s largest industry and, de facto, the industry will account for a very significant proportion of the country’s overall carbon footprint: we do not have a large manufacturing base.”

Gibbons countered by pointing out that ruminant livestock production – beef, milk and sheepmeat – represent extremely significant sources methane and other greenhouse gases.

“On a global basis, the figure comes in at around 15%,” he said.

“Part of the problem is that consumers are not aware of this fact. And when this figure becomes more widely known, it may well trigger a consumer shift away from dairy and redmeat products.

“Increasing our national dairy herd by some 300,000 head and hoping to sell all of the additional dairy products resulting from this expansion to middle class Chinese consumers is not a sustainable way forward.”

Downey countered by pointing out that the increase in dairy cow numbers will be accompanied by a reduction in the national suckler herd.

“So a displacement effect will kick in,” he said.

“The other key point to be made is that the vast bulk of Ireland’s milk output will be secured from grazed grass. Our permanent grassland area, which covers such a high percentage of our agricultural area, constitutes a uniquely effective carbon sink.”