Irish dairy sector must seize ‘global opportunity’ – ICOS

Every litre of milk produced in Ireland is currently the most carbon-efficient litre of milk in Europe – a distinct competitive advantage for Irish dairy farmers, according to the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS).

This must be further underpinned in the years ahead to ensure continuing, sustainable and long-term success, a new report on the dairy farming sector has recommended.

This was the finding of the report – “Positive Steps Towards a Low Carbon Future for the Irish Dairy Sector” – produced by the organisation.

The document was launched this afternoon by Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed, together with Professor John Fitzgerald, Chair of the Climate Change Advisory Committee and Martin Keane, president of ICOS, which represents all dairy processing co-operatives in Ireland.

The report follows from a working group established in 2016 by ICOS, following from the Paris Agreement. It involved a number of discussions held by the working group with a range of external experts involved in climate change policy, science and research.

Ireland’s dairy products and ingredients are sold in over 155 countries worldwide, valued at €4 billion. 81% of all agricultural land is used for grass production (hay, silage or pasture).

Grass-based dairy and beef production is described as the backbone of Irish farming and underpins the cost competitiveness and sustainable credentials of Irish agriculture and food production. Livestock in Ireland is reared on permanent pasture, with grass or silage making up to 83.6% of a typical dairy cow diet.

There are 6.6 million cattle in Ireland including 1.35 million dairy cows – which Teagasc projects will increase to 1.6 million head by 2025.

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre Report in 2010 recognised Ireland’s dairy sector as the most carbon-efficient in Europe.

Irish milk emissions were 1kg per kg of product, compared to the EU average of 1.4 kg per kg of product. Ireland’s emissions per kg of beef were 18.4 kg per kg of product, well below the EU average of 22.2 kg per kg of product.

Following major advances in terms of productivity, efficiency and milk quality standards, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in Ireland today are 3.5% below 1990 levels, according to ICOS.

Since carbon assessments began across dairy farms in Ireland in 2012, there has been a consistent downward trend in the average carbon footprint on Irish dairy farms. The carbon footprint of fat and protein corrected milk has reduced from 1.21kg CO2e/kg in 2014 to 1.14kg in 2016.

“Climate change due to global warming is an important strategic challenge facing Irish and global agriculture”, said ICOS President Martin Keane.

“Very significant investments have been made in the future processing capabilities of our industry. Producers have contributed strongly to that, including investment and expanded production. Research suggests that dairy expansion for the period 2016 to 2020 will result in a €2.7 billion economic impact for rural Ireland.”

The ICOS report outlines the role of co-operatives in delivering future sustainable growth and reviews the development of public policy related to climate change and agriculture. The sustainability credentials of the Irish dairy sector are outlined in detail and the importance of fostering knowledge sharing is emphasized.

“There is no room for complacency. There is simply too much at stake. Agricultural systems throughout the world will have to provide extra food to feed a growing population – expected to exceed 11 billion people by the end of this century.

We must produce more food, while conserving available land, water and energy resources. That is why the recommendation by the Citizen’s Assembly in November 2017 to impose a carbon tax directly on Irish agriculture is deeply flawed.

“This proposal, if implemented, would damage the competitiveness of Irish agri-food exports, while benefiting little to the environment. In reality, it would be counterproductive, resulting in the possibility of carbon leakage.”