Are the 6.9 million animals in Ireland sustainable?

Should there be a cap on the national herd? Should the national herd be reduced? Are the 6.9 million animals in Ireland sustainable?

These were just some of the questions asked by presenter Aine Lawlor to her panel of guests – election candidates for the Ireland South constituency – during Sunday night’s ‘The Week in Politics’ on RTE.

Partaking in a number of debates around the whole area of agriculture and climate action on the night were Labour candidate, Sheila Nunan; Fine Gael’s Deirdre Clune; Fianna Fail’s Malcolm Byrne; Sinn Féin’s Liadh Ní Riada; and Independent Alliance’s Mick Wallace.

The candidates formed a panel of speakers that highlighted the importance of agriculture and food production in their electoral area.

However, on the night, they also spoke about the effects of climate action on farming in Ireland and the supports that will be necessary when decarbonisation takes effect in this country.

Climate action and economic opportunity

Speaking about the national herd, Malcolm Byrne pointed out that while it was an ever present scenario one of the fundamental difficulties the sector faced at present was the emphasis that had been placed on expanding production rather than on “looking at margins”.

I think there has been a lot of emphasis on expanding production rather than looking at margins.

He continued: “The biggest challenge is climate change and what I’m interested in doing is [putting in place] practical measures to support farmers – we need to look at ways where we can effectively reduce carbon emissions.”

Byrne went on to say that climate action had presented an economic opportunity for farmers.

“I think there is an economic opportunity for farmers by anaerobic digestion towards the production of biogas,” he added.

“We need both the capital investment and the technical training for primary producers to move into that area.”

‘Big beef, big dairy’

Deputy Mick Wallace told the programme that the numbers in the national herd were “madness”.

He also pointed out that when it came to greenhouse gas emissions in this country “big beef and big dairy makes up 32% of it; transport is 19%, so absolutely we need to cut our national herd”.

I disagreed back in 2015 with Minister Simon Coveney when he suggested increasing the dairy herd.

He continued: “I said that it was madness and I think that in the long term it is unfair to farmers.”

Wallace pointed out that farmers across the country had borrowed “more money” to get to where they are today.

“And do you know what? One of these days they are going to be at the mercy of the banks. They are going down a cul-de-sac; what is going on at the moment is not sustainable and it has to change,” he said.

Deirdre Clune, meanwhile, said she disagreed with Wallace’s stance on the matter.

She pointed out that the national herd should not be reduced and highlighted “all that can be done” with regard to food production in this country.

I don’t think that we should cut the herd; I think that we can do a lot in terms of making our food production both in dairy and in beef more productive and more efficient; we can also do a lot of different things.

She continued: “We are the most carbon efficient in the world when it comes to food production. I wouldn’t cap the size of the herd but we can do an awful lot more in terms of how we produce our food.

“Climate change, biodiversity and the environment are going to be lined to payments in the next round of CAP; farmers are part of the solution to all of this.”

‘Just Transition’

Labour’s Sheila Nunan told the debate on Sunday night that the matters raised placed a bigger focus around the whole area of Just Transition.

“I have met a lot of farmers over the last few weeks who are very clear that the current herd is not very productive for them,” she continued.

They were up in arms over the crisis in the beef sector and really from a Labour perspective this is all about Just Transition.

“If you are going to ask for decarbonisation in farming then the supports have to be in place for people to diversify into other areas.

“It is this that is not clear at the moment; what is clear and where the difficulties lie is in the viability of farming, the supports from farming, and the fact that as you go up the food chain to the processors farmers are losing out anyway.”