‘Our policy of driving dairy expansion is deeply flawed’

Irish dairy farmers are being urged to prepare for unavoidable “extreme weather shocks” in the coming years, a leading climatologist has warned.

In a recent interview with AgriLand, John Sweeney, Professor (emeritus) of geography at Maynooth University cautioned that dramatic changes are urgently needed to agricultural models across the board.

However, when focusing specifically on the dairy sector, Prof. Sweeney frankly stated that: “Something has got to give”.

Although the abolition of milk quotas in 2015 created huge opportunities for dairy farmers; he stresses that dairy expansion over the last decade occurred with “little emphasis” being placed on climate efficiency.

Irish agriculture has been defined by the European Union as being the least climate efficient in Europe. This is largely due to our dairy industry.

“There are three quarters of a million more cattle in Ireland today – relative to the end of 2011. Today, each dairy cow produces more methane per cow than it did 10 years ago,” he said.

Methane production is one of the leading instigators of climate change. As such, Prof. Sweeney believes that it is “inevitably” playing a part in ongoing extreme weather events across the world – including Ireland.

According to Sweeney the prevalence of “weather anomalies” will continue to increase in frequency over the coming years.

‘Deeply flawed’

Prof. Sweeney believes that Irish dairy farmers need to “act now” to prepare themselves for the future.

“If the ‘Beast from the East’; the winter fodder crisis; and our current prolonged heatwave have taught us anything, it is that our risk management systems are deeply flawed.

“We need rethink the policy of continuously increasing our dairy herds.

We must be more resilient – especially in agriculture. Shocks are coming down the line. It will require farmers to become more conservative.

“Considering the fact that we now have two fodder crises in recent years, a snow event, and now serious problems with drought – farmers must be mindful of this reality when considering big investments in herd size,” he said.

Looking to the future, Sweeney believes agricultural diversification will provide “some security” against climate change.

He believes investment in irrigation and water harvesting systems may be the next big investment for the dairy sector.

CAP reform

When asked about looming changes to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) post-2020 – which will see a greater emphasis on environment and climate action – Prof. Sweeney said Ireland stills has a long road ahead.

“Other countries have talked the talk, and walked the walk, in a way that Ireland hasn’t when it comes to implementing policy for emission reductions,” he said.

This comes after a recent report issued by the Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe which ranked Ireland as the second worst EU member state to tackle climate change, as per the goals set out in the Paris Agreement.

This comes as a result of long-term failure in policy going back to the turn of the century.

“There are pressures in Government from powerful interest groups, such as the transport sector and the agricultural sector,” cautioned Prof. Sweeney.

“With CAP reform around the corner the Government and the agricultural sector must focus on the future impacts of climate change.

Sustainability and rural development has been neglected in CAP reform thus far.

“This is not a money issue; the money is there. We need those allocating the CAP funding to focus sensibly on reform and not give it to those who are intensifying and increasing our emission output,” he concluded.