Essential to protect our ‘social licence’ for farming – ICOS President
Comments of ICOS President, Jerry Long:
This is a critical time for our farming and agribusiness co-operative sector, as we are faced with unprecedented challenges to the way we do business, and we are increasingly tasked by our customers and other stakeholders to ensure that our production systems reflect the values that they hold dear.
While it may have been tempting for a while to ignore Climate Change, and to say that our sector didn’t cause it and that we didn’t need to adapt our practices; it’s glaringly obvious now that we have some very heavy lifting to do to ensure that we can’t ever be accused of adding to the problem. Indeed, we need to demonstrate that we are a key part of the solution.
This will be a challenge to all of us, but the good work done by Teagasc and others has demonstrated that if we can embrace new technologies and practices, we can actually improve our efficiency as an industry, while reducing or environmental footprint.
We are all aware that the consumption of meat and dairy products is being increasingly challenged by groups within society. We know that they have a focus on the environment, but they also have a huge focus on the welfare of our animals. Publicity campaigns can paint even normal husbandry practices in a bad way, so we must work very hard to ensure that all aspects of our farming operations treat animals with respect and ensure that their welfare is in no way compromised.
Given the time of year, with calving season approaching, and the backdrop of a very depressed beef market, it is reasonable to be concerned as to the market for dairy bull calves. Indeed, it is possible that some calves, in these market conditions may be of little or negative economic value. We must, however, be conscious of the expectations of our consumers, and we must ensure that every calf is treated in a way that we can stand over.
There is to be no negativity. We must look positively at these challenges as creating opportunities for our sector to be innovative, to create efficiencies, and to build further on our already strong sustainability credentials.
Agriculture is Ireland’s largest indigenous industry. For over a century and more, co-operative farming and processing has underpinned economic progress and contributed strongly to the recovery of the economy in the aftermath of the most recent recession. Now it continues to form a key element of Ireland’s competitiveness on global markets, built on strong credentials of wholesome and naturally produced raw materials and excellence in processing.
We are at a time of unprecedented change and associated expectation throughout society, whether that is in terms of the geopolitical issues that we see throughout the world, the changing shape of trading relations between countries and overall shifts in consumer sentiment and demand. In that regard, the separate issues of climate change and animal welfare have become intertwined in an overall discourse on sustainability, a debate which our industry must lead rather than follow.
It is essential for us to protect our ‘social licence’ to produce livestock, including the best animal welfare standards.
The Irish dairy industry must support and develop calf rearing and breeding policies, whereby each calf born must be treated with equal importance for the duration of their life, regardless of their economic value. Together with ICOS’s own policies in this regard, the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Council’s soon to be published guidelines will be a welcome addition to the best practices which underpin animal husbandry and the sustainability of our livestock sector.
The alleviation and reversal of climate change is critically important and all sectors must play their part, including agriculture. However, climate action mustn’t come at a disadvantage for Irish agriculture and rural Ireland where a strategy of ‘sustainable intensification’ remains the most desirable way forward. This is in a context where production systems throughout the world will have to provide 70% more food to feed a global 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.
It is widely recognised that the possibilities for carbon mitigation are generally limited in agriculture, compared to other economic sectors. However, Ireland offers key advantages in this regard where, for example, the majority of output by Irish agriculture comes from milk and beef produced in a grassland environment.
In Ireland, given that we have almost no heavy industry and related sectors, our emissions from agriculture form a higher than average proportion of total emissions. However, we produce food with a significantly lower environmental footprint than most of our international competitors. That must be recognised by everyone interested in this agenda. Furthermore, we must continue to be acutely aware of the economic contribution which agriculture makes to the Irish economy where there is simply no other industry generating wealth, investment and jobs to such a significant scale in rural Ireland.
In spite of the major challenge represented by climate change, it remains an entirely legitimate aspiration for farmers to fully develop the potential of their farm enterprises, to secure better incomes and to provide better futures for their families. That said, the Irish co-operative dairy industry acknowledges the importance of urgently addressing climate change. We also strongly believe that Ireland’s approach to climate change and agriculture should be based on the principles of Climate Smart Agriculture, which is supported by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
The ICOS report ‘Positive Steps towards a Low Carbon Future for the Irish Dairy Sector’ carries 11 recommendations including measures around grassland management, the inclusion of clover in swards, manure management including trailing shoe technology, nutrient management planning and the adoption of protected urea. Additionally, improving the Economic Breeding Index (EBI), the use of sexed semen, reducing the age of first calving, improvements in animal health and nutrition, increasing levels of milk recording and energy efficiency improvements on farms are important measures to be pursued.
There is also significant scope to improve soil fertility levels in Ireland including lime application where soil fertility has a positive benefit in terms of climate change and also water quality. Sustainability without biodiversity is ultimately not sustainability. In this context, Irish farmland systems have a unique competitive advantage when it comes to habitat management, biodiversity and wildlife preservation and this must continue to be enhanced.
These are all issues which Irish agriculture recognises as being important. As our national conference marks 125 years of co-operative enterprise in Ireland this year, we may be deeply proud of our industry but we must be vigilant to ensure that we will always evolve to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by continuous and unrelenting change.
28 May 2021