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Michael Spellman, President, ICOS

DUBLIN – DÁIL ÉIREANN – Wednesday, 12th December 2018 – “The alleviation and reversal of climate change is critically important and all sectors must play their part, including agriculture. But, 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 in the context of growing global demand for food,” ICOS President, Michael Spellman said while addressing the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action.

“Food production systems throughout the world will have to provide 70% more food to feed a global population which is 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.”

“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.”

Mr. Spellman cited an analysis by EY which identifies a major multiplier effect around every additional litre of milk produced. This arises from spending by co-operatives and on farms, spending by service providers to the dairy industry and spending by those employed in the dairy sector. The analysis concludes that additional milk production from 2016 to 2020 will result in a €2.7 billion benefit to the economy or €540 million annually.

“It is a legitimate aspiration by 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 dairy industry total acknowledges the importance of climate change and our responsibility to develop in a sustainable manner for the future,” said Mr. Spellman.

“For all of these reasons, the suggestion of levying carbon taxes on Irish agriculture, as made earlier this year by the Citizens Assembly is most certainly not a solution and should not form part of Government consideration.

“Any such proposal, if implemented, would directly damage the competitiveness of Irish agrifood exports and it would hurt rural Ireland, while benefiting little to the environment. In reality, it would be counterproductive, resulting in the possibility of carbon leakage whereby food production in carbon efficient locations such as Ireland would be negatively affected, while highly inefficient regions would be free to increase output unhindered.”

Addressing Climate Change

“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’ was launched earlier this year by Minister Michael Creed and Professor John Fitzgerald with 11 recommendations. These include 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 significant scope to improve soil fertility levels in Ireland including lime application. The health of our soil is a key factor in the production of food in an environmental and sustainable manner. As an industry, we are fully committed to the improvement of soil fertility, which will have a positive benefit in terms of climate change but also water quality.

“The ICOS report concluded that true sustainability without biodiversity is ultimately not sustainability. In this context, Irish farmland systems have a unique competitive advantage when it comes to biodiversity and wildlife and the report recommends that farmers should be incentivised to maintain a habitat management plan on their farms.

“We also strongly believe that there is real potential for increased afforestation in Ireland to offset farm-based emissions. However, the targets established will not be achieved without a significant increase in planting from current levels.  The ICOS report recommends the development of a worthwhile agro forestry initiative for livestock farmers including dairy farmers to grow native, broadleaf trees.”

In conclusion, Michael Spellman stated “There is an overwhelming need for transformational thinking to deal with climate change, especially in the area of renewable energy. Unfortunately, the reality is that the current renewable energy options at farm level are uneconomical.”