“Commentators and campaigners must avoid the mistake of making an environmental scapegoat of agriculture when it comes to climate change,” the President of ICOS, Michael Spellman told the 124th Annual General Meeting of the organisation in Killenard, Co. Laois, this morning.
The annual meeting of Irish dairy, agrifood and mart leaders marks the 125th Anniversary of the foundation of the co-operative movement in Ireland in 1894 and it was also addressed by Minister for Agriculture, Food & The Marine, Michael Creed T.D., recognising the occasion.
ICOS (the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society) represents over 130 co-operatives in Ireland – including the Irish dairy processing co-operatives and livestock marts – whose associated businesses have a combined turnover in the region of €14 billion, with some 150,000 individual members, employing 12,000 people in Ireland, and a further 24,000 people overseas.
“The agriculture sector obviously has much to contribute to sustainability, has already made major strides in this requirement, and is playing its part in working towards a low carbon future, relative to the essential and far reaching benefits which this vital source of food production brings to our society and the economy,” said Michael Spellman.
“Brexit is a major threat and its outcome is of critical importance to our industry. This will eventually be resolved for either a reasonable, bad or middling outcome. Our industry must rise to meet this challenge with new levels of competitiveness and market access. ICOS is strongly representing the interests of our members at a national, European and international levels in this regard, as we are also doing in respect of CAP developments.
“Co-operative enterprise is a positive force for good through mutual endeavour in the interests of farmers and rural communities. This is also particularly the case in our co-operative marts where competitiveness and transparency in sales and pricing act as a counterfoil to dominant market forces, in the interests of producers and consumers.
“We are also deeply aware that the environment and climate change is a lifetime challenge that affects a global population with the potential for truly catastrophic outcomes for nature and humanity if our international political, economic and industry leaders do not act in concert together to address the totality of issues involved. It is the most pressing challenge for this generation and our generations to come.
“While the contributing factors to climate change are many and complex; in simple terms, all sectors of the economy are emitting too many greenhouse gasses. We must dramatically reduce those emissions in the short time we have left to create climate change reversal.
“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.
“ICOS has continually highlighted the critical importance of not driving food production away from a sustainable production base like Ireland, only to have it produced somewhere with higher emissions. Nevertheless, we cannot and nor do we wish to, escape our commitments to reduce our total emissions from agriculture.
“In the comprehensive ICOS policy document ‘Positive steps towards a low carbon future for the Irish dairy sector’ (2018), we set out our industry’s achievements to date and our ambition for future continuing environmental sustainability. This is endorsed by and takes inspiration from the Teagasc Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (Report) and its scientifically based plan to substantially reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions from agriculture across 3 main pillars – Agricultural mitigation of methane and nitrous oxide, Carbon sequestration and Offsetting via fossil fuel displacement.
“In addition, ICOS contributed our views to the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change which encourages knowledge sharing across our industry and the roll out of the 25 climate mitigation measures contained in Teagasc’s Marginal Abatement Cost Curve.
“There are no quick fixes when it comes to mitigation from agriculture as methane and nitrous oxide are biological emissions. However, the adoption of EBI (Economic Breeding Index), improved nitrogen use efficiency, uptake of protected urea measures, use of low emission spreading equipment, greater use of milk recording and extending the grazing season are all examples of practical measures that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. The critical message to farmers is that there is also a strong correlation between the uptake of these carbon efficiency measures and farm level profitability.
“Our grassland and our pasture based grazing and dairy production model leads beneficially to the substantial build-up of organic matter in our soils. These are carbon sinks and their maintenance by farmers must get the credit that deserves and continue to be recognised as a key part of the solution.
“While our farms are extremely tightly regulated, and operate to world leading standards, we must constantly enhance our performance with continuous improvement in standards of animal welfare, biodiversity maintenance, and water quality and usage.
“Anaerobic digestion is a proven technology with significant potential to reduce emissions from stored slurry and manure. This will reduce nitrous oxide emissions and also offset fossil fuel as an energy source. There is a clear need for meaningful support from the Government to maximise the potential of AD biogas in Ireland, recognising the high investment costs involved, in addition to renewable energy and energy efficiency, where Minister Michael Creed recent announced a welcome €10 million in grants under TAMS to support the work of farmers who are installing solar PV and LED lighting on their farms.
“We should be proud of, and defend our industry, and its existing sustainability credentials built on the family farming model. We have nothing to be ashamed of. We are the custodians of the rural environment, and we do that job well, while producing the most nutritious, safest, pasture-based beef and dairy in the world.
“Last year we ranked 2nd out of 113 countries worldwide in the Global Food Security Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The index considers three core pillars of food security; Affordability, Availability, and Quality & Safety. We can always do better, but our policy makers cannot allow this hugely strong and valuable position to be eroded by failing to devise a sensible and effective response to our environmental commitments.
Concluding, Michael Spellman said, “This is a very special year for ICOS and all of our member co-operatives and their constituents. It is 125 years since this great movement was founded with the inaugural meeting of the IAOS (Irish Agricultural Organisation Society) in April 1894. The movement was borne out of a period of turbulence in rural Ireland, with the rural economy on its knees following from the long-term repercussions of the Great Famine.
“The leadership shown by our founders such as Horace Plunkett, Reverend Tom Finlay, George Russell, and Robert Anderson, among multitudes of men and women over ensuing decades, was crucial to building a movement that empowered ordinary people to grow an industry the like of which we have today.
“While our agrifood industry continues to grow in scale and complexity, the co-operative model, on which it was built, continues to be relevant and to provide the structure to become a world leader, while always remembering the importance of supporting our farmer members. Our co-operative farmers are the bedrock and inspiration of everything we seek to achieve through the ideals of Better Farming, Better Business and Better Living, which resound as effectively today as they did in 1894, through the continuing and sustainable development of our industry as an essential resource for the people of Ireland.
“In today’s world where climate change and sustainability are attracting more and more priority the world over, let us be certain that we can demonstrate to our children, our grandchildren and the generations to come that ‘we did what was right to make the world a better place for all’.”
Mr. Spellman’s comments also mark his retirement from the role of President of ICOS (having served his term of office with distinction, and prior to that, as Chairman of the ICOS Marts Committee.)