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Earlier this month, the Minister for Agriculture, Charlie McConalogue published the “Ag Climatise” Strategy – a roadmap for the agriculture sector to deal with its climate change and air quality challenges. 

Its sets out a vision “to develop a climate neutral food system compatible with the Paris temperature goals, whereby the climate impact of biogenic methane is reduced to zero and remaining agricultural emissions are balanced by removals through land use and a significant contribution to renewable energy.” The strategy needs to be understood in the context of the new draft Climate Change Bill, which is undergoing legislative scrutiny by the Oireachtas at present. The Climate Bill will set out a series of carbon budgets for sectors to operate within.

The Paris Agreement sets out a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but crucially under Article 2 states “in a manner that does not threaten food production”. Unfortunately, there is little or no mention of food security, the reality of a growing global population or the risk of carbon leakage in the strategy. Can the agri-food sector have full confidence in a strategy that doesn’t seek to protect food production in the context of a growing global population?

The document points out that agriculture is the single largest contributor to overall emissions but fails to place Ireland’s agriculture emissions in context, considering the lack of heavy industry in the wider economy, Ireland’s historically large bovine population and the limited mitigation options associated with biological emissions from primary agriculture. The strategy also points out the sector’s vulnerability in relation to ammonia with agriculture responsible for 99% of these emissions. Targeted measures around LESS and Protected Urea must be rolled out early over the course of the next decade to demonstrate improvement in relation to ammonia.  The Department urgently needs to clarify its mixed messaging on Protected Urea sooner rather than later.

The positive is that the strategy provides the sector with a roadmap for climate and air quality. It’s a starting point. ICOS has called on the Government to provide a roadmap for over 18 months and overall, it is welcome as the strategy is based on the scientific research behind the Teagasc MACC curves for greenhouse gases and ammonia. 

The key message is that many of the measures are doable from a farmer’s perspective. For example, improved breeding, using protected urea, incorporating clover, spreading slurry using a trailing shoe, feeding a lower crude protein ration etc. The “doability” of the measures need to be reinforced by all stakeholders across the industry working together. Dairy farmers have proven to be early adopters of new technologies and innovation with 40% of dairy farmers now implementing LESS, 11% are using protected urea, 40% are liming on regular basis and 26% are reseeding. These indicators can be improved upon but the sector is starting from a strong position.

However, the strategy doesn’t provide the certainty needed and the Department of Agriculture will argue that it cannot provide that certainty. However, addressing the issue of climate change and agriculture must be based on a framework that does not threaten sustainable food production and respects the three pillars of sustainability – environment, economic and social. 

Eamonn Farrell – Agri-Food Policy Executive