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The past year has seen a number of significant policy and regulatory developments including the advancement of Ireland’s CAP strategic plan, the publication of the Food Vision 2030 strategy and the development of new legally binding climate change targets.

While the sector continues to deal with and manage remarkably well “once in a generation” challenges such as Brexit and Covid-19, there is no greater issue facing the sector than the subject of sustainability.

The COP-26 Summit held in Glasgow in November 2021 shone a spotlight on the issue of global climate change. The Irish Government as a member of the European Union is legally committed to sustained reductions in its Greenhouse Gas Emissions, a third of which emanate from agriculture.

In advance of COP-26, the Climate Change Advisory Council, chaired by Marie Donnelly published a series of carbon budget proposals aimed at reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 51% by 2030. The Government subsequently published their Climate Action Plan for 2021, which included a target range of 22% to 30% below 2018 emission levels for agriculture. This equates to a reduction of between 5 MT to 7 MT of CO2 eq by 2030.

It is important to recognise that Teagasc has identified a pathway to reduce emissions from agriculture, without recourse to the damaging option of herd reduction. It is a narrow pathway, which will depend on the widespread adoption of the Teagasc MACC curve and the delivery of new science and technologies. One thing for certain, is that the early implementation of the MACC curve is critical and the Teagasc Signpost Programme, supported by industry and formally launched in May 2021 will play a vital role.

New opportunities for farmers and co-ops must be central to the transition to a low carbon economy. The publication of the European Commission’s paper on carbon farming has been eagerly awaited but there are many unanswered questions still and it is vital that the benefits of such initiatives remain within the agriculture sector. 

Equally, the protection of water quality is a key priority for the Irish dairy industry. The EPA indicators report published in July 2021 highlighted the challenges in this area but acknowledged welcome improvements nonetheless. The assessment of individual catchments by the EPA that need reductions in nitrogen concentrations particularly in the South, South East and East is a key report, which will require a targeted and measured response in the critical source areas. The additional funding provided by industry to the ASSAP programme, as part of the Nitrates Review is another strong commitment by the Irish dairy sector to address the issue of water quality through advice, support and education. 

In relation to ammonia emissions, the adoption of new technologies such as low emission spreading equipment and protected urea by farmers is beginning to impact positively, with ammonia emissions starting to decline and the greater adoption of these measures to 2030 will see the sector meet its regulatory targets. 

The integration of the dairy and beef sectors remains a key structural issue facing Irish agriculture, requiring a renewed focus in 2022. There are warning signals in relation to the future of live animal exports, which must be debated more rationally at EU level. Ireland’s Island nation status as part of the single market must be recognised by the EU, as new legislation is brought forward in 2022.

The position of family farms dependent on farming for their livelihood is a key issue in the context of the debate on sustainability, and unfortunately an issue we believe was overlooked in the debate on Ireland’s new CAP strategic plan. There is a sense of a missed opportunity, particularly the design of the eco-schemes under Pillar one.

The key recommendation contained in the new Food Vision Strategy published in August this year and overseen by Tom Arnold is the development of a new Food Systems approach. Ultimately, the provision of high quality, safe and traceable food is vital for global food security and the economic well being of our society. The vital role played by farm families and their co-operatives in contributing to these goals must be recognised and protected in the years ahead.

Eamonn Farrell – Agri Food Policy Executive