Farmers Are Facing Up to the Climate Challenge

Read a speech by IFA President Joe Healy at the MacGill Summer School 2016

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted to be here this evening to speak on the important topic of climate change and to provide some thoughts around the question raised in the session title: Are we facing up to the challenge of climate change?

The session this evening is very timely in light of the announcement today of the climate targets Ireland must reach by 2030. The target for agriculture will be a challenge but it represents a much more balanced approach than previously applied.

I think the tone of the preamble to this session in the programme brochure seems to have arrived at a predetermined view – so I would ask the few that may not have read it yet to refrain and those that have – to keep an open mind.

As many of you know, farming is the backbone of economic activity in rural Ireland, undertaken in every county and parish. We need only look around us here in beautiful Glenties and Donegal to be acutely aware of this.

The farming and agri-food sector is Ireland’s largest indigenous sector, providing employment to over 300,000 people directly and indirectly. Exports from the agri-food sector have grown by more than 50% since 2009, and will reach over €11b in 2016.

Currently farming is faced with many challenges.

This evening I am addressing the climate challenge, but for many farmers the current income crisis being experienced, through a combination of low product prices and a bad spring is to the foremost of their minds and is my priority as President of IFA.

In addition, the recent vote by the UK to leave the EU has created major economic uncertainty. Farm families are under huge pressure as cash-flow tightens and the viability of their family farm is put at risk.

IFA is demanding immediate action by Government, banks, suppliers and processors to support farmers through this crisis and alleviate farm income pressures.

A strong agriculture sector in Ireland is critical to the achievement of a more balanced economic recovery. Agriculture provides employment and generates earnings across the country, not just at farm level, but in the thousands of regionally based jobs dependent on and linked to the sector.

Many of these jobs are located outside of the main urban centres. This provides an opportunity for families to both live and work in rural Ireland, and contributes to the maintenance of vibrant rural communities.

Therefore it’s really no surprise that Ireland’s national greenhouse gas emissions profile reflects this importance. After all Ireland did not have the industrial revolution experienced in many other European Member States. This has resulted in a lower proportion of emissions from agriculture in Germany, France and many other countries compared to Ireland.

However as I will discuss later, not all sectors are the same, with agriculture having other obligation in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Success – intersection of policy and politics

Having listened to the previous speakers, I can appreciate their perspectives however a quote from US President Barack Obama comes to mind when he said “remember success is determined by the intersection in policy and politics”.

Whether some here like it or not the fact is that we cannot address the climate challenge in isolation. Wider policy objectives and societal and political implications must also be considered.

This point is accepted in national, European and international climate policy and is worth consideration here.

For example, today’s announcement by the European Commission of Ireland’s 2030 target reflects this balanced approach – although it will present a significant challenge to farmers. Today’s target build on the October 2014, European Heads of Government energy and climate package, which includes a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030, compared to 1990.

Importantly the European Commission sent a clear signal in paragraph 2.14 of this agreement to policy makers in Member States. When deciding on sectoral plans, regard should be had for the multiple objectives of the agriculture sector, as food, fuel and energy producers as well as environmental enhancement and also the lower climate mitigation potential of the sector.

Paragraph 2.14 went on to refer to the need to ensure coherence between EU’s food security and climate change objectives and the need to examine the best means of encouraging the sustainable intensification of food production, while optimising the sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas mitigation and sequestration.

This October 2014 position of the European Union was subsequently reaffirmed by international leaders in Paris in December last, when they met and agreed the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, known as the Paris Agreement

Article 2 of the Paris Agreement specifically refers to the need to ensure that food production is not threatened when addressing the climate challenge.

I am sure thoughts of the food riots of less than a decade ago in the Middle East, food poverty in developing countries and the increased global demand for protein based foods such as beef and milk informed the Paris discussions.

So, international climate policy is now at a more settled point, where it acknowledges the many responsibilities that agriculture must deliver, in addition to making a contribution to addressing the climate challenge.

No room for complacency

But this settled view is no reason for complacency.

Ireland has a responsibility to act, and within this context, agriculture has an important role to play – while respecting the need to safeguard food production.

National and EU legislation will be an important driver of climate policy. The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act introduced last year requires the preparation of sectoral mitigation plans for the agriculture, transport, built environment and electricity generation sectors.

These plans are currently being finalised and will be supported by climate adaptation plans to prepare Ireland for future climate challenges.

Policy influencing farmers’ climate actions

Specifically on agriculture, Ireland is taking a leading position in Europe by targeting European funding through the Common Agriculture Policy to areas that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the sector. 87% of the measures in Ireland’s Rural Development Programme have climate reducing elements.

These measures include the Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme, or GLAS as it is known, which promotes the retention of soil carbon stocks through the encouragement of climate friendly agricultural practices such as minimum tillage, green-cover establishment and low-emission manure spreading techniques.

GLAS has clear and measurable agri-environment objectives over the next 5 years. They include:

  • To have over 90,000 hectares of land with a crop cover, delivering almost 50,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide savings annually;
  • Minimum tillage being used across 30,000 hectares of land sequestering over 10,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year and
  • Delivering 1.4 million metres of new hedgerows, which has the potential to sequester almost 5,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

The GLAS programme is oversubscribed, with a high level of farmer interest in participating. I strongly encourage Government to reopen the scheme and allow maximum participation.

Other programmes include the Beef Data and Genomics Programme and the Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme which assist farmers to reduce emissions and increase productive efficiency.

This climate focus of policy makers in Ireland is having a real impact, with emissions intensity per calorie of food output in 2013 approximately 14% below 2005. This figure is projected to reach 25% by 2030, based on the delivery of current policy measures.

Focus on emission intensity – a clear path forward

Emissions intensity as a proportion of output is the most appropriate climate barometer for agriculture, particularly if we accept the position of the EU Heads of Government from October 2014 and the international Paris Agreement of December 2015.

The guiding focus of EU and international climate policy is on emission efficient food production rather than reducing food production.
Research completed by the European Commission’s science and knowledge service, the Joint Research Centre demonstrates that Ireland has an emission efficient model of food production.

Ireland’s dairy farmers have the lowest carbon footprint in the EU for milk production and our beef farmers having the fifth lowest.
This is not surprising given our natural grass based model of food production and our temperate climate, with 90% of our agricultural lands being carbon sequestering grasslands.

Whilst these facts around Irish farmers’ emission efficient model of food production are welcomed, they still provides no room for complacency.

Irish farmers are far from complacent. They are very clearly going the extra environmental mile.

Farmers going the extra environmental mile

Ireland is the only country in the world that monitors, measures and manages carbon from farm to fork.

90% of beef exports are now in an audit and carbon foot printing programme. 100% of milk production is entering into a carbon auditing cycle. In addition Over 100,000 carbon assessments have been completed on farms to date as part of Bord Bia’s Origin Green programme.
This Origin Green programme is the only sustainability programme in the world that operates on a national scale, with collaboration between Government, the private sector, food producers and farmers.

It enables participants to set and achieve measurable environmental mitigation targets in areas that include carbon, water, energy and biodiversity.

In IFA we are leading a voluntary initiative called Smart Farming. This programme aims to address the dual challenges of improving farm incomes while reducing environmental impact.

The genesis of this initiative came from the findings of the Teagasc climate marginal abatement cost curve or MACC as it is known.
The MACC quantified the opportunities for abatement of agricultural greenhouse gases, as well as the associated costs/benefits.
It provided guidance for the development of the Smart initiative, which focuses on the double dividend of improving farm returns while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Each year over 600 farmers throughout the country participate in this over-subscribed programme. The initiative combines the knowledge and expertise of agencies such as Teagasc, the EPA, UCD and the Grassland Association of Ireland and communicates it in a targeted way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve farm returns through better resource management.

Further opportunities to reduce emissions

The science tells us that Irish agriculture can reduce emissions by no greater than 8%. The greatest and most cost effective opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions come in the built environment, transport and energy sectors.

This emphasises the need for action in these other sectors – and this is perhaps where farming can do more and offer more support.

This morning I met with Energy and Climate Minister Denis Naughten and during our discussion we agreed on the need for a coordinated national effort through the establishment of a National Energy Forum, in which IFA will participate.

Last Thursday in Portlaoise I opened a seminar hosted by IFA which examined the potential for farmers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while delivering on Ireland’s renewable energy production through the use of solar PV technologies.

The interest in attending this seminar amongst farmers was greater than the capacity of the room.

The potential of solar PV is being restricted by Government inaction. I would again restate my call on Government to come forward with a realistic feed-in tariff, which encourages community participation in renewable energy production and farm scale projects.

A different narrative around the delivery of renewables is required in Ireland and it must put communities centre stage, whether that’s grid connection policy, feed-in tariff or planning policy.

I firmly believe that at least 25% of all renewable energy projects, once built should be made available to communities for part ownership. Future Government policy should support this.

On forestry, we currently have over 312,000 hectares of forest cover that has been planted since 1990, with the State investing over €3.2 billion between 1990 and 2030 to increase forest cover. This new forest plantation has a tangible carbon sequestration value that must feature positively in the Ireland’s carbon accounting out to 2030.

Concluding Comments

So as I draw my comments to a close, the answer to the question posed is yes.

Yes the agri-food sector is facing up to the challenge of climate change, from farm to fork. We have to. Our futures and that of the next generations depend on our sustainability actions today.

However sustainability is not just about the environment. It’s also economic and social sustainability for farming and wider rural communities.

This in my view is what success really looks like, when the policy and political processes intersect to deliver on the multiple objectives of environmental/climate, economic and social sustainability and we really have a holistic sustainable and vibrant future.


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