Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

National Climate and Air Roadmap for the Agriculture Sector: Statements

 

10:30 am

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber and thank him for his contribution. I warmly welcome the publication of the Ag Climatise roadmap for the agriculture sector. Farmers will probably view it with some scepticism, but it is an excellent document. All of its contents are achievable. While there may be diverse opinions on how the targets will be achieved, I welcome the fact that they are somewhat in parallel with the marginal abatement cost curve, MACC, which was produced by Teagasc and accepted by the broad church of agriculture. Working hand in hand, the targets will be achieved. There are 29 actions in the plan, which sounds a lot but, when one takes into consideration the vastness of the sector, it is not too many. I think it is achievable, but we need to work together and we need buy-in from all sectors.

I welcome the fact that the Minister in his remarks highlighted the importance of protecting the Irish family farm model. In tackling this immense problem of greenhouse gas emissions, we must remember that although agriculture gets targeted because it contributes 35% of Irish output, we never had an industrial revolution in this country. Agriculture is the largest indigenous industry and, as such, will always account for the highest percentage of emissions. Many people do not take account of that, but it needs to be noted.

Another fact that needs to be noted and taken into consideration as we go forward to achieve the targets the Minister has set is that the latest predictions are that the world population will increase by 30% by 2050. While we are setting 2050 targets which it is to be hoped we will achieve, we must remember that production will have to increase as that population increases. Those people will have to be fed. The most important thing for the agriculture community or sector in any country is to be able to guarantee food security. That is a major underlying factor which has to be taken into consideration at all junctures.

I warmly welcome the plan and recommend that people read it because I think it is very achievable. There is ongoing public consultation on the Department's agri-environment pilot project. The Minister referred to nitrous oxide and biogenic methane emissions, but I strongly recommend that the Department consider the funding or part-funding of reseeding as part of that pilot scheme. All present know that clover content and improved grass swards will help to reduce the input of artificial nitrogen. Although many of the bigger and more intensive farm units regularly carry out reseeding, in the Minister's neck of the woods or in my area, where there are smaller holdings of suckler farming and the necessary disposable income may not be available, there are grass swards that have been there for a lifetime. I am 55 years of age and I know of fields near where I live that have not been reseeded in that time. They have never been ploughed or reseeded. I would like the agri-environment pilot project to include or at least consider a financial incentive for reseeding to improve the sward and, in turn, reduce the nitrogen input.The economic breeding index, EBI, and the Eurostar bull breeding index have been working, but there must be more work in these areas. We will reduce methane emissions by improving the feed and the genomics and breeding of our herd. Much progress has been made, but much more must be achieved. We must continue with our current trajectories to bring that progress about.

The Minister also mentioned tillage, which is our most carbon-efficient endeavour. We must promote our tillage and horticulture sectors. As with all actions in the context of climate change, however, we cannot put the cart before the horse. There are the famous buzz words regarding a "just transition". What is evident now and must be addressed, particularly in the horticulture sector, is the imminent cessation of peat harvesting.

Representatives from the horticulture sector appeared before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine last week. Unfortunately, those representatives confirmed to us that peat is coming into Dublin Port from Scotland. Climate action is a global issue and we must deal with it globally. We must of course get our house in order, but it makes no sense to be stopping peat harvesting in Ireland to allow for the ticking of a box, while at the same time importing the peat required for the horticulture sector from Scotland. The representatives from that sector told us in the committee meeting that it was increasing inputs costs. I spoke to one major horticulture producer, who told me that as a result he will not be sowing any pumpkins or onions this year because he will not be able to compete with imports from the Netherlands. This grower is a major player in the horticulture sector. We must therefore bring these sectors with us regarding climate change actions. We must have joined-up thinking and it must be cross-Departmental thinking as well. I am only using the situation with peat as an example.

I move on to land use, changes in this context and another aspect I would like to see the Minister incorporate into the new CAP. I am talking about hedgerows, which may form some part of the agri-environmental pilot programme. We have 382,000 km of hedgerows, which farmers have not been getting the requisite credit for maintaining. Those hedgerows are the bedrock of our biodiversity and provided an unbelievable amount of sequestration of carbon. In the context of a CAP application, satellite photographs of the highest quality are available for use. Every area considered to have a small bit of bush or scrub or plantation which is not recognised as forestry or a hedgerow is removed from consideration in this regard. Farmers are penalised and not paid for such areas.

If we are serious about protecting our environment and biodiversity in future, especially in the form of our hedgerows and agroforestry, which is just sporadic trees on farms or what we deem scrub areas, there must be a reward in the form of payment for maintaining such areas. Those areas should not be eliminated from being eligible in a CAP application and farmers should not effectively be punished for having them. The temptation then would be to remove such areas from farms. I have a serious gripe about this issue. If we are serious about protecting our environment and biodiversity in future, it will be necessary for payment to be made for the entire area being farmed, instead of eliminating those areas most beneficial to the environment.

I will not go down the road concerning the issue of forestry. We have had numerous meetings on this issue. It is being put out there as the Holy Grail. If we can achieve our targets, then yes a great amount of sequestration and biodiversity will result from forestry. There will be a great benefit for humanity in respect of recreation, etc.. We must, however, bring people with us in this endeavour. The situation now in forestry, unfortunately, is turning people away from this sector. I refer to the backlog in licensing. It is a nightmare for anyone involved in the sector to get the required licence to thin or fell forestry, or to put in the roads needed for those activities. People are being turned away from this sector, and we will not bring them with us because they will not be encouraged in this regard.

I conclude by talking about something I am delighted to see contained in this plan and something I have often mentioned, namely carbon trading. A farmer who has a positive carbon footprint, whether from hedgerows on a small holding and-or some microgeneration, should be able to trade his or her carbon credits with a bigger farmer. We must also sit down with our EU colleagues regarding credits. It is mentioned in the Minister's report how much food we export, and we should be able to take the credit in that regard. When we export food to another country, it means that country will not have the carbon outputs we have undertaken in producing that food. A debate is needed on the necessity of allocating some of those countries' carbon credits to us if we are helping those countries to avoid higher greenhouse gas, GHG, emissions by producing food for them.

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