Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

National Climate and Air Roadmap for the Agriculture Sector: Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)

I compliment Senator Paul Daly on the points he made and on his commitment to climate awareness and sustainability.Indeed, I compliment the Senator on his choice of language where he encouraged us to beware of putting the cart before the horse. It would have been so much easier to modernise that phrase and say beware of putting the trailer before the tractor but he, quite rightly, chose the environmentally-friendly image. I agree with everything that he had to say in his speech.

This is one those debates in which it is hard to avoid speaking out of both sides of one's mouth because there are important social goods that bump up against each other. On the one hand, there is the protection of the environment, the reduction of emissions and so on, as well as creating a better future for the disadvantaged people of this world and for the next generation. At the same time, there are social and cultural goods to be protected, namely, people's way of life, their culture and their basic economic needs.

We all need to change our attitudes and to address climate change and damage to our environment. We must do that, however, in a way that does not penalise people who cannot afford to be penalised and which protects those who are most exposed to the impacts of change. As Ireland generates one tenth of 1% of total global emissions, we need to be realistic about how much we can achieve by addressing the 35% of those emissions that are from agriculture and food, which are the focus of this report. Sadly, debates on climate change are often driven by scare stories and the giving of credence to extreme and unrealistic proposals that would punish ordinary people. Central to that has been a fairly low level but nonetheless persistent attempt by a significant minority among environmental groups to demonise farming and the agriculture sector generally. In 2019, the so-called Extinction Rebellion group staged a sit-in at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine calling for an end to the farming of animals and a complete transition to tillage. The leader of that movement internationally is on record as calling for the confiscation of cars, the state-rationing of meat consumption and the limiting of each family to one flight every five years. In the light of recent events I think I would settle for that, if I could be guaranteed a flight every five years, but seriously, these are the actual policy positions of Extinction Rebellion.

We have seen the so-called Go Vegan World campaign group roll out a suspiciously well-funded billboard and public relations campaign across the country that called for a complete end to the farming of animals. As we know, huge funding buys media credibility in Ireland and these positions were given significant coverage in the media at least until the arrival of the coronavirus.

I saw a surreal debate on “Prime Time” where a spokesperson for Go Vegan World said that to her, cows had the same personalities as human beings and that some of her greatest friends have been cattle. Now I say this as an animal lover, and someone who loves cattle and who sees the great personalities that farm animals have, including cattle. I am an admirer of Temple Grandin and her insights into animal welfare, and how it should be promoted at every stage. She is a remarkable person who has produced some remarkable stuff that people should reflect on. However, it is the old bacon and eggs distinction, where we know that the hen participates but the pig is more committed and these are the kind of things that we need to be aware of. We can imagine and extoll the merits of vegetarianism but it gets a bit more hard to live a vegan lifestyle yet remain healthy, although I am not saying it is impossible. While these groups have important insights that we need to hear there does seem to be a dul thar fóir sometimes, a crazy element that simply does not take into account either the realities of life or the basic needs of rural and farming communities.

I come from a farming family myself so I strongly support the highest standards of animal welfare and ethical practices, while believing that we need to stay rooted in reality and to challenge this extreme rhetoric head on. This is where I speak out of both sides of my mouth because I wonder for how much longer we can avoid having a debate about, for example, the way animals are slaughtered. This is probably one of those areas where economic need, the importance of trade and so on bumps up against animal welfare and perhaps even the diversity and inclusion agenda. Frankly, it is not a debate I am looking forward to. I find the topic very unpleasant and troubling but I do not think it is a discussion that we can avoid forever.However, I note our remarkable capacity to push certain uncomfortable issues into a corner and to say that whatever we will be discussing, it will not be that.

The report before us today is far from perfect but I welcome it in the sense that it does at least propose sensible policies and steers well clear of any extreme courses of action. It has been criticised by both farming groups as going too far and by environmental groups as doing not nearly enough. On the whole, however, it represents a fair set of goals. As we know, the beef sector has already been under significant pressure in recent years. Thankfully, we have been spared the pain of being subjected to a tariff regime stemming from a hard Brexit. However, prices fell substantially over the past two years as factories priced in the prospect of a no-deal Brexit in the knowledge that the loss of British market share could have allowed them to push prices down even further. I certainly support proposals in this report on better breeding practices as a means of reducing emissions, such as genotyping of the national herd, which Senator Daly referred to. However, I share a concern expressed by the ICMSA which has pointed out that many of the proposals tend to place the burden of reducing the carbon footprint on farmers. In other words, Government policies are often based on the notion we can preserve food prices at the current low levels and that the carbon footprint can be reduced from the supermarket backwards along the chain by placing burdens on farmers through new regulations and paperwork. We must be more honest about the fact that there is only so much that farmers can be expected to do and that the job of reducing the carbon footprint needs to be spread more equally along the production and supply chains. This will inevitably lead to higher prices for consumers. If we are to pursue these policies, we need to be honest about that.

There are, however, other proposals and aspirations in the report which ring a little hollow. For example the aim to have a 50% reduction in nitrous oxide emissions and essentially a 20% reduction in the use of chemical nitrogen in the next nine years. While I am no scientist, I know Teagasc has done a lot of valuable research which shows that significant reductions in nitrogen have a strong negative effect on the profitability of dairy farms and hammers the already limited profitability of suckler and sheep farming. With this trade-off between sustainability and profitability, these targets seem hugely optimistic or potentially dangerous, depending on how one looks at them. It certainly has the hallmarks of being another lofty climate change target that seems destined to be missed. We must remember that there are 170,000 employed in the food sector with another 250,000 working in farming. We can never lose sight of that.

I add my voice to those who say we need to be very careful what we do about turf-cutting. There are vested interests here. There is a climate and sustainability agenda, an economic agenda, quality of life in rural Ireland and there are houses which cannot, practically speaking, be retrofitted. We must therefore ensure, in light of recent comments, that we protect turf-cutting at a certain level.


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