Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

National Climate and Air Roadmap for the Agriculture Sector: Statements

 

10:30 am

Annie Hoey (Labour)

We are all very happy and healthy vegans in my farming family. For too long, we have been afraid to have these conversations and there seems to be a narrative, in the public mind at least, that the agricultural sector and the environmental lobby must always be pitched against one another. However, agricultural stakeholders know more than many others the reality of what climate change has wrought on the sector and they want urgent action on this.As we go forward with this as a country, led by a Government of the Green Party in office with parties that are traditionally associated with representing the agricultural communities, from the small family farms like the one I grew up on in Meath to the larger agricultural bodies, I hope we might see a depoliticising of the issue and a coming together of communities that are committed to the same goal, which is to work to keep our environment, air quality, water quality and biodiversity as safe and as strong as possible. We need this for the well-being of our country, the well-being of our public health and, of course, the well-being of the agri-food economy in Ireland.

While I was preparing for this discussion, I reviewed a number of submissions to the Department on this topic. I want to focus specifically on some of the recommendations made by groups such as the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. It is very realistic in its assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of this proposal. The overall success of this roadmap will depend on the ability of the sector to reverse these trends in a measurable, verifiable and reportable manner. The sector's sustainability credentials and reputation rely very heavily on this. Can the Minister say if more has been done to address the concerns in this regard since the initial proposal? The roadmap would benefit from a clear mechanism for how and when such measurement and reporting will happen.

The sustainability of the sector is also key to our future protection of the environment. The EPA has suggested that the three-pillar model that was applied to Food Wise 2025 did not achieve the necessary focus on environmental issues. This can be seen from the continuing deterioration of water quality in agricultural catchments. It has since been proposed that a pyramid structure is now required. This indicates that social and economic sustainability for the sector is not possible without an evidence-based environmentally sustainable foundation. Can the Minister speak to any of the work that is being done to achieve this?

I am concerned that the roadmap documents do not provide sufficient detail on the expected emissions growth levels of greenhouse gases and air pollutants from the sector in the absence of the implementation of actions. Can the Minister take this under consideration because it is essential for a number of things that we have an estimate of the scale of output? The most urgent of these is the need to measure the effectiveness of the policies we are developing. Stakeholders must understand the level of ambition that is required against a scenario where no actions are implemented. That might result in a more focused discussion on policies.

In its submission to the Department, the EPA noted that the main focus of the roadmap document is greenhouse gas emissions from the sector. However, the effects of the sector on air pollution and quality, water quality and biodiversity and their interconnectedness do not appear to be as adequately addressed as greenhouse gas emissions, as I mentioned earlier. For example, it has been suggested that the roadmap would benefit from the specific inclusion of the ammonia abatement cost curve, given that the roadmap has been presented for both climate and air.

The Minister spoke about methane gas emissions. He said he believes that in time, a technological solution will be found. I do not wish to be a Debbie Downer but what if a technological solution is not found to convert methane gas into something else? I am sure this is being worked on at present, but how long are we willing to wait before we need to have some very difficult conversations on this issue?

One of the actions in the roadmap involves a plan to "Reduce the management intensity of at least 40,000ha of peat based agricultural soils". This is a really important action that requires implementation and its inclusion is very welcome. However, like the EPA I have noted that the identification of the most appropriate areas and regions would be significantly enhanced with the development of spatially explicit land-use mapping. Is this something that the Department is planning to do and, if so, what stakeholders will the Department be consulting?

The Minister commented on the general population's belief that the eating of hamburgers is more detrimental to our planet than getting on an aeroplane. I am aware that plenty of people who eat oat-based and vegetable-based burgers are happy on their staycations. I have spoken about the need to stop pitting the agricultural and environmental sectors against each other. Similarly, it is not very helpful to demonise people who do not eat meat or have reduced their consumption of it. We all live on this planet and we all suffer from the consequences of climate change. We can all work together towards a sustainable Ireland in a global community in which we can all live healthily and safely, cognisant of the impact of our actions on the environment.

While I greatly welcome this plan, none of us can underestimate the scale of the body of work ahead. There are difficult and, no doubt, uncomfortable conversations yet to be had about the sustainability of the agrifood sector in Ireland and Senator Mullen has alluded to those. It is very important that our economy is protected, but we have to balance that with the protection of the environment. Where we will have growth, we need to ensure it is sustainable. This roadmap is a very good plan towards getting us to that goal. I agree with the EPA that an environmentally sustainable foundation must be put in place to maintain the long-standing importance of agriculture and food production to the Irish economy and to rural communities.

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