Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

National Climate and Air Roadmap for the Agriculture Sector: Statements

 

10:30 am

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)

It is good to be with all of the Senators today. I am delighted to be here to speak about the issue of climate change and Ag Climatise, the national climate and air roadmap for the agriculture sector. The Covid-19 pandemic remains the immediate challenge for many economies globally but we cannot lose sight of other challenges. Protecting farm incomes and the climate challenge remain in firm focus both for me personally and for this Government.

I am very proud that the agriculture sector is the first sector in Ireland to produce a credible roadmap for the transition towards our long-term ambition of climate neutrality by 2050, which is fully in line with commitments in the programme for Government. The agrifood sector is Ireland’s largest and most important indigenous export industry. From our farmers, our fishers and our food producers to our processors, the sector plays a vital role in Ireland’s economy and the fabric of our rural communities and societies. It is the bedrock of every rural village in Ireland.

Our agrifood sector is dominated by livestock. Some 80% of our agricultural area is under permanent grassland, underpinning our world-famous, grass-based production system which produces beef and dairy products that are exported to 180 countries all over the world. The sector accounts for 8% of all employment, and 10% of all exports that leave Ireland are agrifood-based. The sector is a significant driver of economic activity in rural Ireland.

The sustainability of Ireland’s food production system is well recognised internationally and acts as a key competitiveness driver in international markets for Irish food producers. Nevertheless, there are challenges ahead for food production systems globally and nowhere more so than in Ireland, where 35% of all national greenhouse gas emissions come from the agrifood sector, accounting for the equivalent of approximately 21 megatons of CO2. While farmers have delivered much in the way of efficiency gains in recent years, it must also be recognised that some environmental metrics have deteriorated over that time. It was in this context that I published Ag Climatise late last year.

In Ireland, to transition to a more sustainable long-term future, there are number of key things that we need to do, while maintaining viable farm incomes in the sector. We must do the following: reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the sector; increase the carbon removal or sequestration potential of our land and forests; meet our ammonia ceilings targets; reduce agriculture’s negative impact on water quality; and build resilient food production and land use systems that meet these climate and air obligations, while also meeting market expectations. Ag Climatise is a roadmap containing 29 distinct actions and by implementing this roadmap over the coming years we can start to achieve our objectives.

I need to be clear; it will not be easy. All stakeholders will need to come together in a spirit of collaboration. As Senators will be aware, the EU is going to increase its greenhouse gas reduction target from 40% in 2030, based on 1990 levels, to at least 55%. In our programme for Government, we have an economy-wide target to reduce emissions by an average of 7% annually, which will put us on a similar trajectory to that of the EU.There has been significant scientific debate around biogenic methane and the role it plays in global warming. Biogenic methane is produced in the rumen of grazing livestock such as cattle and sheep. These debates are happening within respected international organisations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC. We must have a serious debate about all aspects of methane and this is something I am keen to lead on in my role as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas but the programme for Government recognises that it has distinct characteristics that need to be taken into account in Government policy. In time, I believe that a technological solution will be found that will contribute to methane reduction, mainly in the form of methane reducing feed additives and livestock breeding improvements. I also believe that livestock has come in for some unfair criticism in recent times. There are those within the general population who believe eating a hamburger is more detrimental to our planet that getting on an aeroplane. We need to counter this narrative. Of course, every sector, including agriculture, will have to make a real contribution if we are to reach our climate objectives, but the creation of a narrative that alienates farmers is unhelpful. We must work together on this, if we want it to work. In my experience, farmers are custodians of the land and want to contribute positively to the environment. We must recognise the positive environmental action engaged in over many years and support farmers in taking the further steps required to meet our increased ambition.

Many actions in Ag Climatise are transformative in nature for Irish agriculture. By committing the sector to this ambitious roadmap, the sector will clearly be playing its part in the journey to a climate-neutral economy. Farmers will need to transition away from an over-dependence on chemical nitrogen use. There is an action to reduce chemical nitrogen use by approximately 20% over the next decade, fully in line with the EU farm to fork strategy, a key pillar of the European green deal. This will not only have positive benefits for climate in terms of reducing nitrous oxide emissions, it will also have benefits for water quality. Farmers are also going to change the type of nitrogen fertiliser they apply to farms, with a move towards fertiliser more commonly known as protected urea. Protected urea is a fertiliser coated with a urease inhibitor, which will dramatically cut nitrous oxide emissions, the second predominant greenhouse gas associated with Irish agriculture. Farmers are required to continue to embrace new technologies such as low-emission slurry spreading machines for the application of organic manures back to land. This technology will deliver a significant cut in ammonia emissions and put the sector well on track to meet its commitments under the national emission ceilings directive.

Other actions of note will focus on breeding more methane-efficient animals, maintaining or increasing the area of tillage production in Ireland and a significant increase in organic food production. It is clear that there is emerging demand for organically produced food, and Ireland is well placed to take advantage of this growing trend. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, has direct responsibility for organic farming. We recently reopened the organic farming scheme, enabling an additional 400 to 500 farmers to join the scheme in 2021. This is just the beginning.

Ag Climatise is very clear that we will need to plant more trees over the next 30 years in order to achieve our vision of a climate-neutral sector. There is a clear and specific action in Ag Climatise to increase afforestation rates to 8,000 ha per year over the next decade, with a possible further increase needed after that. My Department has recently established a forestry review group to drive this agenda. In addition, we will also need to change our management approach on many thousands of hectares of peat-based grassland soils, which are currently a net emitter of carbon. We need to reverse this, and allow these soils to naturally lock up carbon. The management intensity of these grasslands will need to be altered.

The role of research and innovation is becoming ever more critical to the future of the sector. My Department continues to invest heavily in the research space, which is the direct responsibility of the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon. I want to see Ireland develop a world-class research infrastructure and I know there are plans under development to create a centre of excellence for agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. This is a key action under Ag Climatise.

We must lead from the front on the global climate agenda and ensure that our progress is clearly communicated to food consumers all over the world. Otherwise, consumers and purchasers of Irish food may turn to other sources for their dairy and meat proteins.The new CAP will be important to drive delivery of the Ag Climatise targets but I have been clear with the farming community and organisations that CAP cannot do it all. All stakeholders need to play their part, particularly industry players that can drive behavioural change at farm level. We have already seen some great initiatives, such as some milk processors paying a milk price bonus for farmers who adopt certain biodiversity initiatives on their farms. This is the type of forward-thinking agrifood sector that Ireland needs, one in which all actors in the food chain live up to their environmental responsibilities.

I am excited about the future. This decade will be one of change in Irish agriculture, but I can assure Senators that in ten years’ time, and even in 20 years’ time and beyond, the production of high-quality meat and milk protein will remain the bedrock of Ireland’s agri-food industry. By delivering on the ambitious vision as set in the Ag Climatise roadmap and beginning our journey towards climate neutrality, we can protect the Irish family farm for generations to come.

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