Monday, 22 February 2021
National Climate and Air Roadmap for the Agriculture Sector: Statements
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.
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.
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.
I welcome the Minister and welcome also the publication of this plan. It sets out targets for reducing fertiliser use, encourages low-emission spreading and how we are going to promote organic farming and tillage. The document sets out a roadmap for how we are going to reduce our emissions over the next decade. A total of 35% of our emissions come from greenhouse gasses. There is a huge issue in the agricultural community about how we are going to move forward over the next few decades and it is probably going to be one of the biggest issues we need to work on. This report is very welcome.
The agricultural community is used to change, to diversity and moving with the times. However, looking at the key issues in agriculture and what we need to address, there are several issues we must start to talk about. I am thinking in particular of the positive effects of the climate action plan. I think there were something like 26 measures in that plan which the agricultural community took on board. Those measures came from Teagasc proposals. This document follows on from that and gives more clarity on how we are going to have the roadmap rolled out over the next two decades. In that roadmap, issues like low-emission spreading have been spoken about. Five years ago, low-emission spreading was not even part of the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS. It was then added to the TAMS and suddenly it became the ultimate driver such that low-emission spreading had to be modified in the most recent TAMS proposal such was the uptake on it.That shows how farming changes, how farmers have picked up the ball and run with it. That was a real game-changer. Changing fertiliser use was another matter in respect of which farmers were slow to engage but they have now picked it up, are engaging on it and are making major changes.
Tillage is, unfortunately, probably not the most profitable sector but we have to look at how we can diversify and change to make sure farmers can grow more protein products because the importation of protein products is not sustainable going forward if we want a sustainable product for our markets. Many years ago it was all about traceability, which was the buzzword in the context international markets. It is now all about sustainability and that is the key driver in making sure we get our products into the 180 countries to which the Minister referred. It is about sustainable product now. We are going an awfully long way along that road of being sustainable but one of my fears is how the farming community are feeling at the moment with this climate action and change. They think they have come so far and done so much but that they are not getting any credit for it. In fact, they feel they are being berated and told they are the main instigators of climate change. That body of work has to be done through all of society in order to bring everyone with us. At the moment, those in the farming community feel they have been targeted and blamed in many ways for our weather and for climate change, when they have made so many changes over the least three or four years in particular that have not been acknowledged.
Biomethane is a major issue but we have to start acknowledging that there are processes in place that we can work on to solve it. The Minister mentioned that feed additives could be key. I have dealt with a company in Kinsale which believes that the technology is now there to measure methane output per animal. Looking at how we changed our breeding and modified our dairy and beef sectors over the past few years through ICBF and the economic breeding index, EBI, of animals, this is another trait we can tie into that. If we had the ability to pick out the breeding traits of animals in order to breed animals with low methane levels, we could make real change very quickly.
There have been unbelievable changes with the EBI of animals in the past decade. By tying that information into the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation's website, farmers can have it at their fingertips. I calved a cow at 2 a.m. this morning and the calf was registered by 2.05 a.m. That is how much technology has changed. Farmers register calves on their phones while they are there. The majority of them now do that. We have the technology and the systems, so we just need more information. The more information, the more power and the more change. That is how we will have this debate about climate change. It is about informing and working with the farming community itself. That is probably the biggest issue, based on my WhatsApp groups and listening to farmers on the ground. They need confidence that they are not the ones we blame for everything. Positivity must come out of this and the job of this Oireachtas and the Minister will be to talk up the good work that those in the farming community have done. We have to acknowledge that they have changed and modernised, that technology has been taken on board and that they are not afraid of the word "change". If we can all work together, we will have real change in a very short period and that will benefit our entire society.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for progressing this issue. As an elected member of the Agricultural Panel and a committed environmentalist, I am very proud to see attitudes in Ireland changing on the role the agricultural community has and wants to play in the fights against climate change. I am also a very happy, healthy vegan from a tillage background, who is doing quite well.
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.
Before I discuss the main topic, it would be remiss of me not to avail of this opportunity to convey to the Minister the horror and disappointment of people in Kildare. When I go home to Kildare tonight, I will be asked if I availed of this opportunity to raise the proposed move of Horse Sport Ireland out of the county and the jobs loss. We are rich in heritage and that heritage is intrinsic to Kildare, and I hope it stays in Kildare. I thank the Acting Chairman for his indulgence.
In respect of the topic under discussion, I consider that what we have published and put before the House today in Ag Climatise is simply a first step in decarbonising agriculture and strengthening farm incomes. These are complementary to the steps taken by the Green Party since it moved into government. I believe that the 29 actions in this document will encourage diversification, which I will discuss shortly, and consolidation of farm incomes.
There have been some recent initiatives that are important to put on the record of the House, including locally led schemes. In this year's budget, the Minister of State, Deputy Hackett, secured €23 million of the ring-fenced carbon budget, I am sure with the support of the Minister and all of the Government parties, and that is topped up with an additional €56 million to pilot a range of new results-based, locally led environmental schemes. These farmer-led initiatives, like the Burren programme, the hen harrier programme and the biodiversity regeneration in a dairying environment, BRIDE, programme, have demonstrated how farmers can lead the way on sustainable agriculture. The schemes to be funded by this year's budget include habitat creation and the re-wetting of peat soils, and will provide for biodiversity training for farmers. This will allow farmers to take the lead again and will help to fund the development of a new flagship environmental scheme as part of the next rural programme under the next Common Agricultural Policy.
In horticulture, a 50% budget increase up to €9 million has been secured to help Irish growers to capitalise upon the growing trend towards plant-based diets. We are currently net importers of a range of fruit and vegetables, and we can and should grow more of these staple foods here ourselves.
With respect to organics, the Minister of State, Deputy Hackett, negotiated a 33% increase in the budget for the organic farming scheme, up to nearly €16 million. This will help to support the growing demand from both farmers and consumers for this type of production. Organic farming is a model that works closely with nature and has been shown to have benefits for carbon reduction, biodiversity and water quality. We have a unique position as a clean, green island. Of course, the Minister of State is a member of the republican party and it is green for another reason, but we have a green island that should be the HQ of agricultural production in the world. We should be leaders of that.
In respect of forestry, which has been discussed in this debate, we have made significant inroads. The Minister of State, Deputy Hackett, brought the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020 through the Oireachtas. It balanced a more efficient approach to forestry appeals with the need to preserve and enhance citizens’ access to justice on environmental matters. While that was not ideal, I appreciate that the logjam, the number of appeals and the delay in those appeals has been stopping essential progress.
As I said, I wish to talk about the need for essential diversification for agriculture to survive and thrive. However, in respect of what Senator Mullen said, if any farmers are being demonised, I am not aware of it and I would condemn it outright as a retrograde step. No one in the Kildare Greens demonises farming. The future is that we embrace farming.I am a member of the IFA, although I am in the horticultural sector. The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Senator Pippa Hackett, is a farmer. Farming is the future. They are the best friends and the custodians of the earth. If it is done right, no farmer's income should suffer diminution in income or quality of life provided we tackle climate change properly. It is all about leaving no one behind, especially the most vulnerable.
I will outline some ideas on diversification. The whiskey industry is vast. Traditionally, it was not very green but the Scotch producers have done remarkable work in recent times. The Irish whiskey industry has witnessed phenomenal growth in the past decade, growing from sales of under 5 million cases in 2010 to 12 million cases in January this year, a 140% level of growth. During this time the number of operational distilleries has risen from four to 38. They directly employed 1,640 people in pre-Covid times. Our whiskey industry has invested €1.55 billion in the all-Ireland economy during these years. The aggregate value of whiskey exports from the island of Ireland to more than 140 markets reached €890 million in 2019. It is off the charts.
The Welsh and English have shown us what we can do with outdoor vine growing. Certain vines are mildew-resistant and adapt to this particular climate. I suggest people talk to David Llewellyn, a pioneering farmer from a vinery in Lusk in north County Dublin. Several others are having a go at this in Kildare because of the wonderful land. There is rich limestone soil. The farmer can get the right land. Preferably, it is south-facing with a gradient slope that is protected by some trees. This is an area where the British have put it up to the French and are beating them in blind tasting competitions, especially for white wine. Of course, bubbly white wine is slightly less of a challenge to produce.
I hope we will look forward in Ireland to many farmers diversifying in ways like this.
Craft beer is a source of rich potential for employment. Mead making is often forgotten about in this country. The wonderful Boyle sisters in Kildare town are two post-graduate experts in this area. It is our oldest drink. I believe there is great potential for the production of mead on a commercial basis again.
We want a solution and help for farmers and we must enhance the farmers market as well with greater supports. We have to think outside the box. It is not the same old, same old. We really have to support them with innovation. We should be front-and-centre in supporting them and bringing them on the journey that will put more money into their pockets at the end of the day.
I welcome the Minister. We are here to discuss the Ag Climatise plan published last December. However, we all know that before the ink had even dried, the Minister of State, Senator Pippa Hackett, was instructing Green Party members to ignore the plan for emissions on agriculture. Perhaps the Minister could start with confirming if we should ignore this plan as well.
We know our agricultural system is failing farmers. Despite the fact that Bord Bia says our food exports are growing by 60% and the sector is booming, the benefits are not trickling down to small and medium-sized farmers. Something is fundamentally wrong with the agricultural system.
Agriculture is not only failing farmers; it is also failing the planet. The current model of agriculture is one of the main sources of water pollution in this country and a contributor to our greenhouse gases as well, but the blame cannot be based on farmers. The whole system is geared towards over-production.
It is time farmers and the environmental sectors worked together. As has been said already, farmers are custodians of the landscape and they can play an important role in protecting nature. However, the system of incentives often prevents them from doing that. We heard already about the ridiculous situation around hedgerows and small scrubland and the incentives in place to remove them as opposed to preserving them.We need a radical rethink of how we do agriculture in this country.
On the issue of methane, we are told emissions will stop growing but are not told when this is supposed to happen. I take exception to selective quoting which references the distinct nature of biogenic methane. In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, report the distinct nature of biomethane is stated as being a short-lived gas but one which is multiple times more potent in its warming potential. Ag Climatise seems to rely on technological fixes and innovative breeding strategies, other technology, and food additives but according to Dr. Hannah Daly of UCC, it is not clear how these innovations will succeed in reducing the emissions.
Carbon leakage is often used as an excuse by many in the sector to prevent significant changes to the system. When we enact new environmental laws, the argument is often put forward that production will transfer to another country which has more lax laws. It is argued Irish agriculture will therefore become less competitive and if more serious action is taken to make it more sustainable, then we will lose out. Carbon leakage cuts both ways. There are reports of large Dutch dairy corporations setting up in Ireland. We are used to companies setting up here because of our tax policies but agribusinesses are moving production to Ireland because it is seen as a pollution haven. Is the Minister monitoring carbon leakage into Ireland? As other countries dump their unsustainable practices in Ireland, we could be left carrying the can when it comes to paying the fines for not reaching emission reduction targets. The risks of carbon leakage into the country need to be looked at carefully.
The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, announced the reopening of the organic farming scheme. Our small and medium farmers are our most sustainable farmers and they need to be supported more because of the leadership they show. It seems the policy approach is to leave them out in the cold. The farm-to-fork strategy aims for 25% land coverage of organic farming while the EU biodiversity strategy 2030 will see 40% of land designated or protected to some degree. Organic farming in Ireland currently has a spread of about 2% and the current scheme specifically prioritises applicants who will deliver large land cover. The plan is to achieve 840,000 acres of organic land. There are 500 places open to Government support. In order to reach its target, large farmers are required to take part, and small and medium farmers are being squeezed out. Increasing the amount of land dedicated to organic agriculture is clearly important but we need to see small and medium farms benefit from that scheme.
My final point touches on microgeneration. The transition to decarbonisation is often framed as something painful with cutbacks and involving sacrifices. We in Sinn Féin, and those of us on the left, often reject this view because we recognise that when making the transition to a decarbonised future, there is huge potential to benefit people's lives in real tangible ways, if done correctly. The transition to renewable energy is a clear example of that. All sources of energy, such as oil and gas, were concentrated in only a few places. This allowed people to have control over them and they in turn had control over all of our energy systems. We have seen the implications of the geopolitics of that. New energy sources, such as wind and solar, are available everywhere. That means we have an opportunity to build a new decentralised electricity system. Small-scale solar, wind and hydro power sources can be owned by a wider group of people, as well as communities.
My colleague, Deputy Stanley, introduced a microgeneration support Bill to the Dáil in 2017. A few weeks ago, the Government unveiled a scheme to comply with the EU’s recast renewable energy directive. If microgeneration is done correctly, farmers will be well suited to benefit from the scheme because they have large sheds with ample roof space on which to install solar panels. This would also provide a much-needed stream of income to farmers, in addition to reducing their electricity bills. Unfortunately, there are several barriers in the current model proposed which would lock farmers out of enjoying the benefits of microgeneration. A public consultation closed last week. I encourage the Minister to read Sinn Féin's proposal because it outlines how farmers could benefit from the microgeneration Bill, if done correctly. One of the main barriers in this regard relates to the export caps being too narrow. It would mean that only 30% of what is produced could be sold to the grid. This is designed to promote self-consumption. In businesses and homes, people can adjust when they use their electricity to match when they are producing it. However, that luxury is not available to farmers. They operate to natural rhythms and they cannot change when they consume electricity. If, for example, a dairy farmer is using the most electricity at milking times when the potential to generate electricity by solar is low, then using very little electricity during the day when the potential to generate solar is highest, this means there is little scope for that farmer to change when he or she consumes electricity to match generation. As one farmer I spoke to stated, cows are not open to persuasion about their milking times. The result will be that farmers will produce electricity that they cannot use themselves and that they cannot sell on to the grid.
The export caps are just one of the barriers that are preventing farmers from accessing the proposed microgeneration scheme and being part of the just transition. While that comes under the remit of the Department for the Environment, Climate and Communications, will the Minister consider these points and raise them with his colleague at Cabinet? We need a just transition for farmers and microgeneration has an important role to play in that.
I welcome the Minister to the House to address this important issue. We all know the critical and global importance of addressing climate change. Like the current pandemic, climate change is something all countries must tackle together. If we did not know it already, this past year has taught us how interconnected we are on Earth. Today, we are discussing the national climate and air roadmap for the agriculture sector. This roadmap sets out the challenging vision, actions and targets to reach a climate-neutral agricultural sector by 2050.
We have to balance the need to increase food production with helping farmers and all of society to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As we address these important issues, we must also remember that small farmers are the backbone of agriculture - not just in Donegal where the Minister and I both live, but across the country. As we call on farmers to do their part to help fight climate change, we must also do what we can to protect and improve their livelihoods. The IFA president has said that farmers are committed to reducing emissions. At the same time, some small farmers are concerned that measures to reduce their carbon footprint may punish them for using cost-effective traditional measures.
At the annual general meeting of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association in November, its president, Colm O'Donnell, was rightly concerned about how EU land designation might unfairly impact on hill farming, including in Donegal. Mr. O'Donnell made it clear that for any environmental scheme related to farming to be successful, the new Common Agricultural Policy must not discriminate against those who farm sensitive environmental lands. We must ensure supports are available for farmers, especially for small farmers, to meet these challenging targets. Farmers, like us all, want a clean healthy environment to pass on to the next generation. They have families and mortgages. They are ordinary citizens who also need money. Let us not forget that. We cannot punish small farmers for practices that were encouraged to adopt in the past.Many of our small farmers are farming in a more natural and environmentally friendly way than bigger operations.
The next Common Agricultural Policy will have an extra focus on climate action but it is not expected to start until 2023. Payments under CAP have long been allocated unfairly and in a way that discriminates against small farmers in Ireland. A flattening of CAP payments is long overdue. Any measure put in place that will affect small farmers' incomes must be adjusted by stronger supports. I understand that this roadmap was developed after engagement with stakeholders, and I welcome that. We must bring all parties together. I also understand that this roadmap is a living document that includes a commitment to engage with stakeholders. I welcome that too. To make this work we must make sure that our farmers, especially our small farmers, are given the resources they need to work. They put food on their tables by making sure we are able to put food on ours.
As a Dublin woman, I never knew the value of farming. I know that may sound a bit silly coming from a 31-year-old. When I moved to Donegal, however, living with small farmers, I came to know that for many young men in rural Ireland, especially in Ardara, it is their way of life and their livelihood. As a vegetarian, I am not against farming. I do not think any vegans or vegetarians are against farming. I just wanted to put that on the record. Again, I thank the Minister for coming before the House. While we do not always consider it, we must remember that farming is vitally important to young men, whether in city life or in other parts of Ireland but especially in rural Ireland.
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. It is great to have him here and to have an opportunity to discuss what is a very ambitious vision he has set out for his Department. Since he has come into the Department, he has hit the ground running. He has actively engaged with the farming community and the environmental groups as well because he knows and sees, as do all of us, that the future is in working together and ensuring that farming and tackling climate change go hand in hand. The two can and will work together. Our farmers know this very well, and they are the first to step up to the plate when it comes to tackling climate change.
The Minister has set out a very ambitious vision in the roadmap. What is fantastic about it is that we are acknowledging not only that we have to reduce emissions and get to carbon-neutral farming but also that we have to do so by helping farmers, working with them and getting their co-operation to embark upon this very ambitious plan. It is a challenge for us as a very strong agricultural country. As Senator Flynn very eloquently put it, it is a matter of the livelihoods of many farming families throughout the country. We should never forget that fact and never forget how many communities throughout the country are sustained by farming. I think of my county, Mayo, a predominantly rural county, with many people farming for generations. It is more than a business or a livelihood; it has been in families for generations. There is emotion attached to it. There is love and passion attached to what they do. It is very difficult to put a value or a price on any of that. I do not think we can. Again, they are among the most eager citizens in the country to tackle climate change and to work with all of us.
We now want to move towards sustainable food production. It is really important that the European Union continues to focus on sustainable food production within the European Union, that we continue to fund the CAP adequately and, as a member state of the European Union, that we fund sustainable food production and fund farming families to produce that food. I do not want to see us make it difficult for our home-grown producers to produce food here and then to import produce from other parts of the world. Clearly, that is not in any way effective in reducing carbon emissions; the emissions are just moved somewhere else. The focus, therefore, needs to be on producing food within the European Union. Ireland is a leader in food production, particularly in the dairy sector, and I want to see us be a leader in all aspects of food production. That is what this roadmap sets out. Very often when it comes to tackling climate change, the discussion can be quite high level and it is sometimes difficult to identify the clear actions.That is what this plan and roadmap seek to address. We now have a clear roadmap, with actions, that sets out how we will achieve a 10% to 15% reduction in climate emissions. This is very laudable and commendable.
It is important to acknowledge that the agriculture sector accounts for 35% emissions in the State, based on 2019 figures. Clearly it is an area where we must do some work. We can do that by working with farmers and communities. I am happy to see there will be a specific focus on tackling fertilisers. The type of fertiliser used is having a negative impact on some parts of our environment. I draw the Seanad's attention, and that of the Minister, to Lough Carra in County Mayo, which people may be familiar with. It is quite a rare lake in its composition. It is one of the very few remaining in Europe. The lake featured in the "Eco Eye" series some weeks ago. I grew up near this lake and we all swam in it as children. One would not swim in it today. Over the last two decades since I was a child, I have seen the continued deterioration in that lake because of increased intensity of farming around the area. Farmers need to be supported to make those changes so we can protect really important environmental sites. It is my strong view that this particular lake should have the same environmental protections as the Burren because it is that rare and that precious, and it has been damaged over the past decades. This is just one example of the many reasons we need to make these changes for future generations.
I am glad to see there will also be a focus on increasing horticulture and tillage in the State. It is very important because there are so many opportunities for farmers there, including the opportunity to diversify the types of farming in Ireland.
Finally, I will touch on the area of renewable energy and rewarding farmers for the carbon benefit they give back to communities and to the country. It is very important that if we are to use farmers' lands to reduce emissions, we reward them for doing that. I commend the Minister on the agri-environmental pilot scheme that was launched. This is a very good and positive step that has been well received in many parts of rural Ireland.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy McConalogue. It is great to see the national climate and air roadmap. We hear many questions from the farming community and there is much concern. The sector has gone through a massive change in the past number of years. I grew up on a dry stock and suckler farm and there have been huge changes. The number of people who were able to do those jobs full time is now very limited. There are many part-time farmers now.
The roadmap sets out an ambitious vision for a climate-neutral agricultural sector by 2050. It must be acknowledged that according to the last census of 2016 we are talking about 137,000 farms. We must protect farm income. The balance is climate action and protecting the planet. I understand that this is a living document. I presume that this means we will be able to adapt it as it goes through its different processes in the years ahead to ensure it meets the requirements of farmers and the climate.
The agriculture and food sectors continue to play a vital role in Ireland's economy, with agrifood exports accounting for 9.5% of total exports, with a value of more than €14.5 billion in 2019. Ireland is now the sixth largest net exporter of beef in the world. This shows that Ireland is leading in the world when it comes to agrifood. It is, however, about our challenge to reduce greenhouse gasses and to transition to a more sustainable long-term strategy. Farmers can do this working together, but we need such support from the State and from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We have seen how this year alone farming has adapted, through Brexit, Covid and online marts. These marts are in areas where we know the national broadband plan has not even been rolled out and are in intervention areas that have not been able to access broadband. In the west of Ireland it is very clear that farming is what keeps our smaller towns and villages going.
The Minister mentioned some of the targets under the Ag Climatise plan. One of the crucial areas is research and innovation for really targeting and meeting some of those technological demands to help farming and to help farmers. It has to be key in how we support them. Reference was made to Teagasc. I am aware that it also falls under the remit of the Minister of State, Deputy Martin Heydon, but necessity is the mother of invention. There was a query here as to whether or not we can come up with solutions, but if we invest in research and innovation of course we can come up with solutions. I will ask the Minister specifically about funding in this area. Joint projects have been funded through Science Foundation Ireland with Teagasc. There are initiatives and incentives throughout the State, with different pilots running. What are the key projects the Minister would consider for Ag Climatise under research and innovation and what are the potential projects for this year? We are familiar with the existing technologies such as the low-emission slurry spreading, LESS, technology, but I am curious about its take-up in the west and in smaller farms. What supports are in place for smaller farmers to embed these technologies and to ensure a high take-up? Mixed breeding is a crucial issue, as are methane and feed additives, which the Minister mentioned. He also spoke about fertiliser and how we are moving to protected urea. Again, communication with farming groups, which is very difficult at this time, is important. It is possible for it to happen through farmer organisations and through the Department rolling it out through Teagasc, perhaps on Zoom calls and online. We need to consider improving communication in respect of these measures.
When it comes to livestock herd numbers, there have been huge increases in certain sectors in farming. I am curious to see how that will be managed going forward.
The Minister mentioned the figure of 8,000 ha per year in respect of afforestation. What impact will this have on land use for beef and sheep farmers, particularly on small farms?
I welcome the references to organic farming and the target the Minister has set for an additional 400 or 500 farmers to join the scheme. There has been a significant increase in the number of people going back to part-time farming because they no longer have to travel. They are able to work from home with their day job and have more time to get into farming in the evening. There are huge queues to apply for the green cert. What supports is the Department offering to ensure that those people will be able to get the qualifications they need?
Turning to Bord na Móna, there is a strong focus on the State-owned bogs because it has moved away from peat production. The bogs are being targeted for conservation, to become carbon sponges. Where I am from, in Ballinasloe in east County Galway, and in south County Roscommon the greenway is coming and the cycleway will potentially come to that area. We have unique conservation areas in that section of the country. In Mountbellew in east County Galway, there is Carrownagappul bog. BirdWatch Ireland has spoken at length about this unique resource, which is highly significant at a European and international level. If Senators have the opportunity this evening, they should watch RTÉ, which will be broadcasting from the bog. It will be amazing.
What will be the expenditure by the Department on research this year? The Minister might also elaborate on the issues relating to Bord Bia, such as communication and marketing and competing for new markets in the context of Brexit.
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber and thank him for the work he has been doing in recent months in the agricultural industry. It has been a very difficult time for farmers and different sectors of agriculture. He is working hard in the Department to resolve many of the problems.
I welcome the discussion, the climate and air roadmap and what the Minister is trying to do in that regard. Many Senators have spoken well about the positive impact this will make over the coming years not only in the agriculture industry but also in wider society and the country. When we talk about climate action, there is always a natural fear within the agricultural community about what it means or how it will impact its industry. Nevertheless, it has to be said that no industry in the country has acted more decisively in changing the way it works, does business and manages its farms than agriculture and farmers. That needs to be recognised. The changes are being made through supports from Europe and from the Minister's Department, such as the targeted agriculture modernisation schemes, TAMS, or the green low-carbon agri-enviroment scheme, GLAS. These are all initiatives for farmers - tillage, dairy or beef - to make changes in their land to better the environment. They have been incentivised to do that and this is no different.
I come from an area in Tipperary that is considered to have very good land, with an awful lot of intensive farming. For some, that might be seen as a bad thing in terms of climate change, but there needs to be a balance between intensive farming, on the one hand, and managing the land and caring for the environment, on the other, and that balance can be difficult to manage. An article published two weeks ago in the Irish Farmers' Journaldiscussed nitrates derogation and the impact that might have on certain regions in the country. South County Tipperary, County Kilkenny and north County Cork were all mentioned as areas where the intensity of farming is too high.That creates fear within the farming community about what might happen. If changes come and decisions need to be made regarding the intensity of farming, then support for farmers will also be required because we cannot convince people to change their ways unless we incentivise them in some way, including financially. There is a range of issues facing those involved in agriculture at the moment. We have a tillage farm at home and changes have been made to the sprays that we can use, for example. Adjustments always need to be made but the tillage sector has experienced a number of tough years recently in terms of price. There are issues in the forestry sector at the moment too and I know from speaking to people in Tipperary that there is real frustration around licences. That said, I know that the Department is doing as much as it can.
We must acknowledge that the plan is a good step forward and most farmers will recognise that. However, the one thing that farmers would ask for is recognition that changes they make will have costs. That must be recognised but if it is not, the additional cost will be put on the consumer and prices will go up. I welcome the Minister to the House and wish him well.
I thank Senators for their engagement in what has been a very constructive debate with many high-quality contributions. It is very useful to hear Senators' feedback on the roadmap, the challenges ahead and how we can best meet those challenges in terms of ensuring that the agrifood sector makes its contribution to our national climate change and biodiversity objectives.
The Ag Climatise roadmap is very much based on the premise of stable methane levels over the next decade. This means that methane from the livestock herd cannot increase over the next decade, as this would clearly lead to an increase in global warming. I will be watching livestock number trends very carefully and as I indicated very recently at the IFA AGM, we are approaching the point where a mature discussion is needed to ensure environmental compliance costs are not transferred from expanding farmers to all farmers in the time ahead.
In terms of overall environmental trends, it is clear that water quality, while good overall by EU standards, has come under pressure in certain catchments. Initiatives have been put in place to address these declines, including the agricultural sustainability support and advisory programme, a key public-private partnership working with farmers to improve water quality. The Teagasc sign post farms initiative will also provide further impetus in this space. It will bring Ag Climatise to life and ensure that its actions are demonstrated on a number of model farms to help drive the necessary behavioural change.
I am also keen to explore the opportunities in this space for farmers. Carbon farming is a term that we will all become very familiar with over the coming years. It will be possible for farmers to reduce emissions substantially over the coming decades and I am keen to find ways to reward these farmers for taking such positive actions. There will be an opportunity to attract external private sector money into the sector. We only have to look at the success of the woodland environmental fund within my Department, whereby private sector companies are paying farmers to establish native woodlands from a corporate social responsibility perspective. As afforestation rates increase, there will be room to expand on this scheme, creating opportunities for more farmers. However, it will not be limited to forestry. I see opportunities for the rewetting of peat-based soils and also the reduction of methane from the livestock herd through the use of feed additives. While it is clear that farmers will need to change practices on their farms, I am very keen to explore ways of finding other income streams for them through the concept of carbon farming. I believe a Biden-led Administration in the USA will only accelerate progress in this space.
While Ag Climatise is fully committed to looking at diversification opportunities for all farmers, it is logical to conclude that Ireland’s agrifood sector will remain principally based around the production of high-quality meat and milk proteins. While consumption of these products may fall in the EU over the coming decades, global demand is expected to remain high with emerging middle classes, particularly in the Asian region, demanding more high-quality animal proteins. Ireland must occupy this space because we can produce these products in a more carbon efficient way than most countries throughout the world.
I thank Senators once again for their positive engagement on Ag Climatise. I will reflect carefully on what I have heard here today. Ag Climatise is a living document and it will continue to be reviewed and updated in light of the latest developments from both a policy and scientific perspective.