Climate is a key concern of agri targets

Ireland’s low-carbon agriculture model puts us ahead of the field in managing harmful emissions, writes Simon Coveney.

AS minister for agriculture, food, and marine, I recognise the responsibility the agri-food sector has for minimising emissions and making a positive contribution to the global climate change challenge.

Our grass-fed, low-carbon model of agriculture puts us at an advantage to other food-producing nations and, with the right approach to sustainable agri-food and the right mitigation techniques, we can approach our responsibilities to climate change in a positive, effective way.

As set out in our recent national policy position, the Government is committed to dealing with the threat to us all from climate change and to building a competitive, low-carbon, and sustainable economy. As part of this process, we need a coherent and cost-effective approach to the twin challenges of sustainable food production and climate change challenges in agriculture and the forestry sector.

I am acutely aware of the importance of recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in relation to the challenges facing us all and the need to ensure we are resilient and adapt to climate change. We must also look to 2030 and beyond in formulating policies that will address climate change and the global increase in demand for food. It is projected that there will be a 50% increase in global demand for food by as early as 2030.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has developed the concept of climate-smart agriculture which is based on the three pillars of:

  • Sustainable increase in agricultural productivity;
  • Resilience to climate change;
  • Mitigation of greenhouse gases while enhancing national food security and development goals.

The roadmap for the sector was developed by industry stakeholders and is set out in Food Harvest 2020, published in 2010. This proposed what were then seen as ambitious targets significantly increasing added value in agricultural products, and an increase in dairy production by 2020.

By the end of 2013, the following had been achieved:

  • The value of beef exports and cattle output have exceeded the Food Harvest 2020 targets;
  • The value of pig output is already more than four-fifths to its target;
    • The value of sheep output has already almost reached its target;
    •  The value of dairy produce and ingredients exports is already almost halfway to its target

The dairy sector was the only one for which a specific increase — of 50% by 2020 — was projected in light of the ending of milk quotas in 2015.

It is expected that this rise can be achieved by a limited increase in the number of dairy cows, allied to achievement of greater production efficiencies through better use of feed and fertiliser at farm level.

It should also be noted that, since 1990, emissions from Irish agriculture have fallen by about 8%-9%. Significant progress has been achieved in terms of improved efficiency associated with food production so overall production has been maintained.

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre has found that the dairy production system in Ireland is, along with Austria, the most efficient in the EU in terms of emissions per unit of output. Our beef production ranks joint fifth, and is above the EU average in terms of carbon efficiency.

Ireland is not complacent about these findings. The Origin Green project, developed by Bord Bia and Teagasc, is a world leader in its concept of requiring a sustainability audit, including carbon footprinting, for the production of Irish agri-food from the farm on to the retail shelves.

Recent suggestions that the number of cattle in Ireland will double are grossly inaccurate. Teagasc estimates there will be up to 1.1 megatonnes of C02 abatement potential from the Irish agriculture sector by 2020 and I will be looking for every opportunity to ensure that Ireland is a world leader in low-emission food production.

It is the policy of my department to ensure the greatest use is made of cost-effective measures that will raise efficiency in productivity while mitigating emissions from any increase in livestock numbers. I have ensured in the designing and finalisation of the new CAP that the climate change challenge is a major priority.