There are compelling environmental and economic reasons why reducing Irish livestock numbers as a means of achieving emissions reductions cannot be justified. In the first instance, such a policy would be counterproductive in terms of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Ireland is a leading exporter of beef and dairy produce and any shortfall of Irish produce, on EU or world markets, arising from a reduction in Irish livestock numbers would be replaced with produce from countries with far less sustainable farming systems than we have here and the replacement produce would have a far greater carbon footprint than the Irish product it displaces.
Our agriculture sector will continue to play a significant role in reducing national greenhouse gas emissions. Ireland's national target under the Kyoto Protocol is to maintain emissions at a level 13% above 1990 levels, for the Kyoto commitment period 2008 to 2012. The latest projections from the EPA indicate that emissions from the agriculture sector will be, on average, 8.5% below 1990 levels over the commitment period.
Irish farmers have clearly demonstrated a willingness to embrace new technologies and farming methods that are friendly to the environment. Farmers will continue to adapt further, when new cost effective methods to reduce greenhouse gas emissions come on stream. In that context, I remain confident that dedicated research at national level and collaborative research at international level, including research into increasing the carbon sink potential of the sector, particularly the carbon sink potential of soils, will yield new effective, measurable and verifiable means to off-set greenhouse gas emissions from the sector.
The economic argument against such a proposal is also compelling. The Government's view is that not alone is the agrifood sector our most important indigenous industry but the continued success of this industry will be a key element of our economic recovery. The significance of the agrifood sector to the overall well being of the economy cannot be overstated accounting, as it does, for 6.6% of the economy's gross value added. Over 150,000 people, or some 7.5% of the total workforce, are directly employed in the industry. With a turnover of €24 billion in 2008, agrifood exports represented 10% of our total exports.
According to the United Nations, demand for food will increase by 70% over the next 40 years due to a huge increase in world population. Ireland's sustainable, low carbon, pasture based production system is well placed to contribute to that extra demand. It would be wrong to forgo these lucrative export opportunities for a short-term gain in terms of national emissions reductions targets, especially when we know that the overall effect of reducing animal numbers in Ireland will be to increase emissions elsewhere.