I thank the committee for this invitation to address it on issues related to what is probably one of the most serious issues of our time, namely, climate change.
I will begin by setting out the long-term policy vision for the agriculture and land use sector, which is an approach to carbon neutrality that does not compromise the capacity for sustainable food production. Protecting food production is a serious matter given the rise in world population, but balancing this production with protecting the environment is equally important. Balancing these needs is recognised in the European Council conclusions of October 2014 which refer to the need to ensure coherence between the EU's food security and climate change objectives.
Environmental sustainability is at the heart of agrifood policy with Food Wise 2025 clearly stating: “Environmental protection and economic competitiveness are equal and complementary: one cannot be achieved at the expense of the other.”
This reflects the reality of a market demand for sustainability in our food offering to the national and international market, a societal demand for a clean environment, as set out in environmental regulations and what is a very competitive food market internationally. We are very aware that greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture accounts for a third of our national emissions but the context here should also be considered. This figure reflects the importance of agriculture to the Irish economy, the significance of an efficient grass-based livestock industry and Ireland’s lack of heavy industry.
Nevertheless, we are not complacent and are taking a number of steps to promote efficiency of food production, enhance sequestration of carbon, and mobilise biomaterials and residues to displace fossil fuel and other energy-intensive materials such as promoting a wider use of wood products in the built environment and elsewhere.
The agrifood sector has already done a lot and indeed has decoupled sector growth from gross emissions. This achievement has been delivered as a result of continued research, advances in animal genetics, health and nutrition, and through optimising the use of fertilisers.
Nitrogen is now more efficiently used through improved manure management and soil fertility. The nitrates action programme helps in this regard and contains measures to protect surface waters and groundwater from agricultural sources.
Improving breeding and maintaining the health of livestock is very important to achieving efficiency and managing emissions. This is actively supported through our beef data and genomics programme. This world first national programme ranks the efficiency of beef breeding animals on a star-based system, with five stars being the most efficient rank. On the dairy side, the introduction of the economic breeding index, EBI, is identifying the most efficient animals for a grass-based production system. As of January 2017, the top herd EBI is €182 in the best 200 herds, which is 40% above the average herd.
Through the targeted agri-investment programme, we are supporting the introduction of more efficient manure application techniques such as trailing shoe, which improves the efficiency of manure as a fertiliser.
Under the agri-environment scheme, GLAS, which has 50,000 farmer members, specific measures are included to support climate change objectives, while our organic farming scheme supports organic farming as an alternative farming system, contributing to improving soil quality and mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The scheme has been very successful since its launch, attracting 1,264 applications.
In terms of sequestration or the capturing of carbon, our most significant intervention is the national afforestation programme, which features ambitious targets to support the increase in planting to more than 8,000 ha per annum in 2020 and achieving forest cover of 18% by 2050. This is a significant programme nationally and is recognised as a key element of our ambition to address climate change. As energy efficiency on farms rises, renewable energy sources have become more viable. These sources include both bio-energy and biofuels.
As a result of the afforestation scheme, roundwood production in Ireland is expected to double by 2035, with almost all of the increase coming from private grant-aided forests. Forest-based biomass, including forestry and timber processing residues and post-consumer wood, is also forecast to double during this period to more than 4 million cu. m, capable of producing 29 million GJ of energy. The continuation of afforestation levels and mobilisation of the private forest resource will be key to achieving these forecasts and maintaining a sustainable biomass supply into the future. The forest road scheme provides grant aid to forest owners to allow access to forests for first thinning and harvesting, which is an essential first step in mobilising wood for the market.
It is also worth noting that agriculture is different from other sectors in that it is the only sector that can sequester emissions through forests and land use. Our grasslands are a significant carbon pool, especially peat-rich soils, while well-managed grasslands on mineral soils take up and store carbon. In addition, the contribution of our forests to climate mitigation is threefold, encompassing the sequestration of carbon, the replacement of energy-intensive materials and the provision of sustainable biomass to the energy sector. All three activities are supported under the afforestation programme.
The Department has contributed to the national mitigation plan. In conjunction with others in this area, we have included 30 actions to advance our emission reduction obligation. The Department has also published an adaptation planning document which recognised that the impacts of climate change on agriculture are significant.
There is no doubt that, as a country, we face major challenges in meeting our emission targets and more will have to be done to meet them. The agriculture sector is committed to playing its part in achieving this. We should not lose sight of the multiple objectives of the agriculture and land use sector and its role in contributing to a vibrant rural economy.