Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Questions (5)

Mick Wallace


5. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if policies to decrease the beef and dairy herd and diversify farming output in order to reduce emissions from the agriculture sector will be introduced; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5931/19]

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Oral answers (38 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

The meat and dairy herds are to Ireland what the coal industry is to Poland and the fracking gas industry is to the United States, namely, a short-sighted cash generator, the expansion of which is undermining the chances of survival of the planet and the people of the global south and in less than a generation the people of the global north. We are food insecure in Ireland. We have been a net importer of food since 2000. The climate is changing as a result of our agricultural policy. What is worse is that we are not preparing for the change. Why is the Minister not moving away from the monoculture that threatens agriculture?

The analogy between Irish agriculture and the coal industry is rather unfortunate. Ireland has a comparative advantage in grass-based, carbon-efficient livestock production. The European Commission Joint Research Centre report of 2010 found Ireland was the most carbon-efficient producer in the European Union per unit of dairy production and the fifth most carbon-efficient producer of beef per kilogram. Notwithstanding this, inherent challenges remain for the sector in contributing to Ireland's climate change and renewable energy targets. It should also be noted that policy development regarding the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, has seen the decoupling of CAP direct payments from livestock numbers since 2005.

The Government's current policy position for the agriculture sector is an approach to carbon neutrality that does not compromise capacity for sustainable food production. There are three strands to my Department's approach to carbon neutrality: reducing agricultural emissions; increasing carbon sequestration; and displacing and substituting fossil fuels and energy-intensive materials.

An example of my continued focus on ensuring the lowering of the carbon footprint of the agriculture sector is my recent launch of a beef environmental efficiency pilot scheme specifically aimed at further improving the carbon efficiency of the beef sector. Sequestration has a key role to play in reducing the carbon footprint of the sector. My Department has made a significant investment under the forestry programme. In 2018, €106 million was made available by my Department to support afforestation and other forest initiatives.

The sector also has a key role to play in the supply of biomass materials, adopting energy efficiency measures and renewable technologies on farm, as well as on-site energy generation, all of which can provide profitability gains which underpin the sustainable production system.

My Department continues to review options that will enable farmers to transition to a low-carbon economy. The recently published Teagasc report, An Analysis of Abatement Potential of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Irish Agriculture 2021-2030, is key to informing the type of measures on which we need to focus into the future to continue to reduce the carbon footprint of the sector. While the mitigation potential for agriculture is limited, agriculture can and must play a key role in contributing to Ireland's climate change and energy targets in the years ahead.

The report dating from 2010 on the green credentials of the dairy sector which has been cited by the Minister for years was rated only satisfactory in terms of the reliability of its data. Saying we produce beef and dairy products better is like saying we frack gas better. Both the beef and dairy sectors and the gas fracking sector are disastrously carbon emitting and must be significantly scaled back if we are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally. In terms of being climate or environmentally friendly, the Origin Green farm sustainability and quality assurance scheme is starting to look like a joke. Origin Green certifies companies which routinely show up on the Environmental Protection Agency's worst offenders list for regulatory compliance issues such as pollution and wastewater offences. I have not seen any scientific evidence which shows that the beef data and genomics scheme has anything to do with reducing emissions significantly. If the Minister has any empirical evidence to that effect, I would like to see it.

I will show it to the Deputy.

What we have seen is emissions rise in parallel with herd numbers. This morning I spoke to a farmer and meat producer from Limerick. His name is Noel O'Connor and he told me that beef farming was on the brink. That is a direct by-product of the Government's decision to increase the size of the dairy herd.

The Deputy will have another opportunity.

There are too many beef animals in the country and the Government is killing the beef farmers.

The Deputy must mind the clock.

Deputy Wallace is trying to get rid of them.

I am trying to help agriculture in the long term.

The Deputy does not understand it. That is his problem.

The Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, should leave it to the Minister to respond.

Good Lord, what ignorance.

Good Lord is right.

If the Irish agriculture sector was transposed lock, stock and barrel to the United Kingdom, France, Germany or any other industrialised country where the average profile of emissions is about 10% of its total, it would halve the equivalent of what the United Kingdom and other countries are at. We are leaders on our journey to sustainability. Deputy Wallace argues that the livestock sector and the dairy industry are akin to fracking or the coal industry and that we should dismantle the herd. What would be the purpose of dismantling a carbon-efficient system that can and must do more when we would only see product displacing it on supermarket shelves with a far higher carbon intensity? What we must do in our production systems is become more and more efficient. We must drive down the carbon intensity per unit of output and maximise sequestration through afforestation and appropriate soil management. As the third leg of the three-legged stool, we must ensure the displacement of non-renewable energy sources in the agriculture sector.

Even the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, and the Taoiseach are coming around and seeing sense in terms of the fact that we must deal with our emissions problem. I can understand it is difficult for the Minister, given that the IFA is so powerful.

The Minister of State should, please, not interrupt.

I am not talking about dismantling the herds but about a change of policy in order that we can get to a better place. I am not talking about doing it overnight, no more than the Poles are going to stop taking coal out of the ground overnight, or the Americans will stop fracking gas. We must move to a better place and change how we do agriculture. The agriculture sector is worth saving. It is the only strong, indigenous industry, but the Minister is going down a cul-de-sac with it, unless he starts to take remedial measures and move in a different direction. It just does not make sense. He can deny it until the cows come home, but the way we are going is just not sustainable.

I call on the Minister to respond. The time is up.

Does the Minister admit that there is too much beef produced? The cold storage units are jammed with beef.

The Deputy should, please, stop. Other Members are waiting.

Is it not a by-product of the decision to increase the size of the dairy herd? One cannot get milk without cows having calves.

Other Members have a right to ask questions later. I call on the Minister to respond.

This is a complex issue which cannot be boiled down for the purpose of a soundbite to simplistic political messages.

I am not doing that.

The Deputy has been pointing fingers, but I am not a climate change denier. However, I acknowledge the limited potential in the agriculture sector. We will squeeze out every piece of potential to drive down the carbon footprint and make the industry more efficient. The Deputy comes from the constituency of Wexford where the agriculture industry thrives in the dairy, beef and tillage sectors. His vision would see the rural economy of County Wexford become a wasteland.

This is our biggest indigenous industry. I did not interrupt the Deputy.

The Minister did.

The Deputy should, please, not interrupt.

It is our biggest indigenous industry.

It is, relatively speaking on a global scale, carbon efficient. It can and must do more and will, but it will not close down and have the product the Deputy would put out of business-----

The Minister is being disingenuous.

-----displaced and replaced by beef from South America or dairy products with a far higher carbon footprint.

I did not say any such thing.