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Climate Change Policy

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 14 December 2021

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Questions (35)

Bríd Smith


35. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications his views on the recently published Teagasc report on farm sustainability which found that greenhouse gas emissions from dairy farming rose in 2020 largely due to an increase in the average herd size; the way he plans to address this; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [61542/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Environment)

Recently we saw more protests to highlight the ongoing concerns that ordinary farmers have that they are going to have to pick up the tab for the failures of big agrifood corporations. What are the views of the Minister of State on the recently published Teagasc report on farm sustainability which found that greenhouse gas emissions from dairy farming rose in 2020 largely due to an increase in the average herd size? How does the Minister of State plan to address that and will he make a statement on the matter?

I thank the Deputy. The Climate Action Plan 2021 commits to reducing emissions from the agriculture sector to 16-18 MtC02eq by 2030, a 22% to 30% reduction from 2018 levels. This will be achieved by committing to a set of core measures which will deliver a minimum level of carbon emission reductions and also by a set of other measures which will aim to go even further. My Department has engaged proactively with the public, stakeholders, and other Departments to deliver an ambitious, fair, and achievable climate action plan.

The core measures outlined in Climate Action Plan 2021 include efficiencies across the agriculture sector and also diversification measures, including increasing organic production and the production of biomethane. Further measures will be required to meet the targets set for this sector and include the introduction of a model for carbon farming, exploring feed-related methane reduction solutions and conducting a diversification review which will include an assessment on the wider production of biomethane. Combined, these measures will ensure that the agriculture sector meets its targets for 2030 while also setting pathways towards climate neutrality by 2050.

The key metrics for the delivery of our climate ambition will be greenhouse gas emissions, farmers incomes and other key environmental indicators. The measures set out in the climate action plan will offer farmers ways to reduce carbon emissions at farm level by becoming more efficient and will also offer opportunities for diversification. These are opportunities which will protect farmers income and at the same time Ireland's reputation for producing high quality and sustainable produce.

I do not know if the Minister of State noticed that there was an article in The Journal reporting from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a non-profit organisation.

The article showed that the quite shocking increase in greenhouse gas emissions from the beef and dairy sector expansion was accounted for by two Irish companies, namely, Larry Goodman's ABP Meats, and Dawn Meats, to the tune of 7.5% of all European Union emissions. I contend that the increase in the dairy herd is not sustainable. I ask the Minister of State to address that point It is an intensity model that was adopted by the previous coalition his party entered into with Fianna Fáil in the Pathways for Growth initiative and it amounted to what has become a message to smaller farmers to get big or get out. That is why the smaller farmers are continually protesting their plight. Funding to the tune of €70 million was recently given to the meat industry. Where is the money for the smaller farmers? Where is their just transition? Why does the State keep pampering Larry Goodman and the meat industry?

The goal of our agricultural emissions reduction policy and our agricultural climate policy is not to reduce, increase or stabilise the herd. The goal is to cut emissions and, at the same time, to increase farm incomes. Those are the two things we are trying to do at the same time. How we get there is another question. We do not have to state that farmers must do it in a particular way. Methane is extremely damaging to the environment. The IFA is beginning to understand that this is a significant opportunity, that cuts to methane emissions will be very beneficial to the climate and that farmers have an opportunity in the context of methane not being released. The Teagasc report discussed many ways in which methane can be reduced but, whatever ways are chosen, farmers will be a significant part of the solution. Farming and agriculture are a different kind of sector from other sectors because they have the opportunity to sequester carbon. That opportunity does not exist in the transport or energy sectors, for example. Farmers have the possibility to have negative emissions.

There is a shocking level of emissions from the agricultural sector. I think the Government has just talked itself into saying it cannot do this. It says it must not do it, but it does not know how we are going to reduce emissions. We can do it in many ways but the Government will not reduce the herd. That is absolute nonsense. There has been a policy in this State to increase the herd steadily since 2011 and to create export markets abroad where they never existed previously. The entire policy is based on a food strategy that is unsustainable. At some point, this Government is going to have to answer for that. Even the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has shown that the agricultural sector accounted for 37% of greenhouse gas emissions last year in this country. There is no way around that. The Government is going to have to do something about the size of the national herd and the demands from the meat processing industry in particular. It is not smaller family farms that are responsible for this; it is being driven by a food policy that is all about exports from the meat industry.

The goal is to cut emissions and increase farm incomes. Farmers may choose to reduce their herd if that is the best way for them to get there. The Deputy referred to the Teagasc report. It states that total farm greenhouse gas emissions in dairy increased in 2020, largely due to an increase in the average herd size. However, greenhouse gas emissions per hectare on dairy farms remained relatively stable because the average dairy farm area increased. The greenhouse gas emissions intensity of milk production or, in other words, the CO2 per kilo of milk, improved. Effectively, this means that the average kilo of milk was produced with a lower carbon footprint. However, this improvement in greenhouse gas emissions intensity was offset by a higher volume of milk produced on the back of a larger average herd size. As such, farm-level greenhouse gas emissions increased on dairy farms in 2020. On non-dairy farms, however, farm-level greenhouse gas emissions on sheep and tillage farms remained stable in 2020, while farm-level emissions on cattle farms declined slightly in terms of per hectare emissions. Agricultural emissions are incredibly complex and a very simple solution to reducing them will never be found. It is much more complex than the other sectors. There are emissions and then there are removals going into soil, plants and animals.

Question No. 36 replied to with Question No. 34.