I imagine that using such a title is to court controversy, but so be it as it is an issue I find myself considering all too often now. It sounds all too obvious to say that if we are looking at activities that discharge carbon into our atmosphere, we evaluate them in terms of what they release minus any carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere. After all, in a football match the final score represents the goals scored balanced against the goals conceded.

Apparently when it comes to carbon emissions, such a scoring system is not appropriate and we only count the emissions. We count the goals conceded but when it comes to scoring ourselves we find that the opposition has, to use the parlance from Euro 2016, parked their team bus in their goal. Hence, we count carbon emissions but not any carbon sequestered.

Ireland has moved quickly when it comes to calculating carbon emissions from farming activities and it promotes itself as being a ‘green’ and sustainable foods producer because of it. But was it ahead of the game on this and ahead of the wider, evolving knowledge base?

When it comes to trying to reduce emissions, the current approach is very much about improving production efficiency so as to reduce the carbon footprint per unit of production. That would be all well and good if Ireland was not being judged according to its atypically large farming industry [related to its overall economy] and its ruminant sectors within that. When sequestration is not included in the equation and industry-expansion plans are factored in, it is not surprising that there is conflict between farmers and tackle-climate-change lobbyists as standing still in terms of total emissions is a tall order.

In light of such, is it surprising that the proposed suite of efficiency targets gains little traction when it comes to mollifying the environmental lobbyists? When one considers that the targeted efficiency gains should be part and parcel of good farm management practice, it is very easy to see why the lobbyists view the farming industry’s approach to climate change as ‘business as usual’. Worse it is business as usual except for the expansionist approach of government policy. To stand still in terms of emissions, efficiency gains have to more than compensate for expansion. It is a tough sell.

One would prefer to see a far more robust defence of Ireland’s farming industry. Would one expect anything less of an author who is a farm business management specialist? I do not, however, see that the defence can be superficial. It is a defence that has to be based on climate-change mitigation at the farm level and it will require changes to farming practices that go well beyond efficiency gains. As I alluded to in my last post, are some cows now more equal than others? It is a subject that we need to be looking into in far more depth.

For the farmer, those changes and the implementation of climate-friendly farming will also have to be transmitted to the food consumer in such a way that the farm-gate price is enhanced; in itself a target that is too often missing from much of the debate. The promotion of Ireland as a ‘Green’ food producer needs to move on from the accreditation of business-to-business supply-chains to enhancing the farmer-to-consumer, soil-to-fork message [with honesty and integrity of course]. It has to generate enhanced farm incomes and we [the environmental lobby included] have to show that farming system reforms to meet climate change targets can deliver such for the farming community. It is an objective that currently we are all falling short on.

At present one reads that Ireland is the most carbon-efficient milk producer in the EU and the fifth most efficient beef producer. Just how comprehensive are the studies that support these claims? What underpins them? One suspects that the rationale behind the statistic is the long Irish grass growing season and the ability of cattle to harvest their own feed for longer. In other words, a natural advantage endowed by location has created a differential in terms of lower fossil fuel usage. At least as far as milk is concerned, just where does Ireland stand in terms of its GHG emissions from using nitrogen fertilizers? On that measure it may not be the EU leader. There is a danger of cherry-picking statistics to defend Irish farming and, again, facing the accusation that the industry’s response to climate-change is ‘business as usual’. More needs to be done.

As climate change has come to the fore, one has been asking for farm management information that relates farming practices to emissions. It is needed to facilitate farm management planning. To say it is in short supply is an under-statement. Whilst much has been spent on lobbying over climate change, little appears to have been spent on research to provide farmers with the tools that they need. Instead we have broad-brush policy decisions with respect to GHG emission reductions [largely based on emissions-only evaluations] and little detail to work with.

One cannot deny that there have been some pretty complex models created to establish a baseline for GHG emissions but they do not begin to suggest solutions. And why is the seriousness of the issue for any particular industrial sector dictated by its relative weight within its own national emissions total? Thus in Ireland agriculture and, especially, its cattle are a particular focal point even though the same methodology suggests that Ireland has the lowest carbon footprint for each litre of milk in the EU and one of the lowest for beef. Hence, it is easy to understand the Irish farming industry’s position that it should not have to cut back because all that will do is displace production to less carbon-efficient countries. It is a logical argument to make.

One can see a situation where the ‘debate’ stagnates at a time when it cannot be allowed to do so. It should not end up with imposed regulation on the Irish farming industry driven by fines coming from the EU for failing to meet reduction targets. Simply, we need to change farming practices to reduce the carbon footprint of food even if there is some evidence to suggest that Ireland may be best in class. Although for now one would prefer to see that particular assumption set aside until all possible options to reduce emissions AND sequester carbon are identified and adoption started. Then maybe we can talk about being a global leader in environmentally-positive farming.

A major concern with policy based largely on emissions-only is the danger that vital carbon sequestration practices may be over-looked. It appears that GHG emissions measuring is still only in its infancy and the research base that underpins it is somewhat limited. It is, nevertheless, what we have and we have to run with it. That said, it does have to move on to incorporate carbon sequestration activities. Growing trees is one such activity but there are those around who suggest that the key to reversing global warming is returning carbon / organic matter to our farmed soils.

The French with their 4 into a 1000 scheme have immediately taken the plunge. Have they quickly recognized the importance of rebuilding soil carbon and organic matter in terms of climate change AND long-term food security? It is a scheme that is pro-active. To a degree Ireland’s Origin Green is as it is highlighting efficiency gains to reduce the carbon footprint of its food but there is a difference between being more efficient in terms of resource use and setting about improving soil health and increasing the quantities of carbon secured in the soil [and organic matter levels]. Do the French get it; that it is not just GHG emissions that is at issue here, it is also about soil health and food security?

Hence, should we reset the bar from just reducing emissions to:

  1. reducing overall GHG emissions from Irish agriculture
  2. using farming systems that sequester additional carbon
  3. improve soil health per se and raise its organic matter

There are numerous issues that should be considered in greater detail. The hope is that by so doing a more focused climate-change approach may be developed for Irish farming. We need to move on from just talking about emissions reductions and to take our farming systems beyond efficiency gains. They also need to be ‘designed’ to have lower NET emissions, sequester carbon, improve the health of our soils and provide a viable living for our farming and rural communities.

It should be an approach that avoids any suggestions that the current approach is more marketing than substance. It should also be an approach that transparently links farming practices to food products and promotes such to the food consumer. It should also be an approach that includes climate-change mitigating practices that are recognized as such by the halt-climate-change lobby.

What we cannot continue with is a situation whereby the farming community is told that is has to cut its emissions, period. One has listened to this debate for quite a while now and, to date, one cannot recall many constructive suggestions concerning how this is to be done other than reducing the national herd. Personally, I would not dismiss this if it was accompanied by a clear strategy aimed at increasing the farm-gate value of produce. Ireland needs to shift to value-over-volume but its recent expansion, volume-over-value strategies have been going in the other direction. They are strategies that are in conflict with climate-change targets and, [probably] when investment costs, are factored in, farm incomes as well.

Should we be surprised if the farming community is sceptical about the climate-change lobby if the latter is not putting forward a clear strategy as to how farm incomes are going to be maintained [or preferably improved] whilst emission reductions are made. Given the actual poor state of farm incomes at present, not coming up with some ideas has been a missed opportunity.

To be honest all that the farming community is being given at the moment is the idea that expansion will cut their costs and their emissions per unit. By so doing they will be reducing their carbon footprint per unit and, maybe, increasing their farm incomes [in a commodity-selling environment where they cannot influence their farm-gate price]. If it was not for the total emissions reduction target, where would they be going wrong? If the climate-change lobby finds that farmers are meeting them with intransigence, they should not be surprised; explain to them how their livelihoods will be sustainable in a total-emissions reduction scenario. At present farmers are more likely to think that they are being sacrificed for the greater good.

It is crucial that we remember the farmer’s bottom line. Small-scale farmers need premiumized farm-gate prices and producing products with a full-suite of climate-change mitigation practices should be a way that Irish farm produce is differentiated and premiumized within the market place.

Hence, one would suggest that it is now time we moved on from a war of words to developing concrete policies to support farmers to move to farming systems that are better for their incomes, reduce net GHG emissions, improve soil health and organic matter levels and, thus, ensure the population’s long-term food security. Is that, after all, not what we are all aspiring to?

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