THE OTHER CLIMATE-CHANGE THREAT TO IRISH FARMING

In what I expect to be a fast-moving food world in the coming decade, thinking creatively is critical. On the other hand, a prevailing ‘group think’ may be highly destructive.

I am closely watching the evolving debate over climate change and cattle farming; not least because cattle have been branded using emissions-based assessments of food production as the arch criminal. In recent weeks, I have written three posts on the subject: ‘Are some cows now more equal than others?’, ‘Let us all just blame the poor old cow’ and ‘Climate change – thinking beyond the emissions’. It may be wishful, but I think I am beginning to see an awareness that not all cows [cattle-farming systems] are equal when it comes to climate change.

Ireland sees itself as a front runner in low carbon-footprint farming. The country’s mainly grass-based systems have conferred an advantage that places its emissions per unit of beef or milk as some of the lowest around. It is seeking to reduce this further through increasing the productive efficiency of its beef and dairy farming. The term ‘sustainable’ is a core part of how the country projects a green image to the World.

So, Ireland is a first mover when it comes to reducing carbon emissions from its agriculture. Is there, nevertheless, a disadvantage from being a leader when the knowledge base is still evolving? So far it is all about emissions and reducing those is a strategic [and marketing] focus of the Irish agri-food industry. The question is; will it be about emissions per se or will it become about net emissions? It may happen once cattle and pasture management is fully recognized as the key to lowering atmospheric carbon levels and reversing climate change.

If this is going to be the case, will the environmental champions be those who are deploying pasture management systems that sequester most carbon? Will it be about zero or negative carbon emission production? And will this later entry to the green field surpass Ireland’s efficiency-focused approach to beef and milk production? Not least if one considers Ireland’s reliance on imported nitrogen fertilizers, less than biodiverse swards and its infrequent use of clovers [let alone other legumes]. Some in Ireland may consider that the country is currently a leader in ‘sustainable’, low-emissions livestock farming but it must not rest on its laurels.

This is also a marketing issue as much of what I read emanates from the USA; oft seen as a key premium export market. The USA already has a clear definition of what is ‘grass-fed’. It must be forage-based and reared outdoors all year [traditional ranching]. It is about marketing because Ireland must produce the product to meet the rules. It cannot operate its usual produce-it-first-and-label-it-second, supply-driven approach. As consumer awareness of the role of pasture management in restoring North America’s historical grasslands grows, one can see that selling loosely labelled as ‘grass-fed’ products will become harder in the USA, not easier.

An interesting point that I frequently come across is that some of the atmospheric carbon rise has been due to tillage farming. Over the last 150 years or so carbon has been released from grasslands that have been ploughed for cropping. One also reads about how dramatically soil organic matter levels have fallen in arable [often former grasslands] soils from on-going tillage farming. Is this, along with fossil fuel burning, the primary cause of rises in atmospheric carbon?

From what one reads one could be forgiven for thinking that it is all down to cattle. In terms of the total atmospheric carbon increase, cattle may not be the victims of an injustice. Their role may be far less than we have been told and they may have only played a part since we stopped grazing cattle and started keeping them in feed lots and feeding them grain.

There is another potential unforeseen consequence for Ireland in the above.

What if returning carbon to arable soils becomes the climate-change solution?

And what if this happens in tandem with using cattle to restore arid grasslands?

And will the green ‘brownie’ points go to those who farm to sequester carbon?

Importantly, what will the consumer perceive to be ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’? We could have a new set of rules. Ireland’s tweaking of its farming systems may then be in sufficient to win over the consumer. As these issues rise in significance [as I believe they will] it will take more than good salesmanship to premiumize your product with green credentials; it will require more radical farming systems changes from the bottom up.

This is a consumer-facing issue. It is about who wins market share in the premium ‘ethical’ markets. It is, nevertheless, not the whole story. Just what will happen to the supply side of beef [particularly] and dairy markets if cattle farming is reintegrated with tillage farming?

Further, what will the implications be for beef and milk production economics if society chooses to support farms that sequester carbon back into the soils whence it came? Are the French with their 4-in-a-1000 scheme already on their way down that road?

Ireland with its preponderance of grasslands may not have contributed to tillage-released carbon over the decades and, thus, it may not benefit from incentives to sequester carbon into soils to the same degree as those with significantly larger tillage areas. It may appear an unfair way of looking at the subject but then is life fair?

Ireland may now be a leader in low-emissions beef and milk production but this may not be enough to capture issues-aware markets in the future. It may have to do a whole lot more when the wider populace realizes that it must prioritize carbon sequestration and the using of pasture management to return carbon back into the World’s arable soils. Do we even have a choice?

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