This post first appear online on on the 3rd May 2017

Should the Irish cow be sacrificed to reduce Ireland’s GHG emissions? Or is the judgement too hasty?

Yes, beef farming incomes are low and its methane emissions are high. The income per GHG unit is poor. But should we be making these judgements on GHG accounting practices that ignore carbon sequestration? Or are we making erroneous judgements because the science of measuring sequestered carbon is not yet up to speed?

Are all cows equal or is there a class system? In 3rd class we have cows that live in a confined system and eat grains. In 2nd class there are cows who graze pastures that are low in biodiversity and fed on fossil-fuel-costly nitrogen fertilisers and in 1st class there are cows reared on biodiverse pastures and rotational herbal leys. It is a class system that can apply to both beef and dairy cows. But just how factually-based is such a class system and can we state such if we know little about the net GHG emissions from cattle farming?

Farming decision-making must be based on the complete story and not a partial one. Not having a robust carbon-sequestration accounting-system is no excuse. And to-date Irish farming’s leadership has been too slow in coming forward to demand that the required research is done.

Having a fair GHG emissions accounting methodology is only the start. One reads of farmers who are actively using grazing practices to build soil humus and to rebuild soil health. They are suggesting that by doing so they can lock up carbon in the soil. There is the assumption that GHG’s are due to burning fossil fuels and cows; but just how much has escaped from the World’s tillage soils over the last 200 years? And do we need to put it back whence it came?

Just what are soil organic matter contents like now compared to before. Is there anyone who questions that they need rebuilding to restore soil health, soil fertility and, ultimately, to maintain our food security? To grow plants we need healthy soils. So how important are cattle grazing rotational herbal leys to restoring tillage soil health? And just what are their net GHG emission like when they do so?

With Ireland’s limited tillage land, it may not be such an issue, but we should know what the carbon absorption capacity of Irish grassland soils is like so we can estimate what can be achieved by altering farming practices.

Cattle can have an important role in grazing high-nature-value lands, more so in the uplands. As ruminants, they consume what humans cannot. There is also a school of thought that says herbage-reared animal products are healthier than their grain-reared counterparts. Cattle are multifunctional and their many roles should be fairly assessed. If they are too GHG costly or need subsidizing financially, we need to know. We need information to determine how best to deploy our cattle to produce food, reduce GHG’s, manage our landscapes and support rural farming communities. For this we need to understand both sides of the equation.

There is a grave danger in vilifying the cow that the baby will go out with the bathwater. One is not saying that there should be no change in cattle farming in Ireland, far from it. One sees a certain dynamic happening in cattle farming around the World; it is often enlightening and frequently farmer driven. One suspects that it is bubbling just below the surface in Ireland; at present constrained by the will of orthodoxy. That will change soon enough.

The cow needs a fair hearing. For that we need the evidence about net GHG emissions. We should not be basing significant future food-system judgements on partial evidence. This is, nonetheless, not about avoiding the issues and for the foreseeable future we must play to the existing GHG accounting rules and to seek tangible GHG reductions. It may mean changing some existing farming practices rather than just doing more of the same more efficiently, but so be it. It is nevertheless time for open-minded discussions between all interested parties about Irish farming, Ireland’s cattle, climate change and food production. It is in nobody’s interests to avoid them any longer.


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