"Not So Green" - Revealing the truth behind Ireland's green image

21st July 2016
Report

An Taisce contributed heavily to the recently published, “Not So Green” report, organized by the Environmental Pillar in partnership with Stop Climate Chaos. The report was compiled to rebut the often-misleading array of claims made in relation to the supposed climate, social and ecological sustainability of the Irish agri-food sector and to challenge the argument that afforestation presents a viable option to offset emissions from agriculture.

What are the issues?

Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025 are official policy for the Irish Government, despite being compiled by industry and lobby representatives with very little input from the Oureachtas (Ireland’s Parliament) or civil society. Policy is further supported by Bord Bia due to Origen Green, a campaign branding Irish agri-food product as environmentally friendly.

Overall, Irish agriculture in its current form is environmentally damaging. It affects climate, water quality and biodiversity. Ongoing intensification and expansion of Irish livestock agriculture is the greatest threat to Ireland achieving compliance with its climate energy responsibilities, which include legal EU responsibilities.

Why is Irish agriculture not efficient?

Currently, the methane produced per head of cattle has increased in Ireland since 1990. Ireland is also much less efficient than the European average, in terms of greenhouse gas emitter per calorie of bovine food produced.

Despite concerns about carbon leakage (i.e., production moving elsewhere), there is no support from industry members for a carbon tax on beef and dairy products that would actually recognise efficiency savings, or prevent leakage to cut emissions.

What about global food security?

On a net calorie basis, Irish food exports feed 1.4 million fewer people than food imports, undercutting the suggestion that Ireland is helping ‘feed the world.’ Therefore, there is no effect of this manner on food security.

Additionally, animal foods of all kinds are extremely inefficient in producing protein - per calorie, per kilogram of greenhouse gas produced, or per hectare. Plant-based food calories can be produced on far less land than which is devoted to beef, dairy and sheep.

Our own emissions, however, can negatively affect food security. Climate change affects food security in developing countries, particularly in agricultural production. Efforts to address gloal food security should focus on the real issue of supporting the majority of the world’s famers, most of whom are small scale producers. By allowing for our emissions to continue, we contribute to the increasing amounts of risks facing global food security.

The threat to water quality in Ireland

Phosphorous losses from agriculture continues to be the most critical impact of Irish agriculture on water quality. More than 70 per cent of phosphates reaching inland waters emanates from agricultural sources. The percentage number of high status river sites under the Water Framework Directive almost halved between 1987 and 2012. These sites are negatively correlated with agricultural intensity.

Intensive agriculture and afforestation as threats to Ireland’s biodiversity

Agricultural intensification has caused significantly negative impacts on Irish biodiversity. FOr example, one third of Irish wild bees are under threat of extinction; loss of natural and semi-natural habitat in the Irish landscape is a key factor. Additionally, ten of the 37 birds on the Red List Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland are farmland birds. Annex 1 species of the Birds Directive, which are associated with farmland and upland habitats, have also declined due to intensive agriculture.

Similarly, forestry is a large threat to biodiversity. Forestry is considered the second greatest conservation issue after agriculture according to Ireland’s 2013 Article 17 report.

Over 90 per cent of Ireland’s internationally important habitats have ‘bad’ or ‘inadequate’ status, including semi-natural grasslands, blanket bog, wet and dry heath, and fens. These are all habitat types which are at risk of agricultural intensification or afforestation.

What is wrong with afforestation?

Government and industry claim that the high level, and projected increase, of emissions from livestock can be off-set by an increase in afforestation. This argument is scientifically flawed, and lacks any support from a climate science perspective, given that such method of sequestration is impermanent, highly uncertain, and subject to rebound as indicated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Widespread afforestation also presents significant threats to Ireland’s biodiversity, where planted forests replace more diverse habitats.

Where do peatlands come in to the argument?

Although forestry and soils are regarded by the Irish government as viable land-use options for offsetting agricultural emissions, wetlands and peatlands are not. Failure to include peatlands can be easily explained by the fact that our peatlands are currently being used unsustainably for the industrial scale extraction of peat for burning and horticultural purposes. Such extraction results in very large flux emissions. Purposely selecting one land-use sink to offset emissions, while continuing to actively destroy a more significant sink (i.e. Ireland’s peatlands), is unjustifiable.

Take away points:

  • Overall, Irish agriculture in its current form is environmentally damaging

  • Currently, the methane produced per head of cattle has increased in Ireland since 1990

  • On a net calorie basis, Irish food exports feed 1.4 million fewer people than food imports, undercutting the suggestion that Ireland is helping ‘feed the world.’ Therefore, there is no effect of this manner on food security

  • Over 90 per cent of Ireland’s internationally important habitats have ‘bad’ or ‘inadequate’ status, including semi-natural grasslands, blanket bog, wet and dry heath, and fens. These are all habitat types which are at risk of agricultural intensification or afforestation

See below attached PDFs for more information.