A new roadmap for sustainable agriculture? An Taisce commentary on CCAC Assessment of Agriculture & Land Sector
Agriculture is a crucial part of the economy as well as being the backbone of rural Ireland. The future for Irish agriculture should be one of a thriving sector that is climate-resilient, with a focus on indigenous food security, while protecting biodiversity and minimising negative impacts such as air and water pollution.
The assessment  by the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) of the agriculture and land sector, published this week, has been welcomed by An Taisce as a timely, if overdue, contribution to a critical national debate.
Ever growing cattle numbers, combined with increased fertiliser usage and carbon losses from land drainage are causing emissions from this sector to continue to rise. This is “at a time when Ireland is legally and morally mandated to achieve deep and permanent cuts in emissions in all sectors”, according to An Taisce climate spokesperson, John Gibbons.
The CCAC points out that, ‘If allowed to proceed unchecked, this would seriously undermine our ability to meet our 2030 target for a reduction in national emissions’. It identifies that cutting the suckler herd and no further growth in dairy would make ‘an important and cost-effective contribution to mitigation within the sector, achieving a significant reduction in numbers of cattle by 2030’.
The CCAC adds that ‘the potential release of land from beef production could support alternative uses, raise farm incomes and reduce exposure of the sector to external market shocks’. However, if land currently supporting beef production simply switches to dairy, net emissions and pollution will increase markedly.
Beef prices are already in ‘meltdown’  and with a hard Brexit looming in October, the situation for beef farmers, whose average annual income in 2018 was just over €8,300, can only get worse. Teagasc's National Farm Survey 2018  confirmed that non-dairy cattle farms derive between 113%-158% of their incomes from direct payments - that means CAP payments go towards funding loss-making beef operations.
Without massive taxpayer support, these businesses would cease to operate. Now is the time to look at re-focusing taxpayer support on agricultural models that produce the most food nutrition with the least pollution (of all kinds). On that measure, there is only an extremely limited role for beef, and intensive dairy production also needs to be significantly constrained.
Of Ireland’s total land in agricultural use today, some 91% (4.1 million hectares) is used for livestock, with only 9% (0.35 million hectares) under cereals, fruit or horticultural production. This shows the lop-sided nature of our current system, which saw Ireland import 157,000 tonnes of potatoes, onions, cabbage and lettuce in 2017.
Ireland also imports a massive amount of animal feed (5.1 million tonnes in 2018) , much of it from South America, where it is adding to the pressure of deforestation and land clearance to grow feed crops that end up fattening Irish cattle, sheep and pigs.
In total, Ireland imported €7.7 billion in food and drink in 2017 , much of which could be produced domestically.
And, as the CCAC points out, ‘Reversing the recent declines in afforestation rates is a priority for policy action. Many aspects of the national transition objective are contingent on an expanded and sustainable domestic forestry sector’.
Afforestation programmes have to contribute to our national goal of restoring biodiversity. Dense industrial-style plantations  and clear-felling of fast-growing Sitka spruce trees does little or nothing to enhance biodiversity and has very low value as recreational or rural tourism locations. Also, to be effective net carbon sinks, Ireland’s forests need to be left in situ for many decades, not simply felled on short cycles.
We have to see the wood for the trees and recognise the intrinsic value of native deciduous and broadleaf forests. France, for instance, now has 31% of its total land cover in forestry, complementing its agriculture industry.
The agrifood industry lobbied for and has profited most from recent expansionary agricultural policy , harvesting the benefit of EU subsidies to export products, yet loading costs and risks onto farmers and increasing pollution. We need real CAP reform that financially incentivises farmers to be genuine custodians of the landscape, assessed on actual environmental outcomes yet managed by farmers, as in the Burren Life Programme in Co. Clare .
In tandem with this, An Taisce endorses the CCAC call for a Just Transition for farmers, many of whom may feel as if they are being scapegoated on climate change. But, as the CCAC point out, change does now have to happen without delay so a coherent land use plan to reduce climate emissions is needed quickly.
“A Citizens Assembly on the future of rural Ireland could offer fresh thinking and give a voice to the people on the front line, rather than the agribusiness lobby”, added Ciara Beausang of An Taisce’s climate committee.
The CCAC notes that mitigation activities within agriculture can provide additional ecosystem services including: protecting biodiversity; improving soil, air and water quality; ensuring resilience to climate change; and enhancing Ireland’s natural environment.
These are all critical goals, both for a healthy climate and for a more resilient, biologically diverse rural landscape supporting an agricultural system far less dependent on herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilisers, one that leaves space for nature to flourish while providing viable incomes for farm families and rural communities.
Facing escalating climate change risks, we need to step away from high-input monoculture and towards an agriculture model that is varied, vibrant and resilient, working with, rather than against, nature. This means a much larger role for organic food production,horticulture and agroforestry.
Farmers and bodies such as Teagasc need to prepare for a future where a ratcheting up in extreme weather events, specifically droughts and flooding, will present huge and ongoing challenges. Diversification away from intensive animal agriculture, industrial forestry and peat extraction is now beyond urgent, it is necessary for our future security and well-being.
CONTACT: John Gibbons, PRO, An Taisce climate change committee: 087 233 2689