Are Teagasc’s climate mitigation projections credible?

21st August 2019
Report

Are Teagasc’s climate mitigation projections credible?

Assertions made by Prof. Frank O’Mara, Teagasc’s director of research, (Agriland, 29 July 2019 appear to flatly contradict the climate action advice recently given by the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) in their Annual Review’s assessment of land use, according to An Taisce.

Specifically, the CCAC’s analysis (Box 8,4, p.118) excludes any further increase in the dairy herd above the 2018 level, and examines three scenarios showing numbers of beef cattle and beef suckler cows falling by 2030. The CCAC is explicit in recommending implementation of:

A reduction in bovine numbers. Further expansion of the dairy herd will increase national emissions and may cause other environmental issues. Expansion is sustainable only if it takes place within a scenario in which overall agricultural emissions are declining. Accelerated decline in suckler cow numbers would be an important contribution to emissions reductions.  (CCAC 2019, p. 124)

To the contrary, in the Agriland article Prof. O’Mara asserts that:

The targets set in the Government’s new Climate Action Plan can be achieved in a scenario where the national herd is similar in size in 2030 to today, albeit with a moderate increase in dairy cow numbers and a moderate decrease in suckler cow numbers – which is a continuation of trends that have been in place for a number of years.

But simple arithmetic shows that this kind of scenario has not added up in the past, and will not do so in the future. 

According to EPA figures, at the launch of the agri-food industry ‘Food Harvest 2020’ strategy in 2011, there were approximately 1.1 million head of suckler beef cows and only a slightly smaller number of dairy cows. By 2017, there were 50,000 fewer suckler cows but the number of dairy cows in Ireland had increased by over 300,000.

Dairy cows emit 50% more methane per head than suckler cows. Moreover, dairy methane emissions per head have trended steadily ever upward since 1990, therefore a greater number of higher-emitting cows inevitably increases emissions.

Combining these facts clearly shows that continuing the trends of recent years is very unlikely indeed to deliver any reduction in emissions. Instead, as we have already seen, dairy emissions (strongly coupled to milk production) have rocketed upward, forcing up overall agricultural sector emissions.

We are aware that Teagasc well understands the biophysical limits to reducing cattle emissions and that rebound effects will cancel out emissions “efficiency” or “intensity” savings unless emissions are taxed at a commensurate level and/or nitrogen fertiliser use is strictly limited. Therefore, the question is why Teagasc appears to suggest that the proposed efficiency measures will cut total emissions when all evidence to date says they will not unless regulations or taxes are introduced to ensure that absolute emissions targets are met – which would inevitably mean that cattle numbers would need to be reduced in any case.

Worryingly, Prof. O’Mara’s assertions also repeat the rosy rhetoric of past Teagasc projections that suggested successful mitigation of agricultural emissions could occur to limit any increase in emissions due to production increases; but in reality no such mitigation of total emissions has occurred.

Furthermore, Teagasc has specialised in producing nearly identical projection scenarios (with only marginal differences) for the EPA and policy advisories, as if there are no real alternatives to the industry plan. Useful advice for decision-makers and the public would instead show a range of scenarios (for example, maintaining EU CAP payments but with increased horticulture, agroforestry or native woodland, actively displacing at least some of the intrinsically high emissions intensity ruminant systems) that could offer better options for farmers, more employment in rural areas and food production with lower emissions.

Based on Teagasc’s 2012 mitigation analysis we were told that:

Teagasc–FAPRI analysis projects a 12% increase in agricultural GHG emissions by 2020. Mitigation measures have been identified which could allow the growth targets of Food Harvest 2020 to be achieved without an associated increase in GHG emissions.

Actually, by 2017 agricultural emissions had already increased by nearly 10% relative to the 2007-2009 average, with the trend toward 2020 still strongly upwards. EPA analysis shows no significant change in dairy GHG efficiency (in terms of methane per unit milk) since 2005, meaning that the only way to increase production is more grass and feed intake, which also produces more emissions. It is very difficult to see the basis for Teagasc’s argument that the Food Harvest 2020 production expansion targeting a 50% increase in milk production could be achieved without increasing GHG emissions.

One might have expected Teagasc to have been more careful in giving such advice originally. And now, when such overly optimistic projections have unsurprisingly proved incorrect, we would expect Teagasc to be far more cautious before making such assertions again. Given this history, why should the public, or policy makers, believe another round of Teagasc projections that once again are more in line with agri-industry rhetoric than scientific reality?

Teagasc now seems to finally accept the science-based CCAC view that success in meeting Ireland’s emission targets can only be in terms of reducing the absolute total of national emissions (though Teagasc has previously argued otherwise). As in 2012, Teagasc’s new proposed efficiency measures will deliver reductions in total agricultural emissions only if cattle numbers, including dairy cows, go down. Teagasc’s own abatement potential analysis states this very clearly, “improved emissions intensity of produce would be partly or fully negated due to increases in total animal numbers and could even result in an increase of national GHGs”, yet Prof. O’Mara now appears to argue the very opposite.

As predicted by An Taisce and by the Environmental Pillar and Stop Climate Chaos report, Not So Green, the ‘strategies’ designed by the agri-food industry, Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025 – and rubber-stamped by Government – have simply ramped up total emissions, reversing the falling trend during the early 2000s and directly undermining climate policy. But this failure has been given a free ride by Government, effectively facilitated by Teagasc, who state in their 2018 abatement analysis that they spend €4 million annually on research toward reducing emissions, without any measurable success to date in cutting actual total emissions.

Due to this continuing failure, a massive rise in nitrogen fertiliser use (up 38% from 2012 to 2018 according to EPA data) to drive increased production has also been allowed to fuel climate emissions, overshoot ammonia air pollution limits and escalate nitrate leaching to water, thereby causing even more global warming, air pollution and impacts on biodiversity.

Further, the profits from industry expansion and EU subsidies are mostly going to agri-food processors and large dairy farmers, while increased risks and debt have been loaded onto smaller farmers.

In 2018, over 5 million tonnes of animal feeds were imported into Ireland, mostly from South and North America, but also from as far afield as Vietnam, South Korea and Angola, underlining how, despite unsustainable increases in fertiliser use, Ireland simply cannot grow enough to feed its own extraordinary stock of animals.

Combined with very weak sustainability criteria in the Origin Green programme, the carefully managed and heavily marketed image of Irish beef and dairy as wholesome, natural and grass-fed products is being fatally undermined.

Judging by these dismal outcomes, one would hope that Teagasc’s 11-member Authority, appointed by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine would insist on more transparency and accountability. However, it is of concern that this Authority appears to be dominated by dairy farming, agri-food and government voices, with no representatives from civil society, climate science, ecology or rural development groups to provide broadly-based oversight. In fact, five of the 11 current Authority members, including the Chairman, are dairy farmers – an extraordinary skewing of representation towards one sub-sector.

Expert institutions are critically important to a low carbon transition but Teagasc needs to show that it is acting for the long-term good of all farmers and of the wider public, as well as the environment and biodiversity that we all depend on, rather than appearing overly biased toward short-term profits for a handful of large industry players. An Taisce believes Ireland’s farmers and the public at large deserve better from Teagasc and its Authority than providing a fig leaf to allow the current unsustainable intensification of agriculture to continue.

Ireland has correctly declared a climate and biodiversity emergency; as the name suggests, an emergency demands urgent, and potentially disruptive action across all sectors. Agriculture has disproportionately large environmental impacts and costs, including the huge compliance costs of failure to cut emissions which are coming out of general tax revenues.  Independent advice is therefore critical to assess and enable fair and effective transition pathways. Businesses must pay the cost of pollution from production, not just count the profits and pass the costs onto people, nature and future generations.  Above all, we must recognise that pollution limits must be enforced for the good of all.

Farmers, the public and our environment would benefit from less rhetoric and wishful thinking from Teagasc, Bord Bia and the Department of Agriculture. All these agencies are funded by and accountable above all to the Irish taxpayer, and not to vested industry interests. Teagasc and its oversight Authority need to unequivocally acknowledge  the reality of growing pollution impacts and the very real financial costs of damages being caused by Irish agri-industry expansion.

NGOs have been saying this for years; the Citizens’ Assembly on climate change agreed that redirection and diversification away from beef and dairy is necessary and endorsed the introduction of appropriate GHG taxation on agricultural emissions; and the Joint Oireachtas Committee has called for a new Paris-aligned agriculture plan by the end of this year. Now the CCAC is also saying urgent change is required to cut agricultural emissions.

The reputation of Irish food is now at stake. A different way forward is possible, away from profit-harvesting by processors and toward supporting farmers and rural communities in a transition toward more resilient, diversified farming, a future where Ireland on balance is producing rather than importing food (see Doyle 2016). This would be a future that is far less reliant on imported chemical pesticides, ever increasing amounts of synthetic fertiliser and imported feeds, increasing our negative impacts on global food security and deforestation.

To work towards that future, Ireland needs Teagasc and the Government to change direction, and to do so quickly, in line with the best scientific evidence. Transitions take time; delay is no longer an option. We need to start now.