Farmers’ livelihoods are at risk by inadequate State planning for climate change.
This is the view of the Green Party’s agriculture spokesperson, Pippa Hackett, who, speaking after the launch of a new Government report on creating a climate resilient agriculture and forestry sector, said the State is “completely failing to answer the challenge of climate change”.
Is her stern assessment warranted? It would appear so, as our farming correspondence, Tom Jordan, explains below.
The document – ‘Adaptation Planning – Developing Resilience to Climate Change in the Irish Agriculture and Forest Sector’ – sets out several objectives, with a clear focus on examining potential vulnerabilities in both sectors due to projected changes in the Irish climate.
The report – which fulfills a part of the Government’s legal obligations under the National Climate Change Adaptation Framework – also sets out adaptation options to build resilience in the sector, and steps to achieve these options.
While the report acknowledges that we have “significant vulnerability and exposure” to climate variability, there is a clear sense throughout the document that Ireland will not be as badly affected as elsewhere. For example, the report’s authors appear to anticipate a longer growing season as climate change takes hold.
This rosy view essentially negates the need for the agriculture and forestry sectors to reduce emissions today. As Ms Hackett said: “While this may offer some economic benefit in the short term, it is likely to be offset by significant increases in rainfall resulting in increased flooding, damaged crops, reduced water quality and poorer animal welfare. There are also significant risks from new and invasive species as a result of new climate conditions.”
Industrial Agriculture Model Emerging
Overall, the tone of the report is clear in its myopic insistence on seeing Ireland’s land management through a prism of vested interests. The politicised determination of Ireland’s main farm and forestry lobby groups to support industrial-scale land management permeates its recommendations.
Major changes to Irish land use in recent years, such as dairy and forestry expansion, have placed us closer to the industrialised systems of the Netherlands and Germany, without the benefit of their improved mitigation (for example through the widespread roll-out of carbon-capturing bio digesters).
Yet this report still clings to the oft-repeated official line that we are “one of the most carbon efficient food producers in the world”.
This view is based on a 2010 European Commission report in which Ireland’s grass-based agriculture compared favourably with other EU states, especially in the dairy and beef sectors. However, that report omitted calculations of indirect emissions from deforestation linked to imported animal feedstuffs.
Just last year, the European Commission slammed Ireland’s agri-sector for being our biggest GHG contributor at 33 per cent of our national emissions, while failing to take adequate measures to reduce this figure. Ireland’s emissions are now projected to increase by up to five per cent by 2020.
Even though the report presents the Beef Data and Genomics Programme as a means of reducing emissions through the “production of more efficient cattle better suited to the changing climate,” this is fanciful given current trends towards intensive feed lots. Regardless of how efficient the breeding program might be, more animals still equal more methane.
Absence of Organic Sector
The report fails to mention the organic sector despite the fact that demand for organic produce is soaring, with consumption of organic produce rising by 20 per cent last year alone. Just over one per cent of Irish farmers are registered as organic, but judging by this omission there appear to be few plans to attract farmers into this sector.
“Farming systems are geared towards maximum productivity at all costs. Nothing in this document suggests there will be a change in direction.”
There is also no mention of the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS) to provide support to farmers thinking of converting to organic farming. This makes it very difficult to argue with the Green Party’s assertion that the “Government is actively starving this sector of support and resources”.
In terms of forestry, the report makes an alarming recommendation to include drainage as a management technique to reduce the risk of potential future storm and wind damage. Drainage is well-known amongst international experts to release many more tonnes of carbon than a forest can sequester.
Further, the report indicates that we can expect a stubborn adherence to fast-growing conifers like Sitka spruce and the short-term gains of this destructive forestry model into the future.
A section on tillage is dominated by discussion of the grain aphid Sitobion avenae which impacts on yields and could benefit from a warmer climate. The report outlines how Teagasc and NUI Maynooth are working on a method of predicting “how aphid population profiles will change in response to future projected temperature regimes”.
In terms of chemical usage, the plan is to use an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy to minimise the use of pesticides, or as the report gently dubs them, plant production products (PPPs).
This is being done to tackle issues with pest immunity to treatments and to reduce costs. Forecasting services like the blight warnings currently issued by Met Eireann are to be developed for precision application of pesticides.
While attempts like this are laudable, mounting evidence indicates that cumulative pesticide residues are causing human illness and environmental degradation. It is a pity this is not considered reason enough to look at ways of eliminating pesticide use from food production altogether.
A Policy for the Future?
Is this a planning document which is fit to guide policy makers of the future? All we know for sure is that we are losing biodiversity at a massive rate while farming systems are currently geared towards maximum productivity at all costs. Nothing in this document suggests there will be a change in direction.
As we know from government efforts to offset agricultural emissions and to delay implementing reductions, the Government would rather obfuscate than bring about meaningful changes to agricultural practice.
Given the fact that agricultural emissions are likely to continue to rise, while other sectors are genuinely trying to reduce their emissions output, there is a feeling that we still have a kind of ostrich syndrome regarding climate change.
The Government needs to take its head out of the sand, accept the reality of our changing climate and invest in supporting our farmers to take mitigation measures now, as well as adapting for the future.