Dairy farmers are crucial to reduce emissions, study found

19 August 2021

A contribution from agriculture is necessary for any ‘significant’ lowering of greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland, a recent study found.

An article published in Agricultural Economics earlier this month found that the EU milk quota abolition in 2015 has led to an increase in Ireland’s livestock herd, with dairy cow numbers increasing by one third from 2010 to 2018.

This resulted in a 50 per cent increase in milk production and an export increase, with approximately 90 per cent of Ireland’s dairy products exported.

“The major growth of the dairy sector following the EU milk quota abolition resulted in increased greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, which puts Ireland’s dairy sector under pressure,” according to the study.

Food production is one of the largest drivers of global climate change. Though in most other developed countries, agriculture plays a much smaller relative role in economy-wide emissions.

In Ireland, agriculture emits more than any other sector, accounting for roughly one third of emissions. Within the EU, Ireland has the highest proportion of greenhouse gas emissions arising from agriculture.

Reducing emissions

The study found that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are possible by adjusting production methods.

Increased productivity results in a decline in emissions intensity – a one per cent increase in productivity is associated with a decline of emission intensity by .26 per cent. So, a potential solution is to increase the productivity, rather than increasing the quantity of the herd.

The study says that “without mitigation actions, farm level emissions would be even higher.” But farmers often fail to realise their mitigation potential.

“More could be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture,” the authors concluded.

With an expansion of herds after the abolition of the milk quota, Teagasc has said that  reductions in farming will be needed to hit emission targets.

The Environmental Pillar has echoed this, calling for an end to dairy expansion. Environmental Pillar co-ordinator Karen Cielsielski noted that cattle numbers have increased 40 per cent, by 40,000 in the past decade.

“It’s not possible to continue with the current level of inputs, in terms of nitrogen-based fertilizer and feed, and outputs in emissions,” she said on RTE Drivetime.

In June, an Oireachtas committee heard that ‘better incentives’ are needed for farmers to reduce their environmental impact. Current policies see voluntary mitigation measures, which are likely to fail to meet short term emissions targets.

The 2020 projections saw emissions from agriculture remaining relatively the same, with its overall greenhouse gas emissions increasingly slightly. In these findings, the EPA attributed the increase to the Food Wise 2025 strategy and the removal of dairy quotas in 2015. 

Although Ireland has agreed to lower greenhouse gas emissions, “it is struggling to move in that direction because a large share of the emissions originate from livestock farms”, the study concluded. But if mitigation measures are implemented, it could move in the direction of lower emissions.

By Sam Starkey