Better incentives needed for Irish beef and dairy farmers

16 June 2021

Better incentives need to be in place for Irish beef and dairy farmers to reduce their environmental impact, an Oireachtas Committee heard yesterday.

Speaking before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (JOCCA), Coalition Policy Coordinator for Stop Climate Chaos, Sadhbh O’Neill, said that “compensatory measures” should be implemented to incentivise diversification in the beef suckler and finishing sectors.

Current climate action policies for the agricultural sector have been based on voluntary mitigation measures, however they will fail to meet short term emissions targets, according to Ms. O’Neill.

“Even if fully implemented, these measures will not address the multiple environmental impacts of the sector, nor can they be scaled up quickly enough to deliver the required emission reductions in a timely fashion,” she said.

Professor of Economics at Trinity College and former member of the Climate Change Advisory Council ProfessorAlan Matthews also appeared before the Committee and emphasised the importance of continued innovation to help incentivise farmers to be more sustainable.

He noted that there is a need to invest in methods of measuring farm emissions, stressing that“if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

More effective measuring tools would potentially allow for farmers to be charged for their emissions, while also crediting those who do switch to more sustainable methods, according to Prof Matthews.

He also noted that “considerable funding” could be made available under the new Common Agricultural Policy, as well as with the revenue from the new carbon tax.

The legacy of policy

Ms. O’Neill also highlighted the influence of government policy on the increase in agricultural emissions in Ireland, using the example of how nitrogen inputs increased following the abolition of the milk quota in 2016.

“Where you have a strong regulatory regime, it is perfectly possible to get these numbers under control,” she said, referencing countries such as Denmark that successfully reduced similarly high agricultural emissions levels to Ireland.

National agricultural blueprints like Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025 also bear a great deal of responsibility when it comes to the increased intensification of Irish agriculture, according to Ms. O’Neill’s testimony.

Questions regarding the viability of sequestration methods, such as rewetting boglands, were frequently asked by the Committee.

Matthews noted that while land-based solutions can be beneficial, they are “not a silver bullet.”

Due to decades of draining and exploitation, the land sector is now a net-emitter of carbon, rather than a carbon sink. This means that Irish soil is now emitting the carbon that it previously contained.

Relying on the land and soil to absorb carbon also poses challenges for measurement, as the weather is consistently changing due to the effects of climate change.

O’Neill recommends that rather than looking to carbon trading schemes, it may be significantly cheaper to focus on the forestry sector.

She notes that as there is “a very low level of forest cover in Ireland,” increasing forestation rates in a sustainable way can both lead to a loss of carbon and improve biodiversity.

Story by Thomas Hamilton