The picture painted by an Environmental Protection Agency report this week is stark.

Once again our emissions targets are missed, once again agriculture emerges as the biggest contributor to the failure. It's a touchy subject in the agriculture world.

Unfortunate coincidence that the EPA report was published on the same day the meat and diary industries joined forces to launch a campaign setting out the benefits of meat and dairy. They’ve a good news story to sell, they say, they just picked a bad day to sell it.

Food production is carbon intensive, like any manufacturing process. Ireland is different to our nearest neighbours. We are not - and have never been - heavily industrialised.  

Agriculture is our biggest contributor to emissions because it's our dominant industry. The agriculture lobby says that distorts the reality. It’s not the real picture they say.

Joe Healy, the President of the IFA appeared on Morning Ireland on Thursday, straight out of the traps he said he accepted the EPA’s findings, but almost immediately qualified his endorsement. He told Gavin Jennings the report was "probably not a proper measurement, the real measurement is the emissions per kilo of food produced, it’s only at that stage you are comparing apples with apples".

Joe Healy

He said that, because he knows when it comes to that measurement, we score well.

There is really only one question arising from his comment - is the agriculture sector the biggest offender when it comes to emissions increases? The answer is yes. There is no debate.

Agriculture emissions were up 1.9% in 2018, the biggest driver of that increase, according to the EPA, is the higher number of dairy cows in the country.

In Europe Ireland has the rather undistinguished honour of having its agri sector as the biggest share of green house gases (GHGs) in a member state. 

But there is a reality. Even though agriculture is the biggest source of GHGs, there is a context. If we had a car industry like Germany, or a big steel industry, agriculture emissions would be dwarfed. But we don’t and so the agriculture sector has to deal with the reality.

Its biggest defence, and it is true, is that Ireland’s farmers are actually very carbon efficient.

Our dairy farmers are, according to the EU Joint Research Centre, the most carbon efficient in Europe. Our beef farmers are in the top five in the EU. Our temperate climate, ability to grow grass and feed animals naturally without high levels of feed or housing, are all big advantages.

Some have claimed that the cold snap in 2018 may have increased emissions from the agriculture sector, it slowed grass growth and took animals off grass.

Grass

Zoe Kavanagh, who heads up the National Diary Council, set it out clearly to us this week, "every ten extra days the animals spend indoors - that's a 1.7% increase in greenhouse gas emissions".

Household emissions jumped 8% because of the cold snap, it stands to reason agriculture would jump to.
The increase in the dairy herd gets the blame by the EPA.

No doubt it’s severely hampering efforts to reduce emissions, but when you compare the explosion in the size of the national dairy herd and the slight increase in overall agriculture emissions, you’d have to conclude efforts to deal with the issue are working.

Some people will disagree vehemently with that. They argue for less dairy and less meat, but, if consumer demands globally are to be met, shouldn’t they at least be served by carbon efficient systems?

The agriculture sector here has a detailed plan on emissions reductions. A very dense and numbers laden report on the issue was completed by Teagasc, the not so catchy title, 'An Analysis of Abatement Potential of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Ireland Agriculture 2021-2030', sets out in painstaking detail what needs to happen, where, when and how.

It feeds massively into the Government's Climate Action Plan. It sets out clear targets for reductions in emissions - agriculture cannot be criticised for lack of research or preparation on carbon reduction targets.

The head of Bord Bia knows that despite the issues, Ireland has a trump card, so, as she helped launch the ‘Meat and Dairy Facts’ campaign she clung to it, Tara McCarthy said: "The world needs more food, that is a fact and food production does cause emissions, that is a fact.

Tara McCarthy

"Irish food production is one of the most efficient around the world and from European measurements we know we are the best at dairy in Europe and the top five when it comes to beef in Europe," she said.

But there is an uncomfortable reality. Agriculture is in the firing line. The United Nations has identified a number of what it called "environmentally harmful subsidies", they are helpfully set out in the UN Strategic Development Goals. Agri export subsidies top the list.

Eurostat and the OECD have also joined into the UN approach to assess the environmental impact of state and EU subsidies.

The Central Statistics Office published a research paper on the subject earlier this year. It sets out in black and white what it calls, 'Direct Potentially Environmentally Damaging Subsidies'.

In Ireland, cattle subsidies of €55.9m (2016) make the list, as do some fishing subsidies and PSO levies for electricity generation. Then one jumps off the page, 'Bord Bia Marketing and Promotional Expenditure' recorded at €33.7m for 2016.

If the Central Statistics Office is publishing research papers identifying the funding of a vital promotional agency like Bord Bia as a subsidy which is, 'Potentially Environmentally Damaging' - isn’t it time for a deeper more meaningful conversation?