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Teagasc Opening Remarks to the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and Marine

06 March 2018
Type Speech

Presentation by Professor Frank O Mara, Director of Research in Teagasc, to the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Teagasc would like to thank the Committee for the opportunity to report on issues concerning Climate Change and the Agri-Food Sector. We would ask the Committee to note that Teagasc has made a detailed written submission and we would like to use this opportunity to briefly highlight some points for consideration.

Foodwise 2025 makes a compelling case for further growth in the agri-food sector, but cautions that this growth must take place in a manner that is sustainable in both an economic and environmental sense.

It should be noted that climate influences production in agriculture and that the GHG emissions by agriculture are also a contributor to climate change. Climate change will impact on agriculture over the medium term, but ongoing intervention to address the GHG emissions from agriculture is required, not least to ensure that agriculture is not unduly constrained by national level GHG emissions reduction targets in the period 2021 to 2030. Solutions are required that will limit the GHG emissions from agriculture, but at the same time allow it to grow where feasible by remaining competitive at an EU and global level.  

Given that Ireland has a low level of GHG emissions per unit of output (i.e. a low carbon footprint), there is a need to ensure that climate policy is cognisant of the potential for carbon leakage which occurs when agricultural products are produced in other countries with high emissions per unit product.

The relatively unique position of Ireland as a major exporter of meat and dairy products, means that national level initiatives to curb consumption of meat and dairy products, can have little impact on the emissions of our agri-food sector. Therefore, national level solutions are more likely to come from interventions on the production side, particularly inside the farm gate.  Recognising this, over the last 15 years Teagasc has made a substantial commitment in terms of staff and other resources to tackling the issue of GHG emissions at farm level. This commitment encompasses both a) Research on technologies and farm practices to address emissions and b) Knowledge Transfer to ensure the effective adoption of these technologies at the farm level.

All the evidence to date suggests that reducing agricultural GHG emissions will be challenging. No single large scale silver bullet type intervention exists. Therefore the mitigation of GHG emissions from agriculture will require a wide suite of interventions which can cumulatively deliver a significant level of emissions reduction.

A complication in achieving a reduction in the total GHG emissions generated by agriculture in Ireland is that the total level of agricultural activity is increasing, particularly in the context of the expansion taking place in the dairy sector and related increase in the cattle population. This means that interventions that reduce emissions per kg of milk or per kg of beef, may be offset to some degree by additional emissions generated due to the overall increase in the amount of product that is produced.

Teagasc has previously identified measures to reduce GHG emissions and has made estimates of the associated cost of each measure and the total amount of GHG mitigation the measures would deliver – a so called Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC). 

In light of developments in research, in agriculture and in policy, there is a periodic need to revise the MACC to reassess the suite of mitigation options available, including mitigation options not previously considered. Teagasc will shortly publish its latest MACC which will detail 25 interventions that address agricultural emissions mitigation, land use sequestration and the displacement of fossil fuels emissions via bioenergy production.

Sustainable consumption is increasingly embedded in the minds of consumers of Irish agri food products, both here and abroad. Teagasc will continue to work with the agri-food sector to ensure that it remains at the forefront of progress to address the emissions generated in agri-food production, a key objective in sustainable production. In particular Teagasc continues to highlight to stakeholders that adherence of more sustainable food production practices can be profit enhancing for the sector, as well as beneficial to the environment.

Recent changes to policy at an EU level now potentially make sequestration by forestry part of the solution to address the emissions generated within agriculture. Heretofore the sequestration by trees planted by farmers could not be used to offset the emissions generated on farm. This is no longer the case, so the potential now exists to sequester significant amounts of carbon, if the rate of afforestration is increased nationally and sustained at a higher level over the next couple of decades. There is however, considerable opposition to additional forestry in rural communities in some parts of Ireland. These concerns need to be understood and effective communication will be required to illustrate the economic and environmental benefits which increased afforestation would have.

There are a number of options for biomaterial and fossil fuels substitution which would offset emissions outside of the farm sector and further incentivisation is required to develop these markets.  However, unlike forestry where the benefit of sequestration is included in the AFOLU sector, it is not clear whether farmers would be credited at a national level for the positive contribution these actions would make to addressing Ireland’s GHG emissions.

Teagasc is also committed to research associated with climate adaption – that is changes in agricultural that might be required to cope with the adverse consequences of a changing climate. However, at this time there are uncertainties with respect to the local level impacts of climate change on agriculture in Ireland, which complicate the provision of accurate advice to farmers in this regard. In particular it would be unwise to provide advice with respect to climate adaption which might subsequently require revision as our knowledge of the impact of climate change becomes clearer.Teagasc has highlighted measures that  help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, many of which also save farmers money and there is a need for greater emphasis on the connection between environmental sustainability and profitability at the farm level. There is an urgent need for farmers to continue reducing absolute emissions through the uptake of these measures and through enhancing carbon sequestration through forestry. Knowledge transfer is key to rolling out these mitigation measures, as is national policies to incentivise farmers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.