Climate Policy for Ruminant Agriculture in Ireland blog series

The relationship between climate change and agriculture is a contentious, complex and important one. In this series of twelve blogs, UCD Adjunct Professor Frank Convery will explore the context, challenges and potential solutions for dairy, beef and sheep farming in Ireland. Each blog presents key evidence to underpin informed debate and the series seeks to help plot a sustainable future for the sector.

Responses are invited via earth.institute@ucd.ie and the UCD Earth Institute will host a workshop in association with the UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science and the National Economic and Social Council at the end of the series in December 2022 to discuss the evidence and its implications.

Professor Tasman Crowe, Director, UCD Earth Institute

Professor Frank Convery is an environmental economist with a distinguished academic career in Ireland and the US. He has chaired the boards of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, Comhar Sustainable Development Council and served on the Climate Change Committee chaired by John FitzGerald, and the AgriFood 2030 Committee chaired by Tom Arnold. The latter produced Food Vision 2030. From 2014 to 2018, he was chief economist with the Environmental Defense Fund, New York.

His passion is finding ways to bring the weight of learning down to where things are done; his ambition for the sector is the same as Food Vision 2030’s: “Ireland will become a world leader in Sustainable Food Systems (SFS) over the next decade. This will deliver significant benefits…and will also provide the basis for the future competitive advantage of the sector”.

Over the course of twelve blog pieces this autumn, Frank will explore past performance and attitudes to the issue of climate policy for ruminant agriculture in Ireland; the emerging metrics revolution; key international markets; and the adequacy of the policy instruments in prospect to drive climate achievement by the sector, what changes would deliver better outcomes. The series will conclude on the need for a mission-focussed effort to find ways that work to reduce ruminant methane emissions at scale.

Their format is simple: an introduction, the key evidence that informs performance and prospects, and an assessment in which Frank presents his opinions as to what the data tells him. The sources of most of the evidence cited is provided, including, where available, links and page numbers. The blogs aim to make it as easy as possible for readers to access and to understand the data, and to encourage them to engage with both using it and finding more and better evidence.   

The debate about the Agri-food sector’s contribution to Ireland’s climate action targets (and how best to meet them) should be informed by top quality science and evidence.  I believe that Frank Convery’s evidence-based blog series, produced in collaboration with UCD’s Earth Institute, will help ensure that the political and public debate debate on this critical issue can be more informed, courteous and balanced than it has been up to now.

Tom Arnold, Irish Government’s Special Envoy for Food Systems

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Header image credit: Giuseppe Milo.

1. Climate Policy for Ruminant Agriculture in Ireland: Looking Back

Ireland has little hope of becoming a world leader in Sustainable Food Systems (SFS) unless it understands and acknowledges the reality of its climate performance, says Professor Frank Convery. Rural Ireland is hugely dependent on the export earnings of its ruminant farming, almost two thirds of which is earned by the dairy sector.  The EU, UK, and the US account for the majority of Ireland’s farming exports by value. Consumers in these markets, and the climate policies that are implemented therein, will determine whether the carbon footprint of Irish farming is competitive in these markets.

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2. Climate Policy for Ruminant Agriculture in Ireland: The Coming Metrics Revolution

Metrics matter in terms of evaluating climate performance by Irish ruminant farming and recent developments connote a seriousness of purpose in this regard, says Professor Frank Convery.  Two potential sources of satellite-based metrics include the first satellite (MethaneSat) designed specifically to measure methane emissions due to launch in 2023 followed two years later in 2025 by the launch of an EU-sponsored satellite. We do not know whether either will provide credible farm-based emissions from pasture-based systems, but we do know that technology is often a surprise, it will provide information in real time, and be a constant source of media commentary.

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3. Climate Policy for Ruminant Agriculture in Ireland: The European Union (EU)

EU 27 is now the largest market for Irish ruminant farming (dairy, beef, sheep), consuming in aggregate 37% of Irish output by value in 2021. Unfettered access to this market – enabled by the Single Market, which came into effect from 1992 – is by far the most important and precious economic benefit resulting from our EU membership, says Professor Frank Convery. The main carbon competition within the EU market will come from local producers from within its member states. In his latest blog, Professor Convery argues that, if Irish supply was reduced to this market, it would be displaced therein by milk and beef products that would be produced with the average emission intensity globally doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

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4. Climate Policy For Ruminant Agriculture In Ireland: United Kingdom (UK)

If Ireland is to ‘become a world leader in Sustainable Food Systems (SFS)’ its food products may need to at least match the carbon footprint of food produced within the UK, says Professor Frank Convery. The main competition in the UK market would come mainly from local producers and, in time (as the full provisions of the trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand take effect) with these suppliers. In 2021, exports from Ireland (Republic of) to Northern Ireland (NI) amounted to over €560 million. In this blog, Professor Convery provides evidence in favour of  convergence of high carbon efficiency by ruminant farmers on the island of Ireland.

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5. Climate Policy For Ruminant Agriculture In Ireland: US

The US could become a global leader in terms of minimising the carbon footprint of its dairy and beef sector, says Professor Frank Convery.  Metrics will be decided by the US and, in some instances, could extend to other climate impacts, including biodiversity, water and air quality.  If Ireland is to ‘become a world leader in Sustainable Food Systems (SFS)’, its food products in the US market will have to come close to matching the carbon intensity of food produced by US producers such as California who are likely to be the main source of such carbon-footprint competition in this market.

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Climate Policy For Ruminant Agriculture In Ireland: Complacents Vs. Worriers

In the public discourse about Irish ruminant farming’s current and prospective climate footprint (Kgs of CO2e emissions per Kg of product) vis a vis its competition in key export markets, we observe two voices, says Professor Frank Convery: ‘the complacents’ and ‘the worriers’.  ‘The complacents’ is the case making in public on Ireland’s climate policy by the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) and Michael O’Leary and their supporters in the Irish Farmers’ Journal make the case that Ireland’s past, present and presumably future climate performance is and will be world class.  The second (the ‘worriers) are those who aspire to be world leaders in future sustainability performance – including carbon footprint – but have concerns that the steps needed to achieve this may not be delivered and this would have negative consequences in their key markets; this is a view held by many of those directly selling our food into fiercely competitive global markets, says Professor Convery

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