A significant expansion in forestry and switch to mixed sward grassland management are key to Environment and Climate Minister Eamon Ryan’s overall vision for the future of Irish farming.
Speaking exclusively to the Farming Independent ahead of the publication of several pivotal documents that will shape the sector for decades — the Land Use Review, Ireland’s first carbon budget and Climate Action Plan 2021 — the Green Party leader insists that farmers are “up to the challenge” of drastically slashing the €14 billion sector’s carbon footprint by 2030 and beyond.
Though tight-lipped on specifics, he admits that further intensification of the dairy sector “will not be part of the solution” given its current impact on emissions and water quality since the abolition of quotas.
However, he is encouraged by the prospects of dairy-beef production, particularly “on animal welfare grounds”.
On the whole, he claims that “going Origin Green in every way” will present farmers with “four or five new income streams” and he insists a “proper premium” must also be rewarded for new environmental services.
“I’ve spent a lot of time on this issue in the last 30 years, and particularly in the last few, directly talking to farm organisations, farmers and the Department of Agriculture,” says Minister Ryan.
“The Irish farming community is just as committed as anyone else; their own children and grandchildren are going to be affected by climate change and they are just as aware of the signs and consequences.
“Farming, in fact, is more aware because the drought in 2018 really hit home, the land was concrete for the summer and we were importing fodder. Some of the storms and exceptional rain events in recent years have encouraged farmers to be ahead of the game and that this is real.
“How we make the changes is a whole other challenge, but our farming community is up to it in my mind and we will work in collaboration together to make this happen.”
The Dublin Bay South TD, who is also Minister for Transport, says the coming decade will start “a three-decade change” that will see all sectors reach net-zero emissions. (“Net zero” refers to the balance between the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere.)
“I think transport is going to find it more difficult than agriculture, but no one has an opt-out, everyone realises that — it is a challenge we all have to bear.”
While the Land Use Review, carbon budget and Climate Action Plan 2021 are not yet finalised, the minister outlined their current state of play, while indicating that a possible 55pc reduction in overall emissions by 2030 may be on the cards.
“We hope to finalise our regulation on land use in the next two weeks; that’s important, as that will allow for the Climate Change Advisory Council to issue their budgets — those new carbon budgets will go to the Oireachtas to be discussed and agreed by Government.
“A week or two after the publication of the budgets, we expect to then, as a government, issue a firm draft of the revised Climate Action Plan.
“It will be a series of actions similar to Richard Bruton’s Climate Action Plan in 2019; the difference is there will be a significant increase in strategy.
“We’re not the only ones doing that — the European Union, in its strategy, is going for similar: they’re going for a 55pc reduction in emissions for 2030.
“The US government has set a similar target, and a lot of governments going into the climate talks in Glasgow in November see that we have to halve emissions in the next decade. That’s accepted by everyone now as the safest, most important thing to do.”
Broadly speaking, he says that within the plan, agriculture “won’t have to do as much as other sectors”.
“We all understand that land use has particular characteristics… in agriculture, it won’t be possible in the first decade to halve emissions, but it will have a significant contribution to make. It does count for a third of our overall emissions, so it’s a vital part of the solution.
“One of the key solutions in my mind is the switch to mixed sward grassland management systems. Firstly, you get a much deeper-rooted grass system and, even in circumstances where there are drought conditions, that grassland system performs much better.
“Secondly, you have a significant reduction in nitrogen fertiliser usage — you’re mixing clover with other mixed sward species, and…