The argument that if Ireland does not produce beef and dairy products, other countries will simply fill the gap with inferior products, leading to extensive "carbon leakage", is flawed, according to An Taisce.
The contention made by the agricultural sector that "if we don't produce it, others will" is spurious and ethically wrong, its spokesman Ian Lumley told the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee on Tuesday.
During a hearing held to inform the Committee's submission to public consultation on the 2021 Climate Action Plan, the environmental organisation was subjected to sustained criticism from committee members on its attitude to the rural economy.
"The current direction of Irish agriculture is multiply unsustainable," it insisted, citing the EPA submission to the AgriFood 2030 Strategy Committee that growth "is happening at the expense of the environment, as witnessed by the trends in water quality, emissions and biodiversity all going in the wrong direction".
Current Irish dairy production and intensification was exposing Irish family farms and the food-processing sector to serious financial risk of investment assets becoming redundant, Mr Lumley said.
"The two now rusting 15 year-old ESB owned and Bord na Móna supplied peat power plants in Counties Offaly and Longford present a warning to the Irish agriculture sector on the consequence of misdirected investment and ill-advised subsidy use," he added.
At European Union, transboundary and national level, he noted, legal infringement actions were mounting due to the failure of governments to take climate action, to reduce health-damaging air pollution including agricultural ammonia, nitrates and water-quality impacts, and to reverse damage to peatlands. This was leading to “loss of nature and the diversity of species upon which all life depends”.
Ireland's agricultural strategies, FoodWise 2025 and the current advancing of a new AgriFood 2030 strategy risked multiple legal infringement actions on failure to comply with the EU Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Directive obligations on monitoring and mitigation of significant adverse effects, Mr Lumley claimed.
The implications of the Netherlands' curtailment of bovine agriculture needed to be addressed in consideration of further Irish agricultural investment, An Taisce suggested in its submission. "The situation that has arisen in the Netherlands where cattle herd contraction has been required because of nitrates excess should be warning to Ireland."
There are currently unrealistic assumptions a significant level of Irish agricultural greenhouse gases can be “offset” by carbon soil management, additional forestry or hedgerow planting and bioenergy, it added.
The agricultural sector was advancing carbon sequestration in grasslands as a means of offsetting methane and nitrous oxide emissions, Mr Lumley added. “It is surprising that at the same time the carbon leakage from peat soils, burning of land and bogs is not addressed by the sector.”
Claims that Ireland is efficient at producing food also needed to be reassessed as its efficiency measures “rely on out-of-date evidence which may not capture the full life-cycle impacts of livestock production and which often do not confront the ethical imperative of reducing absolute emissions from food production regardless of how ‘efficient’ a particular country may appear to be in comparison to others”.
Deputy Michael Collins (Ind) said An Taisce, in his opinion, had never participated in constructive engagement on rural Ireland, adding he was deeply concerned by its objection to the €140 million cheese plant proposed by Glanbia in Belview, Co Kilkenny – especially when it receives huge amount of taxpayers' money.
Deputy Paul Kehoe (FG) accused the organisation of persistent objecting to developments. "You would close rural Ireland, if you had your way. Drilling it down people's necks is not going to get your [environmental] message across," he added.
Mr Lumley said An Taisce was a statutory body which made submissions in the interests of protecting water, air quality and public health – informed by Ireland’s obligations on UN sustainable development goals; the Paris climate agreement and EU directives. On farming, it had raised “legitimate concerns” on the impact of carbon and ammonia emissions, which had not been addressed and were linked to agricultural intensification.
It had outlined detailed proposals for a sustainable rural Ireland in a positive approach outlined in documents submitted to the committee, he underlined.
It would have welcomed opportunities to engage earlier with farming organisations, but that had not been possible, he added – some of whom continued to make “dubious claims” on carbon sequestration.
The sector had to face reality rather than relying on a “magical solution; thinking that methane will just evaporate”, he said.
Green TD Brian Leddin, who is also chairman of the Oireachtas Climate Committee, praised An Taisce on its extensive submission, adding it should be commended for its work – "especially on the advocacy side" – and in helping Ireland face up to "its legal, moral and environmental obligations".