Irish Times Column, September 1st 2022.
Agriculture and climate change: manufactured doubt and division are poisoning the debate
The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that there actually is a problem. Why would any industry accept the need to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions quickly while claiming to be a world-leading example of sustainability?
Ireland’s agriculture sector has now manoeuvred itself into this position.
If we can learn anything from the heated discussions leading up to the adoption of sectoral carbon budgets this summer, it is that stoking confusion around the climate impact of livestock and mistrust in the science is a very effective barrier to climate action.
Rather than getting behind the need for transformation, some lobbyists, industry leaders and sympathetic politicians instead dug in and used narratives that sowed fear, uncertainty and doubt to successfully argue for a lower target for agriculture, a 25% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, which will require all other sectors to cut emissions at an implausible rate to meet Ireland’s overall climate commitments.
Over the course of the negotiations, Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue and others astoundingly claimed that Ireland is “one of the most sustainable food producing nations in the world”.
Even though Ireland produces top-quality products, beef, lamb and dairy are among the most carbon-intensive foods. Evidence is lacking even to support the mantra that reducing Irish exports of these products would lead to an increase in global emissions (“carbon leakage”).
There is also unjustified confusion about the role of methane, the main greenhouse gas from cattle. Arguments that the livestock are part of the “natural carbon cycle” and that methane has a short lifetime in the atmosphere have been misleadingly used to downplay the strong global warming impact of cattle.
In fact, our greenhouse gas accounting framework actually understates the warming impact of Ireland’s rising methane emissions, and also understates the importance of cutting methane to limit Ireland’s contribution to climate change. Steeper cuts in methane emissions put us more in line with our Paris Agreement commitment, according to analysis by the Climate Change Advisory Council.
Another misconstrued narrative claims that the agriculture sector is treated unfairly because the carbon sequestration potential of soil and hedgerows is not accounted for. Even though it varies between locations, soil under grasslands in Ireland is actually a net source of carbon dioxide emissions because of lost carbon from drained peat soils.
Similarly, hedgerows are likely to be an ongoing net source of carbon to the atmosphere given between 2,000km and 6,000km are being lost every year.
Food security is another flawed angle used to justify the expansion of the livestock sector based on claims that it helps to “feed the world”. But meat and dairy production is inherently land, nutrient and emissions inefficient, and Ireland is a net importer of food calories. Nonetheless, the Irish food industry actively promotes new markets and demand for beef and dairy products abroad, and typically, Irish meat and dairy products are exported to wealthy countries, not countries where malnutrition is an issue.
Contrary to dairy industry claims, the Paris Agreement aims to safeguard global food security, not to protect all types of food production. A transformation in the global food system, including a shift in diets away from carbon-intensive foods, is necessary to limit climate change.
These narratives also incorrectly portray farmers as victims of the greenhouse gas accounting system. Instilling such grievances poisons the discussion, and diverts from the reality that the food policy of the past decade greatly increased methane emissions (despite repeated warnings from the EPA) and locked many farmers financially into an unsustainable model.
This puts climate scientists and activists in an incredibly difficult position. By pointing out the unquestionably large climate impact of cattle and sheep, they are accused of scapegoating farmers. Industry figures have attacked climate scientists and environmentalists who correct misinformation. Even Leo Varadkar was accused of “demonising farmers” by MEP Billy Kelleher for revealing that he eats less meat because of its climate impact.
Farmers feel singled out in public discussions around climate action, and it’s certainly fair to say that not enough progress is being made in any sector. But more attention focuses on agriculture because the fundamental science is still being questioned by sector leaders.
Rather than addressing the genuine concerns of farmers about how to remain viable when faced with emissions cuts, and exploring opportunities to diversify income away from livestock, all this discourse achieves is to muddy the waters on livestock’s climate impact and stoke division. These are toxic culture war tactics that aim to delay a transition that is inevitable, rather than promote the honest discussion needed for a healthy democracy to address the climate crisis urgently.
Hannah Daly is a Professor of Sustainable Energy at University College Cork and the SFI MaREI Centre for Climate, Energy and the Marine.