Irish Times Column, February 2nd, 2023.
Cutting Irish beef exports to meet national climate commitments would increase global greenhouse gas emissions, according to Teagasc’s Beef Enterprise Leader.
This idea of “carbon leakage”, whereby emissions savings from livestock cuts in Ireland would be reversed by increased production elsewhere, has been a longstanding argument used by the livestock sector to deflect ambitious emissions reductions. But scratching below the surface reveals several flaws. Beef is an extremely carbon-intensive way of producing protein, no matter how it’s produced, and it is not clear that Irish beef is any better than other systems in this regard. Some studies show that beef produced in pasture-based, suckler systems like Ireland’s has a higher carbon footprint than more intensive feedlot systems. This is particularly true when the carbon associated with land use is counted. Irish grassland on drained peaty soil is a significant source of carbon dioxide, and the huge land requirement to produce protein with cattle prevents carbon removal through reforesting and restoring Ireland’s main native ecosystem, temperate rainforest.
In any case, Irish beef and dairy exports are not simply meeting global demand, as claimed. The Irish State is actively increasing demand for beef and dairy to premium markets abroad with marketing using so-called green credentials and ministerial trade missions. But these green credentials are not backed by evidence, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and Ireland’s agriculture emissions are at an all-time high.
Methane, the most significant greenhouse gas in agriculture, is responsible for around half of a degree of global warming already. Its concentration in the atmosphere is two-and-a-half times larger than it would be without human activities. An immediate, steep cut in global methane emissions is necessary to prevent the worst effects of climate change according to the IPCC.
A switch towards lower-carbon diets in high-income countries is among the measures necessary to achieve this, and the idea is gaining traction. According to “food tsar” Henry Dimbleby, the UK must cut meat consumption by 30 percent by 2030 to meet its climate and biodiversity targets.
The Dutch government has announced €60 million into research for cultivated meat – real meat that is grown from animal cells in vats, bypassing animals themselves, with a far lower environmental footprint as a result. Cultivated (or cellular) meat has been approved safe to eat in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration and the sector is growing rapidly.
This innovation represents the transformative changes that are possible in the global food system, which can cut greenhouse gas emissions and allow large ecosystems to be restored by freeing up the land we use to feed animals. A transformation of similar scale is already well underway in the Irish power system, where stakeholders are working towards a fossil fuel-free electricity system in the 2030s. There are also signs that a similar transformation of the transport sector is starting to take off, with transport decarbonisation policy now prioritising car-free mobility.
But actors are still pushing strongly against a transformation of food production and land use, using arguments like carbon leakage.
I have suggested before that the great expertise in Ireland’s agrifood sector should be directed towards alternative proteins, like cellular meat. Some plant-based protein sources, like legumes, peas and (surprisingly) quinoa, grow well in Irish conditions, but there is a deficit of research and support.
Teagasc representatives have emphasised the need to prioritise the economic sustainability of beef, but the elephant in the room is that it is completely uneconomical. Subsidies make up 139 percent of cattle rearing farm incomes, meaning the average suckler farm used over €4,000 of direct payments to cover operating losses in 2021. Sheep farms barely fare better and leave our uplands in a very poor ecological state.
Why are we subsidising beef and lamb for the export market at the detriment of climate and the local environment? These are not sustainable systems by any metric, yet the Minister for Agriculture still claims, incredibly, that Ireland is the “sustainable food capital of the world”.
As one of the one of the largest beef exporters in the world, and a major methane emitter, Ireland must show better and braver leadership. That Micheal Martin signed the Global Methane Pledge as Taoiseach at the Glasgow Climate Summit in 2021 and declined to set a national target consistent with this – a 30 percent cut in methane by 2030 – sets a terrible example for other countries.
No one wants to see beef imports from deforested regions, and the EU has made progress by banning imports of such goods. It should go further and make strong environmental conditions attached to trade deals: it would be a blow for Irish farmers to see Brazilian beef replace Irish beef in European supermarkets. But the time for using other countries’ poor climate record as cover for Ireland’s is long past.