If you thought humans wearing facemasks to shops to buy their milk was a strange sight, wait until the cows who make the milk start wearing facemasks too.
he ZELP – or Zero Emissions Livestock Production methane-reduction device – is designed to be worn by cows and is one of a plethora of scientific initiatives aimed at reducing environmental damage from the dairy industry.
The ZELP is just one possible version of the complicated future for a sector that finds itself at a crossroads.
The dairy sector has been the bright star of Irish agriculture for close to a decade. The lifting of milk quotas six years ago allowed it undergo massive and rapid expansion.
The total number of cows in the Irish dairy herd has risen from 1.14 million in 2010 to 1.57 million last year, a 37pc increase. Ireland’s 17,000 dairy farms help sustain 60,000 jobs, with output valued at €11.3bn and €5.2bn of exports to 120 countries in 2020.
Irish dairy farms have the best net profit margins and lowest production costs in Europe, creating a huge success story from Irish cheese to whey and baby formula.
But this success has come at a cost.
“Dairying is the only profitable part of Irish agriculture, but it is profitable at the expense of environmental damage and quite a significant sacrifice of our water quality,” says Maynooth University climate change scientist, Professor John Sweeney.
“There is an element of passing on the pollution costs of the industry to the environment and thus to the general public.”
Greenhouse gases emitted from the dairy herd are among Ireland’s single biggest drivers of climate change and the Environmental Protection Agency has raised concerns about rising levels of nitrogen in Irish rivers.
But proposed legislation to drastically reduce these emissions threatens to choke the industry and turn expansion into decline.
An Taisce’s unsuccessful objection to a huge Glanbia cheese plant in Kilkenny was a sign of the hard slog to come. Last week one global investor group issued a report declaring: “Cows are the new coal”.
“The emissions from agriculture and related land use are on a level with the greenhouse gases emitted by the EU, US and Japan combined,” said the FAIRR Initiative, a coalition of big name investment houses pushing for cleaner agriculture.
Change is on the way.
“The intensification model is bust,” says Sweeney. “We have to look at an alternative form of agriculture, not based on high inputs and outputs, but based on low inputs and higher value output. There’s no alternative to a herd reduction in the short term. We can’t run away from that.”
The government is progressing legislation for a 51pc reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and a carbon neutral economy by 2050.
Each sector will have a percentage reduction it must hit in that timeframe.
“Irish agriculture has to face the fact that society now demands it pay its fair share in terms of substantial reductions,” says Sweeney. “If agriculture succeeds in getting a small emissions reduction over the 2030 period, then the burden falls more heavily on others in society to make up the difference.”
And quite how the curtailment of Irish dairy fits with the government’s ambition to grow agri-food exports from €13bn last year to €21bn by 2030 remains to be seen.
This transition is going to mean the ending of the ‘Cheap Food’ policy
“Farmers accept the data and science – of course we do,” says Pat McCormack, president of Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA). “We know we’re going to have to transition our multi-billion euro farming and agri-food sector to a low emissions basis and that’s going to involve research, regulation, commitment and investment. We’re fully cognisant of the challenge and prepared to get behind this transition on which the future economic, social and demographic stability of rural Ireland will depend.
“But what we’re absolutely not prepared to do is go along with this fantasy that the only people that will have to change their ways are the farmers and that everything else in the food-supply chain carries on as normal. Everybody – and I specifically mean the consumer here – had better realise that this transition is going to mean the ending of the ‘Cheap Food’ policy introduced by the EEC and maintained by the EU which gave ultimate control over consumer food prices to the retail corporations. This will not be popular or easy to implement.”
According to McCormack, the big retailers systematically wiped out farmers’ margins to drive down the price at which they sold food.
“The politicians let them do that because the consumers liked cheap food. As their margins disappeared the farmers had two choices: either get out of farming completely or scale-up and try and make up on volumes what they had lost on margins. It suited the consumers, it suited the corporate retailers, and it suited the politicians and policymakers. It didn’t suit the farmers because they now had to work harder than ever and borrow more than ever to get up their volumes to achieve a comparable income. And it certainly hasn’t suited the environment, because the volumes demanded by the corporate retailers to enable them to sell food at artificially low prices are environmentally stressing.”
While many in the sector still hope that science can provide a silver bullet solution that will protect it against the worst doomsday scenarios there is no doubt a major challenge lies ahead.
A recent Teagasc report contains a stark warning: “Current scientific understanding indicates that reducing Irish agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through technical means is challenging, particularly so for biogenic methane produced by pasture-based ruminants. However, this is now a major area of scientific research in Teagasc and elsewhere, which should yield positive results in the coming years”
But in the short term major reductions, equivalent to the 51pc required nationally by 2030 “would require a substantial reduction in the amount of agricultural activity in Ireland. There is no prospect in the current decade of scientific solutions alone being capable of delivering agricultural GHG emission reductions of this magnitude.”
UCD Professor Kevin O’Connor leads the Farm Zero C project, one of the more promising Irish-based scientific efforts in this regard. He heads up a Science Foundation Ireland backed research centre called Biorbic, which alongside dairy producer Carbery, as well as Teagasc, is working to create a climate-neutral commercial dairy farm in Cork. It plans to extend the strategy to a further 5,000 farms within five years.
“We are looking at the entire package of biodiversity, water quality, air quality, soil health and renewable energy because they are all interlinked,” he says. “Maybe it’s five years away before this is widespread on dairy farms. We need to demonstrate it first on a farm and show that it works.”
But O’Connor says that science is just part of the answer.
“There seems to be a presumption that farmers will just adapt. Farms are businesses so it has to pay for them to adapt. If European citizens and politicians want a sustainable way of living then they need to create payment schemes that ensure farmers are going to do the right thing, informed by science and best practice.”
They should be paid for ecosystem services like planting native woodlands, wider hedgerows and turning less productive land over to carbon sequestration and biodiversity projects, he says.
It’s now obvious that it’s dairy versus the rest and that spells serious trouble
Others within the farm sector agree that this type of change is coming, but warn it will be painful and could split the farming community. Dairy farmers will argue that priority for Ireland’s shrinking agricultural emissions budget should be given to the profitable dairy sector ahead of other types of agriculture. The real debate could be less about rural-versus-urban or farmers-versus-Government and more about dairy-versus-suckler or dairy-versus-beef, said one industry source.
“This is where the debate could become extremely political and could lead to a situation where Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael TDs from, say, Cork will be clashing with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael TDs from Connacht on the question of what farming sectors will be bearing the heaviest burden of agri-emissions reductions. The western TDs will see the championing of dairy as a threat to the type of farming that is most prevalent in their localities, while the Cork TDs will openly question the logic of using increasingly valuable emissions capacity to support breakeven beef production for part-time farmers in Connacht when it could have been utilised for Cork’s massive dairy sector.”
The jostling has already started and the different farm sectors are already sizing each other up for the coming row, says the source.
“It’s no longer possible – if it ever was – to continue with the old fantasy that a Connemara sheep farmer, a Carlow tillage farmer, a Monaghan pig farmer, a Meath beef operation and a Tipperary dairy farmer all have the same interests. The fault-lines are there to see and widening. It’s now obvious that it’s dairy versus the rest and that spells serious trouble.”