Low carbon future: Irish dairy eyes climate change challenge as global opportunity

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25 Jan 2018 --- Every liter of milk produced in Ireland is currently the most carbon efficient liter of milk in Europe – a distinct competitive advantage for Irish dairy farmers. This must be further underpinned in the years ahead to ensure continuing, sustainable and long-term success, a major new report on the Irish dairy farming sector has recommended.

The report – "Positive Steps Towards a Low Carbon Future for the Irish Dairy Sector" – has been produced by the Irish Co-operative Organization Society (ICOS) and was launched yesterday by Agriculture Food and Marine Minister, Michael Creed, T.D., together with Professor John Fitzgerald, Chair of the Climate Change Advisory Committee and Martin Keane, President of ICOS, which represents all dairy processing co-operatives in Ireland.

The Report follows from a Working Group established in 2016 by ICOS, with the major dairy processing co-operatives in Ireland, following from the Paris Agreement. It is also a result of discussions held by the Working Group with a range of external experts involved in climate change policy, science and research.

Ireland’s dairy products and ingredients are sold in over 155 countries worldwide, valued at €4 billion. 81% of all agricultural land is used for grass production (hay, silage or pasture).

Grass-based dairy and beef production is the backbone of Irish farming and underpins the cost competitiveness and sustainable credentials of Irish agriculture and food production. Livestock in Ireland is reared on permanent pasture, with grass or silage making up to 83.6% of a typical dairy cow diet. 

There are 6.6 million cattle in Ireland including 1.35 million dairy cows which Teagasc projects will increase to 1.6 million head by 2025. 

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre Report in 2010 recognized Ireland’s dairy sector as the most carbon efficient in Europe. Irish milk emissions were 1kg per kg of product, compared to the EU average of 1.4 kg per kg of product. Ireland’s emissions per kg of beef were 18.4 kg per kg of product, well below the EU average of 22.2 kg per kg of product. 

At farm level, there have been great advances in terms of productivity, efficiency and milk quality standards over recent years. In addition, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in Ireland today are 3.5% below 1990 levels. 

Since carbon assessments began across dairy farms in Ireland in 2012, there has been a consistent downward trend in the average carbon footprint on Irish dairy farms. The carbon footprint of fat and protein corrected milk has reduced from 1.21kg CO2e/kg in 2014 to 1.14kg in 2016. 

Additionally, Irish farms contribute significantly to the support of biodiversity, with abundant wildlife across the rural environment, and they also use far less water than is used in other countries.

“Climate change due to global warming is an important strategic challenge facing Irish and global agriculture,” said ICOS President Martin Keane. 

“Very significant investments have been made in the future processing capabilities of our industry. Producers have contributed strongly to that including investment and expanded production. Research suggests that dairy expansion for the period 2016 to 2020 will result in a €2.7 billon economic impact for Rural Ireland.”

“The Irish dairy industry acknowledges its responsibility to develop in the post quota era in a manner that protects the environment and, as an industry, it fully adheres to the principle of sustainable intensification. Ultimately, the Irish dairy sector exports to a multiple of Ireland’s national population, a highly nutritious food source recognised as the most carbon efficient in Europe.”

The ICOS report outlines the role of co-operatives in delivering future sustainable growth and reviews the development of public policy related to climate change and agriculture. The sustainability credentials of the Irish dairy sector are outlined in detail and the importance of fostering knowledge sharing is emphasized.

“There is no room for complacency. There is simply too much at stake. Agricultural systems throughout the world will have to provide extra food to feed a growing population – expected to exceed 11 billion people by the end of this century. We must produce more food, while conserving available land, water and energy resources. That is why the recommendation by the Citizen’s Assembly in November 2017 to impose a carbon tax directly on Irish agriculture is deeply flawed. This proposal, if implemented, would damage the competitiveness of Irish agri-food exports, while benefiting little to the environment. In reality, it would be counterproductive, resulting in the possibility of carbon leakage.”

ICOS represents over 130 co-operatives in Ireland – including the Irish dairy processing co-operatives and livestock marts – whose associated businesses have a combined turnover in the region of €14 billion, with some 150,000 individual members, employing 12,000 people in Ireland, and a further 24,000 people overseas.

Ornua, the largest exporter of primary Irish dairy products, welcomed the report. Jeanne Kelly, Head of Sustainability: “Close and continued collaboration within the Irish dairy community has always been vital to maintaining Ireland’s status as the most carbon efficient producer of dairy products in Europe. 

“We were proud to work closely again with ICOS and our industry partners to develop this report which helps us to better understand the challenges brought about by climate change. If we can understand the challenges associated with climate change, we can identify opportunities to build a sustainable, low carbon future for the Irish dairy industry and for generations to come.”

In a recent interview with The World of Food Ingredients, Ornua’s CEO of Ingredients Europe, Bernard Condon notes the potential of Irish dairy on a sustainability platform, recognizing how the ending of milk quotas in April 2015 had a differentiated effect across Europe. “If you look at what we regard as the big three milk producers [the UK, Germany and France], we always said that historically they accounted for the majority of European milk production. However, we have seen that across those three, their production has surprisingly not grown since the removal of quotas.” 

“What has actually grown is production in second tier markets, such as Ireland and Poland, where there has been significant growth. So although people expected that this policy change would have led to a broad-based supply surge, that hasn’t been the case. You could say that it is a case of classical economics, where production is moving to those geographical locations where it is the most cost-effective to produce,” he says.

But why would Ireland be any different? “Ireland has a grass-based system, so in terms of our cost comparisons, a huge amount of that is taken up in the cycle of the inputs (feed, fuel and fertilizer), which continental suppliers are more reliant on. If these inputs become very expensive, we become more cost competitive, relatively speaking and if they are cheap we become less so,” Condon notes. “But in general, the model in Ireland is one of seasonal production, it tends to be family farms, with an average of less than 75 cows. So on balance we believe ourselves to be more cost competitive than those reliant on inputs,” Condon says. “When milk quotas ended our total production was 5-5.5bn liters. At the time, a major project was commissioned by the Irish government, which said that by 2021, production would be 7.5bn liters, a 50% rise in overall production. We are close to 7bn liters already,” he adds. 

By Robin Wyers

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