Dairying and climate change – 5 common misconceptions

Michael Brady.

Agricultural Consultant and Managing Director at Brady Group:

Agricultural Consultants & Land Agents. The Lodge, Lee Road, Cork.

1st published in the Farming Independent: 15/06/2021

Farmers are blamed for all our environmental problems, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there

We are heading for the 6th mass extinction of species on the planet as a result of climate change.  

Global temperatures are rising, the ice cap is melting, vast areas of the planet will be uninhabitable by the year 2100, all because of the increase in atmospheric temperatures around planet Earth.

Recent debate on the topic in this country has clearly set its sights on agriculture and in particular the buoyant dairy sector. Agriculture accounts for 35% of GHG’s in Ireland due to the lack of heavy industry in the country.

For over a century, this country has craved for a successful agricultural enterprise to underpin farming as a career option for the sons and daughters of landowners and to stop the flight from the land. The removal of EU milk quotas in 2015 released the brakes on milk production and allowed dairying to again dream of reaching the heady days of the Cork Butter Market between 1770 -1850. The Cork Butter Market was the Global Dairy Trade Auction Index of that era (GDT is an auction of milk commodities in New Zealand held every fortnight).       

In reality, over the last 45 years, Irish dairy farmer numbers have fallen, milk production has increased but the number of dairy cows is static. There is no mass explosion in dairy cow numbers, in fact we have only recently surpassed the number of dairy cows in the country before EU milk quotas were introduced in 1984.

Table 1: Irish Dairy Farming – The Last 45 years

Farmers (no’s)144,00040,80018,45618,000+ est
Dairy Cow (no’s)1.4 m1.2 m1.24 m1.57 m
Milk Production (litres)3.2 bn5.1 bn6.4 bn8.3 bn

                         Source: CSO, DAFM, Teagasc.

If there was an Olympics for dairy farmers, Irish dairy farmers would be top of the medal table. When ranked alongside their peers in other countries Irish dairy farmers are genuinely at the top of the tree, no matter what metric you choose, physical, financial or environmental.

Yet, if you were to listen to recent debate on social and traditional media, you would be forgiven for thinking that dairy farmers were the sole cause of the climate problem in Ireland, the reality is they are a major part of the solution.       

The following are 5 common misconceptions in the debate around Irish Dairying and Climate Change:

  1. Humans not Cows are the cause of the problem

The main reason for the increase in global temperatures is the explosion in the world’s human population, not an increase in Irish dairy cow numbers.

The increase from 2.3 billion people in 1937 to 7.8 billion today, is projected to increase even further to 11 billion people by 2100. It is the burning fossil fuels (for heat) and the reclamation of land (for food) to meet the needs and wants of these humans is forcing the planet into meltdown. Containing or reversing human population growth is clearly a priority, without it all other measures are fruitless, it is the fundamental cause of the problem.

  •  Temperature increase is the problem

The planet has a temperature problem as opposed to GHG problem. In Ireland the debate has focused around Green House Gases (GHG’s).

For ease of calculation and comparison, all gasses are converted to a Carbon Dioxide (Co2) warming equivalent via the GWP 100 equation. This simple system of comparison has placed particular emphasis on Methane (Ch4) from cows in Ireland as it comprises significant part of our agricultural emissions. This GWP 100 method of calculation does not take into effect the cooling effect of methane which lasts for much less time than CO2 in the atmosphere.

Therefore, the dairy cow effect in heating up the earth by methane (CH4) is grossly exaggerated. However, it is accepted that it is still an issue to be addressed.

  • We do not have a model of ‘intensive ruminant’ agriculture

The production of milk, beef and sheep meat in Ireland are not ‘intensive ruminant’ agriculture, in fact they are the envy of many nations

For example, in milk production, 80% of the worlds dairy cows are housed indoors all year around, a confinement system of production. Our average herd size is less than 100 cows per dairy farm and outdoors for in excess of 200 days each year. At present China are building 10,000 cow indoor dairy units, in the USA anything less than a 3,000 cow indoor unit is not considered viable, these are ‘intensive ruminant’ systems of productions which are not kind to man, beast nor the environment, we do not have this scale nor system of production.

Terms such as ‘factory farming’, ‘intensive agriculture’ or ‘industrial ruminant agriculture’ do not exist in Ireland.   

  • Diversification on a grand scale is a myth

The opponents of Irish agriculture regularly use the term ‘Diversification’ as the panacea to resolve all the perceived problems in Irish agriculture.

When questioned; diversify to what? the answer regularly comes back as a fantasy version of Irish agriculture, where farmers live like new age travellers off the land on very small holdings.

How are these farmers going to fund a modern lifestyle, educate their children and maintain and improve their holdings for the next generation?

Yes, a small number of farmers will benefit from the production of value added products in milk and meat and other diversification ideas, but we do not have the population to sustain such enterprises on a grand scale.         

Diversification is for a few, not the masses.

  • Indices of Biodiversity (water & air quality) in Ireland are excellent

Why do millions of tourists come to Ireland annually, it is certainly not for the fine weather.

I suggest they come to see the 40 shades of green in our biodiverse countryside, the clean air and water, as well as enjoying the hospitality of our people, especially those in rural Ireland.  

As a nation our water and air quality are amongst the cleanest on the planet yes, we can and will continue to do better, but let’s put it all in perspective, we are already up there at the top of the class.  

Irish agriculture and in particular dairying is truly world class. Let’s call out those who are incorrectly using the success of Irish Dairying as a stick to beat entire agri-food industry over climate change. A lot of the recent polarised debate/noise from the environmental pillar is self-serving and not really in the best interest of either side of argument.

Irish agriculture is a well-structured, science based, successful industry with a natural climatic advantage over other nations, perhaps it is time we learn how to stand up for ourselves.