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Ireland will INCREASE global emissions by reducing herd, expert tells Oireachtas Committee

An expert witness called to give testimony to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and Marine has said that reducing livestock herd sizes in Ireland might actually increase global greenhouse emissions – the opposite to what is currently being argued in a bid to force farmers to cull cattle. 

Professor Frank Mitloehner, from the University of California, Davis, said that if Irish farmers – who he described as “very efficient producers” – scaled back their herds, production would likely move to less sustainable regions of the world, given global demand for meat.

“We clearly see that demand for animal sourced foods is rising and the bulk of livestock emissions are coming from less efficient regions of the world,” he said.

“Reducing herd sizes isn’t a practical solution, especially in Ireland, where farmers are very efficient producers. If they scaled back their herds, production would likely move to another region so that global demand could be met. Given how proficient Irish farmers are, those picking up the slack, so to speak, may well be less environmentally sustainable than Irish farmers.”

“This is called leakage, a phenomenon that could well lead to a spike – not a reduction – in greenhouse gas emissions,” he told the Oireachtas Committee.

The air quality specialist, who said much of his work revolved around studying the emissions of livestock in order to determine their contribution to air pollution and climate change, said California had a dairy herd very similar in size to that of Ireland.

“In California, the state is working with farmers to reduce methane emissions on dairies, and they are seeing promising results through collaboration. Farmers can and should be part of your approach to reducing greenhouse gases,” he told Irish politicians.

“I say this as someone who has dedicated his career to helping to mitigate emissions in the livestock sector and as someone who holds our farmers in the highest regard. The sector has room to improve and could feasibly reduce emissions by 20% to 30% by employing emerging technologies. In fact, we’re doing just that in California.,” he said.

Prof Mitloehner said that it was a mistake to argue that problems with emissions could only be tackled through draconian herd reductions – or requesting the human population to stop eating meat.

“California has reduced the emissions of more than 2 million metric tons of CO2  annually with dairy digesters reducing 30% of its methane. While I understand anaerobic digesters are a major departure from the Irish way of dairy production, the critical point is that we are formulating real, workable solutions to a problem many believe can only be tackled through draconian herd reductions and dietary changes,” he said.

He also explained that additives to livestock feed were a ‘proven’ way to reduce methane production.

“Feed additives are promising, with significant potential to reduce enteric methane emissions in livestock. Bovaer, also known as 3NOP, has recently been recognized by the European Union as a proven methane-reduction feed additive with the potential of reducing more than 30%. And other additives are on the way,” he explained.

And he warned that food security should not be threatened by “hyperbole” – and that Ireland’s debate on the issue should look at the facts.

“Ireland already plays a large role in producing food for the world. More than 90 percent of its beef and dairy products are used in homes outside its borders. Irish farmers produce animal-sourced foods more efficiently than other regions, while always

striving to improve as they provide nutritious food to those who need it at home and abroad,” he said.

“Given the nation’s role in the global supply chain, we would do well to allow it to be part of a global solution to limiting climate change,” he urged. “There are solutions available right now that can reduce methane emissions from cattle. These

solutions will likely need to be tweaked to fit the Irish way of raising livestock, but that’s not a formidable challenge.”

He also advised that the Irish authorities needed to better understand how to measure methane.

“The old saying that you can’t manage what you can’t measure applies as well to methane emitted by cattle herds. Ireland is distinctive in that its cattle are primarily raised on pasture, which has significant carbon sequestration capacity. What is surprising is it is not well known how much carbon is being sequestered by Irish farms. That needs to be better understood as we discuss carbon accounting and set emissions targets,” he said.

On food security, he added: “Meeting these challenges will require the world to produce plant- and animal-based food and to produce them more efficiently, using both high-quality and marginal agricultural lands. But first, we need to examine the facts, not engage in hyperbole.”

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