European farming to feel heat of criticism for global warming

17.03.2017

The German Department of the Environment will no longer serve meat at official functions.

One could envisage a growth in this type of anti-climate change initiative at official level and individual consumer level.

It could be the snowflake that starts an avalanche of problems for farmers due to global warming.

In fact, such developments in the market place and in world politics may pose the biggest climate change threat to Irish farmers.

Consumers reacting to the challenge of global warming by reducing or eliminating their consumption of animal products is probably a greater risk for the beef sector than the dairy sector, as there are clearer alternatives to beef than to milk products.

Political acceptance

On the political front, the scientific consensus on climate change has been broadly accepted (until the coming of Trump).

A series of international agreements are aimed at reducing carbon emissions and hopefully reducing global warming.

Ireland is a party to these highly technical agreements and has targets for greenhouse gas emissions for 2020, 2030 and 2050, in an EU framework.

The 2020 Irish target relevant to agriculture (but also includes transport and housing) is for a reduction of 20% in greenhouse gas, versus 2005.

This is unlikely to be achieved, partly due to growth in dairy, partly due to recovery in the economy, and increased car numbers.

Ireland is likely to escape heavy EU fines for not achieving the targets, because of the recent recession, and because we overachieved in 2013 to 2016, and built up some credits.

But if we don t achieve our 2020 targets, it makes the achievement of the 2030 target 30% reduction in greenhouse gas (again, compared with 2005) more difficult.

The Government has also set a target to reduce greenhouse gas by at least 80% by 2050, compared to 1990, in electricity generation, transport and building.

Agriculture and land use are not included in this target, and there is a commitment that the approach to carbon neutrality... does not compromise capacity for sustainable food production .

Right now, Irish farmers might settle for some global warming instead of the rain which has delayed spring grazing.

They may even settle for an accurate weather forecast for the rest of March, rather than worry about scientists weather predictions for 30 or 60 years from now.

Maybe they would be more worried if they lived in Bangladesh, Netherlands and Florida, which some scientists predict could be under water by the end of this century, due to global warming.

Scientific consensus

There is a broad scientific consensus that the earth is getting warmer due to human activity, in particular, generation of greenhouse gas from sources such as burning fossil fuels, or excreted by bovines and sheep.

Also, cutting down trees has reduced capacity to absorb surplus CO2 gas.

Scientists say the average temperature across the globe rose by 0.7 degrees Centigrade in the past 150 years, and that, without action, it could rise four degrees by 2100, with catastrophic effects.

Among the projections made are rising sea levels.

Higher temperatures observed to date appear to have brought about a decline in crop yields, particularly for wheat and maize although world markets are awash in grains at the moment.

There is real concern about the growth of deserts. Due to such concerns, governments agreed in Paris to try to limit the mid-century temperature increase to 1.5 degrees.

There are scientists who dispute the climate change consensus. They claim that the temperature rise in recent decades is a natural cycle that occurred before, and is not related to recent greenhouse gas emissions.

They also claim that measurement of climate change is biased by over-representation of city sites (where temperatures are affected by factors other than climate), and that temperature change in rural areas is not so marked.

Irish climate study

The most recent Irish climate change study, sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is by Paul Nolan of Trinity College.

He estimates that by the middle of this century:

(a) There will be a further increase in average temperature of 1 to 1.6 degrees centigrade compared with the years 1981 to 2000.

(b) The number of frosty days will decline by 50%.

(c) The growing season will increase by more than 35 days.

(d) Amounts of rainfall will fall by about 10%, particularly in the spring and summer (another study suggests summer rainfall could decline by 25%-40%, and winter rain could increase by 10-25%).

(e) The frequency of heavy rainfall will however increase, particularly in autumn and winter.

(f) There will be more extended dry periods, particularly in the summer. This would particularly affect the south of the country.

Food safety promotion

These projections are the starting point for a study by Teagasc and Queen s University, a contract research project for Safefood (an organisation promoting food safety in the island of Ireland.

Their finished report can be found on www.safefood.eu. The Principal Researcher was Thia Hennessy, Professor and Chair of Agri-Food Economics and Head of the Department of Food Business and Development at Cork University Business School, UCC.

The focus was on direct risks to the Irish dairy industry, particularly from a food safety perspective, of continuing global warming.

What jumps out in their findings is the increase in the length of the growing season.

The potential summer drought and animal heat stress problems are unlikely to override the benefit of an extra month s grass, which would be a clear advantage for Ireland s grass-based dairy system, reducing the need for bought-in animal feed.

There is no information available in the report for Safefood on the potential impact of climate change on the agricultural sectors of competitors such as other EU states, New Zealand, the USA or Argentina.

The most serious other direct effect on farming is the projected increase in heavy rainfall and flooding in the autumn and winter months, suggesting damage to pastures, reduced yields etc.

Mycotoxins

One of the most widespread food safety hazards, within the dairy industry, are mycotoxins that arise in animal feed, mainly aflatoxins.

These are toxic to humans and animals. Contamination occurs due to mould infestation of animal feed.

The growth of these moulds is determined by temperature and humidity.

A changing climate could provide optimal conditions for mycotoxin-producing moulds.

A warmer climate could see the appearance of mycotoxins not known before in our northern climates.

The projected warmer and wetter autumns in Ireland may favour moulds and toxins during harvesting and storage of crops.

If Irish crop yields are adversely hit by climate change, this will increase farmers reliance on imported feed (but the longer growing season could offset this).

Bacteria and Parasites

Attention from a food safety perspective is also placed on parasites and bacteria in bovines which could find their way into the food chain.

Warmer temperatures could support the growth of these undesirables, and dealing with them could involve greater administration of antibiotics and antiviral drugs a higher cost immediately, but potentially leading to increased antibiotic resistance.


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