The annual meeting of Irish dairy, agrifood and mart leaders this week marked the 125th anniversary of the foundation of the co-operative movement in Ireland.
ICOS (the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society) 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.
At the AGM, ICOS President Michael Spellman stressed that "climate change is the challenge of our generation and generations to come”, but also warned that commentators and campaigners must avoid the mistake of making an environmental scapegoat of agriculture when it comes to the issue.
“The agriculture sector obviously has much to contribute to sustainability, has already made major strides in this requirement, and is playing its part in working towards a low carbon future, relative to the essential and far reaching benefits which this vital source of food production brings to our society and the economy,” said Michael Spellman. “Brexit is a major threat and its outcome is of critical importance to our industry. This will eventually be resolved for either a reasonable, bad or middling outcome. Our industry must rise to meet this challenge with new levels of competitiveness and market access. ICOS is strongly representing the interests of our members at a national, European and international levels in this regard, as we are also doing in respect of CAP developments.
“Co-operative enterprise is a positive force for good through mutual endeavour in the interests of farmers and rural communities. This is also particularly the case in our co-operative marts where competitiveness and transparency in sales and pricing act as a counterfoil to dominant market forces, in the interests of producers and consumers. We are also deeply aware that the environment and climate change is a lifetime challenge that affects a global population with the potential for truly catastrophic outcomes for nature and humanity if our international political, economic and industry leaders do not act in concert together to address the totality of issues involved. It is the most pressing challenge for this generation and our generations to come. While the contributing factors to climate change are many and complex; in simple terms, all sectors of the economy are emitting too many greenhouse gasses. We must dramatically reduce those emissions in the short time we have left to create climate change reversal. ICOS has continually highlighted the critical importance of not driving food production away from a sustainable production base like Ireland, only to have it produced somewhere with higher emissions. Nevertheless, we cannot and nor do we wish to, escape our commitments to reduce our total emissions from agriculture. In the comprehensive ICOS policy document ‘Positive steps towards a low carbon future for the Irish dairy sector’ (2018), we set out our industry’s achievements to date and our ambition for future continuing environmental sustainability. This is endorsed by and takes inspiration from the Teagasc Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (Report) and its scientifically based plan to substantially reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions from agriculture across 3 main pillars - Agricultural mitigation of methane and nitrous oxide, Carbon sequestration and Offsetting via fossil fuel displacement.
“In addition, ICOS contributed our views to the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change which encourages knowledge sharing across our industry and the roll out of the 25 climate mitigation measures contained in Teagasc’s Marginal Abatement Cost Curve. There are no quick fixes when it comes to mitigation from agriculture as methane and nitrous oxide are biological emissions. However, the adoption of EBI (Economic Breeding Index), improved nitrogen use efficiency, uptake of protected urea measures, use of low emission spreading equipment, greater use of milk recording and extending the grazing season are all examples of practical measures that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. The critical message to farmers is that there is also a strong correlation between the uptake of these carbon efficiency measures and farm level profitability.
“Our grassland and our pasture based grazing and dairy production model leads beneficially to the substantial build-up of organic matter in our soils. These are carbon sinks and their maintenance by farmers must get the credit that deserves and continue to be recognised as a key part of the solution.
Concluding, he said: "We have nothing to be ashamed of. We are the custodians of the rural environment, and we do that job well, while producing the most nutritious, safest, pasture-based beef and dairy in the world."