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Food production in Ireland

Climate change impacts, adaptation and mitigation within the livestock sector and options for improved food security outcomes

Agricultural emissions account for one third of all greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland and are the largest source of non CO2 emissions. Under current national agricultural policy objectives, these emissions are projected to increase.  

Irish agriculture is predominantly focussed on livestock and livestock products, including dairy. Ireland exports approximately 75% of all livestock products (from DAFM 2015 and Bord Bia 2016).  The sector’s direct role in national food security is relatively small.

The review will examine the outcomes of global warming upon Irish agriculture in terms of mitigation, impacts and future food security

Agricultural Emissions Present and Future
Agricultural emissions account for 33% of Irish greenhouse gas emissions (CCAC 2016).  In 2013 these totalled 19.04 Mt CO2eq. In keeping with current policies, (DAFF 2010) the dairy herd is projected to expand by 41% between 2013 and 2035.  Emissions are projected to rise, peaking at 19.84-19.99 Mt CO2eq in 2025 and thereafter gradually declining to 18.93-19.04 Mt CO2eq by 2035 (EPA 2015).

Enteric fermentation accounts for 55% of current agricultural emissions. Soils and indirect emissions account for 30%, while manure management and energy use account for 9% and 4% respectively. The remaining 2% comes from lime and urea applications (EPA 2015).

These figures exclude emissions arising from manufacture and importation of fertilisers or from the production and importation of animal feed.  In 2014 Ireland’s agriculture sector imported 1.4Mt of NPK fertilisers, used of 0.89 Mt of ground limestone and imported of 3 Mt of animal feed (DAFM 2015).

Emissions attributed to fertiliser and imported animal feed
Wood and Cowrie (2004) found the emissions involved in the manufacture of nitrogen fertiliser to be 0.9-2.9 tCO2eq per tN fertiliser product. As nitrogen fertilisers form the bulk of fertiliser imports into Ireland (DAFM 2015) the external annual emissions cost of fertiliser imports is estimated to be 1-3Mt CO2eq.

The emissions cost of lime is estimated at 1.01-1.57t CO2 per tonne of lime produced (Stork et al 2014). Although much of the lime used on Irish farms is manufactured in Ireland, the emissions of production are not included in the agricultural emissions inventory but attributed to industry instead. Factoring in transportation emissions, the production and supply of lime adds approximately 1-1.5 Mt CO2 to annual emissions.

Dalgaard et al (2008), found emissions associated with soybean meal production to be 0.34-0.72kg CO2eq/kg feed. Assuming similar emissions costs for other feed, Ireland’s external emissions for animal feed would amount to approximately 1-2 MT CO2 eq. Together, the imported feed and fertiliser add 3-6.5 MtCO2eq to the emissions cost of Irish agriculture (an additional 15-32.5%)

Contribution to Irish Food Security
The contribution of Irish agriculture to national food security is relatively low. At official level, food security is viewed exclusively in terms of financial means: “food security is addressed through a range of Government policies providing social protection and supports for low income, disadvantaged and vulnerable groups” (Creed 2016). Confusingly, the primary role of agriculture in terms of food security is perceived to be serving export markets (Creed, as above).

Approximately 75-80% of all the food eaten in Ireland is imported (Wilson 2019*). Imports  include: rice, pasta, most other grains and grain products;  dried pulses including soya and soya products; all nuts; almost all fruit; sugar and other confectionary; early potatoes and a high proportion of other vegetables; tinned fish and fish products, and almost all culinary oils. The above list is derived from comparing what Ireland does produce (DAFM 2015), with what it actually eats (IUNA 2011).

Emissions reduction
The most obvious means of significantly reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions is to reduce animal production in favour of food crops or some other land use, for example sustainable forestry..
Carlsson-Kanyama and González (2009)  demonstrated a potential emission reduction of  72-91% by switching from a meat based diet to a vegetarian one.  González et al (2011) found that protein delivery efficiency (g protein/kg CO2eq) of most grains and dried legumes to be 4-40 times higher than for animal-derived proteins.

Popp et al (2010) examined various global scenarios for non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production. The baseline scenario assumed no change in diet or in per-capita food consumption between 1995 and 2055, but global population rising to 9 billion. In this scenario non-CO2 emissions rise from 5.3  to 8.7 Gt CO2eq/yr. Adding in increased consumption of animal products in line with recent dietary trends,  non-CO2 emissions rise to 15.3 Gt CO2eq/yr, an increase of 76% from the base scenario. However, the models showed that a 25% decadal decline in meat demand  would reduce non-CO2 emissions to 4.3 Gt CO2eq/yr, a fall of 51%. Combining a changing diet with mitigation measures in agriculture saw non-CO2 emissions falling to 2.5 Gt CO2eq/yr.

Climate change
Taking the IPCC RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 scenarios as the storyline, Gleeson et al 2013 found that temperature increases of 1.3-1.7C over the 1981-2000 average could be expected by 2060. The projections for spring and autumn showed greater warming in the east, while in summer the gradient of temperature increase runs northwest to southeast. In winter the gradient runs northeast to southwest.

The projected precipitation changes also show similar regional and seasonal variations. The RCP 4.5 scenario indicated reduced rainfall in most areas during spring, summer and autumn, but increased rainfall in western regions in winter. Under the higher emissions RCP8.5 scenario, reduction in precipitation became more pronounced in eastern areas (Gleeson et al 2013), suggesting that continental airflow would become more dominant.

Murphy and Charlton (2008) found “reduced ground water storage during the recharge period” in eastern catchments, but also increases in western catchments, as well as increased magnitude and frequency of winter and spring flooding events in all areas.   The frequency of deep low pressure systems and associated storms in the period 2021-2060 compared to 1961-2000 was found to be largely unchanged (McGrath et al 2005).

Climate Impacts on Irish Agriculture
Holden et al (2008) found wetter climate in western areas with poorly drained soils would lead to increases in poaching, nutrient losses and animal disease, and reduced machine trafficability. The latter would impact mainly on silage cutting (the principle machine activity in these areas) but would also impact on tillage crops where these were grown. There would also be risks associated with increased run-off of slurry. The let out date for cattle would become later.

A drier summer climate in eastern areas would increase soil moisture deficits, potentially impacting negatively on all crops, including grass. In order to maintain yields at current levels, irrigation would be required in most areas where the potato is currently grown. The impacts of increased likelihood of winter and spring flooding events were not discussed but can be presumed to impact on access for both animals and machinery.

Holden et al (as above) presumed that the current makeup of Irish agriculture - predominantly grazing and fodder/feed crops with some potatoes - would remain largely unchanged and did not examine possible impact  mitigation resulting from radical changes in agriculture, for example reducing the livestock herd by 60-90%. This would potentially free up land designated for grazing or animal feed production in favour of food crops selected on the basis of a changed climate and changed soil conditions (for example grains, legumes, root crops, fruit, nuts and other perennial crops).

Fox et al (2011) found an increased summer incidence of Fasciola hepatica (liver fluke) in the UK.  spreading eastwards from historical fluke strongholds. This trend was expected to continue, with increased risk in most parts of Britain, particularly in the west.  The outcomes for Ireland can be expected to be broadly similar.

Pietzsch et al (2005) found increased incidence of Ixodes ricinus in western and northern Britain in recent decades. Ticks have many implications for health, both in livestock and in the human population. Danielova et al (2004) found a relationship between temperature-related ecological changes and the incidence tick-borne encephalitis in the Czech Republic.

Guis et al (2011) found that the emergence of  BTV (Blue Tongue Virus) across Europe “is related, at least partly, to climate change”. The Culicodes midge responsible for BTV is also a vector for many other viruses including West Nile Virus and Alkurma Haemorrhage Fever (Gale et al 2009).  

Further discussion
Studies on climate change impacts and mitigation within the agriculture sector have tended to presume a business as usual scenario. Irish agriculture carries a high global warming footprint, serves only a auxiliary role in national food security and shows possible vulnerability to climate change (particularly in terms of livestock disease).

Diversification of food outputs and the substitution of animal production in favour of food crops has the potential to decrease the vulnerability of Irish agriculture to climate change, while simultaneously decreasing the emissions footprint and increasing national food security.

* The 2019 study found that the percentage of food eaten in Ireland derived from imports is significantly higher than calculated in an earlier study by Andi


Bord Bia: Bord Bia Factsheet on the Irish agriculture and food and drink sector 2016  (last accessed 08/11/16)

Carlsson-Kanyama A., and González A.D.,2009:  Potential contributions of food consumption patterns to climate change

CCAC 2016:  Climate Change Advisory Council, annual report

Creed, M., 2016 Michael Creed, Irish Minister for Agriculture, written answer in the Dáil to the question of food security, July 7th 2016. (last accessed 07/11/16)

DAFF 2010: Department of Agriculture Food and Fisheries, Food harvest 2020 report

DAFM 2015: Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Annual review and outlook for agriculture, food  and the marine 2015-2016

Dalgaard, R., Schmidt, J.,  Halberg, N., Christensen, P., Thrane, M. and Pengue, W., 2008:  LCA of soybean meal

EPA 2015: Environmental Protection Agency, Ireland’s greenhouse gas emission projections 2014-2035

Fox, N., White, P., McClean, C., Marion, G., Evans, A., Hutching, M., 2011: Predicting impacts of climate change on Fasciola hepatica risk

Danielová, V., Kříž, B., Daniel, M., Beneš, Č., Valter, J., Kott, I., 2004:   Effects of climate change on the incidence of tick-borne encephalitis in the Czech Republic in the past two decades (in Czech). Quoted in Danielová et al 2006 ‘Extension of Ixodes ricinus and agents of tickborne diseases to mountain areas in the Czech Republic

Gale, P., Drew, T., Phipps, L.P., David, G. and Wooldridge, M.,  2009: The effect of climate change on the occurrence and prevalence of livestock diseases in Great Britain – a review 

Gleeson, E.,  McGrath, R., Treanor, M., (eds) 2013): Ireland’s Climate – The road ahead

González, A.D., Frostell, B., Carlsson-Kanyama, A., 2011: Protein efficiency per unit of energy and per unit of greenhouse gas emission

Guis, H., Caminade, C., Calvete, C., Morse, A., Tran, A. and Baylis, M., 2011:  Modelling the effects of past and future climate on the risk of bluetongue emergence in Europe

Holden, N.M., Brereton, A.J. and Fitzgerald, J.B., 2008:  Impact of climate change on Irish agricultural production systems.  In ‘Climate change - Refining the impacts for Ireland’ Environmental Protection Agency

IUNA, 2011: Irish Universities Nutritional Alliance. National Adult Nutrition Survey  

McGrath, R., Nishimura, E., Nolan, P., Semmler, T., Sweeney, C. and Wang, S., 2005: Climate change – regional climate model predictions for Ireland

Murphy, C. and Charlton, R.A., 2008: Climate change and water resources. In ‘Climate change - Refining the impacts for Ireland’ Environmental Protection Agency

Popp, A., Lotze-Campen, H. and .Bodirsky, B., 2010: Food consumption, diet shifts and associated non-CO2 greenhouse gases from agricultural production.

Stork, M., Meindertsma, W., Overgaag, M., and Neelis, M., 2014: Competitive and efficient lime industry Report for European Lime Association

Wilson, A., 2019:  Can Ireland feed itself? Options for greater food security in a climate changed world.          

Wood, S., and Cowrie, A., 2004: Review of greenhouse gas emission factors for fertiliser production.