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An Taisce questions Agriculture Minister's Claims on Dairy Herd Expansion       printable version
29 Nov 2014: posted by the editor - Ireland

Claims made by Agriculture Minster Simon Coveney that the Irish dairy herd can be expanded by over 300,000 cows in the next five years "while maintaining the existing carbon footprint of the agriculture sector" are inaccurate and misleading because a major increase in herd size by will by any objective measure sharply increase dairy emissions, An Taisce has said..

No amount of creative accounting involving complex carbon footprint calculations and lobbied-for EU special exemptions will alter these basic facts.

Minister Coveney made his claims on RTE's PrimeTime earlier this week. In the course of an interview, he stated that the national dairy herd would increase by between 20-25% but that this massive increase would somehow occur without commensurate increases in emissions from the agriculture sector.

This is, according to An Taisce's climate change committee, completely without foundation in fact. "The Minister's claims about higher yields per animal magically causing such dramatic lowering of the carbon footprint per litre of milk as to offset the addition of almost a third of a million dairy cows to the national herd are manifestly false", said An Taisce in a prepared statement.

Dairy Australia, a statutory body for its dairy industry, for example, in advising farmers on how to reduce dairy emissions, has the following statement at the top of its list: "Reduce herd size to minimise total emissions". As recently as April 2014, then environment minister and now EU Agriculture commissioner, Phil Hogan warned that agriculture must become carbon neutral to fulfil its climate change obligations." There can be no exceptions, there are no exceptions and there will be no exceptions", Mr Hogan warned.

And despite Mr Coveney's claims about improved emissions efficiency in Ireland's dairy sector, data from the Environment Protection Agency* shows that methane (CH₄) emissions from 'enteric fermentation' in Irish dairy cows actually increased, from 101kg per head per annum in 1990 to almost 113kg per head in 2012. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, some 24 times more powerful as a heat-trapping gas per molecule than CO₂.

According to the EPA report, the "increase of 10.6 per cent from 1990 (is) in line with increased milk yield" (Note 1). This flatly contradicts Minister Coveney's claim that higher yielding animals are going to somehow deliver drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to offset the huge herd expansion.

Minister Coveneny has also glossed over the inevitable increase in nitrates usage (Ireland is already failing to implement the EU Nitrates Directive, aimed at protecting freshwater from nitrate pollution). In addition, an extra 300,000 dairy cows means a commensurate rise in agricultural effluent, which when combined with more frequent flooding events, places Irish water courses at heightened risk.

The European Commission has written to the Irish government with a detailed set of 'Observations On The Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 '. Among these, under the genomics programme:

"The Irish authorities are asked to provide evidence and quantification of the expected decrease in greenhouse gas emissions to be achieved. Moreover, evidence of other environmental benefits expected should be provided. Furthermore, indication of any negative consequences on the environment this scheme could have (e.g. increased manure and slurry production) should be given and it should be explained if an impact assessment in this respect has been made. (Note 2) "

At a time when political leaders from Washington to Beijing have begun an earnest dialogue on how best to address the urgent need to drastically lower global greenhouse gas emissions, it ill behoves Ireland, whose agriculture sector is increasingly vulnerable to flooding, fodder shortages and extreme weather events driven by climate change to take this contrarian position.

Minister Coveney personally understands the existential threat of climate change, and has spoken publicly about his fears for the future. However, apparently influenced by Taoiseach Enda Kenny (who has shown himself to be both hypocritical and hopelessly out of touch with the science of climate change) and beholden to industry lobbyists, Minister Coveney now appears to be resorting to voodoo accounting to prop up an entirely misguided agri-industrial growth-at-all-costs policy that goes against science.

Mr Coveney's claim that: "Ireland will be the fastest growing dairy producer on the planet" in the next decade betrays the true motivation here—the pursuit of short-term profit at the cost of any long-term vision for a sustainable future for Irish farming and a safer future for all Irish citizens.


  1. EPA 'Ireland's National Greenhouse Gas Inventory'
  2. OBSERVATIONS ON THE RURAL DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME 2014-2020 "IRELAND—RURAL DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME (NATIONAL)" CCI: 2014IE06RDNP001—See question 125. Was obtained from the Commission by Birdwatch.
  3. Dairy Australia's report
  4. Commissioner Hogan's statement

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