The question of how agriculture in Ireland can adapt to the need to reduce emissions has become a contentious issue recently. Agriculture has a large impact on Greenhouse gas emission creation in Ireland, accounting for around 37% of Greenhouse Gas emissions created in the country. Farming practices also impact Ireland’s biodiversity and the health of rivers. Considering a social and economic stance, agriculture is viewed as representing an important part of rural life and a source of income for over 265,000 people. The government recently reached an agreement to cut emissions from agriculture by 25% by 2030. Agricultural lobby groups have continued to stress their opposition to the cuts, claiming that it will undermine the livelihoods of farmers and lead to job losses in rural Ireland.
The debate between protecting people’s income and protecting the environment has become an area for debate among politicians and within the media. This debate is not new to many other countries and regions, especially where people are dependent on fossil fuel jobs such as coal mining for income. Failing to address the concerns of communities who will be impacted by climate policy could lead to resistance. Opposition could take the form of the Yellow Vest protests which began in France in 2018. Similarly, farmer protests against the introduction of environmental policy have also been taking place in the Netherlands recently. A further consequence of communities feeling left behind is the potential for increased levels of support for politicians and parties who are opposed to addressing climate change.
While there is the potential for conflict between workers/farmers and climate activists due to differing priorities, this is not always the case. There are examples of regions where workers have successfully transitioned to new areas of employment such as in the renewable energy sector. The idea of a ‘Just Transition’ has become popular over recent years. The aim of a Just Transition is to make sure that workers who are impacted by environmental policy do not suffer a loss of income. An important step in achieving a Just Transition is making sure that communities impacted by environmental policy have a ‘seat at the table’ in decision-making so their voices are heard as their local areas undergo change. At the government level, supports will be required in areas such as re-training workers so they can benefit from new, green jobs as well as investing in infrastructure. There is a growing focus on how the idea of a Just Transition could be applied to agriculture in Ireland. An important step in achieving a Just Transition is finding new forms of employment for displaced workers, or in the context of agriculture, new ways of utilising land. While one option is increasing the use of renewables such as windmills and solar panels on land and farm buildings, another option is farmer involvement in the bioeconomy. The bioeconomy is described by the European Commission as being the sustainable production of renewable biological resources such as crops or agricultural waste and the conversion of these resources into products and energy sources. These products include cosmetics, bio-fertilisers, bioplastics and bioenergy. By using products that come from natural resources, society’s dependence on fossil fuels can be reduced. Over recent years, developments have taken place in Ireland to support the growth of the bioeconomy. This includes the creation of BiOrbic, the national bioeconomy research centre and the establishment of the National Bioeconomy Campus in Co. Tipperary which supports the growth of bioeconomy businesses. The government published a National Policy Statement on the Bioeconomy in 2018 and established a Bioeconomy Implementation Group to provide policy supports for the bioeconomy in Ireland.
There are a range of resources which farmers can provide that can support the growth of the bioeconomy and provide them with a new source of income. These include growing crops such as sugar beet and hemp, providing agricultural waste to anaerobic digestion facilities for the creation of biogas and using grass in new ways such as extracting high-value protein which can be used in a range of sectors. Speaking about their involvement in a bioeconomy initiative called Biorefinery Glas, one farmer described how the use of biorefineries to extract proteins from grass to be used for animal feed and in the cosmetics sector can ‘make agriculture exciting again’.
While the bioeconomy has the potential to create new sources of income for farmers and reduce our dependence on pollutant practices, there are some uncertainties which will need to be addressed to secure its development. The first of which is how environmentally sustainable the bioeconomy is? Another factor is who will benefit the most from its development? If not developed correctly, there is the potential the bioeconomy could replicate sectors of agriculture where farmers have little influence on the price they receive for their produce. There is a clear need to address emission creations within Irish agriculture. It is important however to make sure that farmers are not left behind. The bioeconomy has the potential to create a society that is both greener in how we consume products and more inclusive by making sure farmers receive a fair income.
Kieran is a senior researcher at TASC focusing on issues surrounding climate justice. he has a BA in Geography and Politics and International Relations from UCD and an MSc in Environmental Policy from UCD. Kieran is currently completing a PhD with UCD, Teagasc and BiOrbic, the national bioeconomy research centre. The title of Kieran’s thesis is ‘A farmer-centred approach to understanding the Irish bioeconomy in the context of just transition’. The aim of Kieran’s study is to identify measures which can facilitate the involvement of economically vulnerable agricultural sectors in the bioeconomy.