Ireland has arrived at a crossroads and the direction it takes will determine the way of life for generations to come. Its leaders switch places on Saturday.
The coalition government, which includes the Green Party, committed to slashing by a quarter the greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural industry ― one of the country's traditional ways of life.
The announcement was hailed as a “hugely significant” moment for Ireland by Eamon Ryan, the environment minister and leader of the Green Party, the junior partners to Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
But farmers up and down the country, many of whom manage livestock or peat bogs on land passed down through generations, met the declaration with feelings ranging from disillusionment to anger.
Their criticism of the target, which has a 2030 deadline, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how voters in many parts of rural Ireland view the government in Dublin. The figure, announced last summer, was higher than the 22 per cent farmers had pushed for but less than the 30 per cent sought by representatives of other sectors.
Ceilings set for greenhouse gas emissions in other areas will require a 75 per cent reduction for the electricity sector, a 50 per cent reduction for transport, 40 per cent for residential buildings, and 35 per cent for industry. All this at a time when the country is dealing with a housing crisis, an influx of refugees including those from Ukraine, and a rising cost of living.
Combined, the targets make up the government's plan to reduce the country's overall emissions by 51 per cent by the end of the decade.
The policies are likely to be one of the main deciding factors for voters in the next general election, due to be held in 2025, and could prove to be a thorn in the sides of the ruling parties. One politician told The National that the climate agenda, led by the Greens, risked causing the party to lose its 12 seats in the Dail, Ireland's lower house of parliament.
The agricultural industry has for generations been the backbone of the country, providing a sense of stability to the economy in times of war, turmoil and political upheaval.
Famed for its lush green pastures and picturesque coastlines, Ireland is home to more cattle than people. Millions of tourists visit the country each year, supporting restaurants, pubs and hotels that rely heavily on Ireland’s meat and dairy farms.
But the farmers of Ireland now say the deep-rooted pride their leaders once took in them appears to be washing away, as the country seeks to cut its greenhouse gas emissions.
'Green targets mean backdoor culls'
Pat McCormack, president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, said the policy would have “catastrophic consequences” on the farming sector and will “change the landscape of Ireland for ever”. The group represents 14,000 farmers, mostly in the dairy sector.
Family farms will probably be hit hardest by the government’s green initiative, Mr McCormack said, warning that many risk going out of business because they will not be able to make ends meet.
He also touched on fears among some farmers who say they may have no choice but to cull part of their herds to reduce emissions.
Ireland is home to about 6.5 million cattle and has a human population of five million. The agriculture sector is responsible for about 38 per cent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions.
Up to 1.3 million cattle — a fifth of the national herd — would have to be culled for the country to meet the target, a report by KPMG, commissioned by the Irish Farmers Journal, concluded last year.
“I think there will be a cull by the backdoor,” Mr McCormack told The National.
He said assurances from the government that farmers will not have to resort to such drastic measures offer little consolation to the industry.
Politicians are “undermining farmers” with their policies which are “lacking in common sense”, he said, and this is harming the mental health of people in the industry.
Mr McCormack said farmers have experienced a lack of engagement from their elected representatives and warned there could be retaliation at the next general election.
“These are ordinary people with modest clothing, modest lifestyles and modest livelihoods,” Mr McCormack said. “They are going to be affected here.
“It’s going to be a huge issue. We’re going to see it over the next few years.
“We are a unique nation of people. Ninety per cent of what we produce we export.
“We are very efficient from a dairy and medical perspective.
“It would be ironic as a generation of people to reduce our food production and that’s a legacy you would not like to be leaving for the next generation.”
'Impossible for Ireland to reach net zero by 2050'
Among the most prominent political fighters on behalf of farmers is Michael Healy-Rae, an independent TD (member of the Dail).
Speaking to The National, he cited one example of a farmer he had met who had 50 dairy cows and was struggling to make ends meet. The target could mean he will have to reduce his herd by as much as 20 cows ― a scenario that would make his livelihood “completely unviable”.
Mr Healy-Rae lambasted the coalition government for pushing ahead with green targets while nations around the world, including in Europe, are pursuing environmentally damaging policies.
“At a time when they’re opening up the coalmines in Germany, don’t tell me that it makes sense [to impose this] genius proposal that would mean a herd of 50 should go down to 30,” he said.
“What they’re trying to do with farmers is interfere with something that they don’t understand. We need people to produce bacon, peat, beef, milk, we need a sheep industry, poultry. We need to produce food for ourselves and to export.”
The Irish government in October introduced a ban on the sale of turf used for fuel. The measure followed an ultimatum from the European Commission warning of possible legal action if its order was not followed.
Turf cut from Ireland’s peatlands has for centuries served as an indigenous fuel source. During the Great Famine of the 1840s turf was often the only means available to destitute families to heat their homes.
But the generations-old tradition has been targeted by environmentalists, who point out that it is damaging to the atmosphere. Peatlands perform a valuable environmental role as a carbon sink, but when turf is removed and burnt, that carbon is released, adding to emissions.
Mr Healy-Rae said the ban is counter-productive because Ireland’s horticulture industry now has to rely on imported peat to meet demand from plant growers. Turf cut from bogs in Latvia is shipped to Belfast and transported by lorry to customers across Ireland.
“We had a better product. We shut that down. Those jobs are gone and we’re creating jobs in Latvia,” he said. “It’s damaging the environment but that’s fine once it looks good that the Greens succeeded in shutting down our bogs."
He predicted the Green Party would suffer badly at the ballot box the next time around because rural voters are fed up with the environmental measures the party supports.
He said the party “will disappear in the next election” because “they have lost complete touch with reality”.
Touching on the wider climate debate, Mr Healy-Rae poured cold water over the government’s efforts to catch on to the global trend.
“Anybody that really thinks that Ireland will reach net zero by 2050 is living in dreamland,” he said. “It’s an impossibility.”
The change of leader will bring a new momentum to the government at a time when Ireland faces a cost-of-living crisis, an unprecedented influx of refugees and a chronic shortage of housing. But for farmers, a new man taking the reins is unlikely to change their perspective.
Reducing emissions is a cause fast being adopted by youngsters in Ireland and could play a major part in how meat and dairy are viewed for decades to come.
Recent research showed young people aged between 16 and 24 are willing to eat less meat and fly less frequently in an attempt to reduce their carbon footprint. But they believe the responsibility to bring about real and lasting change ultimately lies with the government.
A study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, and published by the Economic and Social Research Institute, showed young Irish men and women want to see stronger pro-climate policies introduced.
The research carried out on 500 people showed nine in 10 participants believe protecting the environment is of utmost importance, nearly a third are willing to give up meat and flying in the long term, and two thirds believe renewable energy should be mandated, even if it means paying more.
As a new generation of Irish people adopt a set of values that could not be more different from those of their ancestors, some figures in the farming industry are keen to make known the importance of the role the sector plays.
J Grennan and Sons, an agribusiness in Rath, County Offaly, central Ireland, is leading a campaign to remind the Irish public of the farming sector’s central role in the economy.
In response to the government’s green commitment, the company erected a billboard to push its message to drivers on the N7, one of the main arteries linking Dublin to surrounding commuter towns.
“Promote Irish farming to decrease global warming,” it reads, with the added hashtag #promotedontdemote.
With the billboard showing cattle grazing on lush Irish countryside, the company hopes to hammer home their message to urban dwellers that Ireland is one of the world’s most eco-efficient nations when it comes to food production.
The sector employs about 140,000 farming families, not to mention the many jobs it supports in tourism, hospitality, delivery and retail.
“It needs to be put out there the contribution that agriculture makes,” Paddy Casey, fertiliser and wholesale manager at the company, told The National.
Ireland is the EU’s poster child
Ireland is one of the top two dairy producers in the world in terms of sustainability and top five in Europe on beef production, but Mr Casey said “that message is being totally lost” in the international debate on climate change.
He believes the nation is being used as a poster child within the EU, as the European Commission — the EU's executive — pressurises members to step up in the fight against global warming.
About 35 per cent of Ireland’s emissions come from agriculture — significantly more than the 10 per cent average of EU member states.
But Mr Casey said looking at it in terms of averages is a dangerous view because it fails to appreciate the vital role farming plays in Ireland’s economy, likening it to the car industry’s role in Germany.
“Ireland is being used as a poster child within the EU,” he said. “If Ireland can hack these emissions reductions — we’ve put it in legislation — it would be a great win for the EU.
“We should not go overboard and try to do things so quickly. The danger is we could reduce our national herd and in five years’ time we could have a world famine on our hands.”
As farmers in Ireland grapple with ways to meet the emissions target imposed on them, Brazil is felling vast stretches of forests to make way for more agricultural land.
Mr Casey said it would be defeating the purpose of emission-reduction measures for a sustainable country such as Ireland to reduce its meat production, while less eco-friendly places like Brazil increase their output.
He said over the past few years customers have shown a huge willingness to adopt green technologies on their farms.
“At the end of the day, agriculture has to be part of the solution if we are going to achieve what we want to achieve,” Mr Casey said.
“I’m not saying we’re not going to try, but I think there’s a general view that it’s going to be extremely difficult to achieve the target by 2030.”
He said that Irish politicians had failed to take into account the overall vast carbon sequestration properties of rural Ireland’s forests, hedgerows and grasslands, when deciding the target.
A spokesman for Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine said forestry and hedgerows are part of the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry inventory.
It is expected that agriculture and land use will be combined into one inventory at an EU level after 2030, he said, but until then, they are accounted for separately.
On the possibility of young people being deterred from pursuing work in farming, he said “valuable tax incentives and attractive rates of grant aid across of a number of schemes” are on offer.
“The department is committed to helping young farmers,” the spokesman said.
He said the department continues to engage with all stakeholders in the context of achieving climate targets.
“As part of the Strategy Implementation Plan, stakeholder groups representing dairy and beef and sheep have been established and final reports from both groups are currently being considered by the minister in advance of publishing the Climate Action Plan for 2023,” the spokesman said.
“The department is working to ensure that appropriate financial supports are in place for farmers in order to ensure a trust transition. Over the last 12 months, the minister has established supports for liming, multispecies and clover swards.
“Some €500 million ($526 million) will be available for Irish farmers in 2023 as part of a suite of agri-environmental supports, including a new forestry programme and a new organic scheme.
“These financial supports are available to all farm families.”