Towards a Secure and Sustainable Food System – Niall Browne, CEO, Dawn Meats
22nd Mar 2016
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COP21 recently agreed targets to keep global warming below 2 degrees and the EU has formally set a 2030 target of reducing emissions by 40%, with member state targets not yet agreed. Given the proportion of Irish emissions related to agriculture, as an industry we can expect further challenge as part of the debate on emissions mitigation, and rightly so.
Due to mega trends of population growth and climate change, countries will have to examine ways of producing foods that are climate resilient, nutrient dense and which optimise the use of renewable resources. Grass-based Irish livestock production will play a significant role in providing a robust and sustainable food production model for consumers.
Agriculture accounts for approximately 19% of global greenhouse gas emissions, allowing for carbon sequestration and accounting for land use change. Energy at 75% accounts for most of the remainder, so it is important that we place agricultural emissions in proper context, in any climate change debate.
Any balanced examination should recognise that beef farming provides significant economic benefits to rural Ireland with Dawn Meats alone spending more than €450m in local communities annually. Many consumers choose beef as a source of high-quality protein, which is appetite-sating and helps with weight control when consumed as part of a healthy balanced diet. It provides many important nutrients such as iron, zinc, potassium and B vitamins with grass fed beef having substantially greater nutrient levels of omega 3 fatty acids, and conjugated linoleic acid. The fact that ruminants convert grass into human edible protein is fundamental to food security and as highlighted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 70% of the world’s agriculture area is covered by grass. In Ireland this figure is 80% with Europe at 40%.
It is regularly reported that the conversion of feed intake to produce beef is not the most efficient. The relevance of this point must be questioned, given that pasture based livestock, consume renewable grass resources that otherwise would go unexploited. In addition grasslands act as a carbon sink and livestock farming can help reverse carbon emissions through rotational grazing and help offset the natural emissions produced by livestock grazing these same pastures.
In the EU the average CO2 output per kilogram of beef is 22.1kg, whereas in Ireland it is 14% lower. Simply swapping an Irish cow for one produced somewhere else in Europe will actually increase the overall global carbon footprint for the same volume of beef production. So should Irish climate targets propose pushing beef production to Europe or other parts of the world which are more reliant on cereals and soybeans, this will place additional pressure on food supply chains.
Industry is already making significant progress in carbon efficiency and Dawn Meats are playing their part as one of the first members of Origin Green and sponsor of Bord Bia’s Origin Green Program; the world’s leading sustainability program in food production. Dawn’s 2020 targets of reducing water and energy intensity by 40% and emissions intensity by 50% are in excess of national and EU targets.
Dawn Meats have also pioneered and supported other initiatives such as the Better Farm Programme, which promotes profitable and sustainable beef production through improving technical efficiency within the farm gate. Dawn Meats have also established a suckler-beef farm at Newford, Co. Galway designed to promote innovative practices that enhance on-farm sustainability.
During the period 2008 – 2014 Dawn Meats also facilitated an independent study on Irish and British farms, which demonstrated that an average reduction of 23% in carbon emissions could be achieved by measuring, managing and tracking farm inputs. Significant environmental improvements are being made on livestock farms and a recent report from Carnegie Mellon University in the USA found that because of the lower calorie density of fruit and vegetables, in the USA a lower meat diet resulted in both a higher water and energy footprint.
The issue of carbon emissions must be considered in a holistic context, leveraging an abundant national grass resource, considering efficiency, economics & food security. It is clear that the Irish livestock sector can play an integral part of the local and global solution to both climate change and food security. For this reason Dawn Meats were delighted to host the first annual Great Agri-Food Debate in UCD last week with McDonald’s and Bord Bia, which opened the floor to the next generation of agri-food leaders to share their thoughts on one of the most important issues of our generation.