Agriculture: The Other Inconvenient Truth

The contribution of Meat and Dairy production to climate change


by James O’Donovan

According to the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Use Changes (AFOLU) are responsible for 25% of green house gas (GHG) emissions.  The EU Commission roadmap calls for an 80% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050 and a 20% reduction (relative to 2005) by 2020.  Ireland has the second highest per capita emissions in the EU.

On average, each Irish person is responsible for emissions of 12.6 tonnes of greenhouse gases annually; about 40 per cent more than the UK or Germany, and 40 per cent more than the EU average.  Ireland emits more GHG than the poorest 400 million people in the world combined.  Irish Agriculture is responsible for 33% of our GHG emissions.

Worldwide Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sectors


Globally, agriculture contributes to GHG increases in four main ways:

  • CO2 releases linked to deforestation.
  • Methane releases from rice cultivation.
  • Methane releases from enteric fermentation in cattle.
  • Nitrous oxide releases from fertilizer application.

Together, these agricultural processes comprise 54% of methane emissions, roughly 80% of nitrous oxide emissions, and virtually all carbon dioxide emissions tied to land use changes.

A 2009 analysis by the World Watch Institute (WWI) outlined how current estimates of the impact of agriculture may be an underestimate and suggests that agriculture could be responsible for as much as 51% of GHG emissions.

The main reasons the WWI give supporting their estimate are as follows:

  • The capacity of different greenhouse gases to trap heat in the atmosphere is described in terms of their global warming potential (GWP), which compares their warming potential to that of CO2 (which has a GWP of 1). The IPCC currently use the GWP with a hundred year time horizon, which gives methane a GWP of 25.  However, using a twenty year time horizon methane has a GWP of 72.  Although methane warms the atmosphere much more strongly than CO2, its half-life in the atmosphere is only about 8 years, versus at least 100 years for CO2As a result of methane’s short half-life, a significant reduction in livestock raised worldwide would reduce GHGs relatively quickly and at a fraction of the cost compared with measures involving renewable energy and energy efficiency investments.
  • The IPCC does not count the respiration of farm animals (or farmed fish) in their estimates of greenhouse gas production.
  • The IPCC does not count the carbon sequestration that would be taking place if the land being used for grass and crops for feed was reforested. Worldwide 75% of agricultural land is used for livestock production.
  • The number of animals being farmed is underestimated

It is quite likely that if these factors were considered Irish Agriculture would be responsible for over 50% of our GHG emissions while only generating 1.5% of GDP.

carrotsThere is no need for meat and dairy in the human diet.  A diet composed of vegetables, fruits, grains, beans and legumes is healthy and sufficient for our needs.

Continuing with farming as usual, Ireland will fail to achieve its legally binding climate change objectives.  Projections show Ireland already exceeding its EU limit in 2017.  Despite this the Department of Agriculture’s strategy document, Food Harvest 2020, outlines the government’s plans to encourage substantial increases in meat, dairy, and fish production.  This will significantly increase the GHG emissions and related pollution caused by Irish Agriculture while continuing to prevent environmental and biodiversity restoration.

landVeganic farming:  food is grown organically and without the use of any animal-based fertilisers or inputs.


Switching to a plant based diet is an easy, healthy, cost saving solution to this massive crisis.  One of the main mitigation measures in the IPCC Summary report is to increase the energy efficiency of our industrial processes.  We need to do the same in agriculture.  A plant based diet is ten to fifteen times more (energy, water, and land) efficient than meat per calorie of food produced.  “A plant based diet will free up huge amounts of land that are currently used for grazing livestock and growing animal feed.  Globally, allowing this land to regenerate as forest could potentially mitigate as much as half of all anthropogenic GHGs.”



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