The government’s plan is to “stabilise the national herd, not reduce it”.
Those were the words of An Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, as he responded to a question from independent TD, Michael Fitzmaurice, during Leaders’ Question last week.
Fitzmaurice said that there is “considerable confusion” arising. He called on Varadkar to confirm if the government intends to stick with the roadmap for nitrates (different figures for various livestock), or if there is a new agenda under the climate legislation.
In response, the Tánaiste said that although the government does not want to have to reduce the national herd’s size, “that does mean we have to do a lot in other areas to reduce emissions from agriculture”.
“We do not want to have to reduce the size of the herd or the amount of food produced. All that will then happen is that it will be displaced to other parts of the world where they will produce it less sustainably than we do, and that is not good for the environment.”
He said the aim is stabilisation and continuing to produce as much meat and milk as Ireland currently does.
However, he added, in doing so, “we will have to do a lot more in sustainability in agriculture to enable us to do that”.
Fitzmaurice then if young farmers starting up can “go into stocking if they want to”. He asked: “Is it going to be on the nitrates, with X amount of units per hectare, like it was proposed, or is there a new system coming in?”
In response, Varadkar said: “I cannot answer that question today.” He said the carbon budget and Climate Action Plan are not yet agreed upon but will be in the “next couple” weeks.
“Hopefully, that will give certainty, not just to people in agriculture, but to people across the economy and our society.”
“We, as a government, want young people going into farming. We want them to know that this is a career, a livelihood and a lifestyle that they can have.”
Varadkar said the government wants Ireland to continue to be a food producer. He said he is proud that the country produces enough food to feed 45-50 million people, nine times its population.
He believes Ireland would not achieve anything in terms of food security or climate by producing less food.
“That food is going to be needed. There will be an increased demand for food across the world, and we produce it more sustainably than others.”
“We are going to have to produce it more sustainably again. It would be a retrograde step if we produced less food and then had other countries produce it for us in a way that would be much less sustainable,” he concluded.