What happens when the grass doesn't grow? Not such an outlandish thought, indeed recently DAERA issued a warning to the agricultural sector about the impact of prolonged very hot weather on fodder supplies later in the year. Simply put, as climate change means more extreme events, hotter weather in summer, wetter weather in winter and sudden storms will all have an impact on Northern Ireland’s agriculture.
For those who are reluctant to consider any changes to agricultural output to reduce climate change the failure to do so carries a far greater risk to the sector in what is a rapidly shortening time frame. The scale of the challenge is immense, Northern Ireland’s admittedly high quality grass fed beef, dairy and lamb sectors support 2 million sheep and 1.6 million cows. All options to reduce our contribution to greenhouse gases include a reduction in these numbers to reduce methane output.
What is important is that any management of the impact of climate change ensures a socially, financially and environmentally sustainable agricultural sector. That means a proper grown up discussion about how to make changes which protect farmers and ensure long term stability for the sector.
The alternative is not the industrialisation of agriculture, something that has happened already in a number of food sectors. Farmers should not be reduced to being production managers in a factory system, indentured servants carrying all of the financial and environmental risks while shareholders in large multinationals take all of the profit.
While we will face the challenges of extended periods of intense heat and will face sudden and devastating rainfall events which will result in a serious disruption of farming activity we should be supporting farmers now to try and reduce the potential for these events, putting in place an alternative sustainable framework which both reduces the production of greenhouse gases and ensures viability for the sector even when the grass doesn’t grow.