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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Alamy Stock Photo Leo Varadkar with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in Seoul on Nov. 3, 2023.
South Korea

Govt accused of 'lack of policy coherence' as Varadkar and ministers seek to expand beef exports

The Taoiseach and three government ministers have been in South Korea this week to promote Irish beef and trade.

THE GOVERNMENT’S TRADE mission to South Korea to encourage Irish beef sales has been criticised by environmentalists who point out the irony of promoting one of the most emissions-intensive industries abroad, while at home communities grapple with the impact of climate change and the aftermath of the worst flooding seen in decades.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was in South Korea this week alongside the Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue, the Minister for Trade and Enterprise Simon Coveney and the Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris in a bid to open up new trade, investment and education links with the East Asian country.

A core aim of the trip was to secure access for Irish beef to South Korea and grow Ireland’s agrifood exports to the country, which totalled €75m in 2022.

On Wednesday, it was announced that Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue had secured a commitment to progress Ireland’s beef access application by year end.

The application, which was first put forward in 2021 would allow Irish beef exporters to access the South Korean market.

While Ireland already exports pork to South Korea, gaining access to the beef market would be a significant feat as South Korea is the fourth largest beef importer in the world, behind China, the US and Japan.

TMK_Event5_Chairman So-07 Department of Agriculture Minister McConalogue meeting Mr So Byung Hoon, member of the South Korean National Assembly and Chairman of the Agriculture Committee Department of Agriculture

“I see the expansion of markets for Irish beef as crucial for the further development of our beef sector,” McConalogue said on Wednesday.

The Taoiseach met with President of South Korea Yoon Suk Yeol on Friday and had committed to also raising the issue of the beef application during the meeting.

But back at home, environmentalists have questioned how an expansion of the beef sector fits into Ireland’s climate and environmental objectives.

Environmental commentator and journalist, John Gibbons pointed out that beef production is one of, if not the most, emissions-intensive forms of food production.

Gibbons also noted the irony of sending a high-powered Irish political delegation to South Korea in a bid to sell more Irish beef, while at home politicians are visiting areas stricken by the latest extreme flooding events.

The risk of flooding is expected to become more frequent and more intense as climate change destabilises Ireland’s weather systems.

The Climate Action Plan 2023 outlined that the “most immediate risks to Ireland from climate change are predominantly those associated with changes in extremes, such as floods, droughts, and storms”.

Meanwhile, emissions from beef and dairy farming continue to contribute to climate change with the agriculture sector in Ireland accounting for 38.4% of Ireland’s overall greenhouse gas emissions last year, the largest by far of any sector.

Beef and dairy production are among the highest emitters of all agricultural products. 

The Irish agriculture sector is also responsible for over 93% of Ireland’s total methane emissions.

Methane is the second most significant contributor to Ireland’s emissions behind carbon dioxide. 

It is emitted during the production and transport of fossil fuels and in agriculture through livestock like cattle.

Methane is significant when it comes to cutting emissions because it stays for less time in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide and experts have said that reducing methane could be the quickest way to reduce or slow down climate change. 

This is because although it is a short-lived gas, it has a global warming potential that is up to 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, a UN commission has said.

The Irish Government has continuously argued that the Irish beef and dairy industry produces in a much more carbon efficient way than other countries do.

But Social Democrats spokesperson for climate and the environment, TD Jennifer Whitmore told The Journal there is a complete lack of policy coherence when it comes to climate and agriculture in recent years.

“We’ve repeatedly seen instances where Government policy has ignored environmental obligations and this has only led to hardship for the farmers involved, as happened with the nitrates derogation,” she said.

Whitmore suggested that this is another scenario where Government policy has ignored climate obligations.

“Is this another instance where Government is leading farmers down a path that only leads to a cliff edge at a later date?”

Prominent environmentalist, Pádraic Fogarty, formerly of the Irish Wildlife Trust agreed with this and said that his difficulty with the trade mission to South Korea was that it takes place in the absence of a coherent plan to bring food exports and production into line with environmental targets.

“We have a serious job of work to do to make our food system secure and sustainable and yet our Minister for Agriculture – and Taoiseach in this case – goes on trips abroad as no more than a salesman for the meat and dairy industry.

“I’m not against exporting our food products, but this is a crude approach that will do little for the price farmers get while ignoring the substantial environmental impacts of the meat and dairy industry,” Fogarty said.

Speaking to The Journal on Saturday, Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue was asked if it was wise to expand beef exports to South Korea in light of climate change. 

McConalogue said it was “absolutely wise because we need to continue to produce food”.

The minister said many countries depend on other countries to produce food so that their people can have “good nutrition and be food secure” and added that Irish producers are able to produce beef in a “world leading” sustainable manner.

“But what we need to do, and what we are doing, is reducing the emissions footprint from how we produce our food,” he said.

McConalogue added that Irish beef production will not increase as a result of any export deal with South Korea, as the country values different cuts of meat that other markets.

Food security

Speaking to The Journal, Gibbons also made the point that beef production is among the least efficient in terms of converting primary energy into food for humans.

Indeed, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that more people could be fed using less land if individuals cut down on eating meat and moved towards a more plant-based diet. 

“Despite this, Irish politicians continue to back an oversized beef processing industry that is unable to find adequate markets in Ireland or the EU for the vast amount of beef being produced here,” he said.

Gibbons argued that Ireland needs to fundamentally reassess its entire agriculture strategy in light of the climate emergency and focus more on achieving basic domestic food security on the island of Ireland.

“It is incredible to consider that for a so-called ‘food island’, Ireland imports 80% of its total food calories and over 60% of its proteins and over 70% of its fats for human consumption, as well as importing millions of tonnes of animal feed and chemical fertilisers,” he said.

He also made the point that EU funding and Irish taxpayer money that is used to support the Irish agriculture industry should not be used to “prop up” high-emissions beef exports.  

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