Ireland isn’t culling cows for climate. But maybe it should be?

By Jan Dutkiewicz | October 25, 2023

cows with tagged ears in front of a blue and cloudy skyIreland is home to over seven million commercially farmed cows, which outnumber the five million human residents. (Photo by Michael Starkie on Unsplash)

“This really needs to stop,” Elon Musk tweeted in June. “Killing some cows doesn’t matter for climate change.”

By the time Musk shared that thought with his 158.9 million followers on his social media platform, the false idea that the Irish government was planning to execute cows to cut greenhouse gas emissions was practically a fait accompli. Between hyperbolic news coverage and the broken telephone of social media, the mere suggestion that the Irish government was considering a cow cull to reduce greenhouse gas emissions had become a symbol of government overreach in addressing the climate crisis.

Whatever Musk says, the Irish government is not currently killing cows for climate, nor are there immediate plans to put a cattle cull policy in place. But in the absence of one, cows do present a possibly insurmountable obstacle to the country’s decarbonization policies.

Where cows outnumber people. With a population of five million people, Ireland is home to over seven million commercially farmed cows, about a quarter of which are used in dairy production. Cows are ruminants that create methane through enteric fermentation in their digestive systems and are a major contributor to Ireland’s national climate footprint. Farming contributes just under 40 percent of the country’s total emissions, with methane from enteric fermentation making up about 55 percent of that total. That means cows alone are responsible for about one-fifth of Ireland’s total contribution to anthropogenic climate change. (Another way of working out this math is that methane emissions from agriculture make up 27 percent of total emissions, and cows make up a large part of that).

In keeping with the European Union’s commitments under the Paris Agreement, the Irish government has committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 and has begun proposing ever-smaller five-year national carbon budgets. The contributions are divided among a range of government entities and bureaucracies, with Ireland’s national strategies for all-sector greenhouse gas mitigation are laid out in its annual Climate Action Plans. The most recent such plan calls for a 25 percent reduction in agricultural emissions by 2025 (coupled with more ambitious goals of 75 percent in energy generation and a 50 percent reduction in transport emissions, among others). But efforts to reach the agricultural goal have been grindingly slow. In 2022, agricultural emissions dropped just 1.2 percent, mostly due to reduced nitrogen fertilizer use and slightly reduced beef cow numbers; dairy cow and milk production emissions rose slightly.

Figuring how to actually achieve greenhouse gas reductions falls to the government departments that oversee different industries, which in the case of food means the Department of Agriculture, which makes its own 10-year strategic plans. The most recent one, Food Vision 2030, lays out a series of actions that the agricultural sector can take to meet the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. But given the close relationship between the Irish farming sector and the government agencies in charge of overseeing it, including cooperation on the drafting of documents like Food Vision, a senior academic familiar with the policymaking process described them as “industry-led policy endorsed by government.” Tellingly, the document’s suggestions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from livestock are vague, focusing mostly on marginal interventions like methane-inhibiting feed additives and improved animal genetics. The Food Vision report also fails to address the elephant in the room: the sheer number of cows in the country.

To actually flesh out actionable suggestions, the Irish government created smaller working groups within subsectors, including dairy. The Food Vision Dairy Group report from 2022 is the only freely available official written report that suggests culling cow populations to reduce emissions, in addition to reducing chemical nitrogen use and implementing feed additives and superior breeding strategies. It suggests a “voluntary exit/reduction scheme” that would pay interested farmers for culling cows and not replacing them for five years or for exiting the dairy industry altogether. The document estimates that for every 10,000 cows culled, 0.045 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent could be removed from the country’s emissions, or about 0.075 of 1 percent of total national emissions. However, as the report itself notes, many stakeholder groups engaged in drafting the document did not endorse the measure or rejected it outright.

And yet the idea popped up again in an undated and partially redacted government document originally obtained via a Freedom of Information request by the Irish newspaper the Independent and shared with the Bulletin. That document proposes the idea of an opt-in cow reduction scheme as a potentially necessary means to close the gap between viable agricultural climate reductions and the country’s legally binding reduction targets. It suggests that a 10 percent reduction in dairy cows (about 160,000 head) would result in a 0.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent reduction in emissions and give the agriculture sector a shot at meeting national targets.

But all of that is still entirely theoretical. Not only does this policy not exist in practice; there has been no formal debate among government officials about—or endorsement of—this policy, and it’s unclear if there will be, especially after the subsequent outcry the very suggestion has caused.

Climate action breeds paranoia. Manure from dairy farms also introduces excess nitrogen into the environment, which pollutes waterways, and can cause algal blooms that deplete oxygen levels and create dead zones in coastal areas. Through reactions with the environment, it can also produce nitrous oxide, itself a potent greenhouse gas.

A toxic grass that threatens a quarter of US cows is spreading because of climate change

In 2019, when the Dutch high court decided to limit nitrogen emissions for all industries to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and protect waterways, farmers feared they would bear the brunt of the new regulations. This set off a wave of protests that have reshaped the country’s political landscape, including the formation of a right-populist party, BoerBurgerBeweging, that now sits in the country’s parliament. The Dutch farmers movement became a cause célèbre in global conservative circles, seen to represent popular opposition to government overreach in the context of a climate crisis that many in those same circles downplay or deny.

The rumors of Ireland’s dairy cull landed in a media and online context primed by the Dutch case for outrage. Case in point: Musk’s comment was in response to a tweet by a right-wing provocateur about a story in an obscure Wyoming publication called Cowboy State Daily that accused Ireland’s government of bovine-cidal intentions. That article, in turn, cited an op-ed from the British newspaper The Telegraph railing against Ireland’s alleged “mooted cow massacre” and warning in apocalyptic terms of “an eco-modernist agenda to do away with conventional meat altogether.” The Telegraph did not cite its sources, but it likely drew on an article published the previous day in the Irish newspaper The Independent. That story reported on the internal government document discussed above, including the proposal that 195,000 cows be culled over three years at the government’s expense to help achieve its ambitious climate goals.

While the Telegraph and Independent stories did explain that there is no cull policy in place, and that if implemented it would be entirely voluntary, both newspapers buried this key fact beneath clickbait headlines. And by the time Musk’s tweet itself became newsworthy, the outrage over the alleged mass cull and its ostensible imposition on farmers had become the story.

The closest attempt to set the record straight on this issue came from the Financial Times, which reported on it in August. But while the Financial Times article notes that no formal cull policy has passed, it not only treats the original Independent reporting as proof of the “drastic plan” but buries this crucial caveat under the misleading headline “Irish farmers pressured to cull up to 200,000 cows to meet climate goals.” Meanwhile, representatives of Irish farming groups used the opportunity to critique the potential policy as a “threat to the farming sector” and as a form of scapegoating farming for the island nation’s climate woes.

In short: News organizations and social media inadvertently colluded to drum up outrage over an entirely theoretical cattle cull policy, turning a potential policy into a political battle before it has even been seriously debated. And yet such a policy might be one of Ireland’s few real options to achieve substantial agricultural emissions reduction.

The path to greener pastures. It seems unlikely that Ireland can meet its climate targets without reducing the size of its livestock herds, as some Irish climate scientists have pointed out. Official government emissions-reduction strategy is based on reduction models called marginal abatement cost curves (MACC curves), which map existing technologies in terms of their capacity for emissions reduction and the costs of those reductions. In the most recent MACC report, published in 2023 by Teagasc, the Irish government’s agricultural research and development body (not to be confused with the Department of Agriculture), one modeled pathway to hitting emissions targets avoids the reduction of livestock numbers. However, none of the experts interviewed for this article thought that scenario—in which virtually all available mitigation technologies are widely and rapidly adopted by most farmers—was likely. The country simply has too many cows and too few avenues for reducing their emissions enough to meet targets.

The voluntary cow cull policy, in other words, is both politically treacherous and likely necessary. (Perhaps underscoring this, none of the Irish agricultural experts interviewed for this article wanted to go on record. Charlie McConalogue, the Minister for Agriculture, did not respond to a request for comment.)

Even if it were to be passed, implementing a cow cull would be extremely complicated. First, it would need to ensure that cows culled would be taken out of the breeding population or out of current production to reduce their lifetime emissions, and not cows at the end of their productive lives that would be culled anyway, thereby allowing farmers to free-ride on the policy. (This is similar to what in carbon credit schemes is referred to as additionality.) It bears noting here that commercial dairy cows are slaughtered when they are no longer productive, meaning that in animal-welfare terms this policy would precipitate the inevitable, rather than send cows to the abattoir that would not otherwise be destined for it.

Second, and more important, since the aim of the scheme would be long-term stock diminishment in the interest of long-term emissions reduction, a legal mechanism would need to be put into place to ensure that culled cows are not replaced. That would mean something like contracts with farmers to ensure their herds stay at reduced levels and perhaps something like liens on land to ensure that it’s not rented out by farmers who take advantage of the scheme to allow more cattle on their land. If the cull were to be a method of capping and reducing herd size rather than simply a one-time cull, it would require the development of mechanisms to ensure long-term compliance and enforcement.

A toxic grass that threatens a quarter of US cows is spreading because of climate change

Third, the voluntary scheme would need to actually be taken up by farmers, which is unlikely if dairy farming is profitable. Academic studies of livestock buyout schemes suggest they would mostly attract older farmers seeking to retire from the industry rather than a critical mass of larger, actively producing ones.

The crux of the issue is simple. Dairy is a large and profitable business in Ireland, with major export markets in Europe and Asia. In 2022 the industry brought in 13 billion Euro in revenue, doing almost 7 billion Euro in exports. While liquid milk sales are in a slump, global demand for processed products like butter and whey powder is high and growing. Emissions restrictions policies quite simply interfere with a profitable and entrenched business model, which explains why farming groups, where they have participated in discussion about policy proposals, have favored soft interventions like developing methane-inhibiting feed additives over harder interventions like voluntary culls. The industry, concerned primarily with the volume of production not being impeded, is rightly concerned with government intervention capping their profit potential.

Farmers’ groups also argue that if Irish dairying were to be restricted, it would not only hurt the country’s economy, but clients ranging from the EU to China would simply buy dairy products from even less sustainable dairy farmers in other countries. And while pushback against the government’s climate policies hasn’t metastasized into a popular protest movement against the government as was the case in the Netherlands, some of the country’s farmers have made it clear that cooperating with the government on policies that might impact their bottom lines is not in the cards. This makes both passing a cull policy—even if it’s voluntary—and finding a critical mass of farmers to participate is a daunting task.

The case of Irish cattle underscores the core problem of emissions-reduction policies. Eventually, such policies simply must restrict profitable business, choosing planetary health over the economic performance of a given industry. This includes restricting or phasing out highly polluting machines, be they coal power plants or cows. Just as restrictions on tobacco products caused economic harm to the tobacco industry and coal plant closures caused economic harm to the coal industry and coal-mining communities, so too do policymakers have to be clear-eyed that phasing down livestock will come with costs, but that these costs are the necessary price to pay for reducing emissions and other environmental benefits.

Other mechanisms at play. The irony of the situation in Ireland is that while greenhouse emissions reduction might not necessarily motivate cattle culls, another set of environmental policies might.

Methane is not the only externality of a ruminant-heavy agricultural system. Ireland’s cows also produce excessive amount of nitrogen through their excrement. Currently, farms benefit from a derogation on nitrogen emissions, allowing them to emit more than other industries, and allowing high stocking densities of livestock. But these emissions are poisoning Ireland’s waterways, especially in sensitive and protected environmental areas. As in the Netherlands, Ireland will no longer extend derogations in line with EU limits to those farms in close proximity to protected areas. Reducing nitrogen emissions will require reducing the concentration of cows’ manure by lowering stocking densities. This would entail farmers either having to buy or lease more land—an increasingly expensive and scarce commodity in rural Ireland—or reducing the size of their herds by selling off or culling excess cows, but with no government policy in place to amortize their losses.

The inescapable biophysical math of reducing the impact of livestock farming is simple: Fewer cows means fewer environmental harms and fewer emissions. But making this math work in practice is a fraught enterprise, marred by complex state bureaucracies, pushed back against by organized special interests, and complicated by a polarized society in thrall to social-media-driven agitation and misinformation. The hard lesson for politicians may be that they need to risk making unpopular decisions now in the interest of future planetary health and not shy away from fights now that risk becoming impasses to climate policy later.

All the while, global demand for animal products incentivizes the very businesses that should be curtailed. As an economist working for Teagasc put it, “at least some of the solution to the climate change challenge has to come from shifts in the demand side.” This is undoubtedly true, but in a complex global economy, that may be even more difficult that convincing farmers to cull their cows.

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5 months ago

a well-researched article. Two comments: (1) While the point is made late in the article, it should be emphasised from the outset that the emotive point about killing cows is a red herring; farmers cull cows all the time. It is ultimately about the non-replacement of cows already being killed. (2) Second, manures from cows generate a lot of the emissions in the difference between agricultures share of 40% and methane’s share of 20%.

Richaard H. Schwartz
5 months ago

Reducing the number of cattle would also enable much of the over 40% of the ice-free land area that is currently being used for grazing and growing feed crops for animals to be reforested, resulting in much of the current atmospheric CO2 to be sequestered and stored in trees. This could reduce the current dangerous atmospheric CO2 of 420 parts per million to a safer value below 350 ppm, a threshold value for safety, according to climate experts.

5 months ago

I’m not sure the numbers on cow climate forcing are right. According to Our World In Data, livestock’s contribution is somewhere around 6% of total emissions (CO2 equivalent). However, the emissions need to be offset by the CO2 drawdown from growing the cow food (grass, alfalfa, etc…). Cows — and people — are part of the fast (short term) carbon cycle. Sure, we’ve perturbed that, but not half as much as the slow (long term) carbon cycle: taking carbon-heavy fuels from stable belowground stocks (coal, oil, gas) and putting its carbon into the atmosphere. This is a qualitatively different process… Read more »

Pamela Clark
Pamela Clark
2 months ago

I just finished reading Klaus Schwab’s future for the farmers and cattle. The removal of cattle, pigs and sheep will be replaced with insects. Ever wonder why farmers across the EU and the West are all protesting against there gov’ts climate policies, at the same time. I wish i could attached the articles, but we are banned in Canada from sharing any news content. Media control now. I hope other countries wake up to the real Agenda and it’s not about climate change.

Last edited 2 months ago by Pamela Clark