Ireland Ireland Ireland Ireland


Agriculture and Horticulture Ireland

Agriculture and horticulture in numbers


Agriculture accounts for only a small part of gross domestic production (GDP) in Europe, and it is considered that the overall vulnerability of the European economy to changes that affect agriculture is low (4). However, agriculture is much more important in terms of area occupied (farmland and forest land cover approximately 90 % of the EU's land surface), and rural population and income (5).


The land area of Ireland is 6.9 million hectares, of which 4.3 million hectares is used for agriculture or about 62% of total land area, and 724,000 hectares for forestry or about 10.6% of total land area. Some 80% of the agricultural land is devoted to grass (silage, hay and pasture), 11% to rough grazing (0.5 million hectares) and 9% to crop production (0.4 million hectares). Beef and milk production currently account for 56% of agricultural output at producer prices. The average farm size is now around 32.3 hectares. Primary agriculture accounts for some 2.5% of GDP, 5.8% of employment and 6% of exports. Ireland’s livestock numbers in December 2008 included 5.93 million cattle, 3.42 million sheep and 1.6 million pigs (1).

Vulnerabilities Ireland

The main vulnerabilities for agriculture and horticulture in Ireland are (2,3):

  • potato will suffer most;
  • expected negative impacts on crop yield;
  • rainfall decrease has negative effects;
  • impacts are not potentially catastrophic;
  • irrigation will become more important, mainly in the eastern part;
  • pests and diseases will move from southern Europe into Ireland.

Potato will suffer most

The principal casualty of climate change is likely to be the potato which will suffer increasing water stress during the summer months. Its value as a commercial crop is likely to depend on irrigation requirements being satisfied, as happens under present climatic conditions in many areas. Clearly, irrigation demand from Irish agriculture is likely to increase substantially in the years ahead.

Expected negative impacts on crop yield

The Environmental Protection Agency of Ireland has viewedthe impact of climate change in terms of changing crop yields estimated by simulation modeling using climate change scenarios for 2055 and 2075 (3). Their report focuses on the changes in primary production of five specific crops, three of which seem to suffer from the expected climate change:

grass– because it represents the most important crop in Ireland at present, and underpins the entire livestock industry. A summer drought stress (particularly in the east and south-east) may lead to less grass production in those regions and a change towards maize for forage, which should become a viable crop. It can be concluded that:

  • grass may cease to be a viable crop in the south-east and east if it requires irrigation to compensate for loss of biomass due to drought;
  • turnout date may become earlier in the season, but if rainfall is still at high winter levels stock will have to remain housed.

potato– because it is a traditional root crop in Ireland that is sensitive to water stress in particular. It can be concluded that:

  • potato will be a difficult crop to grow with climate change because of water stress in the summer;
  • it is necessary to investigate how much impact an irrigation system would have on yields;
  • viability as a commercial crop may be maintained with irrigation, but this would require water storage from the increased rainfall in winter to survive the drier summer;
  • it is very likely that potato will cease to be a commercially productive crop in Ireland because of (i) the reduced yield due to drought stress, (ii) difficulties with harvest due to the onset of winter rain in October, (iii) difficulties with tillage and planting due to very wet soils in spring, and (iv) a possible increase in pest and disease problems.

soybean– because it is not currently suitable for commercial production in Ireland and in conjunction with maize, may indicate the future route of Irish agriculture. It can be concluded that:

  • soybean remains a marginal crop even given a change in climate;
  • soybean will replace maize which is currently marginal but becomes viable;
  • soybean remains temperature limited but may also become rainfall limited.

Rainfall decrease has negative effects

The major effects of climate change are due to temperature and precipitation. Not unexpectedly, all crops are expected to be affected significantly. Whereas the increase in temperatures probably will raise the potential for production in the existing cereal and grass crops, the achievement of this potential probably will be limited by reduced summer rainfall.

The fact that day of harvest appears to be earlier in the year for most crops means that the risk of harvest loss due to lack of field access or excess water content is somewhat mitigated.

Major impacts Ireland: in 2055, but not potentially catastrophic

Model simulation results show that the expected climate changes will have a major impact on Irish agriculture by the year 2055 (3). Further changes up to 2075 are expected to be relatively slight compared to the impact over the next 50 years. The impact of the climate change on Irish agriculture has been assessed in terms of primary crop production. However, it is clear from the nature of the impacts determined that the operation of whole farm systems will be affected. Although the expected impacts are significant, they cannot be regarded as potentially catastrophic.

The agricultural sector accounts for over 5% of Irish gross domestic product. Though significant changes in the crops grown and their yields will occur, no catastrophic effects on Irish agriculture are envisaged over the next century. Geographical changes in agriculture are, however, likely to occur.

For Ireland, the change of crop yield in 2080 referred to 1990 has been estimated based on several combinations of models and scenarios; the outcomes range from a 5.0% decrease to a 22.1% increase (6).

Irrigation will become more important

In general, potential production is greater in the more humid western areas where the water deficit is minimal. The estimates of the scale of yield reduction due to water deficit and the amount of irrigation required to overcome these deficits indicate that in the eastern half of the country irrigation will become important for all crops. … the growing importance of irrigation will have a major impact on the economics, machinery requirement and labour demand in both tillage and livestock systems.

In recent years, it was estimated that irrigation for dairying in the drought-prone south-east is justified economically only if water is available without charge and without the construction of farm reservoirs. With the projected scenarios, a much greater area of agricultural land will be affected by drought loss, and the quantities of water involved to compensate by irrigation will be large. Given that agriculture may have to compete for scarce summer water extraction with other users, the consequent economic effects may make crops with good potential uneconomical. It is most likely that grass-based livestock will continue to dominate in western areas but the potential production may be significantly increased.

A sharpening of east-west contrasts is likely to occur with livestock production dominating more to the west, and arable production dominating east of the Shannon. Planning for irrigation is needed, particularly in the east, to ensure that water costs are acceptable and summer surface and ground water resources are not overused (2).

Pests and diseases

There will be a tendency for pests and diseases that are currently found further south in Europe to move northwards towards Ireland (1,3).

Benefits and opportunities Ireland

The main benefits and opportunities for agriculture and horticulture in Ireland are (2,3):

  • Expected positive impacts on crop yield
  • Livestock will remain the main agricultural enterprise
  • Temperature increase has positive effects

Expected positive impacts on crop yield

The Environmental Protection Agency of Ireland has viewedthe impact of climate change in terms of changing crop yields estimated by simulation modeling using climate change scenarios for 2055 and 2075 (3). Their report focuses on the changes in primary production of five specific crops, two of which seem to benefit from the expected climate change:

barley– because it is a currently successful cereal crop.  It can be concluded that:

  • barley remains a viable crop in yield terms with the predicted climate change;
  • the impact of the change in winter and autumn precipitation on harvesting will not be a major problem due to the harvest becoming earlier in the year;
  • spring barley yield is most closely linked to precipitation;
  • barley will remain an option as a forage crop.

maize– because it is currently a marginal crop that may become a good source of high energy forage.  It can be concluded that:

  • the performance of maize as a grain-yielding crop significantly increases with climate change;
  • maize becomes a very valuable crop suitable for high energy forage;
  • maize starts to show indications of summer water stress but will still yield a significant grain output;
  • with climate change, grain production increases drastically making maize more valuable than it is currently.

Ireland: livestock main enterprise

Livestock production is the main farming enterprise in Ireland at present and the data do not suggest that this will cease to be the case. Maize silage may replace grass silage so that, on farms, the land currently reserved for grass silage production would become available for grazing. Barley is another potentially important source of energy for supplemental feeding of livestock.

Potential benefits for animal husbandry relate to shorter housing periods in some areas (1).

Temperature increase has positive effects

In general, the change in climate is not likely to induce temperature stress in any of the regions defined, plant growth response may increase, but plant maintenance effort will not be affected. Water stress may become an issue, particularly with drier summers. Maize will show little response to elevated CO2-concentrations, but the increase in temperature will make the Irish climate more suited for its growth.

Improved conditions for plant growth may increase yields, especially in spring and autumn. However autumn droughts may reduce this potential (1).

The world food system in 2080

The world food system in the twenty-first century has been assessed, under various future scenarios of population, economic growth and climate change, addressing the questions: what are the likely impacts of climate change on the world’s agricultural resources? How do climate impacts compare to socioeconomic pressures over this century? Where and how do significant interactions arise? According to the authors, a fully coherent, unified data and modelling system has been used for the first time (13).

For the developed nations under all climate projections an expansion of potential land suitable for crop cultivation in 2080 with respect to 1990 was predicted, mainly in North America (40% increase over the 360 million hectares under current baseline climate); northern Europe (16% increase over current 45 million hectares); Russian Federation (64% increase over 245 million hectares) and in East Asia (10% increase over 150 million hectares) (13).

Model results indicated that agriculture in developed countries as a group would benefit under climate change. Agricultural GDP mostly increases in the Former Soviet Union (up to 23% in scenario A2); while only Western Europe loses agricultural GDP, across all GCM scenarios. Model results indicated decreases in agricultural GDP in most developing regions, with the exception of Latin America (13).

According to these scenarios the developing countries will become more dependent on net cereal imports. Climate change will add to this dependence, increasing net cereal imports of developing regions by 10–40% across GCM climate projections (13).

Vulnerabilities Europe - Climate change not main driver

Socio-economic factors and technological developments

Climate change is only one driver among many that will shape agriculture and rural areas in future decades. Socio-economic factors and technological developments will need to be considered alongside agro-climatic changes to determine future trends in the sector (5).

From research it was concluded that socio-economic assumptions have a much greater effect on the scenario results of future changes in agricultural production and land use then the climate scenarios (6).

The European population is expected to decline by about 8% over the period from 2000 to 2030 (8).

Scenarios on future changes in agriculture largely depend on assumptions about technological development for future agricultural land use in Europe (6). It has been estimated that changes in the productivity of food crops in Europe over the period 1961–1990 were strongest related to technology development and that effects of climate change were relatively small. For the period till 2080 an increase in crop productivity for Europe has been estimated between 25% and 163%, of which between 20% and 143% is due to technological development and 5-20% is due to climate change and CO2 fertilisation. The contribution of climate change just by itself is approximately a minor 1% (9).

Care should be taken, however, in drawing firm conclusions from the apparent lack of sensitivity of agricultural land use to climate change. At the regional scale there are winners and losers (in terms of yield changes), but these tend to cancel each other out when aggregated to the whole of Europe (6).

Future changes in land use

If technology continues to progress at current rates then the area of agricultural land would need to decline substantially. Such declines will not occur if there is a correspondingly large increase in the demand for agricultural goods, or if political decisions are taken either to reduce crop productivity through policies that encourage extensification or to accept widespread overproduction (6).

Cropland and grassland areas (for the production of food and fibre) may decline by as much as 50% of current areas for some scenarios. Such declines in production areas would result in large parts of Europe becoming surplus to the requirement of food and fibre production (6). Over the shorter term (up to 2030) changes in agricultural land area may be small (10).

Although it is difficult to anticipate how this land would be used in the future, it seems that continued urban expansion, recreational areas (such as for horse riding) and forest land use would all be likely to take up at least some of the surplus. Furthermore, whilst the substitution of food production by energy production was considered in these scenarios, surplus land would provide further opportunities for the cultivation of bioenergy crops (6).

Europe is a major producer of biodiesel, accounting for 90% of the total production worldwide (11). In the Biofuels Progress Report (12), it is estimated that in 2020, the total area of arable land required for biofuel production will be between 7.6 million and 18.3 million hectares, equivalent to approximately 8% and 19% respectively of total arable land in 2005.

The agricultural area of Europe has already diminished by about 13% in the 40 years since 1960 (6).

Adaptation strategies - The world food system in 2080

The world food system in the twenty-first century has been assessed, under various future scenarios of population, economic growth and climate change. Results suggest that socioeconomic development over this century will greatly alter production, trade, distribution and consumption of food products worldwide, as a consequence of population growth, economic growth, and diet changes in developing countries. Climate change will additionally modify agricultural activities, probably increasing any gaps between developing and developed countries. Adaptation strategies, both on-farm and via market mechanisms, will be important contributors to limiting the severity of impacts (13).

At the global level simulation results indicate only small percentage changes from the baseline reference case with respect to cereal-production. It is suggested that two levels of adaptation considered in the simulations, i.e. autonomous adaptation at the field level, such as changing of crop calendars and cropping systems as a function of climate; and market adjustments at both regional (re-distribution of capital, labour and land) and global (trade) levels, can successfully combine to reduce otherwise larger negative impacts (13).

Additional climate change pressures may arise, however, by changes in the frequency of extreme precipitation events such as floods and droughts, which may diminish the capacity of countries to adapt, especially in poor tropical regions (13).


The references below are cited in full in a separate map 'References'. Please click here if you are looking for the full references for Ireland.

  1. Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (2010)
  2. Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government
  3. Environmental Protection Agency (2003)
  4. EEA (2006), in: EEA, JRC and WHO (2008)
  5. EEA, JRC and WHO (2008)
  6. EEA (2003)
  7. Rounsevell et al. (2005)
  8. UN (2004), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  9. Ewert et al. (2005), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  10. Van Meijl et al. (2006), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  11. JNCC (2007), in: Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  12. European Commission (2006), in: Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  13. Fischer et al. (2005)