Article appeared in issue 5, 2020

Making strides

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is committed to reducing the carbon footprint of Irish agriculture in a sustainable way

When we talk about the carbon footprint of Irish agriculture, we mean the balance between the emissions of greenhouse gasses (GHG) and the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by the sector in Ireland.

In Ireland, due to our maritime climate and exceptional ability to grow grass at relatively low cost, there is a high reliance on livestock farming. Being grass-based, Ireland’s production system is considered carbon efficient and is, therefore, one of the most sustainable places in the world to produce high-quality lamb, beef and dairy. Our significant numbers of livestock in comparison to our levels of heavy industry in Ireland explains the Environment Protection Agency’s 2018 figures detailing agriculture as contributing 34% of our total GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. The agricultural emissions are made up of three gases: carbon dioxide (CO₂) at 5%; methane (CH₄) at 63 %, and nitrous oxide (N₂O) at 32%.

In order to improve the carbon footprint efficiency of our agricultural produce, we need to reduce the emissions of GHG and increase the amounts of CO₂ that Irish farms remove from the atmosphere (carbon sequestration). The Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine (DAFM) is supporting a number of research projects and initiatives to develop the necessary technologies and knowhow to facilitate Irish agriculture’s move to increased carbon efficiency.

At farm level, Teagasc has developed the GHG Marginal Abatement Cost Curve which sets out 14 individual mitigation measures for Irish agriculture. In relation to nitrous oxide, one of the main focuses will be on reducing chemical nitrogen inputs to the system through improving the efficiency of its use and the adoption of new technologies such as Low Emission Slurry Spreading. The investment in this new technology is currently being supported by the DAFM through the Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS).

There is considerable work ongoing in Ireland on delivering methane emission reduction in agriculture, GREENBREED being an example. This research project (funded by the DAFM) is investigating sustainable ruminant breeding programmes for a low environmental footprint. The objective of GREENBREED is to develop, validate and deploy the necessary tools and optimal strategies to achieve sustainable and quantifiable genetic gain in environmental and economic efficiency in dairy, beef and sheep.

Teagasc is carrying out research on the use of feed additives within Ireland through a number of projects. Products are being tested in relation to their effects on both emissions and animal performance over prolonged periods of time. The METH-ABATE project (funded by the DAFM) is looking at the development and validation of novel technologies to reduce methane emissions from pasture-based Irish agricultural systems. This includes evaluating several feed additives to mitigate methane emissions while simultaneously monitoring animal productivity.

DAFM-led initiatives such as the Beef Data Genomics Programme and the Beef Environmental Efficiency Programme are examples of schemes that are focused on improving efficiencies at farm level which will deliver an improved carbon footprint for Irish beef.

On carbon sequestration, the DAFM will continue to incentivise farmers to remove carbon from the atmosphere and to store it in the soil, hedgerows and trees on their farms, through schemes such as the Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme. In Budget 2021, funding of €100 million has been provided for forestry and €25 million has been ringfenced from the Carbon Tax and allocated to a range of new pilot agri-environmental measures.

As the agriculture sector continues to develop and grow, it is important to ensure that it does so within a framework of sustainability that also allows us to deal with future changes in our climate. Reducing emissions, termed ’mitigation’, is a critical element in addressing climate change, but the process of building resilience and adapting to the changes we are expecting to see in our climate, termed ‘adaptation’, is equally important. With increases in average annual temperatures, significant decreases in summer rainfall and heavier rainfall events in winter and autumn months projected towards mid-century, it is essential we begin to take the necessary steps to build a strong and resilient sector. In 2019, the DAFM published a Climate Change Sectoral Adaptation Plan for the agriculture, forestry and seafood sector which sets out 16 actions and a number of sub-actions across the three sectors.

The DAFM recognises the importance of ensuring sustainable land uses in Ireland that will yield secure family farm income in the longer term. In this changing environment there are opportunities for the agriculture sector to turn renewable biological resources and agriculture by-products into value-added bio-based products and bio-energy. Realising the potential of such opportunities will require sustained attention over the period ahead.

On the policy side, the DAFM is currently preparing a climate roadmap for the agricultural sector in Ireland. This roadmap will provide the sector with the overall direction necessary to allow coordination of the application of measures and initiatives that will enhance the removals of both GHG emissions from our production systems and CO₂ from our atmosphere. Through the framework of Ag-Climatise, the continued support of family farm incomes and the investment in research, the DAFM will continue to lead the agricultural sector in Ireland towards reducing its carbon footprint in a sustainable way.