Article appeared in issue 2, 2023
Steering a sustainable journey
Teagasc’s Climate Action Strategy 2022-2030 is focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture
Since 1850, there has been an increase of 1.1˚C in global temperatures. This rise is being propelled by increases in greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, mainly produced when we burn fossil fuels and through industrial processes, together with emissions associated with land use. Irish agriculture is the largest contributor of Ireland’s GHG emissions. This reflects the economic and historical importance of agriculture, relative to other industries in the Irish economy. Here, Pat Dillon, director of research at Teagasc, explains how Teagasc’s Climate Action Strategy 2022-2030 is focused on reducing GHG emissions from agriculture.
“Our climate is changing rapidly and is transforming our world. As such, the Irish government has set targets to reduce GHG emissions from agriculture by 25% by 2030 and strive for climate neutrality by 2050. Teagasc has developed a roadmap to support these aims, without reducing the competitiveness of the Irish agri-food sector.
Approximately one-third of the technologies required to reduce GHG emissions by 25% are available currently. To make sure these are implemented at farm level, a strong advisory and education programme is key – and this has been prioritised in our new Climate Action Strategy, announced in December 2022,” Pat explains.
Pat, can you explain Teagasc’s new Climate Action Strategy?
There are three pillars to the strategy. First, we are implementing a new Signpost Advisory Programme, which will be available to all farmers to support farms’ climate and sustainability actions. We aim to reach 50,000 farmers by 2030. This is important to the implementation of technologies that are already available and the new ones that will become available. The Signpost Advisory Programme will be the advocate for these technologies. As part of this programme, we have a network of 120 demonstration farms that include all the main farming enterprises where we will carry out detailed measurements. These will be used to translate research into practice and will be used for open days, workshops and training.
The second pillar is a new Sustainability Digital Platform, which will be developed in collaboration with Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) and Bord Bia (Irish Food Board). This will be a new online tool aimed at facilitating a whole-farm sustainability assessment. It will allow farmers to ‘count’ their farm carbon emissions and removals.
Thirdly, we are establishing a National Centre for Agri-food Climate Research and Innovation. This will be a virtual centre to accelerate and coordinate climate research and innovation, while providing leadership nationally and internationally. Teagasc recognises the importance of collaborating with other universities and entities and we want to strengthen these connections.
How does this new strategy differ from your focus on climate-related action up until now?
Until recently, most of the climate-related research was the responsibility of the Teagasc Crops, Land Use and Environmental Programme. Now it’s part of all Teagasc research and advisory programmes. Our overarching strategic goal in the Statement of Strategy is to ‘make sustainability front and centre of all Teagasc activities’. Teagasc has allocated 24 new research staff to work specifically on climate-related research. In addition, all new core funded research projects are required to have a climate-related aspect.
Where are you investing to support the strategy?
Teagasc is significantly increasing its resources devoted to climate-related research and knowledge transfer. We are investing €12.7m in upgrading labs and facilities in our environment research centre in Johnstown Castle. This is because we recognise that research is the backbone of everything we do to combat climate change.
There is a lot of uncertainty about the quantities of carbon being sequestered by our mineral soils and emitted by our peat soils. Currently, we are using default values from a Europe-based model. The National Agricultural Soil Carbon Observatory has been established to reduce this uncertainty.
A total of 30 flux towers have been established all around the country, covering all soil types and farming systems to measure actual carbon sequestration and emissions. In a European context, Ireland will have the biggest consignment of flux towers in relation to the size of the country, providing the real data we need.
Between Teagasc, ICBF and University College Dublin, we have purchased 20 GreenFeed machines. These machines were developed in the United States and measure the amount of enteric methane a ruminant animal emits on a daily basis. The machines take a sample of breath – 90% to 95% of enteric methane is expelled from the rumen in the breath. These GreenFeed machines will be used to verify the quantity of enteric methane that is being emitted daily from Irish grazing ruminants and to develop feeding strategies to reduce emissions.
What is Teagasc’s roadmap to reduce GHG emissions from agriculture by 25%?
Teagasc envisages three phases in the transition to reducing GHG emissions by 25% by 2030.
Phase one involves the adoption of technologies currently available, such as protected urea and low emission slurry spreading, increased soil fertility and replacing chemical nitrogen with biological fixed legume nitrogen.
Replacing calcium ammonium nitrate with protected urea for the chemical nitrogen used will reduce nitrate oxide emissions by approximately 70%. All our research shows that protected urea is equally efficient in terms of biological actions.
Phase two will see the roll-out of almost-ready technologies. These include reduced age at slaughter, new low-emitting nitrogen fertilisers and the use of feed additives in indoor feeding systems.
Finally, phase three involves technologies that require significant further research, such as the use of feed additives at pasture, breeding lower-methane-emitting animals, and use of slurry additives.
What are your specific goals or targets for the strategy – short-term and long-term?
Mainly, we aim to reduce GHG emissions by 5.75Mt of CO2 equivalent by 2030 and support the industry to become climate neutral by 2050.
As a result of the strategy, what can farmers and the industry expect to see differently from Teagasc in terms of your research and service offering?
Support is at the heart of our new Climate Action Strategy. In fact, Teagasc is proud to offer the best climate advisory service for farmers in the world. While we mobilise the collective resources of Teagasc, ICBF and Bord Bia to build a unique Sustainability Digital Platform, as well as our Signpost Advisory Programme, the industry can benefit from an accelerated research programme to address emissions reduction. The new National Centre will help us improve collaboration nationally and internationally, which is key to our mission.
This article first appeared in Teagasc’s TResearch magazine.
Pat Dillon is director of research at Teagasc, with research interests including sustainability, economics, farm systems, animal breeding and grassland management. Prior to his current role, Pat was head of the Animal and Grassland Programme. He has initiated and led major research initiatives, contributing significantly to industry knowledge through more than 100 scientific publications, with almost 70 as senior author.