A brighter shade of green for Irish farming
“Most of the targets in the strategy are value targets rather than volume targets,” he says. “Whilst some of the projected increase in total export value will indeed come from increased productivity, most of it is likely to come from higher value of produce by 2020. This higher value can be achieved through a combination of better efficiency and access to premium markets that place a high value on the green credentials of produce. The only target in Food Harvest 2020 that is a ‘hard’ volume target is the 50 per cent target for growth in milk volumes.”
The dairy sector accounts for about 25 per cent of cattle in Ireland. Therefore, even in the absence of efficiency gains, a 50 per cent increase in milk volume would result in, at most, a 12.5 per cent increase in cattle numbers. In reality, at least part of the increased milk volume is likely to be achieved through higher milk yields from each cow.
The average milk yield of Irish cows is low compared to our European neighbours, leaving room to up milk yields without resorting to continental-style intensive production systems. “While the 2020 growth targets for the agricultural sector are certainly ambitious, the increase in inputs will be far less dramatic,” O’Brien adds. “This decoupling of the growth rates of inputs and outputs is often referred to as sustainable intensification – producing more food without increasing inputs such as fertiliser, energy or pesticides.”
The key to sustainable intensification is farm efficiency. Examples include optimising nutrient usage on farms – animal manures and fertiliser, maximising the length of time that animals graze outdoors and careful breeding of replacement heifers for a variety of genetic traits.
Efficiency not only reduces the impact of farming on the environment, it also reduces the costs of farming, thus paying a double dividend. Over the past 10 years, Teagasc has conducted a comprehensive research programme on farm efficiency. This includes research focused on improving water quality, soil quality, biodiversity, and greenhouse gas reduction.
Schulte believes that the future for Irish agriculture looks “a brighter shade of green”. “The Irish countryside is blessed with a benign environment and abundant natural resources for agriculture,” he says. “Through careful management of this environment, agriculture will be in a position to contribute to both of the twin challenges of global food security and environmental sustainability – but realising this vision leaves no room for complacency. ”
A further threat comes from ever more stringent EU environmental legislation. For example, the Water Framework Directive requires all water bodies in the EU to be of “good quality”. While no specific reduction targets have yet been set for agriculture greenhouse gas emissions across the EU, it is likely that the farming sector will be asked to contribute to Europe’s overall reductions. Furthermore, the long-term conservation outlook of farmland biodiversity is a source of increasing concern, specifically the unmapped farmland habitats and wildlife outside designated areas.
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