A brighter shade of green for Irish farming
INNOVATION PROFILE: TEAGASCSustainability will be one of the main drivers of growth in Irish agriculture
Teagasc has launched a major initiative to help Irish farmers deliver on the ambitious growth plans for the sector laid out in the Government-supported Food Harvest 2020 strategy for the sector.
Ireland’s climate and environment position it to contribute to the growing global demand for food – projected to rise by 70 per cent by 2050, and the strategy sets ambitious growth targets for food exports, and a well-publicised target of 50 per cent growth in the volume of milk production.
But how can we ensure that our environment becomes the engine of agricultural growth? In other words: can growth be green? This is where Teagasc comes in.
“Sustainability is an old concept that is getting a makeover,” says Dr Rogier Schulte, Teagasc’s leader of translational research on sustainable food production. “It is no longer associated with ‘niche-markets’ only. Sustainability now features prominently in the marketing strategies of most major food companies and retailers.”
The challenge is that sustainability means different things to different people. When it comes to Irish agriculture, Teagasc uses a straight forward definition of sustainability: an approach to farming that can be sustained into the foreseeable future. In other words: a way of farming that will be even more efficient and productive in 10 or 20 years time as it is today; and that will maintain and shape our countryside as a high quality place in which to work.
Sustainability includes farm economics, social equity, animal welfare and the environment. Economic sustainability means that there is a future in farming. Social sustainability means that the benefits of economic sustainability are shared among all of those who contribute to it.
Animal welfare is a well-established concept in Irish agriculture, not only in terms of ethics, but also in relation to animal productivity. Environmental sustainability means careful and efficient use of natural resources such as water, soil and nutrients; thereby minimising the negative side-effects of farming on the environment.
Sustainability is at the heart of the Food Harvest 2020 strategy which considers it to be one of the main drivers of growth, as captured in its subtitle: “Act smart, think green, achieve growth”.
With retailers responding to demands for sustainable food, Irish agriculture is in a strong position to build on its reputation for “green produce”. After all, Irish livestock production has very good “green credentials”. Irish livestock graze outdoors for most of the year and irrigation is almost unheard of. The Irish countryside still supports a wide variety of biodiversity, the quality of our inland waters is relatively high compared to many of our European neighbours and the carbon footprint of Irish milk and meat is among the lowest in the world.
Some of Food Harvest 2020’s targets have led to public confusion. Concerns have been raised that it will lead to a 50 per cent increase in animal numbers, slurry production and fertiliser use. This will not be the case, according to Teagasc head of management services Dr Lance O’Brien.
“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.