Ireland's farmers can meet increasingly-difficult targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases over the next 11 years, Teagasc, the State's agri-food advisory body has declared.
Teagasc is to set up demonstration farms to train farmers on how to use proven technology to cut emissions, along with encouraging them to change farming habits and to use renewable energy on their farms.
Agriculture continues to be responsible for a third of overall Irish emissions, which must fall by 15 per cent by 2030 if Ireland is to meet its international climate change obligations.
Teagasc director Prof Gerry Boyle said on Thursday that he was confident the State's abatement plan, which includes the planting of more forests, can be delivered.
The plan's numbers depend on the State's national herd staying at current levels, though the Climate Change Advisory Council chaired by Professor John FitzGerald has recommended that it fall in size.
Currently, the numbers of beef cattle – the most carbon-intensive form of agriculture – are falling by 3.5 per cent per year, though dairy numbers are growing by 2 per cent per year.
However, Prof Boyle believed that the number of suckler cattle will have to “unwind” because such farming is now poorly profitable, which would, in turn, drive beef cattle numbers down further.
Commenting after the publication of Teagasc’s 2018 annual report, he said the reduction targets are achievable, but there is a need to move quickly because there is a window of only a few years.
“Where it will go is a matter of judgment. It will be very evident as time goes by if we are adhering to target,” he said, adding that five-yearly carbon budgets for each type of farming will come into apply from 2021.
Teagasc has set seven targets, including switching from traditional nitrogen-based fertilisers to “protected urea” which has no adverse impact on yield and achieves zero GHGs and ammonia emissions, but is currently little used.
The demonstration farms will concentrate on cutting dairying emissions, in co-operation with major co-ops, while Teagasc will fit solar PV panels on its own to cut its own energy use.
Prof Boyle said he favoured deployment of anaerobic disgesters to generate biogas – a demonstration facility is to be built at its Grange facility with the potential to feed into the national grid.
Ireland continues to have an extraordinary advantage in grass production, he said, which will provide opportunities in energy and production of protein for animal feed and perhaps in time making protein for humans.
Targets are one thing, he said, but the implementation of such targets when it comes greenhouse gases and ammonia is another. Likewise, beef farming is “very, very challenged”, since there are few “pockets of profitability”.
Chairman Liam Herlihy said Teagasc is intensifying its efforts to train farmers to cut their emissions so that agriculture is "playing its part" in combating climate change.
Farmers are determined to farm better, to improve water quality and to plant more trees, though they should be given more help for planting deciduous trees and hedgerows, rather than more commercial Sitka spruce plantations.
Dairy farmers in particular are “commercial and adaptable”, he said. Last year was notable because of extreme weather and a fodder crisis, but Teagasc was able to offer quick help to farmers.
Meanwhile, Brexit continues to create uncertainty. Teagasc has invested €20 million at Moorepark, near Fermoy in Co Cork, including spending to help consumer food companies to sell more abroad outside of the United Kingdom.