Farming is facing the perfect storm, since it is under pressure to cut carbon emissions, while the Ukraine crisis is bringing dramatic fuel and fertiliser price rises.
Last January, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue was given a five-page briefing note by officials that starkly warned that the State’s ammonia ceiling would be breached if dairy cow numbers passed the 1.6 million mark. By July, they had done so.
In the coming years, the number, Teagasc believes, is expected to rise to 1.8 million, or it was before the Ukraine crisis erupted.
The briefing note, released under Freedom of Information, is one of a collection where civil servants catalogue their doubts over Irish agriculture’s ability to meet its share of internationally agreed climate targets.
On Thursday, a rare joint meeting of the Oireachtas Committees on Climate Change and Agriculture will meet to hear from companies and experts who believe they have technological solutions for some of the emissions issues, now exacerbated by the Ukraine crisis.
Taking action will not be easy. In an extreme example, the cost of culling 50,000 cows will cut up to €220 million from farmers’ incomes, and the wider economy. With emissions reductions of up to 30 per cent needed over the next eight years, many are seeking new solutions.
One breakthrough emerged recently when the Dutch company DSM secured the green light from the European Commission for an additive that can cut methane emissions from cows by up to a third, all from putting just a teaspoon of the company's additive into cattle feed.
Trials have been completed in Canada and Denmark, with cattle fed indoors. However, the snag here is that the vast majority of Irish cattle are fed outdoors on grass, so that feed additives will have a limited success for most Irish farmers.
Better-known actions for farmers to cut emissions face major hurdles. Forestry planting stands at roughly 3,000ha a year, partly, or largely, because of objections against plans to put land under timber. The 8,000ha-a-year target has never been met.
Meanwhile, the 660,000km of hedgerows across the Irish countryside have never been mapped to gauge the contribution they make to carbon storage, while the State’s anaerobic digestion plan, which could provide renewable biogas, has made little progress so far.
All of this leaves the Government with a political headache, with the methane-emitting national herd responsible for over two-thirds of farming’s greenhouse gas emissions, but no obvious economic successor exists to support rural towns and villages depending upon it.
This has left Mr McConalogue insisting that climate targets can be reached by maintaining a “stable herd”, even when the herd numbers are rising.
The climate action plan to reduce emissions is heavily reliant on Teagasc’s Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC), including the breeding of more efficient cows, low-emissions slurry spreading (Less) and better fertiliser and slurry use.
On paper, MACC could reduce emissions by 17.3 million tonnes up to 2030, but all of this depends on how many farmers take up new ways of farming. With Less, for example, ammonia emissions could be cut by 60 per cent yet just over 10 per cent of farmers use it.
Less tankers and equipment – which spread slurry closer to the ground – can cost up to €60,000. Grants are available to farmers, but not to the contractors who actually spread the slurry. In some cases, farmers have bought kit with grants that they do not use.
Fertiliser and cows are the two biggest drivers of greenhouse gas emissions. The suspension of fertiliser exports from Russia due to the war in Ukraine may force farmers to reduce fertiliser usage and reduce emissions.
It’s a painful solution, since it will reduce grass growth. And it does nothing to cut cattle methane emissions, while both the Minister for Agriculture and the Department of Agriculture are unwilling to tackle the elephant or bovine in the room.