Substantial reduction in farming needed to hit emission targets – Teagasc

Scientific solutions not enough alone to reach 50% reduction, says State agriculture body

Some 90 per cent of Irish agricultural land is under grass and the sector has a reputation for having one of the lowest carbon footprints in Europe, the committee heard. File photograph

Some 90 per cent of Irish agricultural land is under grass and the sector has a reputation for having one of the lowest carbon footprints in Europe, the committee heard. File photograph

 

A 50 per cent lowering of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the agriculture sector by the end of the decade would require a substantial reduction in the amount of farming activity in Ireland, Teagasc has said.

In a downbeat assessment of the ability of agriculture to meet short-term reduction targets of 51 per cent by 2030, the State’s research body for agriculture and food said there was “no prospect in the current decade of scientific solutions alone being capable of delivering agricultural GHG reductions” of 7 per cent each year.

Teagasc director Professor Gerry Boyle and its head of research Dr Frank O’Mara spoke at a virtual meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, chaired by Tipperary TD Jackie Cahill (Fianna Fáil).

They outlined the challenges facing that sector in terms of meeting onerous new climate change targets.

In its opening statement, Teagasc said GHG emissions in agriculture (which accounts for one third of the overall figure) were driven mainly by the size of the national cattle herd and nitrogen fertiliser use.

“Current scientific understanding indicates that reducing Irish agricultural GHG emissions through technical means is challenging, particularly so for biogenic methane produced by pasture-based ruminants.

“While agricultural GHG emissions were trending downward over the 2000s, that trend has reversed over the last decade, as an increase in the GHG emissions associated with dairy cows has not been fully matched by a reduction in GHG emissions from other cattle,” it said.

Expanding on that theme, Prof Boyle said that the overall national herd had remained relatively stable in terms of size. However, there were comparative changes in the dairy, and suckler, herds over the years but they reflected changes in quotas. He said that when milk quotas were introduced, the suckler herd had increased from 400,000 to close to 1 million. However, when the quotas were removed in 2015, the dairy herd began to rise and the suckler herd fell.

Some 90 per cent of Irish agricultural land is under grass and the sector has a reputation for having one of the lowest carbon footprints in Europe, being joint first for dairy, and in fifth place for beef.

Dr O’Mara described the phenomenon of carbon leakage where the slack caused by cuts in Irish production would be taken up by other countries, which are not as efficient as Ireland in terms of carbon output.

“If we were to cut down on production of food and meat, the space that is left would be filled by other countries where are higher emissions. Then there is a loss to the overall system,” he said.

Simon Coveney introduced that concept when he was minister for agriculture but it has been the subject of criticism from environmental groups who said Irish governments had advanced the argument to evade their responsibilities for emissions reduction in farming.

The opening statement set out a number of changes and new technologies that were being pursued to achieve the target. They include feed additives, dietary oils, halides and seaweed, livestock breeding, and animal lifetime efficiency.

They also include optimisation of soil pH and nutrient levels, changes in fertiliser type, and encouraging farmers to replace nitrogen fertiliser with clover, and to use protected urea instead of calcium ammonium nitrates.

The opening statement pointed to international scientific discussion on how biogenic methane should be accounted for in climate change targets, with some scientists proposing a separate target for biogenic methane.

In relation to land use, it said carbon sequestration by forestry would make an important contribution to off-setting GHG emissions but did add a note of caution.

“In recent years planting targets are not being met, which is a concern for the post-2030 period, particularly as a lot of Irish forests will mature after 2030.”

Several members of the committee including Matt Carty (Sinn Féin), Michael Fitzmaurice (Independent) and Michael Collins (Independent) raised the issue of peat moss having to be imported into Ireland now that peat production had come to the end.

“The only feasible alternative right now is to look at importation,” said Prof Boyle, who is due to retire soon.

Brian Leddin of the Greens said it was a “sleight of hand” to distinguish between biogenic methane and fossil-derived methane because “they are the same molecule irrespective of source”.

“It needs to be said that it biogenic methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. We cannot get away from that.”