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Climate and production conspire to make life tough for farmers

New tech can help reduce the three greenhouse gases farmers are involved in emitting

Climate change is already happening and farmers are learning to manage and adapt to its consequences. File photograph: Getty

Climate change is already happening and farmers are learning to manage and adapt to its consequences. File photograph: Getty


The Climate Action Bill is of huge significance to the Irish agri sector with the pressure of higher production demand being offset against urgent climate action and carbon budgets. Farmers face huge challenges in getting the balance right on both fronts.

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Future of Farming looks at the challenges facing farmers and how they are meeting them. Check out the special report in Thursday's print edition of The Irish Times, via The Irish Times ePaper, or via The Irish Times special reports digital hub.

Green technologies have evolved to help meet the new climate targets as Ireland must reduce its emissions by 51 per cent by 2030. The agri sector is responsible for 40 per cent of those emissions, so there is a lot of work to do.

There are new technologies that farmers can embrace to help reduce the three greenhouse gases they’re involved in emitting, these are CO2, methane and nitrous oxide.

However many of these measures have not been widely adopted on farms, which has led to Teagasc putting in place the Signpost programme to help farmers tackle the challenges ahead.

Karl Richards, head of the Environment Research Department at Teagasc says, taking one of the gases, nitrous oxide, and the agriculture sector is the main source of this.

“It comes from when we use nitrogen fertiliser to help grow our crops, and increase yield. There are a number of technologies around how we can change fertiliser type that will reduce emissions by 70 per cent,” he says.

Currently there is some regulation around this but it hasn’t been implemented fully by the Department of Agriculture.

“We know these technologies, we can recommend farmers use them and we can demonstrate how they improve things but we can’t force a farmer to do it and that’s where there comes a point in time that knowledge transfer and advice can get you so far but regulation needs to come in to strengthen that. Teagasc is not a regulator, we are advisory and do research,” he says.

Farmers should embrace the “low hanging fruit” efficiency and technology measures available to them today to reduce their farm’s carbon emissions, while also having positive economic benefits

Russell Smyth, partner at KPMG Sustainable Futures, says: “We’ve found through speaking with farmers that they’re very open to new ways of farming and technologies but often the up-front cost to implementation is a barrier. In addition, there are opportunities on farms to sequester and store carbon through, for example, better soil management, growing of hedgerows and trees - there needs to be incentives in place for farmers to do this though and to realise the potential carbon savings. Implementing these measures and practices will result in multiple benefits, not only carbon savings, but also biodiversity enhancement, air quality improvement and often a cost saving.”

The diversification into forestry has decreased in recent years, from 5,000 to 6,000 hectares and down to less than 3,000 per year.

“While financial incentives to do that are high, farmers are saying, ‘I’m a farmer, not a forester. I don’t want to grow trees’, Richards says.

Meanwhile, Teagasc is also calling for the establishment of a national agricultural greenhouse gas centre of excellence which would be responsible for research, innovation and knowledge transfer associated with technologies to reduce emissions.

Methane accounts for around 60 per cent of agricultural emissions, and comes from animals when they belch. There are technologies that can help to reduce that including additives that can be placed into the feed.

It’s a huge research challenge – balancing food production demands with climate demands and that is the unenviable task, Richards says.

“We export so much of our food but emissions associated with producing that food are attributed to Ireland. Emissions to do with pumping oil out of the ground in Saudi Arabia goes to the country that uses it, not the country that produces it, so they have low emissions. We have high emissions on a per person basis. We are one of top dairy and beef producers in the world, so how do you meet not reducing those food stocks, with reducing emissions. It’s an important economic income but we are also efficient at doing it, according to the EUs joint research centre,” he says.

One good example of a green technology is the switching from calcium ammonium nitrate, which is the dominant fertiliser farmer’s use, to protected urea, which reduces emissions by 70 per cent , with no cost effect. While a technology which is readily available on the market, the effect of it hadn’t been quantified in terms of greenhouse gases. Teagasc carried out research, published it and it’s now incorporated into the Environmental Protection Agency’s national inventory. Farmers can now get credit for that if they switch fertiliser types.

Another measure gaining more traction is the use of multispecies swards in place of mono-culture systems.

Reduced emission

“Research has shown the benefits of multispecies swards in terms of reduced fertiliser use, increased yields and improved resilience during drought conditions. Similarly, low emission slurry spreading equipment is fully proven, but not yet fully adopted, while anaerobic digestion promises to deliver on a range of carbon and agricultural objectives including reduced emission from slurry, production of renewable gas and potential to displace chemical fertiliser using digestate material,” Smyth says.

Climate change is already happening and farmers are learning to manage and adapt to its consequences. There is an increased likelihood of cooler wetter springs, and hotter, drier summers. The drought of 2018 and the rainfall in 2012 created fodder shortages.

“More support and knowledge sharing on how to manage and mitigate risk associated with changing weather patterns is really important. There’s a huge opportunity for digitalisation to manage the uncertainty and unpredictability and to provide more accurate forecasts of weather in the near and long term,” Smyth says.

“There needs to be proper fodder and feed planning so not to push their systems to the 100 per cent maximum all the time. Weather forecasting is really starting to improve in terms of short term stuff and medium to long term. For example, are we likely to have the jet stream over Ireland for the summer – what impact would that have. We are working with Met Éireann to improve modelling and the prediction of feed growth so that we can anticipate when there could be shortages so they can best manage feed on farms.

“Disease and pest incidence can also affect grass, crops and forestry. There is the potential for that to increase with changes in the climatic conditions also,” Richards concludes.