Sustainability means different things to different people. While consumers, retailers and processors can help the environment by changing the way they shop, travel and go about their daily lives, reducing the environmental impact of farming practices often involves additional bureaucracy, higher costs and restrictions on certain farm activities.
It is sometimes suggested that reducing the national herd or encouraging veganism could reduce Ireland’s carbon emissions. However, these arguments fail to take account of the fact that most of Ireland’s livestock farming is grass- based and that agriculture and forestry play a vital role in reducing our greenhouse gasses.
To improve the sustainability of Irish agriculture, what is needed is smart policies supported by adequate funding.
To address this challenge, the Department of Agriculture has several schemes aimed at encouraging farmers to adopt environmentally friendly practices. The recently launched Straw Incorporation Scheme incentivises tillage farmers to increase their soil organic carbon levels by ploughing straw back into the ground while the new REPS scheme will see farmers with the best environmental score net the biggest payments.
Putting a value on carbon, placing a cap on allowable carbon emissions and allowing farmers to trade unused carbon credits already happens in countries like New Zealand. However, a barrier to introducing this system in Ireland is that we don’t know how much carbon our soils store. While accurately calculating this is neither simple nor cheap, given that most of our agricultural land is in grass/crops, we need to prioritise finding solutions.
The success of the nationwide ICBF scheme, where breeding policies can be tracked and measured at farm level, suggests there would be benefits to incentivising data gathering across the entire agriculture sector.
Investment & Technology
While venture capital funds such as Finistere Ventures are already investing in Ag tech, significant investment at national, EU, and private level will be required to research and roll out new practices and technologies, including the national roll out of broadband.
Already farmers are switching to more sustainable practices across a broad range of activities from eliminating slurry splash plates to using protected urea, improving breeding policies, adopting crop rotation, optimising stock rates, improving soil health and reducing fertiliser dependence. While the benefits of adopting new technologies and practices may not be seen in the short term, over time they are proving their worth by improving efficiencies, reducing costs and enhancing outputs.