Darragh McCullough: It's time to start empowering rather than demonising farmers on agri emissions

Hope: Research suggests it may be possible to reach the holy grail of running a carbon-neutral enterprise
Hope: Research suggests it may be possible to reach the holy grail of running a carbon-neutral enterprise
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

We all know farming is seen as a major problem in terms of Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions. But why is nobody turning that question on its head and putting agriculture forward as the solution?

Devenish Nutrition have been banging this drum with their huge body of research that is progressing at pace at their flagship farm in Dowth in the heart of the Boyne Valley in Meath.

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The stunning 400-acre site along the banks of the river is a fitting location for research on sustainable food production systems given that agriculture has been practised there for the last 6,000 years, starting with some of mankind's earliest farmers.

Owen Brennan is the owner of the €244m animal nutrition company - the man sinking serious money into this research.

The cynics will be quick to point out that Devenish has a vested interest in claiming that intensive animal agriculture is a harmless activity and everyone should just look the other way.

But the research of the team under the guidance of John Gilliland deserves more credit than that. His theory is that beef farming is basically carbon neutral at 1.25 livestock units per hectare (LU/Ha).

The logic is that the hedges, trees and grassland that make up your typical Irish farm are all sucking up about 3.7 tonnes of carbon per hectare annually. This is about the same as the emissions from 1.25LU/Ha.

The authorities have been reluctant to accept that grassland or even hedgerows are legitimate ways for the sector to offset emissions.

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Some officials believe that the hedges and pasture would be soaking up carbon even if there were no animals there to graze. Others feel there is no accurate way to measure how much carbon pasture is sequestering.

But Devenish have shown that soils at Dowth which were virtually untouched for 50 years had a lower carbon content than what was expected in the rich alluvial soils of the river basin.

In fact all the data being collected by a series of hi-tech surveys using ex-military radar kit at Dowth suggests that more intensively farmed soils store far more carbon.

However, being carbon neutral at 1.25LU/ha won't do much for the farmers who are sweating most under the heat of climate change pressures. The hardcore dairy farmer in Ireland has a stocking rate of at least 2.5 cows per hectare.

That equates to emissions of over 1.5t of carbon per hectare. Even if the agriculture sector did convince the authorities to take into account all the carbon being absorbed by the grass, hedges and trees on the typical dairy farm, there is still a significant surplus of at least 750kg/ha overhanging the sector.

However, there's going to be a wholesale switch in a couple of key farming practices over the coming years. Splash-plate slurry spreading will be banned in favour of trailing shoe systems.

The same could happen urea in favour of protected urea, along with a move from 100pc rye-grass swards to high-percentage clover mixes. Surprisingly however, it may be agro-forestry where some of the biggest gains can be made.

John Gilliland highlighted the fact that the carbon sequestration rate of pasture land can be tripled from 1t/ha of carbon annually to 2.8t/ha by planting as few as 200 trees per hectare.

That's about 10pc of the number of a typical forestry plantation, and still allows commercial management in the form of silage making, topping and grazing to ensure that grass yield is not overly compromised.

In fact, it could be argued that agro-forestry will make the wettest 10pc of farms more productive by drying up ground and improving the length of the grazing season by up to four months.

By pollarding the trees and coppicing hedgerows, farmers can ensure that these features maximise their potential as carbon sinks for a lifetime.

The cuttings can be used as bedding or fuel.

But when is the Government going to do its bit to spread these vital messages of hope for every farmer?

Instead of just labelling them as environmental terrorists, the agri sector could be empowered to realise that its role in fixing emissions is bigger than any other section of society.

Going by the research happening at Devenish, it may well be possible to reach the holy grail of running a carbon-neutral enterprise.

But it will take a lot more than the efforts of a single private firm to convince wider society that there is a solution to farming's greenhouse gas emissions right under our noses ... inside the farm-gate.

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