Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Rural Living: Sustainable controversy

The IIEA agri-food future report sets the targets we must meet, so let's act now to begin achieving them

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

The hard content of the recent Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) report is, as usual, hidden at the start within the normal blather and verbiage one expects from such reports. Why these people cannot speak plain English always puzzles me. Perhaps it's a legacy from the mangling of the language that we have come to expect from our trade union leaders, politicians and economists.

'A Sustainability Enhancement Programme for the Irish Agri-food Industry' is the lengthy title of this report.

In the introduction, Michael Dowling, the former secretary general of our Department of Agriculture and now head of agri strategy at Allied Irish Bank and chair of the group's steering committee, states that "the potential benefits to the Irish food sector of taking a pro-active approach on the issue of sustainability might include building market position over the medium to long-term and an enhancement of our reputation''.

Well that's all a bit vague but perhaps I am being unkind, for the report does contain a lot of interest for the farming and forest industries and makes several recommendations that will find favour among Irish farmers.

On forestry, the report states: "Forestry plays a particularly vital role in Ireland's national climate change strategy, and an annual 15,000ha needs to be maintained in order to establish a sustainable forest resource in the long run, or almost double the current level of planting."

Fine words indeed, but while our Government persists in continually casting doubt on the future of our current planting programme, what chance have we got of achieving this worthy target? The report goes on to state that "Ireland must increase afforestation levels immediately in order to fill the gap between 2035 and 2050 and provide a sustainable level of carbon sequestration. It is not possible to catch up later".

No one could argue with that, so why aren't we working on it?

Among the specific recommendations, we read that "farmers with marginal or underused land, working independently or with private investors and Coillte, should consider increasing levels of afforestation on their land, and the stake holders in the forestry sector, including Coillte, private foresters and farmers, should work with Government to develop a system whereby the sequestration value (in terms of carbon credits) of afforestation should accrue to the tree planter".

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Now that's more like it. We have all been screaming for the payment of carbon credits to the people who grow the trees. Perhaps now it will become a reality, provided of course that our representatives in the Department of Agriculture agree with the sentiments.

While the report recommends that in order to reduce methane emissions, livestock grazing times should be extended and life-time daily liveweight gains increased -- these seem to me to be something that perhaps will be difficult to achieve. The wet season we have endured should confirm this, coupled with the fact that we have already seen huge increases in the performance of our suckler herds.

However, the potential for on-farm production of renewable energy is one really interesting area that is mentioned. The authors come out strongly in favour of on-farm generation of wind, biomass and methane digestion. Spreading of slurry is already a major problem for many farms, and where this slurry can be used in a methane digester to generate electricity then this would appear to be the way to go.

If this is to happen on any useful scale it will, however, require a re-think on the part of our Government as, at present, the returns available to investors in this technology are far lower in Ireland than in other European countries. The provision of facilities whereby slurry and other products, such as food waste, can be re-used to produce both energy and a valuable fertiliser from the end product would appear to be an obvious benefit for farmers and the wider community. The report deals with the opportunities this would represent and states that an expansion of livestock production may in the future be linked with energy-generating facilities that can use slurry and be owned and run by groups of farmers providing the raw materials.

Download the report at:, then click on 'From Farm to Fork'.

Irish Independent