Conversion to crops would release the carbon sequestered in grasslands

Conversion to crops would release the carbon sequestered in grasslands

By Eamonn Pitts

Many farmers accept that the world is warming, that this warming is potentially disastrous for our grandchildren, that this change has been caused substantially by human actions, and that much of the damaging greenhouse gas generated in Ireland arises on farms.

They are also aware of a growing anti-farmer sentiment, particularly among the young, based on their perception that farming — and in particular livestock farming — is not environmentally friendly. And a growing sector of the population abstains from or substantially reduces their meat and dairy consumption, potentially damaging the growth in markets for our main agricultural products.

Meanwhile, the State faces very substantial fines (though very little is being said in public about these fines) if it fails to meet targets set by the EU for reduction in the greenhouse gas blamed for global warming. When these fines have to be paid, the farming sector could be facing down aggrieved taxpayers.

So it was timely that the ICMSA organised a think-tank last week, at which 70 farmers, scientists, environmentalists and journalists got together to discuss where in particular, the dairy industry should go, faced with climate challenges. The discussion was lively and informative.

How can the farming sector reduce its carbon emissions?

Firstly, what are the targets? Ireland is supposed to reduce its carbon emissions by 2030, in transport, light industry, waste disposal, housing and farming, by 30%, compared with 2005 levels. At present, farming accounts for nearly half of these emissions.

So, reaching the target must involve substantial reduction in measured farm emissions. In 2017, farming emissions were 2% over 2005 levels, rather than heading under.

A Teagasc team, led by Professor Gary Lanigan, has prepared a blueprint on what can be achieved.

  • There are three avenues:

  • Reduce emissions directly through increased efficiency or by cutting the size of the national beef and dairy herds.
  • Encourage storage, in soils or forestry, of some of the carbon that is generated, a process known as sequestration.
  • Replace some of the carbon used through burning coal or oil by bioenergy.

The farming sector has another serious environmental problem, related to ammonia. It is not a greenhouse gas but is an air and water pollutant, and there is a target to reduce it by 5% compared to 2005 levels.

Animal manures account for 92% of Irish ammonia, and a reduction in ammonia is therefore hardly compatible with an expansion of the dairy and beef herds.

  • The broader carbon emission strategy advocated by Teagasc team includes:

  • Limit the increases in methane through increased efficiency.
  • Reduce nitrous oxide greenhouse gas, by reducing fertiliser applications.
  • Offset increases in carbon, through increased sequestration in timber and bogland
  • Displace fossil carbon dioxide with increased use of agri-based bioenergy.

It was clear in the ICMSA think-tank that, while some of these tasks, such as reducing fertiliser applications, are relatively easy, many of the other actions are extremely difficult.

Increased efficiency (fewer emissions per kg of beef or milk) is already being achieved, through better animal breeding, but is being outweighed by increased dairy cow numbers.

One specific recommendation is to replace urea with protected urea. Yet, think-tank delegates complained that protected urea is unavailable in many areas.

A departmental decree banning the use of simple urea, after a short time frame, would seem to be required. Likewise, farmer think-tank delegates complained about animal feed formulations which lead to higher methane emissions.

Such problems are instantly solvable, unlike increased sequestration or bioenergy. Some farmers at the think-tank said they get the same price now for their milk as they did 30 years ago, forcing them to expand herds and increase fertiliser use, in order to make an adequate living.

They were running hard in order to stand still. Only increased prices from the marketplace would enable them to cut back on production. (However, this argument is contradicted by conventional economic theory, that increased return induces increased output).

A solution, often cited by those outside farming, is to diversify output, by increasing tillage and horticulture. In terms of greenhouse gas production, these activities would start with a negative.

Conversion of grasslands to tillage or horticulture would involve ploughing permanent grassland, releasing into the atmosphere carbon stored (sequestered) in grasslands. There are additional problems in relation to horticulture, in that only a relatively small amount of land is suitable, the market for produce is limited, and there is a shortage of skills in this area.

Forestry and Land Use

We now know that draining the bogs for turf released carbon, and we should ideally reverse this process, to save the taxpayer and the dairy farmer (in the short term), and future generations. Re-wetting bogs is proposed. Can Bord na Móna, which has the land and the engineering skills, reverse its role?

To maintain our dairy herd, significant investments in forestry and in re-wetting bogs are needed. These activities take time to deliver carbon sequestration (up to 20 years).

Meanwhile, annual targets for increasing forestry are not being met. If Irish forestry planting does not increase, forestry will be a net contributor to carbon emissions by 2032, when plantations are being harvested.

Farmers have been reluctant to invest in forestry (even if the returns appear good), due mainly to the requirement that the area must be replanted after harvesting. The “think tank” left everyone with an appreciation of difficult times ahead in meeting targets for greenhouse gas production.

The actions which farmers can take are relatively straightforward, but may not deliver the required targets, without reduction of the dairy or beef herds.

Land use changes which could make a considerable difference, in forestry and bogland, will take a long time, and are unlikely to generate much enthusiasm among farmers without substantial subsidy.

It would seem that Bord na Móna and Coillte, which have in recent decades had a predominantly commercial role, may have to be reorganised and given a substantial environmental remit.

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