Ireland’s GHG situation is almost unique in that a very high proportion, over 33%, comes from agriculture.
New Zealand is the only other developed country with a higher proportion of agriculture emissions (48%).
There is a concerted effort by other sectors to ensure that Irish agriculture takes responsibility for a large share of GHG reduction.
Methane, from animals is 23 times more potent as a GHG than carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide from agriculture is 310 times more potent.
Methane from ruminants accounts for most of the GHGs from agriculture (60%), nitrous oxide is 36%, and carbon dioxide about 4%.
The big questions are can Irish agriculture deliver the required reductions, what will be the economic effect, and what impact will it have on how agriculture develops.
An obvious solution is a reduction in cattle numbers, but this is not practical, and furthermore, if animals are reduced in this country, the deficit will be made up in other countries and will result in extra GHGs.
However, changes can be made to agricultural practices which can significantly reduce GHGs without unduly affecting profitability. In fact, most emission reducing practices increase profitability.
In dairying, higher yielding cows offer scope for reducing emissions.
Irish cows, on average, produce less than 70% of their genetic milk potential. An improvement in genetic merit and output per cow, mainly from improved pastures, will be a feature of Irish dairying in future. Advocates of high cow numbers and low yields per cow will disappear (hopefully).
Higher yielding cows will not adequately reduce the present levels of emissions, but will minimise increases in emissions from expansion in milk production, as well as optimising profits.
The Food Harvest 2020 plan envisaged a 50% increase in milk production, which could mean an extra 350,000 dairy cows, if milk yields remain static.
However, this type of increase in cow numbers is not necessary.
Instead, yields per cow can be increased.
And if the 40% plus of our dairy replacements calving at around three years old can be changed to two year old calving, tens of thousands of extra cows will not be needed.
Other strategies for minimising emissions from dairying include longer grazing seasons, improving pasture digestibility, feeding oils, increasing clover in swards — all of which should also improve profit.
Replacing some grass silage with maize silage or whole crop will also minimise GHGs.
Trials with enzymes and other products that change digestion, to reduce methane are showing good promise.
Research in this area of animal production is ongoing.
The biggest change that can be made to reduce emissions in agriculture is earlier slaughtering of beef animals, and more bull beef.
With greater efficiency in the beef sector, slaughtering tens of thousands of animals between the ages of 30 and 48 months can be ended.
This does not mean lower profits, because higher quality grass and clover can play a huge role in reducing age to slaughter.
Recent studies showed that emissions are reduced by 40% on top beef farms, compared with the average.
Even so, the carbon footprint (emissions) of Irish beef production has been proven to be among the lowest in Europe.
Other strategies such as including coconut oil in rations and finishing cattle on all-concentrate diets will have a very significant effect in reducing emissions.
Nitrous oxide, a major contributor to GHGs from agriculture, can be significantly reduced by proper use and timing of fertiliser and slurry.
Spreading slurry in the spring, and using the trailing shoe or band spreader will reduce emissions of GHGs to the atmosphere.
Increased use of urea as a source of nitrogen N will also help. Better tillage practices, such as minimum cultivation and rotations, will also be helpful.
New developments, including radio-wave treated water could reduce carbon dioxide, while bringing significant economical advantages for farmers.
Forestry has a very important role to play in minimising GHGs.
Growing biomass crops can also mitigate the impact of GHGs, but this sector does not get the support it deserves.
The world needs massive increases in food production to feed a growing population, and Ireland can produce food efficiently.
Expansion in Irish agriculture must not be stifled by excessive green regulations.
Over the next decade, there will be a lot of discussion, with environmentalists and some economists on one side, and the interests of Irish agriculture on the other side.
Ireland is an agricultural country which is mainly growing some type of grass, which plays a huge role GHG reduction.
Reducing agricultural production here would only lead to increasing GHGs in less environment-friendly countries.
Irish agriculture is already carbon efficient, and can become even more so, our role as a food producer does not have to be restricted.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved