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Steering farmers on a sustainable journey

Here, Pat Dillon, Director of Research at Teagasc, explains how Teagasc’s Climate Action Strategy 2022-2030 is focused on reducing GHG emissions from agriculture.

Director of Research Pat Dillon says new and existing technologies will be key to achieving emissions reduction targets

Director of Research Pat Dillon says new and existing technologies will be key to achieving emissions reduction targets

Since 1850, there has been an increase of 1.1˚C in global temperatures. This rise is being propelled by increases in greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, mainly produced when we burn fossil fuels and through industrial processes, together with emissions associated with land use. Irish agriculture is the largest contributor of Ireland’s GHG emissions. This reflects the economic and historical importance of agriculture, relative to other industries in the Irish economy.

Here, Pat Dillon, Director of Research at Teagasc, explains how Teagasc’s Climate Action Strategy 2022-2030 is focused on reducing GHG emissions from agriculture. 

Our climate is changing rapidly and is transforming our world. As such, the Irish government has set targets to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture by 25% by 2030 and strive for climate neutrality by 2050. Teagasc has developed a roadmap to support these aims, without reducing the competitiveness of the Irish agri-food sector.

Approximately one-third of the technologies required to reduce GHG emissions by 25% are available currently. To make sure these are implemented at farm level, a strong advisory and education programme is key – and this has been prioritised in our new Climate Action Strategy, announced in December 2022.

Pat Dillon is Director of Research at Teagasc, with research interests including sustainability, economics, farm systems, animal breeding and grassland management. Prior to his current role, Pat was Head of the Animal and Grassland Programme. He has initiated and led major research initiatives, contributing significantly to industry knowledge through more than 100 scientific publications, with almost 70 as senior author.

Here, Pat outlines Teagasc’s new Climate Action Strategy, reflecting on how research and innovation must be made accessible to all farmers.

Pat, can you explain Teagasc’s new Climate Action Strategy?

There are three pillars to the Strategy. First, we are implementing a new Signpost Advisory Programme, which will be available to all farmers to support farms’ climate and sustainability actions. We aim to reach 50,000 farmers by 2030. 

This is important to the implementation of technologies that are already available and the new ones that will become available. The Signpost Advisory Programme will be the advocate for these technologies.

As part of this programme, we have a network of 120 demonstration farms that include all the main farming enterprises where we will carry out detailed measurements. These will be used to translate research into practice and will be used for open days, workshops and training.

The second pillar is a new Sustainability Digital Platform, which will be developed in collaboration with Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) and The Irish Food Board (Bord Bia). This will be a new online tool aimed at facilitating a whole-farm sustainability assessment. It will allow farmers to ‘count’ their farm carbon emissions and removals.

Thirdly, we are establishing a National Centre for Agri-food Climate Research and Innovation. This will be a virtual centre to accelerate and coordinate climate research and innovation, while providing leadership nationally and internationally. Teagasc recognises the importance of collaborating with other universities and entities and we want to strengthen these connections.


How does this new strategy differ from your focus on climate-related action up until now?

Until recently, most of the climate-related research was the responsibility of the Teagasc Crops, Land Use and Environmental Programme. Now it’s part of all Teagasc research and advisory programmes. Our overarching strategic goal in the Statement of Strategy is to ‘make sustainability front and centre of all Teagasc activities’.

Teagasc has allocated 24 new research staff to work specifically on climate-related research. In addition, all new core funded research projects are required to have a climate-related aspect.

Where are you investing to support the strategy?

Teagasc is significantly increasing its resources devoted to climate-related research and knowledge transfer. We are investing €12.7 million in upgrading labs and facilities in our environment research centre in Johnstown Castle. This is because we recognise that research is the backbone of everything we do to combat climate change.

There is a lot of uncertainty about the quantities of carbon being sequestered by our mineral soils and emitted by our peat soils. Currently, we are using default values from a Europe-based model. The National Agricultural Soil Carbon Observatory has been established to reduce this uncertainty.

A total of 30 flux towers have been established all around the country, covering all soil types and farming systems to measure actual carbon sequestration and emissions. In a European context, Ireland will have the biggest consignment of flux towers in relation to the size of the country, providing the real data we need.

Between Teagasc, ICBF and University College Dublin, we have purchased 20 GreenFeed machines. These machines were developed in the United States and measures the amount of enteric methane a ruminant animal emits on a daily basis. The machines take a sample of breath – 90% to 95% of enteric methane is expelled from the rumen in the breath. These GreenFeed will be used to verify the quantity of enteric methane that is being emitted daily from Irish grazing ruminants and develop feeding strategies to reduce emissions.

What is Teagasc’s roadmap to reduce GHG emissions from agriculture by 25%?

Teagasc envisages three phases in the transition to reducing GHG emissions by 25% by 2030. 

Phase 1 involves the adoption of technologies currently available, such as protected urea and low emission slurry spreading, increased soil fertility and replacing chemical nitrogen with biological fixed legume nitrogen.

Replacing calcium ammonium nitrate with protected urea for the chemical nitrogen used will reduce nitrate oxide emissions by approximately 70%. All our research shows that protected urea is equally efficient in terms of biological actions.

Phase 2 will see the roll-out of almost-ready technologies. These include reduced age at slaughter, new low-emitting nitrogen fertilisers and the use of feed additives in indoor feeding systems.

Finally, Phase 3 involves technologies that require significant further research, such as the use of feed additives at pasture, breeding lower-methane-emitting animals, and use of slurry additives.

Marie Kearney, Teagasc Advisor, Cork East, discusses low emission slurry spreaders with Signpost farmer Jack Kearney; (below) a GreenFeed machine measures methane from a cow’s breath

Marie Kearney, Teagasc Advisor, Cork East, discusses low emission slurry spreaders with Signpost farmer Jack Kearney; (below) a GreenFeed machine measures methane from a cow’s breath. Photography: Mark Moore

Can you expand on Teagasc’s research into lower-carbon systems?

Diversification into organic farming, biomethane production and afforestation has the potential to develop lower-carbon systems.

Currently, approximately 3% of useable land area in Ireland is devoted to organic farming; this is low when compared to an average of 9.1% for the rest of the EU. The Climate Action Plan 2023 has a target to increase this to 10% or 450,000 ha by 2030. This will help to reduce chemical nitrogen and pesticide use resulting in associated environmental benefits. Teagasc is supporting this programme at both an advisory level – with eight new advisers – and research level (through a new research programme).

Biomethane is a renewable gas made from biological feedstocks that includes animal manures, grass and grass silage. The Climate Action Plan 2023 has committed to deliver 5.7 TWh of indigenously produced methane, based on agricultural feedstocks by 2030. This will provide a diversification opportunity for farmers and a land-use alternative to livestock.

Forestry and related products play an important role in mitigating climate change. Increased financial incentives have been introduced to increase the annual afforestation rates from approximately 2,000 ha per annum currently to 8,000 per annum from 2023 onwards.

Lastly, we have been developing a circular food system, which reduces food waste, promoting sustainable packaging and the role of plant proteins.

Cow at machine

What are your specific goals or targets for the strategy – short-term and long-term?

Mainly, we aim to reduce GHG emissions by 5.75 Mt of C02 equivalent by 2030 and support the industry to become climate neutral by 2050.

What are the next steps for Teagasc?

The next immediate action for us will be establishing the Signpost Advisory Programme and, by the end of 2023, having 10,000 farmers registered.

We aim to launch version 1 of the Sustainability Digital Platform in 2023 using data from the 120 demonstration Signpost farms. In 2023 also, the National Centre for Agri-Food Climate Research and Innovation will be established, while publishing the new GHG Marginal Abatement Cost Curve will be one of its first significant outputs.

Are there challenges – current or anticipated – related to climate change or sustainability that you think will be an increasingly hot topic for the farming sector?

Reducing chemical nitrogen use by between 27–30% by 2030 as outlined in both the Food Vision Dairy and Beef 2030 reports; this will be a huge challenge. Getting grassland farmers to switch from relying on chemical nitrogen fertiliser to managing white clover pastures to naturally fix nitrogen will require significant changes in grassland management. It’s important that its adoption is successful. 

Another increasingly hot topic will be reducing the age of slaughter of prime beef cattle by between three to four months. This will require significant changes at farm level in terms of grassland and silage management and using appropriate genetics. 

Are there any changes or technologies you think will be helpful in reaching the sustainability goals?

Feed additives/inhibitors will become key. There is one existing feed additive that reduces enteric methane emissions by up to 30% with ruminant animals. The only thing is that this is for indoor feeding systems; we need an additive that will perform equally well with grazing livestock. Currently, we don’t have such an additive. There is a lot of research being carried out currently in this area. We are collaborating with both national and international partners in this area of research, especially in New Zealand, as they also have a pasture-based system.

The development of a feed additive or inhibitor that would significantly reduce enteric methane emissions under grazing conditions would be very helpful to agriculture reaching its reduction targets.

As a result of the strategy, what can farmers and the industry expect to see differently from Teagasc in terms of your research and service offering?

Support is at the heart of our new Climate Action Strategy. In fact, Teagasc is proud to offer the best climate advisory service for farmers in the world.

While we mobilise the collective resources of Teagasc, ICBF and Bord Bia to build a unique Sustainability Digital Platform, as well as our Signpost Advisory Programme, the industry can benefit from an accelerated research programme to address emissions reduction.

The new National Centre will help us improve collaboration nationally and internationally, which is key to our mission. 


Target set by the Irish government for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in Ireland by 2030.