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A Climate for Change: Teagasc Conference Finds Opportunities for Carbon-Efficient Farming

“Ireland has a unique opportunity to turn the threat of greenhouse gas emissions into an opportunity for Irish farming”. That is the message arising from the international conference “A Climate for Change – Opportunities for Carbon-Efficient Farming”, organised by Teagasc. Over 200 scientists, policy makers, farm organisations, agricultural advisers and stakeholders are gathering at the Mansion House today and tomorrow to agree on a proactive approach to minimising the carbon-footprint of Irish food, and capitalise on the global marketing opportunities for low-carbon food.

It is now widely accepted that the world’s population is increasing and demand for food is growing, but agriculture is facing the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while increasing food supply. Teagasc Director, Professor Gerry Boyle said: “Any proposed reductions in GHG emissions from farming must be considered in a worldwide context. Any policy that reduces agricultural activity in countries with a high production/low carbon footprint, such as Ireland, in a time of increased demand for food and renewable energy sources, is likely to be counter-productive in the context of reducing global GHGs. It may result in a global increase in CO2 emissions through carbon leakage.”

The Teagasc Director pointed out that emissions from Irish agriculture have fallen by eight per cent between 1990 and 2008. He argued that, rather than capping greenhouse gas emissions through limiting food production, Ireland should focus on minimising its emissions per kg of food or “carbon footprint”. He pointed out that this alternative approach offers opportunities for Irish agriculture, as it would be driven by consumer demand, rather than by policies alone. He presented results of a recent FAO study, which shows that Ireland’s temperate grass-based dairy systems already have one of the smallest carbon-footprints in the world.

Director of Research in Teagasc, Dr Frank O’Mara said that there are opportunities for Irish farmers to improve their carbon efficiency. He explained that Teagasc operates a large and ambitious research programme on reducing the carbon footprint of Irish meat and dairy products. He said: “The results of this programme, presented at this conference, show that what we need is a mosaic of solutions at farm level; there is no single silver bullet. Solutions include improved nitrogen use efficiency, extending the grazing season, and improving the genetic merit of the national herd.”

In order to link gains in efficiency at farm level to market opportunities, we need coherent and urgent action from all stakeholders in the food-chain, according to Dr Rogier Schulte, Chair of Teagasc’s Working Group on Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Dr Schulte said: “We need to ensure that efficiencies are counted in our National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, and in the carbon-labelling by national and international processors and retailers. Most challengingly, we are working with our colleagues in the Government Departments to get international recognition for our approach of improving efficiency, rather than capping food production”.

Ireland (DAFF and Teagasc) have signed up to two new international initiatives that aim to co-ordinate future research and policy needs:

  • The Global Research Alliance: led by New Zealand, the establishment of this alliance was one of the few positive outcomes of the Copenhagen negotiations. With many of the world’s large countries signed up (including the USA and India), this initiative aims to coordinate research into GHG mitigation.
  • Ireland (Teagasc and DAFF) sit on the Governing Board of the Joint Programme Initiative of the EU in Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change, which pursues the same objectives at EU level