Agriculture is facing the perfect storm as it comes under pressure to cut carbon emissions, while the Ukraine crisis is driving dramatic increases in fuel and fertilizer prices.
Last January, Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue received a five-page briefing note from officials that clearly warned him that the state’s ammonia cap would be exceeded if the number of cows dairy exceeded the 1.6 million mark. In July, they had done it.
In the coming years, this number, according to Teagasc, should reach 1.8 million, before the Ukrainian crisis erupts.
The briefing note, published under freedom of information, is part of a collection where officials catalog their doubts about the ability of Irish agriculture to meet its share of internationally agreed climate targets.
On Thursday, a rare joint meeting of the Oireachtas committees on climate change and agriculture will convene to hear from companies and experts who believe they have technological solutions to some of the emissions problems, now exacerbated by the Ukraine crisis.
Taking action will not be easy. In an extreme example, the cost of slaughtering 50,000 cows will reduce farmers’ incomes and the wider economy by up to €220 million. With emissions reductions of up to 30% needed over the next eight years, many are looking for new solutions.
A breakthrough came recently when Dutch company DSM got the green light from the European Commission for an additive that can cut cows’ methane emissions by up to a third, all by putting just a teaspoon of the company’s additive in livestock feed.
Trials have been conducted in Canada and Denmark, with cattle fed indoors. However, the problem here is that the vast majority of Irish cattle are fed outdoors on grass, so feed additives will be of limited success for most Irish farmers.
Farmers’ better-known actions to reduce emissions face major obstacles. Forest plantation amounts to about 3,000 ha per year, partly or largely due to objections against land logging projects. The target of 8,000 ha per year has never been achieved.
Meanwhile, the 660,000 km of hedgerows across the Irish countryside have never been mapped to measure their contribution to carbon storage, while the state’s anaerobic digestion plan, which could provide renewable biogas, has little progress so far.
All of this leaves the government with a political headache, with the national methane-emitting herd responsible for more than two-thirds of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, but no obvious economic successor to support cities. and rural villages that depend on it.
This left Mr McConalogue to insist that climate goals can be achieved by maintaining a “stable herd”, even as herd numbers increase.
The Climate Action Plan to reduce emissions is highly dependent on Teagasc’s Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC), including raising more efficient cows, spreading low emission slurry (less) and better use of fertilizers and slurry.
On paper, the MACC could reduce emissions by 17.3 million tonnes through 2030, but it all depends on how many farmers adopt new farming methods. With Less, for example, ammonia emissions could be reduced by 60%, but just over 10% of farmers use it.
Fewer tanks and equipment – which spread slurry closer to the ground – can cost up to €60,000. Subsidies are available for farmers, but not for contractors who actually spread manure. In some cases, farmers have purchased kits with subsidies that they do not use.
Fertilizers and cows are the two main drivers of greenhouse gas emissions. The suspension of fertilizer exports from Russia due to the war in Ukraine could force farmers to reduce their use of fertilizers and reduce their emissions.
This is a painful solution, as it will reduce grass growth. And that does nothing to reduce methane emissions from livestock, when the Minister of Agriculture and the Ministry of Agriculture do not want to tackle the elephant or the cattle in the room.