Farming must focus on reducing emission of nitrogen

Failure to address regulatory obstacles to climate-friendly forestry planting traps farmers in unviable and damaging beef cattle farming

Methane and nitrogen emissions from farming account for slightly over a third of Ireland’s total greenhouse gas emissions, with carbon dioxide (CO2) from energy, transport and industry providing the balance. Research suggests that, even with major behavioural change, we wouldn’t be able to cut CO2 emissions by much more than 60 per cent by 2030.

If we got that far, agriculture would still need to reduce emissions by about a third, if all greenhouse gases were to be reduced by 50 per cent to meet the 2030 target.

The Climate Action Plan targets a reduction of only a quarter in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Even at that, such a more limited objective may not be reached, leaving a substantial gap between national aspiration on tackling climate change, and the likely out-turn.

Since the abolition of the EU milk quota in 2015, milk production has increased by almost 40 per cent, reflecting the fact that dairy farming in Ireland has relatively low costs and is very profitable. The growth in milk output has been the result of an over 20 per cent increase in the number of dairy cows, and big increases in milk yields per cow. This intensification of agriculture has required other changes, including an increase in fertiliser input to augment the food supply for the animals.


In turn, agricultural emissions of greenhouse gases have risen by almost 10 per cent since 2015. While emissions have grown at a slower pace than either milk output or cow numbers, nonetheless overall emissions from farming have risen at a time when they need to fall significantly.

The rise in emissions from dairying has been partially offset by a slow reduction in beef production, reflecting how unprofitable beef production is for farmers. Teagasc data show that dairy farm incomes averaged €100,000 a year in 2021, compared to about €11,000 for cattle rearing, with almost all of beef farmers’ incomes coming from EU payments. So average value added in the beef sector is close to zero.

The exceptional rise in milk prices last year, which saw own-brand butter rise from €2.19 to €3.39 in the shops, means that there is a strong incentive for dairy farmers to further expand milk production. There’s also a financial incentive for other farmers to switch into dairying, where returns are so much better. All of this poses a huge challenge to the Climate Action Plan’s sectoral target for agriculture.

It’s not easy to achieve a more rapid exit by beef farmers and avoid a switch to dairy farming. For many of these farmers, realistically the best alternative to beef would be to plant trees on some of their land. However, the current regulatory obstacles to this are immense, and there is no sign that they are being addressed.

Some advocates of change in agriculture suggest that farmers should move from cattle rearing to growing vegetables and fruit or to organic farming. However, many of the farmers concerned are getting on in years and are unlikely to change direction easily to a more labour-intensive model of farming. More importantly, ramping up these other sectors is also unlikely to be profitable. Harvesting fruit and vegetables requires a lot of labour and, in a country that has extremely high wages relative to our EU partners, it’s much harder to make that economical.

Two-thirds of agricultural greenhouse gases come from methane emitted by cattle and the other third largely arise from fertiliser use, producing nitrogen-related gases.

Methane is shortlived in the atmosphere, which means that, if we fail to reduce it adequately in this decade, we could substantially catch up in the 2040s. We need to invest heavily in research into how use suitable feed additives could dramatically reduce these methane emissions.

Because the third of agricultural emissions due to nitrogen use will be in the atmosphere indefinitely, it is extremely urgent to drive them down. They also give rise to serious damage in terms of biodiversity.

While in principle it’s possible to reduce the incentives to dairying by raising taxes in this area, that’s unlikely to be an acceptable policy. So we need a portfolio of measures. Planting multispecies swards in place of ryegrass monoculture can fix more nitrogen in the soil, reducing the need for fertiliser.

It must be made easier for farmers to plant trees. We should subsidise a move to farm practices that fix more carbon in the soil and reduce nitrogen emissions. A move to a more extensive model of production on dairy farms, using less fertiliser and more land, is also essential to reduce dairying’s damaging environmental footprint.