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Farming trys to navigate way through turbulent times

Lack of biodiversity, pressure on water, nitrogen and ammonia emissions all to the fore

There are about 135,000 farms in Ireland. Though one of our most traditional sectors, it’s facing unprecedented change.

Demand is up

The UN predicts the global population will reach 9.8 billion by 2050, up from about 7.9 billion today.

Appetites for protein are growing too. McKinsey, a consultancy, reckons the agriculture industry is facing its biggest changes since after the second World War. “Developing markets are catching up to the protein-consumption levels of developed ones, and both are battling obesity”, it says, pointing out that, should this trend accelerate, we could be looking not only at increased demands for protein-rich foods but also “alternative meat products”.

So are emissions

Ireland’s ambition has always been to be a major agri-food exporter. How to square that ambition with our need to mitigate the impact of climate change, as well as broader environmental concerns, is the challenge.


Much of our farmland is either given over to livestock, or to the grass used to feed livestock. Just over one-third of our greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to agriculture.

On top of that are issues in relation to a lack of biodiversity, pressure on water, and nitrogen and ammonia emissions, all of which are problematic too.

Dairy farmers respond to the market price for milk, mostly without taking into consideration such negative externalities. Putting a price on carbon is one way to shift that calculus.

Beef and dairy

There are about 17,000 dairy farms in Ireland and some 80,000 beef farms.

In the main, dairy farms make money whereas beef farms don’t. Most of the latter’s income comes via direct payments from the EU, while most of a dairy farmer’s income comes from the marketplace.

So dairy is profitable while beef is not, but the two are connected. We don’t get cows’ milk unless they calve. So the more demand there is for milk, the more calves that are born and taken away for beef.

Vegan values

Veganism is a solution to the animal welfare concerns of farming. Another option being looked to is lab-grown meat. But while it eradicates the unpalatable issue of animal distress, it remains to be seen if it’s appetising on the plate, or from an environmental perspective.

Consumers will be weighing up the impact of inputs such as energy usage and transport, all of which also have the potential to affect the environment negatively.

On top of that, we’d have to weigh up the social, environmental and other cost of losing farmers as stewards of the countryside, and so many small family businesses in rural areas, not to mention gaining major food conglomerates in their place, a worry in itself.

Technology takes control

Techno-optimists believe the farming forecast is good. They’ve already overseen the rollout of smart irrigation systems and remote surveying, with soil sensors monitoring for moisture and nutrition.

Agribots are doing everything from sowing and weeding to helping farmers to cope with another trend the sector is facing – the shortage of labour. Smart sensors are helping monitor herd health too, everything from cows to honeybees.

All this kit should boost efficiencies, which in turn should help with environmental targets, as well as address the urgent need to use water more efficiently in agriculture.

Nitrogen for example is essential for plant growth but poor fertiliser application techniques increase potential runoff, which can contribute to water pollution. Precision agri-tech can resolve this.

Researchers to the rescue

Researchers are looking to develop additives to reduce livestock flatulence. Unfortunately, the easiest way to give it would be to keep them indoors and add it to their hard feed, which isn’t so nice for our traditionally grass-fed – and relatively free range – cows. Alternatively, work is being done to look at the ways in which different kinds of foraged material could help reduce methane emissions. Hooves crossed.

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times