Monthly Archives: September 2016

CLIMATE CHANGE – THINKING BEYOND THE EMISSIONS

I imagine that using such a title is to court controversy, but so be it as it is an issue I find myself considering all too often now. It sounds all too obvious to say that if we are looking at activities that discharge carbon into our atmosphere, we evaluate them in terms of what they release minus any carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere. After all, in a football match the final score represents the goals scored balanced against the goals conceded.

Apparently when it comes to carbon emissions, such a scoring system is not appropriate and we only count the emissions. We count the goals conceded but when it comes to scoring ourselves we find that the opposition has, to use the parlance from Euro 2016, parked their team bus in their goal. Hence, we count carbon emissions but not any carbon sequestered.

Ireland has moved quickly when it comes to calculating carbon emissions from farming activities and it promotes itself as being a ‘green’ and sustainable foods producer because of it. But was it ahead of the game on this and ahead of the wider, evolving knowledge base?

When it comes to trying to reduce emissions, the current approach is very much about improving production efficiency so as to reduce the carbon footprint per unit of production. That would be all well and good if Ireland was not being judged according to its atypically large farming industry [related to its overall economy] and its ruminant sectors within that. When sequestration is not included in the equation and industry-expansion plans are factored in, it is not surprising that there is conflict between farmers and tackle-climate-change lobbyists as standing still in terms of total emissions is a tall order.

In light of such, is it surprising that the proposed suite of efficiency targets gains little traction when it comes to mollifying the environmental lobbyists? When one considers that the targeted efficiency gains should be part and parcel of good farm management practice, it is very easy to see why the lobbyists view the farming industry’s approach to climate change as ‘business as usual’. Worse it is business as usual except for the expansionist approach of government policy. To stand still in terms of emissions, efficiency gains have to more than compensate for expansion. It is a tough sell.

One would prefer to see a far more robust defence of Ireland’s farming industry. Would one expect anything less of an author who is a farm business management specialist? I do not, however, see that the defence can be superficial. It is a defence that has to be based on climate-change mitigation at the farm level and it will require changes to farming practices that go well beyond efficiency gains. As I alluded to in my last post, are some cows now more equal than others? It is a subject that we need to be looking into in far more depth.

For the farmer, those changes and the implementation of climate-friendly farming will also have to be transmitted to the food consumer in such a way that the farm-gate price is enhanced; in itself a target that is too often missing from much of the debate. The promotion of Ireland as a ‘Green’ food producer needs to move on from the accreditation of business-to-business supply-chains to enhancing the farmer-to-consumer, soil-to-fork message [with honesty and integrity of course]. It has to generate enhanced farm incomes and we [the environmental lobby included] have to show that farming system reforms to meet climate change targets can deliver such for the farming community. It is an objective that currently we are all falling short on.

At present one reads that Ireland is the most carbon-efficient milk producer in the EU and the fifth most efficient beef producer. Just how comprehensive are the studies that support these claims? What underpins them? One suspects that the rationale behind the statistic is the long Irish grass growing season and the ability of cattle to harvest their own feed for longer. In other words, a natural advantage endowed by location has created a differential in terms of lower fossil fuel usage. At least as far as milk is concerned, just where does Ireland stand in terms of its GHG emissions from using nitrogen fertilizers? On that measure it may not be the EU leader. There is a danger of cherry-picking statistics to defend Irish farming and, again, facing the accusation that the industry’s response to climate-change is ‘business as usual’. More needs to be done.

As climate change has come to the fore, one has been asking for farm management information that relates farming practices to emissions. It is needed to facilitate farm management planning. To say it is in short supply is an under-statement. Whilst much has been spent on lobbying over climate change, little appears to have been spent on research to provide farmers with the tools that they need. Instead we have broad-brush policy decisions with respect to GHG emission reductions [largely based on emissions-only evaluations] and little detail to work with.

One cannot deny that there have been some pretty complex models created to establish a baseline for GHG emissions but they do not begin to suggest solutions. And why is the seriousness of the issue for any particular industrial sector dictated by its relative weight within its own national emissions total? Thus in Ireland agriculture and, especially, its cattle are a particular focal point even though the same methodology suggests that Ireland has the lowest carbon footprint for each litre of milk in the EU and one of the lowest for beef. Hence, it is easy to understand the Irish farming industry’s position that it should not have to cut back because all that will do is displace production to less carbon-efficient countries. It is a logical argument to make.

One can see a situation where the ‘debate’ stagnates at a time when it cannot be allowed to do so. It should not end up with imposed regulation on the Irish farming industry driven by fines coming from the EU for failing to meet reduction targets. Simply, we need to change farming practices to reduce the carbon footprint of food even if there is some evidence to suggest that Ireland may be best in class. Although for now one would prefer to see that particular assumption set aside until all possible options to reduce emissions AND sequester carbon are identified and adoption started. Then maybe we can talk about being a global leader in environmentally-positive farming.

A major concern with policy based largely on emissions-only is the danger that vital carbon sequestration practices may be over-looked. It appears that GHG emissions measuring is still only in its infancy and the research base that underpins it is somewhat limited. It is, nevertheless, what we have and we have to run with it. That said, it does have to move on to incorporate carbon sequestration activities. Growing trees is one such activity but there are those around who suggest that the key to reversing global warming is returning carbon / organic matter to our farmed soils.

The French with their 4 into a 1000 scheme have immediately taken the plunge. Have they quickly recognized the importance of rebuilding soil carbon and organic matter in terms of climate change AND long-term food security? It is a scheme that is pro-active. To a degree Ireland’s Origin Green is as it is highlighting efficiency gains to reduce the carbon footprint of its food but there is a difference between being more efficient in terms of resource use and setting about improving soil health and increasing the quantities of carbon secured in the soil [and organic matter levels]. Do the French get it; that it is not just GHG emissions that is at issue here, it is also about soil health and food security?

Hence, should we reset the bar from just reducing emissions to:

  1. reducing overall GHG emissions from Irish agriculture
  2. using farming systems that sequester additional carbon
  3. improve soil health per se and raise its organic matter

There are numerous issues that should be considered in greater detail. The hope is that by so doing a more focused climate-change approach may be developed for Irish farming. We need to move on from just talking about emissions reductions and to take our farming systems beyond efficiency gains. They also need to be ‘designed’ to have lower NET emissions, sequester carbon, improve the health of our soils and provide a viable living for our farming and rural communities.

It should be an approach that avoids any suggestions that the current approach is more marketing than substance. It should also be an approach that transparently links farming practices to food products and promotes such to the food consumer. It should also be an approach that includes climate-change mitigating practices that are recognized as such by the halt-climate-change lobby.

What we cannot continue with is a situation whereby the farming community is told that is has to cut its emissions, period. One has listened to this debate for quite a while now and, to date, one cannot recall many constructive suggestions concerning how this is to be done other than reducing the national herd. Personally, I would not dismiss this if it was accompanied by a clear strategy aimed at increasing the farm-gate value of produce. Ireland needs to shift to value-over-volume but its recent expansion, volume-over-value strategies have been going in the other direction. They are strategies that are in conflict with climate-change targets and, [probably] when investment costs, are factored in, farm incomes as well.

Should we be surprised if the farming community is sceptical about the climate-change lobby if the latter is not putting forward a clear strategy as to how farm incomes are going to be maintained [or preferably improved] whilst emission reductions are made. Given the actual poor state of farm incomes at present, not coming up with some ideas has been a missed opportunity.

To be honest all that the farming community is being given at the moment is the idea that expansion will cut their costs and their emissions per unit. By so doing they will be reducing their carbon footprint per unit and, maybe, increasing their farm incomes [in a commodity-selling environment where they cannot influence their farm-gate price]. If it was not for the total emissions reduction target, where would they be going wrong? If the climate-change lobby finds that farmers are meeting them with intransigence, they should not be surprised; explain to them how their livelihoods will be sustainable in a total-emissions reduction scenario. At present farmers are more likely to think that they are being sacrificed for the greater good.

It is crucial that we remember the farmer’s bottom line. Small-scale farmers need premiumized farm-gate prices and producing products with a full-suite of climate-change mitigation practices should be a way that Irish farm produce is differentiated and premiumized within the market place.

Hence, one would suggest that it is now time we moved on from a war of words to developing concrete policies to support farmers to move to farming systems that are better for their incomes, reduce net GHG emissions, improve soil health and organic matter levels and, thus, ensure the population’s long-term food security. Is that, after all, not what we are all aspiring to?

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ARE SOME COWS NOW MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS?

Having spent much of this Millennium working on investment plans for dairy farming and milk processing, I am used to looking at variations in those that supply the milk. They have included species variables [cows, sheep and water buffalo] and within species variables like breeds of cow, yield intensity, forage and feed sources, organic or not… etc. One becomes adroit at developing the farm management planning data, assessing what the constraints are and identifying what are the most relevant key performance indicators to use. I was lucky I was taught by, and then worked alongside, Professor John Nix, the best farm business specialist we have ever had anywhere, anytime. At Wye we developed the methodology, the systems and provided the data.

As climate change has risen up the agenda, I naturally started asking around for the data that we could work with on farm. If farming is to be constrained [and possibly, heavily] by emissions limitations one assumed that someone somewhere had, post-haste, started researching how these constraints were going to play out on farm. Sadly, it appears that the emissions being attributed to agriculture have been based on some complex models that, all the same, lack any detail when one ‘drills down’. Apparently we are being told that we have to cut our emissions but little to no information to plan with. It is a highly unsatisfactory situation.

The approach at the moment appears to be to tell the farming community to reduce numbers to cut emissions. The general populace is being told to reduce meat and dairy consumption. A few sceptics are asking whether this is the climate-change or anti-animal agricultural lobbies at work. Ultimately, the farmer is left in a void where the only clear conclusion is that this is going to impact upon farm incomes. At present, I should not be writing this, I should be working out the numbers, the data, the information needed to allow the farming community to plan within new climate-change constraints but, alas, we seem to live in an era where resources are devoted to making a noise, to lobbying and not to providing the planning information upon which to identify solutions.

I first hit this issue when I wanted to start working out what cattle-farming systems would provide what farm income in relation to different emission levels. If a [or the] primary constraint on the farm income becomes GHG emissions [or specific GHG gases] we have to shift our KPI to income per that GHG constraint and other KPIs to performance levels in relation to the same constraints. At present, the response is to measure emissions on farm and to reduce the carbon footprint per unit of production. It emphasises ‘traditional’ efficiency gains over any radical climate-change solutions because we just have little else to work with. We are facing some of the greatest pressures ever for our farming and food systems in a void of farm planning information. And nothing much seems to be happening about it. I am not sure if many key players even know there is an issue!

Earlier I tried to classify cows. One knows that there are a myriad of beef production systems around, probably slightly less when it comes to milk production and can we simplify this? I am researching a great deal these days about grass-fed [or is that forage-fed or pasture-fed?] so I thought we could separate cows into those that are raised on a mainly grass/forage based diet and those that are grain-fed. But then again what proportion do we use to qualify for one or the other?

My broad rational was that forage-fed and grain-fed would be having different impacts in terms of GHG emissions. An issue I have been tracking closely [as it is the one that could be the climate-change game changer] is carbon sequestration using ruminant grazing systems so immediately one is asking whether there are different degrees to which a forage-fed cow can emit GHG gases if, critically, emissions AND sequestration is taken into account. Also, does that cow require different grazing practices and sward mixes? And how well do pastures sequester carbon if they are frequently re-sown, treated with high nitrogen fertiliser applications and/or copious quantities of slurry? If the issue is far more about the health of soil micro-organisms than we have considered to-date, how is the subterranean part of the animal kingdom fairing under different grassland management regimes. The word ‘complex’ immediately comes to mind and using a ‘grass-fed’ system itself is far from simple. And have we even really started the research; or is it even too ‘radical’ to be funded?

At the other extreme we have confined cattle systems. Just how reliant are they on local forages? More importantly, when it comes to brought in feeds where are they sourced? These cattle may share the same physiology as their grazing counterparts, but is that where the equality ends?

Confined systems have their defenders. We read about faster growth rates and greater production efficiency using confined systems but is that based on a flawed emissions-only methodology? One also wonders whether we will shortly be basing our farm management planning judgements on how much is produced per unit of animal pharmaceutical so there will be yet more to consider.

With animal farming, the focus is often on plants grown on land cleared from rain forest [soybeans or palm kernel extract] but should we also be asking what has happened to the Argentinian Pampas? Has the growing of soybean [for oil and cake] replaced grass-reared beef? Have we released vast amounts of carbon from these grasslands and put the cattle into beef lots where they are no longer a part of a carbon sequestration system? Is it a double negative? It is just one example of the many issues that we need to consider going forwards.

One of the few definite conclusions that one can draw at the moment is that if there are pasture-based cattle systems out there that have zero [or positive] net emissions surely we need to know what they are; and fast? We can then focus on producing lower net emissions meat and milk; albeit not in isolation of having an eat-less-but-better, animal-products debate.

One does not expect to see the human race give up meat and milk anytime soon. It even appears that the nutrition debate is moving on as questions are raised about the origins of our long-established nutritional guidelines. Where they are going is for the reader to decide as I am not qualified to make any but my own personal judgement. The debate is, however, on-going and as an agri-food sector analyst/strategist, I make it my business to follow what is going on. And, apparently, there may be nutritional differences between cattle reared in different ways.

So here we have another variable. We may be sometime waiting for the ‘science’ on this one as it appears that there are conflicting views in the nutritional world. Will the conservatives, stick with what we have, or radicals win out? Either way it will have consequences for our food producers and our cattle farming systems. It may not make an industry-wide difference in the imminent future but it will make a difference for those few farmers who want to enter the brave new world of directly supplying products to ‘issues-aware’ consumers. Social media will drive change at the periphery; the question is how fast will the oddity become mainstream? And just how fast is ‘grass-fed’ [as per how it is already defined in some countries] exiting the ‘oddity’ category?

Agriculture and food is a fabulously fast moving subject at the moment; at least it is off the island of Ireland where resistance to change appears to be the order of the day. Change creates opportunities and that is the case with cattle farming. But to see them one has to be willing to recognize that all cows are not equal and that one cow in one farming system is rather different from another.

For the farmer, the decisive question is which cow will produce the product that makes she or he the most money and, crucially, can the farmer deliver that product to the consumer that is willing to pay for it. The farmer’s cow may be far from the equal of her neighbour but if she does not have the route to market to reach her consumer, there is little likelihood that her enhanced credentials will benefit her owner. In Ireland it is a particular problem as the too limited, less than dynamic routes to market are effectively ensuring that all Ireland’s cows are indeed equal to each other. It may be a great situation for bovine egalitarianism, but it is a state of affairs that is not going to deliver sustainable farm incomes to Ireland’s small-scale cow keepers.

THE NEXT 35 YEARS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT!

“The next 35 years will be the most important ever in agriculture and that’s why we need to get it right today”, Jack Bobo, Agricultural Science Association, 2016, Kilkenny.

A quote from the ASA conference that I completely agree with. The next three or so decades will be crucial in how we produce food for the global population. The expectation is that population will continue to grow although we may be heading towards a peak. The dynamics of food production will, in all likelihood, change significantly but we do have to lay the foundations now.

The issue is how far are we from a consensus over how to do it? There is a technology lobby that believes that they have the answers; so long as ‘we trust the science’. There is an environmental lobby that believes that it is about applying a different set of technologies [on the basis that all farming is an applied set of technologies] that differ in their environmental impacts. And then there are other interested parties who see food production as a way to generate profits for their shareholders [possibly creating a vested interest that may distort their approach].

Who is right? Should we work on the precautionary approach and delay implementing technologies until we fully understand their implications? Or should we accept that technologies are safe, until proven otherwise? My own observations on how the subject of nutrition is evolving pushes me in the direction of being very precautionary with new technologies; the consequences can be vast if rolled out on a broad scale and/or the implications take years to become evident. It is a complicated environment to work in; not least when someone is suggesting that “we need to get it right today”.

I have been farming since I was a toddler. I have been professionally involved for 35 years now so I have obtained the experience that allows me to make my own judgements. I was actually brought up during the period where we turned towards what one could call ‘chemical farming’ and by a grandfather and his farming staff who were grounded in the pre-chemical days. I have been around long enough to make my own mind up about, for example, the demise of the arable soils of East Anglia; not least because 25 years ago I was already questioning the treatment of our soils as no more than a substrate for carrying water and chemicals and for the plants to stand up in. I feel that time has proven me right on the consequences of that approach.

I have always had a foot in both camps and am now seeing what I think is a swing away from a chemical-dependent agriculture. It is interesting to read mentions of authors of books from pre-1960, a number of which I have long since had in my own library. They are probably going to be invaluable given that for 50 years now we have neglected to research anything other than ‘chemical farming’ technologies. As a result, we are a long-way off the pace when it comes to using farming technologies that are not reliant on artificial fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides….

What are the critical issues of the next 35 years? Climate change is one. We have to reduce emissions from food production and especially those from crops and confined poultry, pigs and cattle. I have deliberately mentioned confined cattle as I believe we need to be looking at pasture-fed cattle as a means of sequestering carbon into soils. Apparently all cattle are not equal when it comes to climate change! We need to be taking soil health very seriously and returning organic matter and life to our soils. It should be very worrying to read another long-term, agricultural hand, Patrick Holden saying simply that our soils are dead. And then we cannot forget the importance of our pollinators [and farmland biodiversity]; we just cannot live without them.

The above is far from a comprehensive list but they are critical issues. To deny that they are is foolish. To suggest that we should be taking a ‘suck-it-and-see’ approach to using agricultural technologies that may further damage them is likewise foolish. I have been talking a lot about post-Brexit farming and food policy recently and it offers the first great opportunity to change farming and food policy thinking. The above critical issues should be nailed to the mast first and we work around them. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to do nothing less.

Beyond these my concern turns to the sustainability of ‘chemical agriculture’. This was the subject of a recent blog but I would reiterate that we have to work within a set of parameters that assume that technologies like plant varieties, antibiotics, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides are all going to come under continuous pressure from Mother Nature and, in all likelihood break down. This should be a fundament that underpins any future farming and food policy thinking.

To put it categorically, we can influence but not control Mother Nature’s actions and that seems to be especially the case when it comes to all sorts of pathogens. Throw into the mix the ‘politics’/regulations surrounding the ‘chemical’ and more ‘science-derived’ technologies and we should be starting from the premise that these do not offer a sustainable solution to food production. If we see them as any more than a partial/supporting solution, we are going to be walking the human race along a tightrope infinitum.

If I was to provide an over-riding guideline for our next 35 years I would say that we need to return farm husbandry to the fore. We need to enter an era whereby we resolve our on-farm fertility and health problems via, first and foremost, the skill of the farmer working with the assets that he or she controls on the farm [even if that means diversifying those assets]. For too long it has been about resorting to off-farm created technologies to resolve on-farm issues. That is not to say that the farmer should not be supported by an array of technologies; it is to return those to a secondary [and not prophylactic] role. The growing resistance of pathogens and weeds to our ‘solutions’ should be sufficient evidence to make this approach undebatable. But it will be debated by some and forcibly so.

A problem that we will have to address is how to reward the farmer for a [yet] greater managerial input; an input that will include managing the farm, managing the risk and ensuring the longevity of the assets that provide global food supplies. Over time, the farmer’s role has been diminished as those who provide the chemical solutions have come to the fore. The desire of the finance world to provide debt and insurance products means that others also want to get involved in providing the assets and taking on the risk; albeit they expect a commensurate reward for doing so. Over time, all have taken their share of the cake to the detriment of farm incomes.

At one end we now see the food chain being dominated by a few and at the other end the supply sector providing the inputs becoming oligopolies. Trading imbalances have become prevalent and the farmer is caught between a rock and a hard place. It is not a satisfactory situation for the person who has to return to the fore-front of providing the global population with a secure food supply. Re-jigging the rewards of the food chain are going to be massive challenge over the next 35 years.

Returning the farmer to the centre of food production is going to be the number one issue for those directing farming and food policy from here on. Too many are going to struggle with the idea that they and their technology may not be the ‘sustainable’ solution for food production. It may still be a part of it but, ultimately, sustainable farming and food production is going to be about employing technologies and techniques that are under the control of the farmer. The next 35 years is about the farmer and everyone else has to accept that they can play no more than second fiddle, period.

WHERE TO NOW FOR ‘CHEMICAL AGRICULTURE’?

From the perspective of the casual observer of agriculture, all may appear relatively quiet. Dig deeper and one begins to understand that farming is heading into an era of profound change. The goalposts are going to be moving fast in the next few years and it is imperative that our decision and policy makers recognize the need to change.

A recent visit to the eastern England highlighted the problem of herbicide-resistant blackgrass; an issue that will be exacerbated should we see a ban on glyphosate. The expansion of the winter bean area was also obvious; a reflection of being unable to use neonicotinoid insecticides. Whilst industry representatives are lobbying to keep controversial pesticides within farming’s armoury, environmental lobbyists are seeking to remove them. We will wait and see who wins.

Without taking a specific position on the above, what one wants to highlight is that a reliance on ‘chemical farming’ techniques is questionable from a sustainable food production perspective.

Yes, some people choose to reject the food thus produced and others will take an environmental position, but one should be asking if ‘chemical farming’ can provide food security for the billions on the planet. It is an interesting question to ask given that those who advocate ‘sustainable intensification’ consider that we have to use the ‘science’ to ensure long-term food supplies.

The rationale behind raising the point is the ‘robustness’ of these technologies. The author spent a few years working on cereal variety evaluation at the UK’s National Institute of Agricultural Botany and what one was aware of was how a variety’s disease resistance tended to decline over time. The plant breeders have been generally pretty successful at renewing resistance via the introduction of new varieties but it was clearly a never-ending battle.

Tillage farming is now facing a triple-pronged attack from organisms’ ability to develop resistance to what science can throw at them, issues-aware campaigners and issues-aware consumers. The latter two may be one and the same. As I often say, it is the consumer that counts so, setting ‘politics’ aside, one has to be mindful of what the consumer wants. We can say ‘trust the science’ but ultimately consumers will decide what they trust in.

The net result is that pesticide [and other chemical agricultural techniques] will be influenced by resistance from the natural world, consumers, lobbyists and, ultimately, regulation. It is a framework of [probably increasing] constraints that farmers will have to work within. And it should also set the direction for research within the industry; albeit one does detect a reluctance to accept such a lead from some within the agricultural research community itself.

Given the widely discussed issue of resistance to antibiotics, the above points about resistance to pesticides should come as no great surprise. For farming it is, however, only a starting point. There are also issues relating to, for example, climate change and water-quality [and use] to consider. These will become increasingly difficult to ignore in the immediate years ahead.

The further into the subject of climate change and farming I get the more concerned I become about policy being developed using emissions-only methodology. For most industries and, indeed, a large part of food production and its supply chains, it is about emissions. There is, nonetheless, a sector of farming that emits AND sequesters carbon. Indeed, there are advocates who say that farming to sequester carbon is the most realistic possibility we have for reversing the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Farming over the centuries has released massive amounts of carbon from our soils and it is to where we have to return it.

Over the last decade or so cattle have been portrayed as the great villain of climate change. They have been vilified based upon their emissions alone. There are those who have seen this as an opportunity to attack livestock farming per se but, setting that aside, the variants of cattle farming have been poorly evaluated within the climate change debate.

In Ireland are some lobby groups too focused on denigrating cattle farming? Do they need to take a pause to evaluate an evolving picture? One can hear some saying that they need to see the refereed papers to persuade them to think again but do those papers even exist? Carbon sequestration via using specific grazing systems is still a ‘Cinderella’ research subject.  Right now, those inside and outside farming need to keep an open mind or the baby may be thrown out with the bathwater. And if that happens, the consequences for our climate may be serious.

One is not saying that cattle farming should be given a ‘get-out-of-jail free card’. It is about assessing different production system [and there are many]. We should be asking what are the net carbon emissions from different systems. For example, what are the emission per unit of meat or milk from confined systems versus grazing-based systems? It is also not just about grazed systems as there are likely to be major differences between alternatives. Also, we should be asking why is this work still on the periphery when to some of us it seems so crucial?

Within an Irish context, do we need to be asking more questions about the use of nitrogen fertilizers in terms of GHG emissions? The dairy sector is a major importer of artificial nitrogen and is highly dependent on it. Should there be a switch to multi-species swards and legumes to reduce this dependence? Could a diverse, herb-rich sward also improve animal health? There are many questions that need answering and urgently.

And they need answering in the context of soil biology and soil health. Just how is the soil’s micro-fauna impacted by high levels of artificial nitrogen fertilizers and/or slurry? To what degree will change benefit soils [the ‘new’ concern in terms of sustainable food production and carbon sequestration?]. Overall, how could such changes impact upon farm income?

It is interesting to read about grazing practices being developed in the USA and elsewhere. This is not new work [some of it is pre- ‘chemical farming’] but it is coming to the fore as its advocates begin to explain that certain grazing practices sequester carbon. The ultimate objective is to operate cattle systems that have negative emissions [they sequester more carbon than they emit]. If this is possible it should bring about a momentous change in how we look at cattle farming systems; or at least some of them.

In Ireland there needs to be a better defence of cattle farming. It is not about lobbying as much as bringing together the evidence to show that some cattle farming systems can sequester more than they emit [and there is also the role of landscape management by cattle and sheep farming].

We need to know what is what as, for example, we may find that replacing suckler beef with trees [based partly upon a farm income argument] may not offer the best overall solution. It may be that the long-term, on-going sequestration potential of the right beef farming systems is greater than the carbon-storage potential of fast-growing forestry. It may be necessary to ask which locks up carbon into the distant future best. And one should also add that suckler beef farming has, to-date, been poorly developed from a product and market perspective.

Origin Green is Ireland’s flagship, sustainability quality-assurance scheme. It is said to be a World first. As a result, it may be ahead of its time; and ahead of the carbon-farming knowledge base. As a consequence, has it been developed at a time when measuring emissions was the be all and end all of the story? Thus it is about measuring emissions and improving farming efficiency to lower the carbon footprint per unit of production.

An emissions-based measurement system is all very good as far as it goes but how much stronger would it be if it was based upon an evaluation of different cattle farming systems in terms of their carbon emissions and how they sequester carbon. Given the potential importance of cattle farming around the World for carbon sequestration, the building of soil organic matter [to improve ‘run-down’ soils] and land restoration [often resulting from poor grazing practices], we must have evaluation methods that quantify the plusses and the minuses.

In fairness, we now need to see major steps forward in terms of carbon-farming systems research. If Ireland moves ahead with this work rapidly and implements the necessary changes on the ground, then Ireland can claim to be a true e world leader in terms of using climate-change-mitigating, sustainable-farming practices.

Further issues that are being highlighted by my research relate to our nutrition and whether beef and dairy products are as bad for us as we have been led to believe. Potentially, it may be that herbage-fed products are better for us that grain-fed. There is also more research to be done into what are truly environmentally-sound protein sources. There are major sustainable question marks over palm oil. Likewise, soybean given that Pampas and rainforest land is now used for soybean. Soybean is about the edible oil and animal feeds so we need to be asking about the growing of crops for confined populations of poultry, pigs and cattle. It may be that grass-based farming is a shining light even though cattle per se has drawn massive recent criticism.

To come back to East Anglia, we were talking about controlling herbicide resistant blackgrass and a return to the plough was mooted for those using minimum tillage [which is advocated to reduce carbon emissions from tillage land]. It shows the complications farmers face when trying to control weeds [mechanically vs herbicides] to maintain yields and minimize carbon loss from soils.

I spent a morning with Jeff Claydon of Claydon Drills and for blackgrass his current min-till approach is to use a straw harrow [using low rates of diesel per hectare] to ‘tickle the very top’ to stimulate blackgrass seed germination and to get blackgrass control that way. Apparently, it also helps to control slugs. It does, however, hinder the use of cover crops to minimize carbon loss to the atmosphere. There may be solutions to issues like blackgrass herbicide-resistance but how much do we know about these options in terms of their various carbon implications? It is just one of many issue that has to be considered in terms of food security, the use of ‘chemical’ and ‘non-chemical’ farming, carbon release to the atmosphere and farm incomes.

[note: Jeff Claydon is a minimum tillage advocate who has been working with min-till for 15 years on his home farm and one would also say that judging by the smell of the soil, the techniques they are using are beneficial to the life within their soils.]

A problem with our reliance on ‘chemical farming’ is that many issues are ‘hitting the fan’ and we do not have the research-generated alternative solutions. There is a research base that has its origins with our organic farming colleagues but otherwise we are entering an era of what will have to be common-sense based ‘improvisation’. It should not be the case. It is a consequence of our research becoming too narrowly focused.

The upcoming era will also bring to the fore ‘husbandry’ as opposed to ‘going to the can’ for a solution as resistance to chemical rises. Soil health may also limit ‘going to the bag’ as an option for mitigating declines in natural soil fertility. Agricultural input costs may limit the use of both. For farm managers, there are interesting times ahead.

An idea that got thrown into the mix was whether the best approach to controlling resistant blackgrass was to go back to rotational grass leys. It is a reflection of how difficult the problem of blackgrass is [and the loss of oilseed rape as a break crop] that the idea met with agreement. To bring back livestock into a region now devoid of them is, nonetheless, a major challenge; not least because of a need for housing for both animals and people [the latter being a massive planning issue]. At least in Ireland, farming still maintains its smaller farming structure and housing stock. Such a solution also brings about a question of overall land use. For example, if we bring grazing back onto tillage farms will we have sufficient land for producing biofuels?

If one is looking to rebuild soil organic matter [some say that they are now critically low in eastern England] and thus returning carbon to the soil, is such a major change in farming that radical? Still it would be a profound change of direction from the one followed for the last 50 years, with ‘chemical farming’ to the fore. We will not be ditching ‘chemical farming’ anytime soon but we will need to become less reliant on it. More robust and sustainable farming will be more about ‘husbandry’ but it will be no less innovative for that.

Irish farming has different issues from Eastern England but it will also need to look to husbandry and to reduce any over reliance it has on ‘chemical farming’ solutions. From a farming perspective the rationale will be similar to that given above. It will also be because consumers of Irish food products will demand food products that are sustainable from climate change, environmental and ethical perspectives. The issues-aware lobbyists will also have their say. One just hopes that within this melange of issues, maintaining and improving farm incomes is not forgotten. After all, to be sustainable it all has to be sustainable.