Category Archives: Grass-fed farming systems

A Centre of Excellence for Quality-Indicated Products

Ireland desires to be a ‘food island’ but for a country with such aspirations it has woefully few European Union- registered designated-origin products. It may appear to be an anomaly but it is a well-founded one as the Irish agri-food industry apparently believes that premium products are created within a factory environment from farm-produced raw materials. An approach that simply restricts the premiumization of the product. Its products can be clever but they will never be recognized alongside the premium products of, say, France and Italy.

The rationale behind the establishment of The Centre of Excellence for Quality-Indicated Products [CEQUIP] is that for Ireland to make the transition to a premium-products food producer, it must first create the products that can achieve high market status. Traceability, in terms of origin and production methods, is absolutely critical. It must, however, go far beyond auditing farms; it must change both production and processing practices.

The products CEQUIP will work with will have their roots in the soil. In France, the highest quality products come from their ‘terroir’ and it is a characteristic that will be required of any food product from anywhere which aspires to being recognized as premium. Good food products may originate from within the factory environment and be manufactured using ‘ingredients’ but premium products will have origins traceable back to the land.

On a similar note, we live in times where ‘innovation’ is the buzz word in the food industry. It is being thrust upon the farming industry as incomes decline and further adoption of ‘technology’ is advocated as the solution. We, however, question whether the technologies of the last half a century have really delivered enhanced incomes to farm households and rural communities. In this light, whilst appreciating that innovation and technology has a role in farming and food production, innovation must be about creating products that are firmly linked to farming practices and produced within the local community. It may be considered ‘retro’ thinking but so be it.

This initiative comes at a time when farm incomes lurch from one crisis to another. It also comes at a time when the farming to food industry is being asked to minimize its impact upon the climate and our natural resources. Amongst the latter are the animals we rear and manage. Thankfully soil health and fertility is rising the agenda fast but we still overlook the welfare of our very food producers and the communities in which they live. We must produce food in fashion that rewards farmers for their time and effort and the use of the assets they own.

The objective of CEQUIP is to address the issues surrounding today’s food production. It may appear to focus on premium products for wealthy people but that is rationalized by saying that Ireland is characterized by small-scale, family-farming-based food producers working in a high-cost economy.  That said, the focus of CEQUIP is to encourage the production of high-quality, nutritious foods that are produced in a way that has a minimal impact upon the Planet and its finite resources. By some, we may be criticised for promoting farming practices that are seen as contradictory to this aim but we believe that those behind CEQUIP are at the forefront of a new agricultural revolution that will deliver both food security and climate-change mitigation.

For several years, we have researched the various designated-origin schemes used around Europe and further afield. Whilst we are aware of the official EU schemes, we do not feel that it is necessary to seek such recognition in the first instance. We consider that it is better to design and implement our own schemes first and only when they are well established to apply, if appropriate, for official recognition. This will allow greater flexibility at the design stage and allow the development of Irish solutions for Irish farming and food situations. It is also not just about developing Protected Geographic Indicators, it is about developing more in-depth schemes that go well beyond locality to include specific farming husbandry practices and food processing techniques. For these we will be investigating the way these are done in countries like France, Italy, Austria, Spain, the UK and the USA. Our plan is to now start by developing a multi-tiered, quality and origin scheme for suckler-reared Irish beef.

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THE OTHER CLIMATE-CHANGE THREAT TO IRISH FARMING

In what I expect to be a fast-moving food world in the coming decade, thinking creatively is critical. On the other hand, a prevailing ‘group think’ may be highly destructive.

I am closely watching the evolving debate over climate change and cattle farming; not least because cattle have been branded using emissions-based assessments of food production as the arch criminal. In recent weeks, I have written three posts on the subject: ‘Are some cows now more equal than others?’, ‘Let us all just blame the poor old cow’ and ‘Climate change – thinking beyond the emissions’. It may be wishful, but I think I am beginning to see an awareness that not all cows [cattle-farming systems] are equal when it comes to climate change.

Ireland sees itself as a front runner in low carbon-footprint farming. The country’s mainly grass-based systems have conferred an advantage that places its emissions per unit of beef or milk as some of the lowest around. It is seeking to reduce this further through increasing the productive efficiency of its beef and dairy farming. The term ‘sustainable’ is a core part of how the country projects a green image to the World.

So, Ireland is a first mover when it comes to reducing carbon emissions from its agriculture. Is there, nevertheless, a disadvantage from being a leader when the knowledge base is still evolving? So far it is all about emissions and reducing those is a strategic [and marketing] focus of the Irish agri-food industry. The question is; will it be about emissions per se or will it become about net emissions? It may happen once cattle and pasture management is fully recognized as the key to lowering atmospheric carbon levels and reversing climate change.

If this is going to be the case, will the environmental champions be those who are deploying pasture management systems that sequester most carbon? Will it be about zero or negative carbon emission production? And will this later entry to the green field surpass Ireland’s efficiency-focused approach to beef and milk production? Not least if one considers Ireland’s reliance on imported nitrogen fertilizers, less than biodiverse swards and its infrequent use of clovers [let alone other legumes]. Some in Ireland may consider that the country is currently a leader in ‘sustainable’, low-emissions livestock farming but it must not rest on its laurels.

This is also a marketing issue as much of what I read emanates from the USA; oft seen as a key premium export market. The USA already has a clear definition of what is ‘grass-fed’. It must be forage-based and reared outdoors all year [traditional ranching]. It is about marketing because Ireland must produce the product to meet the rules. It cannot operate its usual produce-it-first-and-label-it-second, supply-driven approach. As consumer awareness of the role of pasture management in restoring North America’s historical grasslands grows, one can see that selling loosely labelled as ‘grass-fed’ products will become harder in the USA, not easier.

An interesting point that I frequently come across is that some of the atmospheric carbon rise has been due to tillage farming. Over the last 150 years or so carbon has been released from grasslands that have been ploughed for cropping. One also reads about how dramatically soil organic matter levels have fallen in arable [often former grasslands] soils from on-going tillage farming. Is this, along with fossil fuel burning, the primary cause of rises in atmospheric carbon?

From what one reads one could be forgiven for thinking that it is all down to cattle. In terms of the total atmospheric carbon increase, cattle may not be the victims of an injustice. Their role may be far less than we have been told and they may have only played a part since we stopped grazing cattle and started keeping them in feed lots and feeding them grain.

There is another potential unforeseen consequence for Ireland in the above.

What if returning carbon to arable soils becomes the climate-change solution?

And what if this happens in tandem with using cattle to restore arid grasslands?

And will the green ‘brownie’ points go to those who farm to sequester carbon?

Importantly, what will the consumer perceive to be ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’? We could have a new set of rules. Ireland’s tweaking of its farming systems may then be in sufficient to win over the consumer. As these issues rise in significance [as I believe they will] it will take more than good salesmanship to premiumize your product with green credentials; it will require more radical farming systems changes from the bottom up.

This is a consumer-facing issue. It is about who wins market share in the premium ‘ethical’ markets. It is, nevertheless, not the whole story. Just what will happen to the supply side of beef [particularly] and dairy markets if cattle farming is reintegrated with tillage farming?

Further, what will the implications be for beef and milk production economics if society chooses to support farms that sequester carbon back into the soils whence it came? Are the French with their 4-in-a-1000 scheme already on their way down that road?

Ireland with its preponderance of grasslands may not have contributed to tillage-released carbon over the decades and, thus, it may not benefit from incentives to sequester carbon into soils to the same degree as those with significantly larger tillage areas. It may appear an unfair way of looking at the subject but then is life fair?

Ireland may now be a leader in low-emissions beef and milk production but this may not be enough to capture issues-aware markets in the future. It may have to do a whole lot more when the wider populace realizes that it must prioritize carbon sequestration and the using of pasture management to return carbon back into the World’s arable soils. Do we even have a choice?

‘LEGUME-FED’, ‘HERBAGE-FED’ OR JUST ‘GRASS-FED’?

Much is spoken and written about ‘grass-fed’ in Ireland? But how is/will the label be used?

Will ‘grass-fed’ be a characteristic of well-defined, linked-to-farming, designated-origin products or will it be a generic term used to promote all Irish meat and dairy? One expects the latter. And if so, will it meet consumer expectations when others use the term in a more defined way?

Crucially, will an all-encompassing ‘grass-fed’ label raise consumer perceptions to an extent that translates into a positive impact on farm-gate prices and farm incomes? Or will generic ‘grass-fed’ fall foul of strict definition rules or be replaced with labels like ‘pasture-fed’?

I recently visited a dairy farm eastern England. It had thirty-something Guernseys and added value to all its milk. Everything was sold directly to the consumer. It also used lucerne [alfalfa] as its primary forage. It is suited to drier tillage regions and it is a legume. Is it a sign of what we may see across Europe’s tillage regions?

If I was advising a tillage farmer I would be talking about reintegrating livestock back into the farming system. The reasons include improving soil health, raising organic matter levels, carbon sequestration, blackgrass control, fixing nitrogen and income diversity. It will become an increasingly compelling story and one that will change the supply side of milk and meat.

Although it is not a catchy label, I can see ‘legume-fed’, being a part of a broader ‘sustainable’ product story. As a development from ‘grass-fed’ and ‘legume-fed’, how about ‘herbage-fed’? The term ‘herbage’ encompasses many forages types and suggests biodiversity [trendy for the consumer]. ‘Herbage-fed’ then needs to be part of a holistic, designated-origin story that wraps itself around a multi-characteristic consumer-facing product.

Does ‘herbage-fed’ influence the eating experience associated with the product? Does the flavour relates to what the animal eats? From my experiences eating lamb from the biodiverse pastures in Transylvania, I would say that it does. For something closer to home, try Achill Mountain Lamb [www.AchillLamb.ie]. Or just ask a chef. Will they say that there is a link between pasture and flavour? Why else are so many French products tied to the ‘terroir’? Charolais beef, for example, reared under its home designated-origin scheme must be finished on specified, biodiverse pastures.

Irish Beef’s UK website makes the bold statement; “the flavour shows where the best grass grows”. But just how biodiverse is the typical Irish meadow, especially when reseeded with ryegrass and raised up on artificial nitrogen? There is a great variability in Ireland’s grasslands and can it weaken the genereic Irish beef story? Variability is the antithesis of what is required by the Bœuf de Charolles appellation d’origine contrôlée [AOC] scheme in France.

It is also interesting to read that Irish cattle “boast a world-renowned pedigree”. That said, cross-breeding of the beef animal itself is the norm. By contrast, the French AOC schemes are usually breed specific; not least because that restricts supply and scarcity maintains price [a point that the ICSA has now grasped]. Sire-only breed schemes fail on this point. It is difficult not to conclude that the promotion of Irish beef is about talking-up the generic [‘grass-fed’ included] as opposed to beef products linked to specific breeds, locations and farming practices.

By and large, Ireland’s farmers operate in a business-to-business [B2B] environment. They supply processors and factories and do not sell direct B2C [business to consumer]. The B2B mindset pervades the farming and primary [the largely farmer-owned part] processing industry. It is about raw materials [aka commodities] and ingredients for others to process, to add value and to brand. In such an environment significantly improving farm incomes by adding value to premiumize the farm-gate price is near impossible. The value-added attributed to the final consumer-facing product tends to go elsewhere.

A quality assurance scheme has been rolled out over the last few years. In terms of farming participation, it is successful. In terms of consumer awareness in Ireland, it is successful. But does it return a premium price to the farmer?

For exports, is the QA scheme about B2B relations? Does it allow ingredient users and fast-food chains to tick the sustainability box? Does it allow major retailers to put on their label “produced on quality-assured farms”? Is it about ‘quality’ or ‘farm assurance’?

Does the QA scheme elevate the product onto a higher retail shelf? Does it even do so in Ireland? Or is the QA scheme logo found on products across the quality ranges from budget to premium? Are they all quality assured? If so, can there be a QA price premium? Or are we confusing ‘quality-assurance’ [as in QA systems] with ‘quality’ [as in eating quality]?

Should one have similar expectations for Origin Green? Is it a B2B or a B2C scheme? Is it aimed at raising the level of all Irish produce? Is the aim to help the farmer by enhancing export volumes? And will that translate into consumer-derived, farm-gate-price premiumization?

Ireland is successful at developing B2B QA schemes and it may be leading the World in doing so. But does the Irish family farm actually need to be the foundation stone for B2C, designated-origin, linked-to-farming-practices, eating-experience-enhancing products that can achieve market premiums that translate through to premiumized, farm-gate prices?

To come full circle, in Ireland, is the ‘grass-fed’ term about raising the profile of generic produce? As with the QA schemes is ‘grass-fed’ to be all inclusive? Is it again about ‘premiumizing’ commodities? Is it be about enhancing B2B relationships rather than creating the B2C relationships [and premium products] that the farmer needs?

To put it simply, to create a sustainable future for itself, Irish farming needs to move on from the B2B-only environment into a B2C environment. It is, however, the biggest challenge faced by Irish farming since the Emergency; not least because it has yet to begin the process. It has not even arrived at the racecourse let alone began to run the race.

LET US ALL JUST BLAME THE POOR OLD COW

There was a time before the days of widespread dietary guidelines where people started the day not on muesli and skimmed milk but on pig fat and onion. It was a time when a skinny latte was not even a twinkle in someone’s eye. It was an era of cooking with dripping and lard and when we made steam puddings with beef suet as nobody had even dreamt of offering a palm and sunflower-oil based vegetarian suet. It was when ice cream contained dairy fats and not palm or coconut oil. Yes, as shocking as it sounds, those days did exist.

All this began to change when it was concluded that saturated fats were bad for you. Apparently, those of animal origin were worse. The consequence was that many of us grew up being told butter was bad and margarine was good and we should select the low-fat or zero-fat dairy option whenever possible. For years, the nutritional advice was to eat less fat and to replace the energy supplied from the fats with carbohydrates. It appears that times are now changing and some of the fats are being rehabilitated. At the same time, we are beginning to ask if eating too many carbohydrates and, especially, sugar may have significant and [apparently] unforeseen health consequences. Important as this evolving and controversial story is it is not the focus of this article.

To the best of my knowledge, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s as animal fats became ‘unfashionable’ the food industry had to identify alternatives. Thus, the emergence of trans fats [(from Wikipedia): Trans fats… are a type of unsaturated fats that are uncommon in nature but became commonly produced industrially from vegetable fats for use in margarine, snack food, packaged baked goods and frying fast food starting in the 1950s… Trans fat has been shown to consistently be associated… with increased risk of coronary heart disease]. As with animal fats, trans fats eventually fell by the wayside leaving the food industry hunting around for another option to use within so very many food products. Palm oil has proven to be that alternative.

It is safe to say that two major beneficiaries of the dietary changes that have seen animal fats replaced with vegetable fats have been soybean oil and, later, palm oil. Setting the nutritional issues aside, these changes have not been totally benign from an environmental perspective. The expansion in soybean and oil palm has had consequences but ones that rarely get mentioned at a time when ruminants [especially cattle] get such a bad press from the climate change lobby [see my earlier post, ‘Are some cows now more equal than others?’].

Soybean is a major source of vegetable oil. The soybean is ‘dual-purpose’ but, historically, two-thirds of its value [ref. soymeal.org] comes from soybean cake [thus it is often referred to as a protein (for animal feed) crop]. For reference [soymeal.org], about 17.5% of the bean is extracted as oil and 80% as meal. Consequently, a greater emphasis is placed on the use of soymeal for poultry, pigs and cattle rather than oil even though soybean oil production has risen from nearly 16 million tonnes in 1990 to nearly 43 million tonnes in 2014 [FAO]. The emphasis on meal is why meat and dairy production is often seen as resource-hungry and a major problem with respect to climate change. Apart from years of nutritional advice that favoured vegetable over animal fats, animal fats are now often believed to be bad for the environment and our climate.

A great deal of importance is placed upon cattle and climate change so one would expect that most soybean meal was fed to cattle. Usage in the USA is, however, estimated as “approximately 48% of the soybean meal is used in poultry feeds followed by 26% in swine feeds, 12% in beef cattle feeds, 9% in dairy cattle feeds, 3% in fish feeds, and 2% in pet foods” [Cromwell in soymeal.org]. The figures highlight just how much soybean is actually used for poultry and pig feed.

Are the climate-change concerns about soybean meal use in cattle because they are less efficient converters of the meal into human-consumable protein than intensively-reared, confined poultry and pigs? One would of course like to see the question answered in terms of cattle that are predominately herbage-fed and those that are grain-fed [the research may be out there but the author has yet to find it]. As stated earlier, all cattle are not equal and especially if one considers their possible role in carbon-sequestration and grasslands regeneration. Meanwhile is sufficient scrutiny being placed upon pigs and poultry?

Poultry as a white meat is often promoted as the healthier option but is it, if the usage of soybean meal in the USA is typical of wider global usage, also the environmentally-friendly choice?

To quote the World Wildlife Fund [panda.org], “unfortunately, the expansion of soy to feed the world’s growing demand for meat often contributes to deforestation and the loss of other valuable ecosystems in Latin America… in South America, almost 4 million hectares of forests are destroyed every year, 2.6 million of them in Brazil alone… [it] can largely be blamed on heavily soy-dependent livestock farming… limiting consumption of animal-based food products, particularly meat, is one thing people can do to help end this devastating trend”.

To add some background, using the FAO production figures [which date back to 1961], the global area devoted to soybeans was nearly 24 million hectares in 1961. By 2014 it had risen to nearly 118 million. Over this period Argentinian production has risen from 1,000 to 19¼ million hectares, Brazil from 240,000 to 30¼ million and the USA from 11 million to over 33½ million. Therefore, one can also see that Argentina has seen a massive expansion; presumably at the expense of its Pampas grasslands rather than rainforest [and thus it does not attract the same attention]. If, however, one considers that carbon loss from grassland converted to tillage as a major source of atmospheric carbon, how great has the impact of Argentinian soybean expansion been? And is the loss of carbon-sequestering, pasture-based cattle-farming only made it worse?

Who buys soybeans or its meal? In 2013 World trade in soybeans was 103 million tonnes [USA exports accounted for 38%, Brazil 42% and Argentina 8% [the latter processes most of its beans)]. Of this nearly 60% goes to China [which processes beans rather than imports meal and oil]. Some 62 million tonnes [FAO] of soymeal was traded internationally of which nearly 25 million [40%] was imported into the EU. Argentinian exports accounted for 35% of global trade, Brazil 21% and the USA 12% [FAO]. For reference, Argentina is 100% GMO, the USA 93% and Brazil 92% [GMO Compass].

What would be interesting to know is what proportion of soymeal imported into the EU was used for poultry, pig and cattle [dairy and beef] feed. In the context of EU imports, Ireland is a relatively small importer of soymeal. In 2013 it imported about 415,000 tonnes [FAO]. By 2015 [CSO] this had risen to nearly 450,000 tonnes of which about two-thirds came from Argentina. For what is it used?

As highlighted earlier there are environmental issues around land use for soybeans in South America. For some food consumer and those in the supply-chains that provide for them there are also other issues with soya; namely the use of GMOs and the associated use of the glyphosate herbicide. Whatever farmers and scientists think about these technologies; the situation is that many consumers [often premium-paying] are concerned about their use and are willing to pay to avoid them. The question for a country like Ireland that aspires to be a premium foods producer is, does it wish to take account of these consumer preferences or not?

A while ago I read an article from the USA that asked whether Irish butter was GM-free. It may be promoted as grass-fed but is it also produced without the use of GM feeds [i.e. soybean meal]? When one reads about UK and German supermarkets looking at only stocking livestock products from animals that are fed GM-free diets, the GM-issue should be of major concern to Ireland. Is there a correlation between Ireland’s target markets for, for example, developing the Kerrygold brand and consumers who wish to eat a GM-free diet? One can believe that these consumers are poorly informed but can you create a sustainable business by ignoring the wishes of your target consumer?

To return specifically to soybean meal usage, should we be looking at our consumption of poultry meat more than we are? Chickens bred for intensive, confined systems grow at an incredible rate. Are they fuelled by protein-rich diets to do so? Are we consuming vast amounts of soymeal to feed our desire for cheap chicken-derived protein? And should we also be considering the broader issues like bird welfare and antibiotic use? If one compares chicken-based protein with that from grass-fed, largely free-range, cattle production, are we targeting the wrong protein producing systems?

Another major protein feed imported into Ireland is palm kernel extract [PKE]. This is the reside left after extracting the oil from the palm kernel. The palm kernel itself being the minor proportion of the palm fruit [from which most the palm oils is derived]. In this case PKE is the by-product of producing palm oil. Its availability has, nonetheless, increased significantly in recent years as the demand for palm oil by the food industry [as trans fats usage has declined] has risen.

In 1961 the global palm oil area was 3.5 million hectares [FAO]. By 1990 this had risen to 6.1 million hectares. It exceeded 10 million hectares by 2000 and over 18.5 million in 2014. In 1990 palm oil production was about 11½ million tonnes. By 2014 it was nearly 54½ million. Palm oil has seen a recent and dramatic increase in usage and it is one that is driven by the demand for palm oil as a vegetable-fat. It is probably the greatest development resulting from the substitution of animal fats by vegetable fats in the human diet [a consequence of decades of nutritional guidelines]. The question is, has this change been a benign one for our environment and our climate?

To say that there is concern about deforestation in regions like South-East Asia due to the expansion of oil palm is an understatement. Not only is there the carbon emissions from forest clearance itself but there are the issues of habitat loss and species extinction. There are now sustainable palm oil initiatives but are they doing more than scratching the surface? And our demand for palm oil seems to be insatiable and it has major environmental costs. Is it a cost that can be traced back to our nutritional-guidelines-driven switch to vegetable from animal fats [with an intervening digression into trans-fats along the way]? Is it an unforeseen but costly consequence?

It was only a few weeks ago that Professor Keith Woodford [Lincoln University] raised the issue in his blog of PKE usage in New Zealand. The country’s dairy industry has taken massive advantage of the increasing availability pf PKE in its wider geographic region. In 2000 New Zealand imported 539 tonnes of PKE [FAO]. By 2013 this had risen to 1.6 million tonnes! Ireland, by contrast, imported an eighth of the quantity in 2013. Now PKE is a genuine by-product of palm-oil production [simply nobody would grow oil palms for animal feeds, the yields are just far, far too low] but that aside, Professor Woodford still considers it necessary for New Zealand to look at how it can protect its grass-fed, sustainable image from being undermined by its use of a potentially ‘toxic’ [from an environmental image perspective] imported animal feed. Ireland needs to watch this space.

Here I have highlighted issues surrounding two sources of animal protein feeds; both have environmental question marks. One would strongly recommend that, in the context of promoting Ireland as a sustainable, green premium-foods producer, their sourcing is reviewed. It is a review that should also be taken further in terms of animal feed imports; the overall tonnage is not limited to circa a million tonnes of proteins as [in 2015] a similar tonnage of food processing by-products was also imported. And then there was nearly another million tonnes of maize… Ireland’s livestock farming is highly import dependent in terms of feeds, fertilisers and fuels and it could have implications when it comes to selling the country’s green, sustainable image. One accepts that Irish farming, with its limited land resources, needs to import what it cannot produce but it is important to ensure that the input supply chains are also verified as ‘sustainable’.

There looks to be several positives appearing concerning cattle farming at present; albeit for cattle farmed in a certain way. There is a lot of talk of ‘grass-fed’ but, as stated in a previous blog, it will become insufficient to be selling products that are loosely-defined as ‘grass-fed’. There is also the Omega 3 / Omega 6 issue that favours grass-fed over grain-fed. And then there are farmers who are working on grassland management techniques focused on sequestering carbon. And there are researchers and practitioners who belief that it is possible to use cattle to regenerate ancient grasslands and restore arid areas. The author believes that the coming years will reveal that cattle farming is not all bad, far from it. It is just that we must be selective about how we farm cattle and, many people say, some societies must eat less meat per se. They must simultaneously place a greater value on meat itself.

Having started by writing about nutrition, I will come full circle and mention the current ‘rehabilitation’ of the animal fats. At least it has happening for some, if not others. It is now, at least, a point of controversy. I would recommend reading ‘Big Fat Surprise’ by Nina Teicholz; it takes to task many decades of what has become the conventional thinking on nutrition. It asks just how far reaching have been the health implication of those guidelines and our replacement of animal fats with vegetable fats and fats with carbohydrates. I cannot adequately summarize here what Nina Teicholz has to say, but for anyone with interests in the production of grass [herbage is a better descriptor] -fed meat and dairy products, it should be obligatory reading.

Further, I would add to the obligatory reading list ‘Defending Beef’ by Nicolette Hahn Niman and ‘Grass-fed Nation’ by Graham Harvey. For herbage-focused farmers they are a triumvirate of books when it comes to creating a vision for the future. By reading them together, one can see how nutritional guidelines have impacted upon the health of whole nations and massively influenced the direction of the farming and food industries.

When supported by rising consumer wealth, the nutritional guidelines have had environmental consequences as we have used soybeans to fuel the growth of, in particular, poultry meat production and palm oil to provide for the needs of a food industry in a post-trans-fats era. They have also impacted upon animal welfare and especially bird welfare as we have switched to white from red meat. These are consequences that are often go unmentioned; they are extrapolations of my own and they come from joining the dots of what is a complicated issue. They are, however, issues that herbage-focused farmers need to understand when everyone appears to be blaming the poor old cow.

is not saying that cattle production does not have its issues. Should we be eating so much cheap beef? Maybe we should be eating more pulses directly rather than converting them into proteins via farmed livestock? Maybe we should be asking ourselves more rigorous questions over the merits of confined versus free-range livestock farming. And, although I have highlighted, the environmental consequences of soybean and palm oil production, we should not ignore the impact of cattle farming on, for example, water quality or carbon emissions in general. And we should be asking ourselves just how resource hungry is grass-based farming when it is reliant on man-made fertilizers rather than nitrogen fixed by legumes. Everything is not rosy in the garden, but it is also not as weed-infested as some would like us to believe.

opportunities that changing thinking on nutrition could be immense for Ireland’s ruminant-based agriculture. They will, nonetheless, not be realized by believing that a generic-Irish, slap-a-sticker-on-it, sell-what-we-have approach will work. It is not what will convince the target consumer to pay the premium necessary to allow the structure of the Irish farming industry to remain. As I often state, for that to happen we need to see a premiumized farm-gate price. That could happen given that premium-paying consumers are going to increasingly demand credible traceability and a fuller understanding of the farming system behind the product [and providing them with anything less will risk another ‘horse-gate’]. The foundations of that credibility must be created on the farm with farmers making the changes necessary to deliver on what the consumer aspires to. And when one views it from such a perspective one also realizes that the opportunities can benefit the farmer; that is if they are their leadership are willing to go out and grasp them before others do.

HAS ‘GRASS-FED’ GONE BEYOND ITS ‘BEST BEFORE’ DATE?

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about ‘grass-fed the American way’; or more specifically about how ‘grass-fed’ is defined by the USDA and American Grass-fed Association {AGA}. The term ‘grass-fed’ has, in the USA, already been specifically defined. This did not, however, stop a great deal of talk this side of the Atlantic about how Ireland was going to sell a vast tonnage of ‘grass-fed’ beef into a newly opening US market. It was as if the definition in use in the USA did not matter.

Now it appears that ‘grass-fed’ is a label that is on the up in the USA. AGA is not alone in having established a grass-fed label. These labels [as with the USDA definition] come with protocols and standards [something that appears to be absent when it comes to the sales-promotional use of ‘grass-fed’ in Ireland]. Should one expect, at some point in time, that the organisations promoting grass-fed brands will defend their intellectual property through any legal avenues open to them? When/if it happens will the days of ‘grass-fed’ being easy-to-band-about sales patter be over? Is it realistic to suggest that its use as such for beef, lamb and dairy products may already be nearing its ‘best before’ or even its ‘use-by’ date?

And one should not consider that these developments are peculiar to the USA. ‘Grass-fed’ as in ‘pasture-fed’ has already been defined in the UK. It is interesting that in the UK they have already chosen to use an alternative to ‘grass-fed. Over use and the rigour associated with the term ‘grass-fed’ may be a reason for using the alternative ‘pasture-fed’ term. If so, it was a wise choice. If one is going to develop the standards and protocols behind a designated-origin, proven-provenance label, why start out by using a term that is already being widely used and one that is not defined by specific farm-husbandry practices encapsulated within a designated-origin scheme.

Creating ‘grass-fed’ products is not only happening in the USA and the UK as one hears of initiatives in, for example, Australia and New Zealand. One should also expect them to happen in countries that are renown for beef and have a history of grazing extensive grasslands. Amongst these one may find the former communist countries of Eastern Europe [and some may be well placed to take advantage of premium markets in countries like Germany (not least because they may utilize German investment)]. The author well knows the grasslands of Transylvania [God’s own country when it comes to cattle] and they have a history of being farmed by ethnic Germans and Hungarians and supplying the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its armies with horses and cattle. And then one reads about 135,000 suckler cows in one single operation in Russia.

Suckler cows and Aberdeen Angus may be common to many of these ‘grass-fed systems. Of course, one can argue that many of these locations do not have Ireland’s long grass-growing seasons but then again they will have scale in their favour [and often much lower land costs]. Locations like Transylvania are also where lucerne/alfalfa and other legumes thrive. Just how does the economics add up when these can provide low-cost winter forages? The numbers are somewhat different when the forage-based system is not built upon ryegrass and nitrogen fertilizers. Does Ireland really have that great a cost advantage or, for that matter, lower per unit climate-change-linked emissions? The whole grass-fed, pasture-fed, forage-fed issue is a rapidly evolving one and it is not one that can be addressed by simplistically attaching the term ‘grass-fed’ to your products.

So what Is Ireland up to? Is it now running around the globe trying to open ‘premium’ markets for its ‘grass-fed’ beef? Is it ignoring what others are doing and hoping that it will be able to convince the consumer that its more generic approach will suffice; that it is grass-fed simply because we say so? Is this just another sales-team approach that says that we can sell it because it is Irish? Is it all about what the ‘marketing boys’ say, regardless of whether the product stacks up when scrutinized by an issues-aware, day one say it, intelligent consumer; albeit that they are the ones who generally inhabit the upper tiers of the food markets? If so, it is not a sustainable approach.

Hence the very real question, what does ‘grass-fed’ mean when it comes to products from Ireland? Is there a clear definition of what is ‘grass-fed’? Is it that a minimum of 51% of the animal’s lifetime diet must come from grass [including grass-based forages]? And just what is meant by ‘grass’? Is it from ryegrass swards that are fed with the country’s 1.5 million tonnes of imported nitrogen fertilisers? Or is it from more diverse swards that also contain legumes? Or is it from more extensive biodiverse grasslands? The consumer might wish to know.

And what about the/any non-grass based part of the animal’s diet. Of concern is for the issues-aware consume is GM-feeds but Ireland imports hundreds of thousands of tonnes of soymeal from Argentina. The GM issue may not be of concern to Ireland’s ‘science’-focused establishment but it is of concern to many premium-paying consumers [as exemplified by Waitrose’s choice to only sell products from animals fed on a GM-free diet]. One can also add in issues like whether the soya was grown on land that was originally rain forest or Pampas grasslands or whether the palm kernel extract from certified-as-sustainable plantations. Both have climate-change emissions ratifications that consumers are and will become increasingly aware of. And to repeat oneself, the consumer is in charge and the future is not about ignoring the consumer.

Meanwhile others are developing the products that the premium markets want. The French with their multi-level, designated-origin schemes have been doing so for years. Others are cottoning on. Ireland is not because to do so means first changing the systems from the farm up. These schemes must be first about the husbandry employed on farm. They are then about operating supply-chain partnerships and ensuring that the routes to market are genuine partnerships that return a fair price to the farmer to reward the husbandry skills employed. Does that sound like something that Ireland’s often antagonistic [when it comes to relationships] routes to market can deliver?

The very industrial-scale, centralized nature of the routes to market may also count against Ireland when it comes to delivering to the top end of the markets; not least when some consumers see ‘local’ as an increasingly important consideration [local in terms of animal slaughter is also an animal welfare issue and, some would say an eating-quality (less stress) issue]. Low cost, centralized processing may deliver cost advantages [that may or may not benefit the farmer] but what role does it have when it comes to linking the premium-product producing farmer to the premium-paying consumer? Is it inhibiting the income-earning potential of most Irish farmers; be they supplying meat or milk or grains? It is a result of years of agri-food strategy preparation that has been dominated by the needs of the processor/exporters and not the farming or rural communities. There is, sadly, no sign of this changing. And in allowing this to happen, Ireland’s vaunted farmer representation has failed its membership. It is a failure that is going to be difficult to rectify.

To return to the original premise of the post; is ‘grass-fed’ a term that has reached its ‘best before’ date? For an agri-food industry that liberally uses ‘grass-fed’ it must be a shocking idea. Setting aside the thought that it is in danger of being over-used for sales promotion, [I choose not to use the word marketing because ‘marketing’ in its purist’s form means first using market research to define the product, pre-production], one is asking if the term ‘grass-fed’ is, from an evolving farming systems perspective, already dated? It may well be.

Long term one cannot see Ireland’s ‘produce-it-and-then-shift-it’ approach [where labelling is a part of the ‘shift it’ activity and not the ‘produce it’ activity (it is sales and not marketing-led; i.e. supply-driven)] delivering for farmers via improved farm incomes? It may continue to deliver for the post-farm-gate, processing sector but, as recent months have suggested, that sector is well able to protect its own supply-chain margins through market downturns. Just how well have they passed on the pain of low market prices to their farmer-suppliers?

As said earlier, the World is moving on. ‘Grass-fed’, as per the USDA, is gaining a stronger foothold in the USA [often seen as a target market for Irish ‘grass-fed’ products]. What will premium beef become in the USA, marbling and eating qualities aside? Will it be about cattle reared using traditional ranching and rangeland management methods? Will it be about returning land to its biodiverse former self? Will it be about returning carbon to soils through using, for example, mob-grazing? In an era where cattle are often considered as a major cause of climate change, will it be about showing how cattle farming can sequester carbon and be, at worst, carbon neutral? Will raising beef be about being in tune with nature and with the demands of those consumers who do understand that beef is a complex product that encompasses many characteristics and issues? This is all a far cry from rearing cattle on nitrogen-fed, non-biodiverse, grasslands.

Moving on from the USA, Tasmania is developing a label that promotes the sale of cattle that are totally free range and are certified hormone, antibiotic and GMO free. And then there is the premium beef range from New Zealand that specifies that its cattle are Black Angus and that they are raised free range on New Zealand’s pastures.  Its beef is “grass fed” and that means 100% grass fed and grass finished. The cattle are 100% pastured as required under USDA grass-fed rules.

The French go further and have done so for years. Their upper-tier products specify the production location, the breed, the feeds used, minimum and maximum slaughter ages and the use of local slaughter only. In some cases, like with the premium Charolais label, the rules specify the specific pastures [designated because of their biodiverse nature] upon which the cattle can be finished. It is all about the ‘terroir’. It is about ensuring that the consumer knows exactly how the product is produced and from where. Interestingly. it is also about limiting production volumes to ensure that the producer retains some control and that volume limits create scarcity to maintain a price premium. It is about premiumization of the farm-gate price and farm incomes.

The underlying message here is that premium markets are far more sophisticated than appears to be appreciated in Ireland. Increasingly they are about having the transparency that allows the consumer to understand and appreciate how the product is produced on-farm. Yes, it often includes transparency about the processing activity but the premium-paying, issues-aware consumer wants to know more about how the ‘raw material’ is produced down on the farm. And this goes well beyond form-filling quality assurance schemes, it is about the farming systems themselves and ensuring that they and the products they produce meet the demands of the consumer. Adding a label at the its-already-produced, ‘shift-it’ stage is not going to cut it going forwards. Well not if the expectation is to access the real premium markets. And they are the ones that the small-scale, volume-constrained, Irish farmer needs to be suppling if farm incomes are ever going to move towards that key target of Origin Green, to achieve sustainability all along the Supply Chain.

So just what is Ireland doing? Is it running around the World believing that its concept of what is ‘grass-fed’ will allow it to access the top end of the market? If it is, is this in the full recognition that this will deliver better incomes for the farmer? Or is it still largely about shifting commodities? Have the responsible parties yet grasped the idea that it is about developing long-term supply-chains for unique-to-Ireland, designated-origin products? Or is there still the old problem, that Irish farming is supply-driven and not market-led? Is it still commodity-minded and not product-orientated?

The current approach to using the term ‘grass-fed’ is both supply-driven and commodity minded; it is about producing the beef in the same old way and then adding the label later. It is still the ‘produce it / shift it’ model. It is not an approach that will work with sophisticated, premium-paying consumers and it is not one that will open-up premium markets for the long-term as there will simply be too much competition around that will be equipped with the real McCoy; designated-origin products with a complete story and a transparent history to support its grass-fed, pasture-fed, forage-fed [insert your term of choice here] claims. Aiming to sell products using only a broadly generic ‘grass-fed’ label; albeit that the grass is grown in Ireland, will not be where it is at.

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.

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.