Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 17 November 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Carbon Sequestration and Storage in Agriculture: Discussion
Deputy Fitzmaurice has said he will be late joining the meeting. Before we begin, Members now have the option of being physically present the committee room or may join the meeting via Microsoft Teams, with the proviso that for meetings in public they must be in their Leinster House offices. Members may not participate in the meeting from outside the parliamentary precincts. If joining on Microsoft Teams, please mute microphones when not making a contribution. Please use the raise-hand function to indicate. Please note that messages sent in the meeting chat are visible to all participants online. Speaking slots will be prioritised for members of the committee.
Members and all attendees are asked to exercise personal responsibility in protecting themselves and others from the risk of contracting Covid-19. They are strongly advised to practise good hand hygiene. I urge them not to move any chair from its current position and to maintain appropriate levels of social distancing during and after the meeting. Masks, preferably of a medical grade, should be worn at all times during the meeting, except when speaking. I ask for co-operation on these issues.
Today’s meeting on carbon sequestration and storage in agriculture will be in three sessions. In the first session, we will hear from officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. In the second session, we will be joined by representatives of Teagasc, including representatives of the Farm Zero C project on Shinagh Farm. In the final session, we will hear from representatives of Devenish.
For session one, I welcome the following officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Mr. Bill Callanan, chief inspector, Mr. Fergus Moore, principal officer and head of forest sector development division, and Ms Deirdre Fay, principal officer and head of climate change and bioenergy policy division, who is joining us remotely. They are all very welcome to the meeting. They will be given ten minutes to make their opening statement before we have questions and answers.
Before we begin, I have an important notice on parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected to the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Participants in the committee meeting from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that the constitutional protections afforded to those participating within the parliamentary precincts does not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether, or to what extent, such participation is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature.
I invite Mr. Callanan to make his opening statement.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
I thank the Chair for the opportunity to address the joint committee on carbon storage and sequestration in agriculture. As the Chair set out, I am joined by my colleagues, Ms Deirdre Fay, head of the Department’s climate change and bioenergy policy who is online, and Mr. Fergus Moore, head of forestry sector development who is with me.
The recently published climate action plan 2021 sets out what is needed from each sector to achieve the overall economy-wide 51% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, as legislated for in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act. Achieving this ambitious but necessary target will require action across all sectors of the economy, including both agriculture and the land use, land-use change and forestry, LULUCF, sectors. The plan highlights the important role that our land and forests can play in storing and sequestrating carbon. The climate action plan outlines a series of measures and actions to enhance the storage and sequestration of carbon. I will discuss these in more detail, but first I would like to address the committee on the direction that discussions on the role of carbon storage and carbon farming are taking at both the European Union and national level. It is also important to highlight that in considering the opportunity for carbon storage, it is first important to recognise that our land is a net emitter at present, principally driven by emissions associated with peat soils, historically drained and now in agricultural use.
I will now address carbon storage and removal and an enabling framework. Carbon removal offers the potential for a new income opportunity for farmers. Farmers in Ireland are already provided with incentives to engage in actions that can lead to greenhouse gas reduction, including through afforestation, organic farming and the green, low-carbon, agri-environment schemes, GLAS. However, discussions on developing carbon farming or trading schemes are at a much more embryonic stage. Carbon storage and carbon farming have been highlighted in the Green Deal, the farm to fork strategy and within the Fit for 55 package. They are seen as key activities in stepping up Europe’s climate ambition.
Carbon farming overall is a relatively new concept with pilots and business models evolving across Europe, including through peatland restoration, management of carbon in soils and both forestry and agroforestry activities. Certification and regulation structures are also emerging. The European Commission will launch a policy communication on carbon farming by the end of this year, with a Commission proposal on a certification scheme due by the end of 2022.
Within the climate action plan 2021, and building on the actions in Food Vision 2030, we have committed to exploring the development of a carbon farming model, with the potential for trading and which rewards farmers for emissions reductions and removals, including through potential private sector investment. This is in line with the EU's policy direction. Such an approach will require the establishment of baseline data, auditing, the development of voluntary carbon codes, leveraging of private financing through public-private partnerships, PPPs, and the putting in place of governance structures. A Department-led working group has recently been established to progress this work and assess the potential for an Irish-based carbon farming market offering, keeping in line with EU activity in this area.
It is essential to recognise that the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, has a key role to play in the establishment of a carbon farming through an enabling framework, including through research, development and demonstration, co-operation, knowledge transfer, farm advisory services and behavioural change. However, and importantly, as I have just highlighted, any framework must look to opportunities for support from private finance as we consider the opportunities associated with carbon storage.
The sector is not starting from a point of inaction and there are a number of initiatives and measures that are already happening that will provide a solid foundation on which to build. These include the woodland environmental fund, WEF, run by the Department. The fund is an early example of an initiative which makes a payment for ecosystem services, including carbon. It is aimed at the restoration of Ireland’s once vast native forests. The objective of the fund is to facilitate the planting of more of these diverse woodland habitats and avail of their proven environmental benefits.
WEF funding is a once-off single payment of €1,000 per hectare paid by a participating business to the landowner involved. This payment is a top-up to premiums paid by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine as part of the native woodland component of the Department’s afforestation scheme. The WEF payment is made once the forest is established and has been approved by the Department. The fund provides an access point for individual businesses to help expand Ireland’s native woodland resource by providing additional incentives to encourage landowners to plant new native woodlands that they may not have otherwise planted had the additional support not been provided. This relationship benefits the State by contributing to national targets regarding native woodland afforestation. It also enhances the reputation of the participating business, as that business will be associated with the creation of a tangible environmental asset that will become a permanent feature of the landscape.
The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State at the Department, Senator Hackett, announced a number of new research projects and pilot studies in recent months in order to build the knowledge and evidence base to support a carbon farming initiative. In so doing, they stressed the importance of monitoring, reporting and verification of data to enable the proper functioning of a carbon accreditation scheme. For example, the national soil sampling programme will provide valuable data. Not only will it provide soil nutrient and pathogen analysis detail for up to 10,000 farmers but it will also provide nationwide soil carbon analysis and identify peat soils on farms across the country.
The European innovation partnership, EIP, re-wetting pilot projects will provide us with studies on locally-led, innovative and a results-based farm schemes, rewarding farmers for managing farmed peatlands and raised bogs. The establishment of a national agricultural soil carbon observatory with supporting technology will provide measurement of greenhouse gases and ammonia emissions, as well as fluctuations in carbon levels from a range of different soil types under different farm management approaches. A national soil moisture monitoring network will be established and will gather data that will be necessary for our understanding of the fluctuations in soil carbon.
Teagasc has also recently commenced a research project titled, Farm-Carbon - Farm Hedgerows and Non-forest Woodland Carbon. This project will provide a deeper understanding of hedgerows and non-forest woodlands as carbon stocks in agricultural landscapes and will allow researchers to identify approaches to maintain and enhance this contribution. The forest carbon tool, developed by Teagasc in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, also provides indicative data for potential carbon sequestration associated with new tree planting and includes data for specific tree species, both native and non-native. All of these projects will place Ireland at the forefront of EU carbon sequestration research, while allowing for the refinement of our reporting through the national inventory and further improving the sustainability of the agricultural sector.
A question often asked is who owns the carbon sequestered from the atmosphere in our forests, soils, grasslands and hedgerows. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, has indicated that the State is not seeking to trade the carbon sequestered on Irish farms. The State is, however, obliged to report and account for all national greenhouse gas emissions under Ireland's EU and international obligations. That includes sequestration and emissions from forestry and land-use management practices. That does not imply ownership but simply reflects the requirement for those reductions and emissions to be included in the national inventory reporting and accounting system.
Ireland's forests make a significant contribution to climate change mitigation and remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They are also significant stores of carbon. The Department's national forest inventory records that over 312 million tonnes of carbon are stored in our forests - in the soil and in the trees themselves. This is a significant carbon store, and it is important we maintain and expand our forest area in the future.
The Government and the EU have provided over €3 billion in funding since the 1980s to create over 300,000 ha of new forest. These forests have been planted by more than 23,000 farmers, who benefit from annual premiums and the sale of timber products. Continued afforestation is key to balancing emissions and removals in the land-use sector. Forests also provide harvested wood products which continue to lock up and store carbon in the timber used in buildings. Using timber instead of energy-intensive materials such as concrete and steel also has a benefit in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. The Department recognises the importance of forests, the timber they produce and the use of sustainably produced biomass for energy. We will continue to support the creation of new forests and fund research and innovation in the use of timber products.
I will now outline to the committee carbon storage and sequestration measures in the climate action plan 2021. As members may be aware, there are an estimated 300,000 ha of carbon-rich peat soils under agricultural management in Ireland. This accounts for between 7% and 9% of all agricultural land. As a consequence of artificial drainage to improve the agricultural productivity of these soils, the rate of carbon dioxide emissions from this area is far above that which is observed from similar undrained peat soils, where natural moist conditions occur. These emissions, when calculated over such a large area of land, represent a significant portion of overall greenhouse gas emissions from the land-use sector and, consequently, are a challenge for our overall efforts to combat climate change. The Department recognises the important role peat soils and wetlands play as a carbon pool in the Irish landscape. Action must be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from this source. Through reduced management intensity, including the management of drainage systems and water table manipulation of these peat soil areas, it is possible to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also creating additional ecosystem benefits such as increasing biodiversity value and protecting water quality.
A key target under the climate action plan is to reduce the management intensity of 80,000 ha of these lands by 2030. Improved management practices of at least 450,000 ha of grassland on mineral soils, which will increase the level of carbon sequestration in these soils, are also identified in the plan. Improved management practices, such as increased time to reseeding, expanding the amount of legumes such as clover in the sward, thus avoiding soil compaction, and employing long-term pasture management plans, all contribute to a healthier soil and a healthier soil sequesters more carbon.
The plan sets out an ambition to increase the area of cover crops in tillage to at least 50,000 ha by 2030. Introducing a cover crop over the winter period for spring sown cereals increases the amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and made available for sequestration in the soil. The incorporation of straw in the tillage area is a further action to remove carbon. Chopping and incorporating straw back into the soil in cereal crop systems increases soil organic carbon matter by returning such matter directly back into the soil. The climate action plan 2021 recognises the importance of the built environment and the timber produced from our forests, which will play an ever-increasing role. While a lot of focus is on increasing levels of afforestation further, we must also recognise and promote the increased use of wood across all sectors of the economy.
I hope this opening statement has given members of the committee a good overview of the current activity in respect of carbon storage and sequestration on agricultural lands and within our forests and future activity in this area to ensure that farmers are recognised and rewarded for their environmental actions. My colleagues and I will be happy to answer any questions members may have.
I thank Mr. Callanan, Mr. Moore and Ms Fay for their presence and for a comprehensive submission, which was very interesting and broad-reaching. I have a couple of brief questions.
The first is based on almost the entirety of the Department's submission. Can the witnesses be any more explicit on timelines, for instance, when we will be able to do individual farm inventories? The committee has had a couple of meetings on this and we are all aware of the issue in forestry at the moment. I do not want that to dominate the meeting. When is forestry most advantageous? At what stage of its maturity does it sequester the most carbon? Given that we are now slipping behind in our afforestation and planting, when will that affect us most if we have been sowing 8,000 ha annually in recent years? When would the greatest advantage and the greatest effect of that be seen?
As for ownership of the carbon, while Mr. Callanan says the State has now said it does not own it but has to include it in its national inventory, he does not specifically go as far as saying the landowner or individual farmer or the person who planted the forest owns it or will have access to it. Does Mr. Callanan see coming the day when individual farmers will be able to trade carbon credits, will have ownership and will be able to reap the benefits of whatever sequestration is on their farm and, one would hope, balance their sequestration against their emissions by becoming more efficient?
As for the woodland environmental fund, I like the scheme whereby private businesses invest, but is there a view that, down the line, those businesses may have some claim over the carbon credits and be in a position to use them to balance against their emissions in whatever their business is?
Finally, I have a question for Ms Fay. On the bioenergy side, are we working towards anaerobic digestion and, if so, how far away from it are we? We all know the advantages of anaerobic digestion. Energy aside, the big advantage of it that I see is that, where slurry is used, it is a far cleaner way of spreading the by-product of the slurry. There are, however, a lot of anaerobic digesters in the North which are being fed a lot of grass. How do the emissions from the grass used in an anaerobic digester fare? Do they result in a net gain from the point of view of carbon emissions or are there a lot of emissions from repeatedly harvesting the grass and using it in the anaerobic digester?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
I will refer a couple of the Senator's questions to my colleague, Mr. Moore, particularly those relating to forestry.
On the question of individual farm inventories, there is movement in that direction. Bord Bia is doing carbon auditing at individual farm level, which is identifying whether there is opportunity to improve the overall carbon profile of farms. In the context of this discussion, however, which is on carbon sequestration in soils, etc., and in response to the Senator's question about timelines, we have created a working group that includes quite a number of people to work out how one would structure the issue of the potential for carbon trading and farmers getting rewarded in that regard. That requires identification of a baseline. The national soil carbon observatory, the soil testing and so on will contribute to that. It requires consideration of verification and how that should be validated. I know that others will present to the committee and will have particular views on this. There are issues of permanence as well and, from a Government point of view, the issue of how one oversees or referees, effectively, the process whereby carbon could be traded or counted at individual farm level. That progression is at an early stage.
We have to give surety and certainty to people with regard to what they should expect in carbon accounting. I have to caution the many farmers who are saying they need to be given credit for the carbon in the soil. We have to remember that our land-use sector is emitting carbon, so we have to overcome that in its primacy.
In terms of the ownership piece, from the point of view of businesses, there is a lot of interest in this area and it is predominantly coming from corporate social responsibility. While that is driving it, we must recognise this is about the voluntary carbon market as opposed to the structured market. I am sure members have spoken to the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications about this. The structured market is the emissions trading system and the non-emissions trading system. The former involves large energy users, etc. The current structure does not provide for them to offset, for example, through afforestation. It is an emissions trading structured system and afforestation is not countable under that mechanism. The idea of offsetting is not where the current policy direction is. It is more around the voluntary carbon market developing for industry. We regular encounter advertisements on radio and television in which businesses state they are climate neutral because they are offsetting. That is somewhat different from a formal emissions trading system. A business will not have the capacity, through its involvement in the likes of the woodland environmental fund, to say it rather than the individual farmer owns the carbon credits. That is important.
On the anaerobic digestion question, under the commitment in the climate action plan, 1.6 TW hours of anaerobic digestion is to be developed. I am sure members are aware of the cost associated with biomethane production. The actual feed stocks, as was pointed out, are the likes of manure, food waste and crops grown specially for it. In the delivery of 1.6 TW hours, 30% to 50% would probably come from food waste or manures, with the remainder coming from the likes of grass. That must, however, be delivered under the recast renewable energy directive, RED II, which means it must be sustainably produced. The benefit of anaerobic digestion is that a significant number of businesses in the food processing industry are looking to decarbonise their energy system. They see a value in it. From an agriculture point of view, we would see the removal of methane associated with the manure that goes into it and the displacement of fertiliser, which is now being replaced with digestate from that plant. If digestate is going out to reduce the amount of fertiliser used, the agricultural sector will benefit from that.
There is a contribution on the energy which is displacing heavy fuel oil or gas, in this case, biomethane. I do not see it as a plus-and-minus scenario in terms of the grass because it must be produced in a sustainable way. That is why work is going on in establishing multispecies as a feedstock, as well as a production system for animals, to make sure it can be compliant with that sustainability requirement. If someone seeks to secure the credits associated with anaerobic digestion systems, only a very low fertiliser input system is allowed. Perhaps Mr. Moore will speak about when forestry is most valuable in terms of carbon credits.
Mr. Fergus Moore:
It is important to note that forestry can be a source of sequestration but also a source of emissions, depending on the level of harvesting that takes place.
On the question of what the best age of trees in the context of sequestration rates, one can draw an analogy. When a forest is first planted the ground is disturbed. This disturbs the soil and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. When the trees are planted they are quite small and because of this they sequester very small amounts of carbon dioxide. Over the following ten years, the trees become a bit bigger and gradually build in their sequestration capacity. On the question of when they reach peak performance, when trees are 15, 20 or 25 years of age they are quite tall, have lots of leaves and pull in lots of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As a rough indication of rates, a typical conifer forest throughout its rotation of 30 or 40 years probably will sequester on average about 6 or 7 tonnes of CO2 per annum.
In the context of broadleaves, over the same timeframe, they will sequester smaller amounts of CO2 amounting to about 2.3 or 2.4 tonnes. At the end of the day, broadleaves will grow for much longer periods in the context of rotation lengths. They also sequester roughly the same amounts of carbon eventually. In hard figures, 1 ha of forest made up of 70% conifers and 30% broadleaves will sequester roughly 380 tonnes of CO2. It is also important to make the point that once the forest sequesters that CO2, it reaches saturation point whereby it cannot absorb much more. The notion that the forest will continually sequester for 100 years has to be dispelled. It also depends on the soil types used for growing. Certain species growing in productive soils will sequester a lot faster. Trees growing on the top of mountains will grow a lot slower and will sequester CO2 at a slower rate. In answer to the question, between 20 and 30 years of age is when the trees are at their peak performance.
In relation to afforestation targets, any afforestation that we plan now, up to 2030, will not make a significant impact on the total carbon sequestered because the trees are small. Once we go beyond 2030, those trees will start to get bigger. Therefore, afforestation is really important for our post-2030 targets. On the climate action plan, the Climate Change Advisory Council asked how Ireland can benefit from the 2030 sequestration impact of these trees and it brought forward the notion of carrying forward those carbon removals. The climate action plan provides a figure of 2.9 million tonnes of carbon, which we reckon our forests will sequester on 8,000 ha or thereabouts.
On calculating carbon at a farm level, we obviously calculate carbon on a national level based on our national forest inventory and the detailed monitoring that takes place. To assess carbon at a farm level, I will draw a comparison with the UK woodland carbon code which is practised based against a UK carbon standard. The forests are measured for farmers and the plantations then placed on a register. That register can be offered for sale to a person or business who wants to enter a voluntary carbon market. That is something we are looking at. As Mr. Callanan said, we will find out next month what the Commission proposals are in relation to farm carbon. They may give us a direction with regard to how far that process can be pushed in Ireland.
I will have to leave soon for which I apologise. I welcome the guests. Teagasc is due to tell us what to do in order to maintain the forest carbon sink autonomous management, including reducing the itinerary and increasing the rotation age. However, it points out that the latter could lead to a short-term timber deficit of between 20% and 50% up to 2030. This is likely to worry the sector overall, including those planting, those in the mills and the contractors, especially at a time when we are already underperforming in terms of afforestation licences. I have a few questions on that. Are we looking at a situation in which foresters may be required to leave trees unfelled for longer than they had originally planned when they were planted? Will the prevalence of ash dieback be an additional hurdle, given the need to thin or fell trees earlier than the foresters had planned in the first place? What are the witnesses' views on Teagasc's statement that there is a deficit in timber?
We met recently with Alan Moore of Hedgerows Ireland. He told us that carbon sequestration could be vastly improved through proper management. Is enough attention being given to hedgerow management? Is there scope for more guidance on hedgerow management and for that to feature more prominently in the eco-schemes? Mr. Moore also pointed out that only one third of hedgerows can be classed as being in good condition. I would appreciate if the witnesses would answer those questions before I leave.
Mr. Fergus Moore:
Carbon modelling in forestry is quite complex. A lot of things can happen that make a forest either a sink or a source depending on the age distribution of forests. As the Deputy points out, one thing we can do is order the management. If we delay the felling of trees and reduce the harvesting, we reduce the emissions and we could then increase the carbon store in a forest. There has also been discussion of a no-thin policy, where there would be no thinning, which would also increase the level of carbon stores in a forest.
From the Department's perspective, these are options to consider in the context of a voluntary carbon market and what additional measures a forest owner can take to improve the carbon stock in his forests. That is something which can be explored further. If a forest owner decides to fell his trees a bit later, for example, and delays the thinning or harvesting of most of the trees, he would build up a greater carbon store than he currently has. There may be a possibility of him putting a value on that in a voluntary compliance market.
The Department issues a decision support tool for farmers on changing the felling regime in their forests. For example, the Department's website has a felling decision support tool. This allows people to ask what cash they would get from a timber sale where, for example, they fell their trees at 30 years of age. If they leave them as they are and delay felling until they are 40 years of age, the trees will have grown bigger and become more valuable. The felling decision support tool we have tells us what the optimum time is to fell trees, purely on a commercial basis. That is an initiative the Department has taken to empower farmers to make those decisions themselves. The Department does not foresee that it would restrict people's ability to fell trees at a certain age and, likewise, with thinning. All sorts of issues are important. Thinning produces timber for the sawmill sector, and it is important that it is kept supplied as well. Reducing the harvesting age of trees also reduces the amount of timber that is going into the mills. They are important points to take on board.
Ash dieback is very important. I know the committee has discussed the matter several times with my colleagues. When trees die or are blow down, there are emissions associated with that. We do not see major impacts on our national inventory because we measure the carbon across 770,000 ha. In the greater scheme, we are not seeing a massive difference because even when trees are dying or are dead, they are still storing carbon, so it does not come through in our figures that much at the moment.
There are different management options. That was part of the discussion. It is not all about afforestation. Afforestation is great for putting in carbon dioxide, but adjusting management techniques can impact the carbon stocks and stores as well. The suggestion from Teagasc and others was that there are other things besides afforestation that we should probably consider in terms of how we increase the level of carbon removals in the atmosphere.
I welcome the witnesses. This is a very important topic. It is important to have this debate to improve knowledge of the issue among politicians and people in the agriculture sector. The presentation was detailed and I will raise a few issues on which I would like the witnesses to elaborate. Reference was made in the presentation to more than 30,000 ha of carbon-rich peat soils under agricultural management in Ireland. That amounts to between 7% and 9% of the agricultural landholding. It was stated that issues arise in terms of the land management of these soils, which are probably in every parish in the country depending on where we look. How can we effectively change the management of these soils in a very practical way? The farming in question might be beef, dairy or tillage. It is a significant volume of land and a significant body of work is involved in changing the management of these soils. What would be the appropriate management of these soils? Would forestry be the solution or would it be long-term pasture? What will be the long-term solution to ensure these carbon-rich peat soils can be managed in the short term between now and 2030 and in the longer term between 2030 and 2050? They account for a significant amount of the overall land mass of the country.
Regarding high-mineral soils and reseeding, a normal farm pattern is seven to ten years but if it is silage ground, the period could be shorter. How will the work being done by Teagasc on the derogation for farmers help in that regard? At the moment, there are derogation courses in place. From 2019 onwards, everyone must do a derogation course. Overall, three courses must be done on derogation. Is knowledge being imparted to farmers on the courses? I have done them in recent months. Must a body of work be done to ensure the learnings required can be incorporated into the courses and passed on?
Will the witnesses comment on how they believe we will measure carbon? Will it be net-net or gross-net? Do they believe the net-net model will be changed to a gross-net model? If so, will that be done in 2026 or 2030? What impact would a change from net-net to gross-net have on the national targets in terms of ensuring we meet our targets? Will there be a difference in the amount?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
I will ask my colleague, Ms Fay, to outline some of the research work we are doing on peat soils, such as the identification of them. The first step is to identify where they are and we have a project in that regard.
On the management of peat soils, we have two innovation projects that are being rolled out to effectively establish what are the best management practices to try to understand how we support farmers to reduce the emissions, as Senator Lombard suggested.
We have also invested significantly through Teagasc in the national agricultural soil carbon observatory to better understand what is involved. A lot of the inventory data are based on book values that have been around for a while. As they are international, Teagasc is doing some work to understand what the emissions from these soils are and to make them relevant to Irish circumstances.
On the planting of these soils with afforestation, we would not encourage that. Mr. Moore might comment on the emission factors associated with forestry. There is no real benefit. If we disturb these soils to plant trees, we will lose carbon. The carbon goes up in the air but it also goes out in the water in these soils.
The measurement of high-mineral soils going forward is based on a combination of the national agricultural soil carbon observatory and also the likes of the soil sampling scheme. For the first time, the Department is supporting the measurement. We had a very enthusiastic uptake from farmers in that regard. Farmers are effectively getting free soil samples to establish the level of basis nutrients, such as phosphorus and potassium, and lime status. Farmers are used to doing this but it also determines the carbon content of the soils. We are starting to bring awareness in that regard.
We did a voluntary review of the derogation two years ago and introduced requirements. The farmers involved are more intensive farmers who are generally quicker to take things up. If somebody is reseeding, it includes a requirement to include clover. The derogation is currently under review. It is a joint process between the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. In that context, there is a proposal, although it has not been concluded, to reduce the nitrogen allowances that are available to farmers by approximately 10%. That again is driving policy.
The Minister has made available €1 million towards developing the introduction of multispecies grasses, which because they have legumes as part of the mix are less dependent on artificial nitrogen. They are an important cohort in terms of being early adopters of actions that are generally positive as regards the direction of travel we are trying to encourage.
Similarly, derogation farmers are required to leave a certain number of hedgerow trees to grow, etc. That is part of it. Somebody from Teagasc told me that if it runs an event in any of the agricultural catchment areas where there are derogation farmers, one of which I visited last week, all the farmers will turn up to the discussion because they are quite involved in the environmental understanding of their impacts. In other areas, Teagasc would not get that level of turnout. As I said, we see derogation farmers as a cohort than can drive forward.
I ask my colleague, Ms Fay, to comment on the two research projects we have proposed to identify where some of these lands are located.
Ms Deirdre Fay:
One of the research projects, called the re-peat project, aims to acquire a high-quality version of the complete series of the old bog commissioners' maps and other available peat maps and carry out extensive field visit verification of map boundaries. It will utilise image classification tools and high-resolution imagery to identify, with a high degree of precision, peatlands that are under agricultural management. This will provide us with new baseline data on the cohort of farmed land on peat soils.
The second project, called the farm peat project, relates to farm payments for ecological and agricultural transitions. This project is developing a locally led, innovative, results-based farm scheme for farmers who manage lands that surround some of Ireland's remaining raised bogs. The programme will reward farmers for improved management of habitats on peat soils, along with other landscape features such as eskers, field boundaries and water courses.
In addition, under the forthcoming CAP strategic plan and the suite of agri-environmental and climate measures it contains, there will be a results-based action relating to the extensive management of wet grassland on peat soils. It is targeted at grassland next to designated raised bog habitats. Farmers will be incentivised to retain soil wetness, as measured through a set of wet grassland indicator species. This will contribute to protecting soil carbon pools and reducing carbon loss. These are some of the initiatives on peat soil.
I was impressed by the opening statements from the Department witnesses. My question, however, is whether the actions set out will be carried through. We have a situation in this country at the moment whereby farmers have waited three years to do planting and the Department granted payment, followed by another year of appeal, at which point it was refused. I have no worries at all about the farmers; my worry is in regard to the Department. Do the witnesses believe they can carry their part through and not always be lecturing farmers and the country? The Government has failed in every aspect of climate change and I have no doubt the Department will fail in regard to the woodland schemes and forestry schemes. Let us call a spade a spade. The whole thing is a mess and the question is who will clean it up.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
I certainly hope I do not fail in these objectives. There is a certain concern among farmers around all of this and understanding it. We have to be open and honest. I have been dealing with farmers for a long time and I think they appreciate our directness in terms of where we see this going. The first challenge is in overcoming the fact our soils are emitting. We must deal with that in the first instance. The second point is that if we look to the longer term, including the EU's target of carbon neutrality by 2050, realistically, there will be residual emissions out there, whether from aviation or, as I outlined to farmers, vintage tractor runs or whatever else. Wherever they are coming from, there will be residual emissions. The only way we can see to offset them is through the likes of carbon capture, storage and land management. We are seeing technology coming on board internationally to do that but it is at a very early stage.
We are looking at the management of peat soil in a situation where farmers are struggling to fatten cattle off it and so on. Whether carbon is priced at €20 or €60 a tonne is one thing; there is a clear direction of travel in the price of carbon and it is upwards. If these soils are removing carbon and it becomes valuable, the general view on how to maximise it will hit home because farmers certainly are driven by economic reality. In the trajectory from here to 2050, although I am not saying it will be done by then, I see there being a greater understanding of the value of environmental services provided by agriculture. Let us be honest about the fact we need to create some sort of economic model to support that. It is fine to say somebody should do something but we are clear that we must work with farmers to ensure it is socially, environmentally and economically sustainable.
My ambition is certainly not to fail in this space. However, we must recognise, in terms of the evolving landscape, that we need to work out how to create a market that works for farmers, etc. That is why we have an internal group looking at the issues. We cannot do it half-heartedly and it must be financially rewarding. Equally, we need to have credibility about it. We must be able to show a roadmap for farmers in terms of what needs to be done, setting out actions that are valid and verifiable, and we must ensure farmers are not led up the garden path as to what can and cannot be done. The Deputy has put the challenge full square in front of us and we are happy to take it on.
I thank Mr. Callanan and his colleagues for being with us. I do not understand how we get to the point they have outlined unless we have a system whereby every farmer knows, and has an audit of, a baseline in terms of the carbon that is stored on his or her land, the carbon that is being sequestered on an annual basis and the carbon that is being emitted. It is only by having this information that we can put in place a system that rewards those who shift the balance by emitting less and managing to store more. Reading the references to an enabling framework in Mr. Callanan's opening statement and listening to all of the rhetoric about the carbon action plan, with all its lofty and important objectives, I do not know how any of that will be realised in a way that delivers on the rhetoric unless we have such a system. However, I see no plan to put it in place.
My first question, then, is whether it is the Department's intention that we get to that point. In the same way that every farmer knows his or her data on genomics, water quality and land eligibility, farmers should also know what their carbon audit is as a starting point and baseline. I do not understand how people can be rewarded for reducing their emissions or capturing more carbon if we do not have a baseline audit showing where they started.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
We have a very open approach to this. As I set out in my opening statement, it is very much a nascent discussion. Internationally, there has been ongoing discussion around the idea of carbon trading, but there is a recognition that there is an amount of work to be done in terms of how that would be structured, how the baseline will be created and how improvements can be validated. I will give an example of the challenge inherent in this. Typically, dry mineral soil might have 200 tonnes of carbon stored in it and the farmer is potentially changing that by less than half a tonne per year or thereabouts. We are talking about a 0.25% change and the question is around how that is measured. I assure the Deputy that we are very open on this and we are at an early stage of discussion in terms of carbon trading. We are considering and reflecting on all of this and taking everything on board.
Exploring a soil carbon bank has been suggested in America, but that comes with challenges regarding permanence. For example, if people build carbon into the soil they own and are rewarded for it, and then they turn around and plough that land for a few years and start losing it, what responsibility flows from that? New Zealand is considering a similar proposal. The question there has been if carbon is to be valued, then how can those farmers reducing carbon be rewarded and those increasing it be charged. That is the trajectory in New Zealand. We are very much at an open stage in considering this issue.
Has the Department determined what the cost may be of compiling that information on a farm-by-farm basis? We will have representatives in from Devenish later. It has carried out this type of calculation on specific farms. On a wholescale level, have we examined what it would cost to do what that company does on individual farms on every farm in Ireland?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
I do not have that data because we are at an early stage. We have just set up a group to look at this issue and it will take on board the views of people generally regarding what level of penetration is necessary. To be clear, the Department is doing two things. It is supporting actions that are helping to remove carbon, whether or not they are countable on an individual farm level. Examples include the straw incorporation scheme, the drive towards multispecies swards and the soil sampling scheme, which I spoke about. These are enablers in the development of low-carbon farming. I refer as well to the national agricultural soil carbon observatory.
We have these grand objectives regarding targets, but the measures are all small. We need a big State-led and Department-led initiative that will give us the starting point in this regard. My fear is that we will end up as we have with other schemes. We will have the agri-environmental schemes and eco-schemes and all sorts of measures, but they will be short-term in the grand scheme of things. They are five-year schemes. A number of the objectives and policies of those schemes will directly contravene previous policies in this area. Under earlier CAPs people were for draining peatlands, whereas the next CAP will ask people to consider re-wetting them. We must therefore think in the long term about all of this.
How can we encourage a farmer of any size, be that a large-scale intensive dairy farm or a small-scale suckler farm - and we must encourage both types of farm because they can play two different roles in all of this - without actually telling those farmers where they will be starting from, if carbon trading will be available and whether there will be financial benefits from having reduced carbon? Without that being quantified, the actual work done will count for nothing if we do get to the point where we are paying for carbon credits.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
To be clear, I fully agree with the Deputy regarding the current measures being small and incremental. When we apply them to 125,000 farmers, however, that is when it all adds up. That is the space we are in. Regarding our internal considerations, the issues we are considering include the scope of carbon farming, the question of auditing and baseline development, the development of a voluntary carbon code for the sector, issues around finance and business models and also governance structures. Therefore, we are at the beginning of a process in that regard. We must be in step with what is happening at a European level, and we expect the paper in December to articulate some of the issues being seen at the European level. We should align with that.
At a concept level and an individual farm level, as I said, Bord Bia is doing carbon auditing at individual farm level. That is counting actions such as fertiliser usage, when animals are being let out, the use of manures and the output from a farm. That information is quite detailed at the level of the individual farm and it is developing. This is part of a process. I want to be clear that we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good when we need to encourage people. We are not there with carbon trading, which is slightly different. We are certainly there in respect of the incentivisation of farmers towards carbon management, at whatever level.
On peatlands, it is estimated that 300,000 ha of carbon-rich peat soils are under agricultural management. It is fair to say that this land is very much concentrated in a relatively small number of counties. Is that correct?
It has been a long time. Mr. Callanan, in his opening statement, indicated that a "key target under the climate action plan is to reduce the management intensity of 80,000 ha of these lands by 2030." What does that mean? Does it mean that those lands will be removed from agricultural use or will they be re-wetted or rewilded? What will happen to those 80,000 ha?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
It is not rewilding - I want to be clear about that point - and nor is it effectively the abandonment of that land from an agricultural perspective. I would be careful regarding people generating a concern about that land. It does, however, concern managing the water table and so forth to ensure these lands are not emitting carbon, and that they instead present an opportunity to remove carbon.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
Absolutely, in parts. By way of example, it seems to be a lot of land, but under the current GLAS, there is approximately 250,000 ha of low input permanent pasture, LIPP. That land is subject to a relatively low application of manures and a low level of intensity. The traditional hay meadow option in the scheme similarly accounts for about 120,000 ha or 130,000 ha. It is that same type of management. An added element here concerns how to manage the water table to secure the carbon.
I do not see continued use as being impossible. If the prescription is right, it would be a voluntary scheme. If the policy options are suitable for farms, if they are understandable and if farmers will be rewarded to offset the reduced production that will occur, then I cannot see why there would be a reluctance to participate. It is a new system, it will take time and we will have to work in respect of advisory services to ensure people can understand what this is about. I would be particularly cautious regarding a suggestion that this is about rewilding or anything like that.
No, and that is why I am asking the question for clarification. Following on from that point, I do not understand why the target here is 80,000 ha and not 300,000 ha if the land can continue to be used for agriculture.
Yes, I understand that entirely. Deputy Fitzmaurice is behind me and I am sure he will have something to say on this matter. I am asking about this because I am just trying to understand what this process means and how we can ensure it is a success from the perspectives of farmers, communities and the environment.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
The 80,000 ha is being driven by what we know are the emissions factors associated and what is the opportunity here for a reduction in emissions associated. Naturally, if there was a significant uptake, I do not see why it would not increase, but this is a realistic target in respect of something that is a new and different undertaking for farmers with this type of land in the context of the level of penetration we can secure. That is where this figure comes from. It is driven by what we know would be the associated reductions. When we talk about reduced management intensity, we have a figure per hectare associated with that. Just multiplying that by 80,000 ha generates what the overall contribution will be.
I have two more quick questions.
The witnesses' opening statement refers to the value of hedgerows and hedges generally. What specific schemes or supports are currently in place to encourage the expansion of hedgerows?
The numbers are limited and there will always be some outside the agri-environmental scheme. Does Mr. Callanan see any measures being put in place to prevent or at least dissuade the ripping out of existing hedgerows on non-participating farms? Will there be some supports for farmers who are in a position to expand hedgerows outside the scheme?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
There is protection under the environmental impact assessment regulations, which were introduced a number of years ago. They effectively require that if a person proposes removing hedges over a certain length, which I think is 500 m, although I do not have the figures and can revert about it, screening or consent is required from the Department. Under the environmental impact assessment regulations, if people receive approval to remove a hedge, they do not need to replant that hedge. However, under the designation of agricultural features under the current basic payment scheme, because hedges are included for payments as designated features, as are drains, where farmers remove a length of hedgerow, they are required to replace that on the farm. That is an added protection to hedges that currently exist. There is a need for management of how we grow and build carbon stores within our hedges. Teagasc has a project to try to analyse and understand the total volume of carbon in a hedge, both above and below ground. Does Ms Fay want to comment?
I will move on because I know there are other speakers. I thank Mr. Callanan for that answer. The targets in the climate action plan suggest that forestry can remove 0.8 Mt of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030 and 2.1 Mt of reductions post 2030, in forestry that was planted before 2030. What area of planting per year is that based on?
We are missing the target by 6,000 ha. Some 14,000 ha next year will not fully make up for it, and it will take more the further we go. In truth, those targets are meaningless, since we will not reach them.
That was, unfortunately, the answer that I expected. Mr. Moore mentioned the woodland environmental scheme, where private companies pay landowners an additional €1,000 per hectare to plant native trees. About 22% of the afforestation that took place last year was from that, so it is sizable. What proportion of the outstanding licence backlog is made up of woodland environmental fund applicants?
I thank the Chair and the witnesses. I have a couple of questions, for whoever wants to take them. What percentage of farmers are actively sampling soil? How is the Department, through farm advisory boards and bodies such as Teagasc, encouraging farmers who are not doing soil sampling to do so? In the same vein as Deputy Carthy was speaking about, I have a question about hedgerows. The old rural environmental protection scheme, REPS, was set up some years ago and is over now. Is there any agri-environment scheme that should be modelled on that? There was great participation by many farmers. Specifically on the matter of hedgerows, is there any specific tree or plant that is more suitable than others? There are many hedgerows on farmlands that I believe are not beneficial with what we are looking for here. I believe there should be some incentive to be part of the next scheme. The witnesses said that it will be announced by the Minister shortly. I think that is the way we should go, as we did with the old scheme. There has not been the same amount of planting in recent years as there was previously.
The other issue relates to forestry. This committee has done much work raising the issue of forestry and trying to sort it out. I think we are going backwards rather than forwards. I know there is a new appointment in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Hopefully that will make a difference. I am not sure what sort of difference it would make in the short term. Many farmers had considered planting forestry, of between 10 and 40 acres, but now they are not going ahead because they have seen the fiasco with licensing for felling, planting and everything else. I do not blame them, with how the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is treating forestry. How do the witnesses feel that they will encourage and entice farmers back into planting forests? Part of its remit is to get farmers to plant forests.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
The first question was about soil sampling. Approximately 120,000 soil samples are taken annually. There are farmers with a derogation and farmers without a derogation, who are more intensive, going above 170 kg of nitrogen per hectare, who are required to take soil samples every four years. They are required to have a nutrient management plan. An element of nutrient management planning is having the soil sampling to accompany that. I would describe it as a push factor. The Minister has introduced a new scheme, the soil sampling scheme, which we anticipate will cover 100,000 samples. It will not provide another 100,000 samples but it covers 100,000. We want to have a spread across all types of farming and to achieve a regional balance. Ensuring that is part of it is built into the scheme.
We certainly endorse encouraging farmers to plant hedges. Under GLAS, approximately 7,500 farmers planted about 1,300 km. We see the need to continue to incentivise the planting of hedges.
There is a prescription under the GLAS scheme in terms of looking at what is necessary for it to be a successful hedge. The natural objective should be to maximise as much native species penetration in terms of hedgerow development.
I am conscious that our forestry colleagues have appeared before the committee regarding afforestation so all I would do is reiterate the Department's position, which is threefold in terms of looking at forestry. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and her colleagues would be able to answer this better and I would leave it to them. If we look at Project Woodland, it has three key elements. One is the integration of forestry and agri-environment. The second involves looking again at the entire forestry programme. This is to kick off in the new year. The third involves looking at the regulatory requirements associated with small-scale afforestation. They are the three key elements.
I would really leave it to the Minister of State and the forestry side in terms of looking at encouraging farmers to increase. What we are clear as part of the commitment under the climate action plan and what falls to us is the emission reduction requirements under land use, land-use change and management. It effectively requires us to focus on issues like peatland management, which we know is a source, increasing the afforestation rate in line with the targets set, which is Government policy, and management of the opportunities associated with cover crops, straw incorporation and management of that 450,000 ha of dry mineral soils, which we know can maximise or increase the amount of carbon removal. That is within our remit rather than the individual aspect of forestry.
It makes Mr. Callanan's job a bit more difficult. I do not want him to comment on this but I will comment on it as I come from a different side. I speak to farmers on a weekly basis who were considering forestry. I really believe it is a significant missed opportunity for farmers, the Department and the targets it is trying to reach. Is there any species of tree for hedgerows? How do we compare with our European colleagues? I know hedgerows and their maintenance constitute a major issue within the UK. It is a trick we have missed over the years. The UK has been at it for years. How do we compare to other European countries? I am not sure if Mr. Callanan is aware of the grants available in the UK to maintain hedgerows. The UK has a significant incentivised scheme. Could Mr. Callanan comment on that?
Mr. Fergus Moore:
Regarding hedgerows, the UK and Ireland are probably unique in that they have a lot of hedgerows. Many parts of Europe do not have extensive networks of hedgerows. As regards species in general, hawthorn, blackthorn, whitethorn, whitebeam and mountain ash are probably the main species along with oak. Obviously ash has had issues but we are hopeful that at some stage, ash will come back on to the menu of options when a lot of research from Teagasc kicks in. They are probably the main species we would see being planted.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
We can come back to the Deputy regarding the support for hedgerow management because it does include planting but also coppicing. We can send on information on the penetration by agri-environment scheme in terms of those numbers if they are of any use. Ms Fay might comment on the actual computed value of the chopping of straw, which is quite modest. I think we chopped 0.03 of a megaton last year. We had about 3,500 farmers, €8.5 million and about 35,000 or 36,000 ha of chopping with the likes of oat straw being one of the main crops going into it but a lower rate was available for the likes of oilseed rape, etc. There are two benefits in terms of chopping straw. One is that you are incorporating carbon back into the soil while the other is that in these systems where you are doing the likes of minimum tillage with straw going in, the soil is much more friable and more easily tilled for future sowing. The Minister had an engagement with farm bodies, which I left to come here. I was talking to a tillage grower on the way out who said he has been minimum tillage for the past eight or nine years. I said that I presumed that he was an applicant under the straw incorporation scheme and he said "Yes". He told me that it was amazing. He said he was sceptical in the beginning but that how quickly the land where straw was incorporated dried out and could be tilled and managed was something to behold. He is a member of Irish Grain Growers and was a big advocate. I said that I presumed that diesel prices made it attractive and he said "Yes". He said he had taken a plough and tractor out of the system in terms of his tillage operation as a consequence of the better management of soils and how to improve the structure of soils through the likes of straw incorporation, etc.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
I will have to get the figures for the Deputy because it is identified as a measure within the Teagasc marginal abatement cost curve, MACC - the 14 actions in terms of carbon removal. It has calculated on a cost-per-tonne basis the value of straw incorporation. I just do not have the figure to hand unless Ms Fay has it and can comment. If she does not have the figure, we will certainly provide it. It is certainly not cheap. I accept that.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
It is a support for the arable sector. We have seen a 50,000 ha drop in overall arable production over the past six to eight years, primarily due to a transfer to dairy production on some of this land. It has, therefore, dual impacts in terms of a support for the sector coupled with the carbon benefit and the opportunity for improving management practice on farms incorporating straw, which are generally moving towards minimum tillage systems reducing diesel usage and returning nutrient. As we all know, fertiliser costs have gone up so straw is a more valuable product in terms of the nutrient content today than it was in previous years and was generally welcomed by the sector.
Am I correct in saying that all of this is applicable after 2030? From listening to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and others, it is my understanding that this will become a benefit to Ireland regarding the amount of sequestration and carbon tonnage it is able to substract from 2030 onwards.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
Our hedges are counted in the national inventory under grassland. The current stock, as it were, is accounted for under that category. I cannot comment on whether that will materially change in 2030 in terms of slicing them out. On the question of getting inventory credit in terms of additionality associated with hedges, whether it is management or improved or increased length of hedges, we are putting the work in place at the moment to at least be able to quantify that.
In the North, Mr. Poots MLA has brought in the LiDAR system, which I have seen used in bogs. It is a pretty effective method. In the North, they are using the system for soils and for all the mounted carbon that is stored in hedges and in the trees around the country. Why have we not done that as a country, and tied up with what they are doing in Northern Ireland? If we did so, we would have an accurate account of what we have sequestered. We could do two trials. One could be done now, and another could be done in a few years' time. That way, we would know had been sequestered in between. I saw the method being used when I visited the Devenish farm. Why have we not done something like that?
Mr. Callanan has referred to the OPW. The issue we are discussing is affecting farmers and the livelihoods of farmers. Would the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine not liaise with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and the OPW, as a last throw of the dice? The OPW does not have a big interest in it, to be honest. It is the Departments Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Environment, Climate and Communications that are the big players here. Would it not be worth our while for the Department to lead the way on that, or does the Department not have the budget for that?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
I do not accept that. Looking at it from a climate point of view, we have to put it in perspective. In respect of the additionality, as the Deputy said, we will look at measuring it now and measuring it in a few years' time, and importantly, whether that could be included in the inventory in terms of the credit. That would be the potential benefit. We also have to be conscious that we are losing hedges in places as well. That is an issue that has to be addressed and is being addressed. Potentially, we will review the environmental impact assessment regulations. We have committed to reviewing the environmental impact assessment in terms of the protections for hedges. One just has to look to farming and media to identify quite a number of cases of-----
Would it not be accurate to state that at the moment we are talking about what a cow, a bullock or a heifer produces? We are able to provide figures on that. I do not know whether they are right or wrong. We do not know, on the other side, what we are taking in in hedges nationwide, what is on the motorways, what is planted in different parts of the country, what is coming in in barley or other different cereal crops, what grasses are sequestering, and what is being sequestered by all the different things that are out there in the rural areas. We have no clue. One would imagine that that should be measured before we start off making an assumption. It is not the Department that is making assumptions, but the media in general are trying to kick the daylights out of the farming sector. Basically, no credit is being given to the sector for what it is doing. At the same time, there does not seem to be any talk of what methane is coming out of the treatment plant in Dublin or what harm it is doing. Why have we not done an accurate assessment and enough research on all the different types of farming and what is being sequestered on a constant basis by the crops, including barley, wheat, trees and grass, when they are eaten and grow again? Why have we not done something like that?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
I cannot accept that there is not identification and knowledge in terms of that. Perhaps it is a question for the committee to put to the EPA. As I understand it, over a thousand lines of various inventory data are used to populate our overall emissions. There are emission factors associated with peat under agricultural usage. If we talk about peat soils, many of the peat soils here are grass-covered. Internationally, many of them are in horticulture production, because traditionally there are no stones or they are easily managed for that. There are different emission factors for that. There are emission factors associated with our grassland and what they remove, which are positive, that go into the national inventory. I cannot accept that there is not a knowledge.
However, we are absolutely committed to growing that knowledge and investing in the development of that knowledge. That is where the likes of the national soil carbon observatory will give us country-specific data for Ireland based on real research, which takes a number of years to put in place. It is quite a different suggestion to assert that we do not have any knowledge in terms of what our lands are emitting or removing. The data are part of the structure at EPA level on national inventories, including data on the number of livestock and the type of livestock. There are standards in terms of that reporting. There is tier 1, tier 2 and tier 3. I will not claim to be an expert, but basically, the higher the level of data, the higher the tier of reporting. We are continually working towards increasing and improving the reporting levels. I am sure it is the same in forestry with tiered reporting.
As Mr. Callanan mentioned forestry, I will focus on that area. There have been 2.8 million tonnes of sequestration lost over the last four to five years because people could not get licences. Looking at the targets that are put out there and the duration of the targets, the number that we have lost is like losing 8.6 million tonnes of carbon sequesters, because the licences are stuck in the system. We have been dealing with the forestry issue for three or four years. I know it is not a responsibility of Mr. Callanan's section, but it is a responsibility of the Department. We have basically deflated a lot of farmers that do not want to go near forestry now because they have joined another scheme or have done something else with their land. Is there a big concern in the Department that the appetite for forestry has reduced because of what has gone on and the number of licences granted? Also, a bigger thing that is worrying farmers is the uncertainty of not knowing whether they will be able to cut down their trees in 30 years' time. That is a huge problem. Does Mr. Callanan agree with that?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
From my perspective, I am conscious that my forte and expertise is around the whole carbon issue. We have agreed the targets. I believe the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and the forestry team are the right people to talk about it and to look the policy achievement in relation to that. We are clear that within the climate action plan there is a requirement in terms of increasing our afforestation. It is a Government policy objective.
The issue that caught my eye most, as discussed by Deputy Carthy, is the number of peatlands that are being farmed around the country, whether they are in mountainous or lowland areas such as those in County Kerry, where there are a lot of dairy cows. We must remember that in the 1970s and 1980s, the EU and Irish Governments gave grants to put shores every 7 m or 8 m apart and to gravel tunnel them and put grass into them. We need to be clear on this, from what Mr. Callanan has stated. First, are we going to be telling those farmers that it would be better now if they did not have cattle in on that land? Mr. Callanan talked about water tables. At the same time, are going to be giving derogations to others to go over 170 kg, when 115,000 farmers can stay under the 170 kg threshold in derogations?
You can do a lot in life but you cannot do anything about where you are born. If you have land where you are born, you farm it and families are brought up on it. We need clarification from Mr. Callanan. If a farmer wants to farm, 170 is the figure for the nitrates, be the farmer in Cork, Dublin or Donegal. Is Mr. Callanan saying those farmers will be left at that if they wish or that there will be a scheme if they want to do something different with their land in the line of water tables? I want to know what Mr. Callanan means by water tables. Water tables were reduced when land was shored. You would go into a swamp or wet piece of ground with rushes and grass was not growing, and grants were given for that. You put in the shores, ploughed it, seeded it and brought it to a standard. You make a good job of it and put sheep or cattle in it. You had to mind it but it gave families a living from the top of Donegal to the bottom of Kerry. The maps are there. A lot of it is in the west and north west. We will talk about those areas in general because they are most affected by the figure of 80,000 ha that is being talked about. Members need clarification for our constituents. Deputy Carthy is also in that area. Will those farmers be allowed to farm the way they do under the same conditions as a farmer in any other part of the country or will they be restricted through nitrate levels or other restrictions under the new measures being spoken about?
What about a farmer in Glenamaddy, where I come from, who has peaty land that was shored with the help of an EU grant many years ago and is growing green grass? This is affecting a lot of farmers on the western shore, when you cross the Shannon. On the subject of treating citizens equally, if it is 170 kg in Lusk, County Dublin and in the Golden Vale, will I be able to farm at the same rate or is the Department looking at something different to impose on those farms?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
However, I want to be clear that we had an issue which we moved to address in the voluntary review of derogation we did two years ago. It is out in the proposals currently to consider the management of derogation farms. What do we mean by that? In the management of derogation farms, which was over 170 kg, that was done on a whole-farm approach. We had 300-odd farms which used or included commonage land as part of their derogation so, in theory, were suggestive, on a whole-farm approach, that that land was doctored up to 250 kg, which was a nonsense. We moved to preclude that being available at stocking rates at that level. I describe it as the dilution of the stocking rate by the inclusion of marginal land. That is put out under the current proposals as well to avoid a situation of compliance through inordinate expectation on the chemical fertiliser allowance associated with this type of land, particularly commonage land, or the nitrate-carrying capacity of it because it is being calculated on a whole-farm basis. If these farms, of which I do not have the individual details, had 40 ha very heavily stocked, they could be compliant because they had 20 ha of incredibly low stocked land. I got an approach years ago from a number of farmers who wanted to avail of low-input agri-environment schemes in terms of that element and then being in derogation. I said that does not make logical sense.
I am trying to establish this for the benefit of farmers from Donegal to Kerry. I am talking about reclaimed land. There is either lough or peat; there is white marl or peat. If it is 170 kg per ha around the country in general under nitrates, I think Mr. Callanan is saying those farms will not be restricted from carrying a stocking rate the same as any other, with regard to these 80,000 ha. Is that what he is saying?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
I am saying in practical terms, and I am dealing with farmers a long time, I am not aware of land of the type the Deputy is talking about that is being stocked at that level. We are talking about land that is predominately summer grazed or managed. We have moved and continue to move to a situation of overall avoidance of compliance limits under the likes of derogation through the inclusion of marginal land but there are no proposals or suggested restrictions through nitrates on the stock-carrying capacity of that land as it is being farmed by a typical beef farmer etc.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
The European innovation partnerships, EIPs, were put in place to better understand what we should be doing and so that farmers are contributing. Innovation partnerships are built around working with a certain number of farmers to understand practically the actions they propose, as well as what the science says is working, and come up with a suite of measures and actions that voluntarily can be rolled out to a significantly higher number of farmers.
Say Deputies Cahill, Carthy, Paul Daly or I as farmers have 50 acres of land and 50 cows or 200 ewes or whatever. Will there come a day and, in Mr. Callanan's opinion, when will it come that a farmer will be looked at individually and told the cows are allegedly putting up 100 tonnes or whatever of carbon and he or she has to have X, Y or Z to mitigate that? Will that come or will we stay on the nitrates road we are on at the moment?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
I cannot answer that. At the outset through my evidence to the committee I identified that, in my view, if you look at carbon neutrality at a European level, there is a huge role for support for agriculture for the ecosystem services including from carbon removal. I believe that passionately and strongly. If you look at corporate social responsibility by companies or the endorsement which has, I respectfully suggest, been strong under the woodland environment fund, there is an increasing expectation on industry to engage on this. I cannot see why farmers should not benefit from the creation of that. Agriculture, like everything else, deals with efficiency and some of these things almost require inefficiency at times.
Some of these things almost require inefficiency at times. We need to create a system where there is a reward for farmers and they can see the benefit crystallised economically for them.
I have one last question. Are Departments aware, under the Paris Agreement, that there is a line that states that while things have to be done as sustainably as possible, food cannot be put under threat? Has that been looked into when the Departments consider measures to mitigate carbon?
I have a quick question for the Department if that is all right. I know a small farmer who is proud of his hedgerows and has seen bigger farmers nearby remove their hedgerows. The witnesses mentioned the EPA earlier. The EPA did a study in 2014. It was done by Dr. Kevin Black in conjunction with a then emerging company, Treemetrics, in Cork. The research showed that the hedgerows and wooded areas of Ireland are a small but significant carbon shore. That small farmer and many other small farmers take great offence that those hedgerows are classified as grassland. Conservatively, the report estimated that hedgerows accounted for 4% of the Irish landscape. One recommendation of that research was that a full hedgerow assessment is needed if Ireland is to use hedgerows as part of actions to address the causes of climate change. This would need to be linked to appropriate incentives for better management of this important resource. Deputy Fitzmaurice mentioned the use of LiDAR in Northern Ireland. The report also suggested that LiDAR technology could be used, since it would provide amazing detail about the volume of carbon stored in Ireland's hedgerows. Was any action taken to follow up on that research? Was a comprehensive assessment of hedgerows undertaken as suggested seven years ago, in 2014?
Mr. Fergus Moore:
No. A comprehensive assessment of all the hedgerows in Ireland has not taken place but the research is being carried out. Earlier, we mentioned the work that Teagasc is doing on hedgerows and trees outside forests. We will see much more detailed research in the next 12 months. There was much destructive sampling of hedgerows recently, where hedgerows were cut down and all the carbon above and below ground was measured. If we have more detailed information, it will allow us to make those assessments at a higher level. LiDAR is excellent technology but there is a significant cost associated with it. The researchers in the Department could make a call on the benefit and costs of doing those calculations about trees.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
The Department worked with Kevin Black at times so we are cognisant about that sort of research. I have responsibility for research in the Department. At times, we and the EPA co-fund research calls to research-performing organisations. The Deputy is correct about 4% of the Irish landscape being hedgerows. We support the research associated with them. As I said, Teagasc recently commenced a project. I am not certain if it is within its own grant and aid or the Department funding. It is for the establishment of farm hedgerow, non-forest woodland carbon. It is called the farm carbon project. As to whether that is one of our supports or within its own-----
I will let the Deputy in during the next session with Teagasc. We have been here for nearly twice the time allotted for this. It shows the significant concern about this debate. There is a lack of research about this. When we get our ducks in a row, we will have a good story to tell about this. As we have said, when comparing the landscape of this country to that of other countries, we have a far different, greener landscape. More research will portray our production in a better light.
There is significant necessity for afforestation. Whatever environmental scheme is agreed under the next CAP, it is imperative that it is married into afforestation. Under GLAS, there was a bar on afforestation. If there is to be any attempt to meet our target for afforestation, the environmental scheme has to be married with forestry. It is in all our interests to increase carbon sequestration to reduce emissions. It is essentially to marry those two things together.
I thank the witnesses. I apologise for cutting this short. We have taken nearly double the available time. We will suspend so the next witnesses can come in.
I apologise for keeping our next witnesses waiting. It illustrates the significant interest in this topic. We had an intense engagement with the Department. As always, we are guilty of putting too much on our agenda. I acknowledge that I got a phone call yesterday evening from Dr. O'Mara, who is unable to attend this evening. He said that he would like to come before the committee in the near future to address various topics. I thank him. I know that he is on his way to Brussels for a meeting.
I welcome Mr. John Spink, head of the crops, environment and land use programme; Dr. Karl Richards, head of the environment, soils and land use department; Dr. Gary Lanigan, principal research officer for greenhouse gases and carbon, Teagasc; and Professor Kevin O'Connor, director of the BEACON SFI Bioeconomy Research Centre, who is joining us remotely. They are all welcome to the meeting. They will be given ten minutes to make their opening statement before we go to questions and answers.
Before we begin, I have an important notice about parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Participants in the committee meeting from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that the constitutional protections afforded to those participating in the parliamentary proceedings do not extend to them.
No clear guidance can be given on whether, or to what extent, such participation is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature.
Mr. John Spink:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to give evidence this evening. The Chairman has mentioned who is present, so I will pass over that. The opening statement we sent in was very detailed so I will just give the committee an overview of it this evening.
As members will be aware, the climate action plan has set ambitious emissions reductions targets for agriculture and for LULUCF. The plan recognises that there are large scientific uncertainties associated with the measurement of agriculture and land use emissions and removals. This due to their biological nature, which means they are very variable. Land use in Ireland is a net emitter of greenhouse gases. This is due to the relatively low land area under forestry and a large area of drained peat soils. In the 2018 inventory, forests and associated harvested wood products sequestered 4.8 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, wetlands emitted 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent and grasslands were the largest emitter, emitting 7 million tonnes. This runs counter to the expectation of most people, who assume grassland sequesters carbon. However, while grassland on mineral soils sequestered 2 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, grassland on drained peat soils emitted 9 million tonnes, giving the net figure of 7 million tonnes. The reason these soils emit so much CO2 is that peatlands form under waterlogged, low-oxygen conditions that promote low levels of decomposition, which leads to a build-up in organic matter, resulting in peaty soils having ten times the carbon storage capacity of mineral soils. Once these soils are drained, oxygen levels increase and the peat breaks down.
The emissions from LULUCF are projected to rise from 4.8 million tonnes in 2018 to 7 million tonnes in 2030. This is driven by sustained emissions from grassland on peat soils and a reduction in the forest sink due to low rates of afforestation and the large proportion of existing forests ready for clear-felling. This is situation is likely to be exacerbated when new national emission factors for forest peat soils are adopted by the EPA, increasing CO2 losses from afforested peat soils fourfold, reducing the forest sink and resulting in forestry becoming a net source of greenhouse gases by 2030.
The current carbon emissions and removals calculations are based on what are known as generic tier 1 emissions factors. Recognising this, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has funded Teagasc to establish a national agricultural soil carbon observatory, NASCO, to quantify Irish-specific emissions factors in order to reduce uncertainty around these emissions from grasslands on mineral and peat soils. This observatory is currently being deployed on approximately 30 sites across Ireland. In addition, the soil organic carbon baseline levels are currently being measured across more than 100 signpost farms.
Teagasc research, using projects such as NASCO and signpost farms, aims to improve the measurement of carbon sequestration and focuses on producing Irish-specific CO2 emission factors for drained and re-wetted peat soils; producing Irish-specific land management carbon sequestration factors for mineral and organomineral soils, which are mineral soils with higher levels of organic matter; improving the estimation of carbon sequestration in hedgerows and on farm trees and woodland; revising the carbon navigator and developing a new farm greenhouse gas calculator to estimate the impact of mitigation options on the farm greenhouse gas emissions and economic performance; and developing strategies for carbon farming.
There is considerable scope to both reduce land use emissions and enhance carbon sinks. To achieve long-term net climate neutrality, the rate of afforestation will have to increase significantly. In the short term, afforestation will only generate a small contribution towards the 2030 target but, if high rates of afforestation are achieved, this could make a large contribution to 2050 targets. Alternative management of the current forest estate provides an opportunity to maintain the forest carbon sink. Reduction in thinning rates would increase sequestration while increasing the rotation length could improve the forest greenhouse gas balance by up to 2 million tonnes. While this would ultimately result in higher yields, an alteration in rotation length would have economic impacts for the forestry sector and could lead to a short-term deficit in timber supply.
Reducing the emissions from grassland on peat soils will be imperative for land use change and forestry mitigation as this is the largest source of greenhouse gases. This will generally involve raising the water table. In addition, the input of nutrients from animals, manures and mineral fertilisers further accelerates decomposition and CO2 emissions. Research projects on these factors are currently commencing in Teagasc in addition to research on alternative uses for re-wetted areas. We are also surveying the current state of drainage on these grasslands as it may no longer be effective on some of the area, meaning that emissions may be lower than currently estimated.
The impact of grassland management on mineral soils is also being explored at the VistaMilk SFI Centre. This exploration seeks to quantify management impacts, such as the impacts of soil fertility, multispecies swards and grazing intensity, on soil carbon sequestration. These data will be used in conjunction with earth observation data from satellites and drones to model carbon balance for forest, cropland and grassland ecosystems across the country as part of a Microsoft-Science Foundation Ireland co-funded project, Terrain AI, led by Maynooth University and involving Teagasc, UCD and others.
The carbon sequestration potential of hedgerows has been investigated in Teagasc for many years with Teagasc and Forest, Environmental Research and Services, FERS, Limited completing the first analysis of national hedgerow carbon removal using light detection and ranging, LiDAR, investigating new technologies for mapping hedgerow carbon and mapping of carbon storage on the Devenish Dowth farm. Currently, Teagasc research is being carried out to improve the national estimation of hedgerow carbon sequestration in a project funded by the EPA and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, FarmCarbon. Increasing hedge width and height can substantially increase carbon sequestration both above and below ground while also providing increased biodiversity.
Improved cropland management, via straw incorporation, the use of cover crops and targeted incorporation of manures or digestate, can also contribute significantly to improved farm carbon balance. Research has also recently started in developing agroforestry for cattle to increase carbon capture by trees and mitigate emissions from cattle.
Farm Zero C is a collaboration between BiOrbic, Carbery, Teagasc and others to create an economically viable, climate-neutral dairy farm on Shinagh Farm in west Cork. The project presents a holistic approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the health and resilience of the farm. The project aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2027 and is also looking to improve biodiversity and water and air quality.
Farm Zero C and other initiatives will assist in the development of a carbon farming framework, as proposed under actions 317 and 361 of the climate action plan. This will have potential for trading and reward farmers for emissions reductions and removals, including through potential private sector investment. Measurement, reporting and verification of these actions will be imperative for farmers who wish to gain credit for their actions. This will take a concerted effort on behalf of the entire research, inventory and knowledge transfer community. The climate action plan proposes, under action 323, to establish a centre of excellence to co-ordinate and focus the research needs of the sector. In addition, Teagasc has several initiatives and projects under way to develop a new generation of greenhouse gas accounting and decision-support tools that will aid the farmer in making robust and sustainable management decisions. We are also starting a new project to explore carbon farming options.
I hope this has given the committee a good overview of previous and ongoing activities. We welcome any questions.
I thank the witnesses for being here and for the opening statement. I do not know if they had an opportunity to listen to our discussion with the departmental officials but one of the areas I was trying to explore - and Mr. Spink touched on this quite a bit in his opening statement - was that of establishing a baseline to understand and audit the full carbon footprint of our land use. I asked the officials whether he have the capacity to carry out this work on a farm-by-farm basis, although I did not really get an answer. Can we deliver to each individual farmer a report on his or her farm's carbon storage, sequestration and emissions so that we could then put in place a framework through which to reward him or her for improving the overall balance?
Mr. John Spink:
I will start and then I will probably pass it over to my colleague, Dr. Lanigan. We are currently using tier 1 figures and they are international averages for what the emissions or sequestration are for various practices or land uses. There is a huge effort going on to get national emissions factors so that we know, for example, how much peat soils in Ireland emit rather than using these international averages. There are a number of projects going on that are mapping the country so we will have much better data. I do not think we will ever get to an individual farm level with measurements but certainly a combination of national emissions factors and data on what is actually happening on farms will get us close.
Before Dr. Lanigan comes in, therein lies a major problem. We know the best way of encouraging farmers to do something is if they can see a direct benefit in their own water quality or their own land. We hear all these discussions about national herds and all that. In a sense we actually have tens of thousands of individual farms and the only way we can make a difference is if people are making a difference on their individual farms. The only way we can do that is if we can point to them and show them what the current situation is. I cannot get my head around why we are talking about this national picture. It is about how we bring that down to a local level and especially a local farm basis.
Mr. John Spink:
That must be done on the basis of data collected on those farms and a knowledge of how changing management alters the emissions or the sequestration. That would not be measured that on the individual farm but if it is known, for example, that changing hedge cutting from once a year to every other year would alter carbon sequestration and that has happened on a farm, it can be calculated for that farm and stated that it has increased its sequestration by X or Y. I might pass over to Dr. Lanigan on that.
This is the crucial point. Deputy Flaherty talked about how he always took great pride and value in his hedgerows whereas his neighbours might not necessarily have done so. Let us say a farmer decides to diversify to a more sustainable type of farming and to increase his or her hedgerows or carry out other carbon sequestration measures on their land. Unless we can say there is going to be a direct benefit to them they will not give a damn, and rightly so, that it might assist Ireland in achieving its global climate action targets. They want to know what benefit and value they are going to get for carrying out that work on behalf of society. How can we get to that point if we are not carrying out a farm-by-farm analysis? That is the question I am trying to get to the bottom of.
Dr. Gary Lanigan:
The carbon content does not necessarily need to be measured on every farm if we have a good enough soil map. The elements that vary soil carbon are the soil type, especially the texture, the management and then the climate. If we have a good handle on the range of carbon content and the relationship between carbon content and soil type and carbon content and management, we can model the carbon content for each individual farm. We do not necessarily have to measure it. We have to measure enough soils so we can do the modelling in a robust enough manner but after that we can model it. We have fairly complex process-based biogeochemical models that basically mathematically simulate carbon and nitrogen cycling in soils. Therefore, we can simulate that relatively robustly, but it takes a lot of input data. We do not necessarily have to measure the carbon content on every farm. It would be ideal if we could but if we have enough samples we can model it. As to how we ground-truth the modelling, that is going to be done via the signpost farms where we will measure the carbon content of every field on every farm and then also the national-----
Dr. Gary Lanigan:
We will measure the baseline soil carbon content on all of those farms. In addition, we have our national agricultural soil carbon observatory. With that we are directly measuring the volume of CO2 being taken up and released by mineral grassland, peat grassland and under a variety of different soil types and a variety of different measurements. We then use those measurements to train the models and then utilise the models in conjunction with satellite data to extrapolate across the whole country.
Professor Kevin O'Connor:
I agree with Dr. Lanigan on the model being very important and the building of robust models. We are measuring soil samples on Shinagh Farm in County Cork. Down the road there is going to be a need for certification. While the model can give a certain level of data towards certification we think farmers will be required to, for example, actually take soil samples. As Dr. Lanigan rightly pointed, out we will not measure every hedgerow. That will be impossible, so we will need models to help with the analysis but with things like soil sampling we are working towards measuring soil. Just as Dr. Lanigan mentioned about the signpost farms, we are also taking baseline levels at Shinagh Farm but we are also working on satellite imagery. He talked about ground-truthing. We will be using carbon flux towers like Dr. Lanigan is, and we collaborate with Teagasc on this. We are also working from satellite imagery and, therefore, a farmer could get a satellite image that would tell him or her the quantity of emissions coming from the farm. It is not there yet as it is not robust enough but that is part of the research. We think this will also be an important tool.
I thank Professor O'Connor. We need to do a little bit of work on it. I am conscious of the time.
We were talking about afforestation earlier. The Teagasc opening statement mentions that " if afforestation rates were to continue at current rates (or up to 3,500 ha per annum) [which would actually be a big improvement on current rates], the forest sink sequestration rate would be less than 1 MtCO2e yr-1 by 2050". It continues: "... in the short term, afforestation will only generate a small contribution". I am taking it from that and other comments in that opening statement Mr. Spink does not believe the climate action plan target of a 0.8 Mt reduction per year by 2030 is even a prospect.
Mr. John Spink:
No. After a forest is planted, it absorbs very little carbon for the first few years. There are also emissions associated with establishing it in the first place. It takes a number of years before the trees start growing rapidly and they are not absorbing much carbon until they are growing rapidly. There is then a period when the forest is mature or reaching maturity when it is absorbing a huge volume of carbon. If early harvesting of forests could be avoided or delayed, they would continue to accumulate carbon for a number of years.
It could be said the Department is doing its bit on that given the licencing system it has at the moment, though I do not know if that is its intention. This is obviously very serious because this is to make up a big part of our commitment under LULUCF and is part of the climate action plan. Thus, in all reality, with the best management in place do the witnesses see a scenario given the current rates of planting - and even with a substantial improvement up to 3,500 ha per annum - whereby we could get up to 0.8 Mt per year by 2030, or more importantly 2.1 Mt post-2030, which is what the climate action plan states?
Dr. Gary Lanigan:
Even if between 8,000 and 16,000 ha per year were planted a year, and the latter is a really big figure, approximately 200,000 tonnes of CO2 would be sequestered between now and 2030.
That is because of what Mr. Spink has detailed. Regarding forestry management, by lengthening the rotational length to the mean maximum annual increment for example and delaying the clear-felling to the age class at which the tree reaches maximum maturity, we can probably offset somewhere between 1 million and 2 million tonnes of CO2 up to 2030, but that would mean a delay in-----
Dr. Gary Lanigan:
Yes. The earlier we can get the trees into the ground, the more we can sequester over the long term. However, to reach a 2 Mt target we could linearly increase from the current 2,000 ha up to 8,000 ha by 2030, but we would need to keep going at 8,000 ha per year for the following period.
That would mean an even greater backlog of timber. Therefore, it will not happen without a big economic cost. That is the point I was trying to make.
We had a good discussion on the role of peatlands in carbon emissions, particularly the peatlands that have been brought into agricultural use. Proportionately it might be a small amount of land, but in some parts of the country entire parishes or even larger areas could be involved. The prospect of it being removed from agriculture entirely is not feasible. This is accounted for under LULUCF and agricultural activity is under agriculture obviously. Is there a comparison of emissions per hectare from peatlands that are in agricultural use versus, for example, intensive dairy? Even though they are under two separate categories, can they be related in any way, if Dr. Lanigan understands my question?
Dr. Gary Lanigan:
I think I do. On a dairy farm with two livestock units per hectare, each of cows produces approximately 3 tonnes of methane in CO2 equivalents. That is 6 tonnes of CO2 equivalents and when the fertiliser is added in it comes to approximately 10 tonnes per hectare. The problem we have with the peat soils is that we are using tier 1 emission factors at the moment, which are essentially these generic emission factors.
Dr. Gary Lanigan:
UCD carried out some research into this. We are deploying our flux towers over farms that are on both blanket bog and raised bog. Our guesstimate is that the farmland on the raised bogs is emitting close to the tier 1 emission factor, which is between 20 and 22 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year, but the blanket bog is probably much lower.
Dr. Gary Lanigan:
It would be even less than half of that. In addition, we are also measuring the sequestration rate on our mineral soil. In the national inventories grassland on mineral soil is assumed to be sequestering half a tonne of CO2 per hectare per year. With 4 million hectares, that gives 2 million tonnes in total. The measurements we have done on grassland so far indicate that value is too low.
I have a final question. I see different figures for our targets for organic production. Does Teagasc have a breakdown per hectare of the percentage reduction in emissions following the move to organic production in each of the sectors? Does it know the emissions saved if a beef farm moves to organic production? The same applies in dairy, tillage, etc.
Dr. Karl Richards:
It is certainly something we are currently looking at. We can come back to the Deputy with some figures. There is a beef life project, which has a number of organic beef farms within it and they can be compared with conventional beef farms. We are modelling that through life-cycle analysis to come up with the CO2 emissions per hectare for each of those farming types.
Professor Kevin O'Connor:
The land use change we are going through represents an enormous transition and it will be painful. We need to look at economic models to support farmers. Deputy Carthy spoke about entire parishes possibly being affected by not being allowed to farm peatlands anymore. However, they then need to be rewarded for managing carbon. The price of carbon is increasing and will not reduce in the foreseeable future. We need to look at the economic models. The Deputy earlier said that farmers would not be interested unless there is something in the economic sphere for them. We need to consider how we can reward farmers to do the right thing. It is an important point.
Much of the focus is on land being non-productive because a farmer cannot produce beef or milk from it. However, we need to look at the farm as a whole and understand the parts that are contributing to biodiversity, the parts that are contributing to not emitting greenhouse gas emissions or are sequestering greenhouse gas emissions are of value and farmers need to be paid for it.
I come back again to the small farmer who rings me every week about his hedges and is very aggrieved that he does not seem to be getting any credit in the process for all the work that he has done on his hedgerows. He looks at neighbouring farmers who have taken out all their hedgerows. This is a question for Dr. Lanigan. Under REPS, we probably planted approximately 10,000 km of new hedgerows.
It is likely that we rejuvenated another 3,000 km of hedgerows. I am sure he was listening to the previous session when I referred to the work that was done by Dr. Kevin Black in 2014, when he suggested that a hedgerows assessment should have taken place. Even though farmers are not getting the credit for it at present, what is Dr. Lanigan's estimation of the value of those hedgerows as a carbon sink given that they comprise 4%, conservatively, of the national landscape?
Second, he said he was going to do his sums based on soil sampling. That suggests that he is probably ruling out using LiDAR technology to assess the value of hedgerows and then obviously the bigger picture of afforestation as well. Is he ruling out using LiDAR?
Dr. Gary Lanigan:
No. LiDAR is incredibly valuable for getting a handle on above ground biomass, be it hedgerows or forestry. It can be done in other ways but LiDAR is probably the best way to get a handle on the above-ground biomass. In the project we are doing at present we are doing direct measurements of hedgerows in respect of the above-ground carbon stocks, the below-ground carbon stocks in terms of what is in the roots and also the extra carbon that is inputted into the soils. Looking across the literature, the rate of sequestration, including the above-ground and below-ground stocks, is approximately 3.5 tonnes per hectare, although it can vary quite significantly depending on the management. A hedgerow that is trimmed very tightly will sequester far less carbon than a hedgerow that is allowed to grow either in width or height. The estimate for the per kilometre sequestration rate is anything from about 0.85 tonnes of CO2 per kilometre up to about 2 tonnes of CO2 per kilometre, depending on the management. The 10,000 hectares mentioned by the Deputy will be sequestering anything from 10,000 tonnes of CO2 up to perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 tonnes of CO2. It depends on how the hedgerow is managed.
Professor Kevin O'Connor:
There are a number of organisations that offer certification of claims relating to greenhouse gas emissions, carbon footprint and even biodiversity. What we are trying to do in the Farm Zero C project is look at certification and how we can validate and have certified our soil analysis, biodiversity and other things that are happening on the farm. We believe it is going to be very important because when one is trading carbon one's customer is going to require that one has certified one's carbon analysis. I am referring to that.
I thank Professor O'Connor. I am familiar with the LiDAR system because I have used it on bogs previously. It was used for the different layers as well underneath the bogs. Dr. Lanigan seemed to speak about using it on top of the soil. Why does he not refer to using it for what is under soils?
Dr. Gary Lanigan:
It can be used for looking at soils, but we see the best way of getting measurements of the carbon content in the soils as a mixture of soil sampling and probably other techniques we can use such as near-infrared reflectance, NIR, or some other spectral-type techniques to get a handle on the soil organic carbon.
Dr. Lanigan said earlier that some of the figures will be adjusted because what was provided up to now appears to be changing and the models that were used or whatever the witnesses were being told were not correct. Is there an awful danger that agriculture has been put into a spot with inaccurate figures on what is being sequestered and basically being beaten over the head because we did not have the machinery or perhaps the funding and the research put into it that would help scientifically to give it a better name?
Dr. Gary Lanigan:
Up to now, we have been doing quite a lot of research, but the research projects tend to last for two to three years. The difficulty with soil carbon sequestration is that it is a decadal process if one wants to measure it. I will use the example of a swimming pool. If I have a tap dripping into a swimming pool and I say the only way to measure how much water is going into the pool is to measure its height, one measures the height at time A and one might need to wait ten years for the height to change measurably to actually see a demonstrable difference. It is the same for soil carbon. There are very large background levels of carbon - typically, in the order of 150 tonnes to 500 tonnes of carbon per hectare - and there is an input that might be half a tonne to a tonne of carbon per hectare, so there is a very low level going into a very large background. That is why the other way we get at it is to measure directly the amounts of CO2 being sucked up by the grass and the amount that is being released. The flux towers we use measure CO2 flux, the amount coming in and leaving, ten times per second, every second of the day and every day of the year at a field scale. We are not measuring a small patch of land but entire fields. That is what NASCO is. We then get direct measurement annually on the amount of sequestration going on in our mineral soils and the amount of emissions coming out of the peat soils.
Dr. Lanigan referred to peat soils earlier. I worked on the raised bog, raised bog habitat and so forth. Every area is different. Dr. Lanigan said Teagasc is doing 30 areas in the country. With the best will in the world, I know Teagasc cannot be everywhere to even trace where active raised bog habitat is in some bogs and even in the blanket bogs - and the witness is correct in saying that they regenerate much quicker - but we need to be careful about some of the things we say. I have seen analyses done on 53 raised bogs and they were all different. We need to be careful about what we say they are emitting because it might not be accurate. It could be a totally different scale.
On top of that, we need to find scientific solutions. One of the witnesses spoke about re-wetting and so forth. It is a brave politician who will tell half of the west of Ireland, the northern part of the country or County Kerry to pull out the cows and re-wet the land. Realistically, that is not going to happen, so we need to come up with solutions for how to ensure that people can earn their living and so forth. When we were talking to the departmental officials earlier, in fairness to them they said the carrot is that they will offer things to people who want to take the road of re-wetting but they were absolutely clear that nobody was going to be pushed.
We would end up with two thirds of the country being able to farm properly while one third would basically be the sink for everyone else. That is not going to happen. We need to concentrate on solutions for working with those farmers, especially in peaty areas. People cannot do much about where they are farming.
What is the story on marly or lochy land? Do the witnesses consider such land? This is poorish-quality land. There is a layer in that where the permeability is totally different from peaty land.
Dr. Karl Richards:
We have some research on the way again as part of the carbon observatory and we observe the carbon emissions associated with what we call organomineral soils. These are clay soils with a heavy subsoil and quite a high organic matter topsoil. It would quite be peaty but it would be a nice dark brown to black in colour. That typically has carbon in the range of 10% to 20% and it needs above 20% to be called peat. We are looking again at trying to improve our estimates of how much carbon is being emitted from that soil.
To answer the Deputy's earlier question, we are looking at other options. It is not just wet, re-wet or drain. There is an in-between and the water table can be varied at different times of the year. We have a project under way considering re-wetting to different levels in the soil. It may be there is a reduction in grazing capacity on the shoulders of the year but a farmer can still get to graze it in summer. The question is what effect that would have the greenhouse gas balance. We have other research under way considering the effect of a reduction in fertiliser input. Again, decomposition in the soil relates not just to the carbon content but to nitrogen, as the microorganisms that break it down need nitrogen. A reduction in nitrogen inputs would have an effect on productivity but would also reduce the greenhouse gas emissions. Again, we are trying to look at different management strategies that allow us to combine grazing with reducing emissions on those soils.
As the Deputy said, it is about different options. The target now is to reduce emissions by 51% by 2030 but we are seeking carbon neutrality by 2050 so these high-emitting soils or management practices must be offset by 2050 in order to meet those climate targets.
We call it marly or lochy type of land. There is a very small volume of matter - it is not peat - and the ground under it does not allow water down, to put it very simply. The witnesses have no research yet on that.
Dr. Karl Richards:
We have, although again I may be speaking for Dr. Lanigan. We have done some modelling and compared mineral soils, organomineral soils and peat soils. As Dr. Lanigan outlined, the peat soils were emitting approximately between 8 Mt and 9 Mt of carbon in total. Those organomineral soils were emitting between 1.8 Mt and 2 Mt of carbon, or a quarter of the amount. The reason for the high figure is probably that there is much more of that soil in comparison with the 350,000 ha or 330,000 ha of peat soils.
Dr. Lanigan spoke earlier about forestry. Can these megatonne figures be put into normal figures? There was mention of 8,000 ha over the next ten years. We might hear the dairy herd is emitting X, Y and Z and transport emits so many tonnes. How many tonnes could we sequester? Am I correct that even if we planted the country with forestry, which will not happen, there is only a certain amount allowed for under the inventory.
Dr. Gary Lanigan:
Under the old EU 2030 target, one was allowed to offset a certain percentage of the national emissions via sequestration. However, that is being revised because there will now be a LULUCF target in itself under the Fit for 55 and the new 2030 LULUCF regulations that are coming in. That limit will essentially be removed.
However, we count LULUCF now on what is called a net-net basis, so it is done relative to a baseline. For example, I could say the baseline for grassland emissions is 7 million tonnes and the next year it is doing 6.8 million tonnes, it counts as a net gain of 200,000 tonnes. That is relative to a baseline. However, we are now moving to what is called gross-net accounting, where we account for all the emissions. That is why our LULUCF sector is going from being a sink under the net-net basis to being a source. We are now counting all the emissions and sequestration.
There is talk of pushing out the trees until after 2030 but tell that to someone who has forestry and is looking for money. We must be realistic. I know the Department has made a fair job of trying to keep them there until 2030. On the question of planting, what is the benefit of the likes of anaerobic digesters? I know a guy who has willow and sold it but he is losing money because of the cost of transport, etc. What is beneficial about anaerobic digesters and other types of other types of enterprises?
Dr. Gary Lanigan:
I will deal with the mixed species grasses first. There is absolutely a benefit as they eliminate the need for much mineral fertiliser, which produces NOx emissions. There is also nitrate leaching. The species mixtures root to different depths. Again, we have eddy covariance towers over mixed species swards and are comparing them to lollium perenne monocultures. We are doing that with a few different soil types again to see what is the soil type effect times the management effect. We think they will have a big benefit and they will certainly have a big benefit in the greenhouse gas balance as less mineral fertiliser will be required on those pastures. There is also some indication the animals grazing them have reduced methane because of some of the chemicals produced by the plants. The rooting depth varies, and some of them are quite deep-rooting, which should improve carbon sequestration. We think multispecies swards are absolutely a win-win.
Biogas and biomethane probably contribute approximately 500,000 tonnes of CO2 reduction and that is mainly through the displacement of fossil fuels. That benefit does not accrue to agriculture but rather the energy sector. We can put slurry into it and this could mitigate agricultural emissions because there would not be as much ammonia or methane produced. It is instead being put into an anaerobic digester or biomethane system.
Dr. Gary Lanigan:
At the moment, there is no domestic offsetting scheme. If there was, then one could. There are two ways it can be done: via voluntary emissions reductions certificates or certified emissions reductions certificates. Going down the certification route, as Professor O'Connor said, requires more robust measurements. There are also transaction costs because that needs to be certified by a certification body, be it VERA, the Carbon Trust or whoever.
On behalf of the committee, I thank the representatives for coming in to discuss this hugely important issue. We will revisit it in the near future because there is a lot of research to be done for us to get our house in order. Irish agriculture can get itself into a good place on sequestration but there is research to be done to prove what we are doing and that we are sustainable food producers. There is a huge appetite for advancement of technology and scientific evidence on this.
We have had the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Teagasc in before the current witnesses and there has been intensive questioning of both. I have been quiet enough.
I welcome Mr. Richard Kennedy, chief executive; Dr. John Gilliland, director of global agriculture and sustainability; and Mr. David Hagan, sustainable agriculture manager, from Devenish. We will give them ten minutes to give their opening statement before we go into questions and answers.
Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected to the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I ask Mr. Kennedy to make his opening statement.
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
I thank the Chair and the committee for the opportunity to address them this evening on carbon sequestration and storage in agriculture.
At Devenish, we have a track record of research and development, R&D, in this area and have carried out research in the forensic measurement of carbon stocks, both above and below ground, at our ruminant research farm in Dowth, County Meath. This has been ongoing since 2013.
Forestry and agriculture are the only two industries that have the ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere biologically. Our research since 2013 has shown there are many options within the farming enterprise to not only increase carbon but increase the rate and consistency of carbon sequestration in soil. The first step in this process is to measure what carbon exists in our farms, that is, baseline individual farms.
Devenish is a research, development and innovation company. Our nutritionists develop and deploy solutions that ensure the most effective and efficient utilisation of nutrients in the production of food. Carbon is one of those nutrients. We take a collaborative approach, working in partnership with researchers, institutions, government bodies, our customers and suppliers, throughout the food supply chain. We utilise practical research and development, and have strength in delivering that in a commercially applicable manner in real time, thereby delivering sustainable food solutions in response to consumer demand for safe and nutritious food. Ireland has been at the forefront of this for years. We believe in a science-based approach to developing sustainable solutions for the agriculture and food industries. Through our strategy, One Health: from Soil to Society, we look at how we can positively influence human health and the environment through the provision of high quality, nutritious solutions.
Devenish was established in 1952 and acquired by the current management in 1997. We have grown the business over the years from 23 employees to 500. We have a proactive approach to human health and sustainability. We are particularly focused on improving human health throughout the food chain and have achieved this through collaborative R&D delivering innovative solutions.
This was evidenced in our omega-3 work, delivered in collaboration with the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, which has proven that the regular consumption of naturally enriched omega-3 chicken and eggs can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, dementia and depression. That was proactive health research in these days of reactive health solutions.
Devenish places sustainability at the heart of our business and is focused on creating products and services that help reduce the agriculture sector’s impact on the environment. Through collaboration, research and development we can deliver proactive, positive solutions. We believe a collective effort is required. Supplementing our manufacturing facilities across the globe, we have invested in a range of performance houses that deliver commercially applicable research to the market in a timely manner.
Every year, we make a significant investment in R&D, and it is the basis of our commercial application. It has developed solutions to the challenges faced by industry today and tomorrow. We have a team of more than 40 PhDs and experts developing products and we regularly collaborate with universities and external centres of excellence, including Queen’s University Belfast, University College Dublin, UCD, Harper Adams University, Wageningen University & Research, Agri-Food and Biosciences, AFBI, and Teagasc.
In 2013, we established our global innovation centre at Dowth. It is now an internationally recognised research farm dedicated to developing sustainable agricultural solutions and promoting human health through nutrition. It acts as a platform for public engagement and has been designated aninternational lighthouse farm, one of only 12 across four continents, that is leading the way in sustainable food production, by Wageningen in the Netherlands.
Our research farm at Dowth has been a platform for unique collaborations and we believe such collaborations are the future for agriculture in Ireland. We have collaborated with partners such as Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and academic partners such as Wageningen, UCD, Queen’s and AFBI. We have used it to showcase the research we are doing on climate smart farming, biodiversity, economics, and human health to farmers and industry groups.
We have formed wider collaborations to explore solutions to climate change, including partnering with Gas Networks Ireland, KPMG and Teagasc on Project Clover. We also recently signed a unique collaborative research initiative on climate action with the team at Teagasc, led by Professor Frank O’Mara. We have also used the platform to engage with the Government and recently hosted a joint ministerial visit with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Charlie McConalogue, and the Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, Edwin Poots, alongside the Ulster Farmers' Union and the IFA.
Our research and development focus areas and on-farm innovations include carbon neutrality and annual whole-farm carbon balance sheets; managed soil improvement; water quality; silvopasture trials; and the benefits of multispecies grazing swards, such as increased biodiversity, soil health, water retention, animal performance and carbon sequestration, in addition to reduced fertilizer, parasitic burden and veterinary interventions. These are all focused on driving farm profitability, while delivering for the environment.
The growing environmental challenges facing food producers require a collective effort. We believe that we need to work together in new and unique collaborative networks, involving public, private and research organisations taking a research-led approach to assist farmers in making the necessary changes required to meet the climate challenge head-on. Carbon sequestration and storage in agriculture has the potential to give Ireland’s food and farming sector a significant competitive advantage in the global market, while delivering sustainable solutions.
I will ask the first question and then allow Senator Daly in. I have had the privilege to be on the multispecies swards at Devenish lands in Dowth twice. On both occasions, I acquired more information and knowledge. Great credit is due to the research that is being conducted on the Dowth farm. On grass measurement, has Devenish done any research on the number of kilograms of dry matter produced on the multispecies sward on a monthly basis? There is a view that clover-based swards will not produce in March and October. Does Devenish have monthly measurements of what is produced on the multispecies swards?
My second question is on the persistence of the sward. What is the lifetime of it? If it has to be resown, what effect will that have on the emissions scale? If it has be resown far more frequently than a rye grass sward, does it have to ploughed or can it be direct drilled? Has Devenish any plans to do research on multispecies swards on dairy farms to see how they would work in a very intensive grazing system? The last time I was at Dowth, I thought about the rotation length that would be needed for multispecies swards. Where is the research on that?
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
I will defer to my colleague, Mr. Hagan, but my initial reaction is that the research we have done is unique. We have the largest multispecies grazing platform in Europe and have done research on an ongoing basis throughout the growing season. That research included the use of live animals and live animal performance. Not only have we measured that, we have also measured the performance of the animals. I will defer to Mr. Hagan, who will give the Chairman the background specifically on measurement. We will then talk about persistence, which Dr. Gilliland may speak about. I will then speak about dairy farmers.
Mr. David Hagan:
On grass measurement, we have found that after two seasons of grazing in Dowth the multispecies sward will outyield the rye grass control by approximately 2 tonnes to 2.5 tonnes. A multispecies sward is a composite of different species, including rye grasses, clovers and herbs. The grass and herbs will grow in the spring. We still use fertiliser on the multispecies swards; 170 kg on the swards instead of 170 kg on the rye grass. By using nitrogen at the start of the season when the legumes are not growing as strongly, we encourage grass and herbs to grow. They fill the period when the legumes are not yet growing as strongly. The second aspect is that when we are closing our swards in the winter, we close them at a higher cover so there is more growth in the spring. It is a slightly different management technique than that associated with perennial rye grass. It is managed a little differently to overcome the differences in the sward. That is one base. We are measuring this on a monthly basis.
On the composition of the sward, Jane Shackleton, our PhD student who is working on this, does botanical surveys every month. In the two and a half years that the multispecies sward has been growing, we are seeing a slight change in its composition, but its functionality in terms of growth rate and the performance of the animals is getting better. We are not one bit worried about the changing of the composition of the sward.
On the issue of persistency, if we look at present management techniques for perennial rye grass, we see a five- to seven-year timeframe for reseeding it. We see that multispecies swards would at least match that. We are trying out different management techniques in Dowth, as we discussed with the Chairman when he was there, to prolong the persistency of that sward. We are halfway through that and, at present, we do not see any reason the persistency will not be at least as good as perennial rye grass, if not better.
Dr. John Gilliland:
I will add to that. We measure the herbage levels on a weekly basis. We have very robust data that we can share with the committee, which our PhD student, Jane Shackleton, has led. It is very comprehensive. We find that even though the multispecies sward is slower to start in the spring, especially the legumes, we are seeing better livestock performance. When we let out our heifers in March, their live weight gain is higher from the multispecies swards then from rye grass, even though we know the legumes are slower to kick in.
The Chairman asked about reseeding. Our multispecies swards were all established by discing. We deliberately did not plough because we are a UNESCO world heritage site. We were encouraged not to plough for fear of damaging the heritage we have, but we still got a very good establishment. Running alongside our big grazing trials, we have small trials that we cut. In those trials we looked at three different establishment methods, including the equivalent of plough-till, direct seeding on top and shallow cultivation through discing. We saw that we had good establishment right across those methods, but the one benefit we got from direct seeding was far fewer weeds once the crop came through. Ploughing actually brought a new crop of annual weeds up.
For us, we actually got a win. There were fewer weeds and less disturbance to the carbon. We are expecting that we would replant the multispecies swards at about the same time one would plant perennial ryegrass. The sward is a dynamic thing and the diversity of the sward does change. As the sward changes, the residue left is a ryegrass sward with a lot of clover in it. It actually leaves us with what most farmers would have anyway. The key point is when do we make the decision to go back and put more of the herbs back in again. We have not got there yet. We expect that we will get there. We have done two full grazing seasons. Key to this is the measurement of the quantity of herbage on a weekly basis. The lambs are weighed every two weeks and the heifers are weighed once a month.
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
On the dairy farms, we are a commercial business. We must apply our research commercially. The research must be commercially applicable. We must be able to get that onto our customers' farms. This is what we have done. We have quite a few dairy farms that have integrated a number of paddocks into their rotation of a multispecies. I am aware of quite a few, but there is one very progressive young supplier in the west who has had his multispecies sward in for the past year. It has integrated perfectly into a system. He did not see any challenges or issues with bloat. His performance this year has been very good. It is one year, but a number of customers have applied it. While it might not look as attractive as perennial ryegrass, maybe it is just that we are not used to looking at.
Mr. David Hagan:
In the summer, we are talking about a rotation length of 30 days. With that 30 days we would start grazing covers of 2,000 kg or 2,200 kg dry matter per hectare, and then we would graze down to 6 cm. We would have a different management technique on this compared to the perennial ryegrass.
Dr. John Gilliland:
Where we are seeing integration working very well is if heifers, for example, are designated just to the multispecies area. With the predicted price for fertiliser this spring, there are a lot of people looking at multispecies swards to try to reduce what will be significant cost. As people start to explore this, we would encourage them to take one particular grouping of animals on the farm and designate them to a multispecies area, and do rotational grass within the multispecies. When chopping and changing one does not get the full animal performance. We have had extraordinary animal performance off the multispecies, but we have not chopped and changed. When an animal is designated multispecies, it stays on it. We have found that where an animal stays on multispecies it absolutely thrives. In a dairy situation when wanting to bring on in-calf heifers and getting them into calf, that is certainly a very good place to start. We would never foresee that 100% of a grazing platform would be multispecies but we feel that it has a huge role to play. It is particularly good in that regard. That is how we would encourage people to go in first. We would say put it on and see how it works but do not chop and change the whole time. Take one group of animals and keep them on that platform.
I thank the representatives from Devenish. I had the pleasure of visiting the farm and I compliment them on the great work they are doing. Mr. Kennedy almost answered my first question. I must phrase this properly and I ask that the witnesses do not get me wrong. What Devenish is doing up there, with the backing of a multinational or as part of a multinational, is being done in somewhat laboratory conditions, for want of a better phrase. The representatives spoke of the other people and their customers who are integrating the same system. Has Devenish seen much in the performance or the results from the standard average family working farm as opposed to the places where Devenish would have done more research? Whereas the farmer was using the system to farm to make a profit, Devenish was using it as part of research. Please do not get me wrong, but has Devenish noticed much difference in the productivity or the outcome from the day to day? How many people following the system are in a real working situation as opposed to the research model?
Devenish is a multinational and is all over the world. I presume it is doing similar types of work, depending on the climate, the soil and the geographical constraints of different countries around the world. How does Ireland compare with what is happening elsewhere when it comes to all of this research?
The Department, Teagasc, and the representatives from Devenish have been in to the committee today. The answer to nearly every question is "We are working on it or we researching that at the moment". In simple terms, when are we going to start getting results of all the research everybody is doing that can be implemented into policy, to give us definitive readings on output and sequestration from a farming model so we can try to get a net-zero emissions? Teagasc is doing its signpost programme farms. At one stage we were told that some of the readings in soils are more than twice that predicted by the model they had based it on. When are we going to get to definitive figures, models or crossbars, for want of a better word, that we can all work towards? I understand that research will always be ongoing to develop things, but we seem to be researching a lot and there are a lot of conflicting answers and results coming out of the research. When we get to a place where we can have a model to use in trying to get to net-zero emissions, and which will be acceptable by scientists who might not be as pro-agriculture as we all might be?
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
I tend to use the saying that this is a marathon and not a sprint. Like every marathon, however, we need to start. As was referred to earlier, the end line is that by 2050 food will have to be produced sustainably because we will have a zero-carbon world. That is as I see it and nobody can argue with that. We must produce food sustainably. I firmly believe that in Ireland we have all the tools required to lead the world on this. I am absolutely convinced of that. As I said, it will take unique and collaborative initiatives. This means people working together but in different ways. This is why we were very excited about the work with Teagasc. We have the knowledge to start this journey. We know the direction of travel. Multispecies provides a part of this. As we heard in some of the submissions earlier, it is very important that the first thing we must do is baseline every farm. We must first see where we are before we go anywhere else. We need to do that. That would put us in a very strong position because then we are at the start of the race and each farmer would have the potential to go from there. That will take the industry coming together. As I have said to various people, we should collaborate to accentuate what we have. We tend to divide and diminish. I call on all participants, whether it is the committee, the Department, Teagasc, or the Devenishs or Carberys or UCDs of this world, we have the potential to lead the world. We have worked throughout the world and the reason we have been successful,and grown is the reputation of the UK and the island of Ireland in agriculture. When we step into any other country and say that we are from this island it gives us a huge advantage because people look to Ireland to see the success in agriculture. That was always the door opener for us.
We have that potential. We also have the danger, and there is a big danger, that we will be left behind if we do not decide we are taking this road. For me, it is not just the research bodies, the Government and the Department, it is also the financial institutions. Environmental, social and governance, ESG, is a huge driver in this and the financial institutions must and should encourage this. Every link in this supply chain must put its shoulder to the wheel. This will happen in that the demands and expectations have been set, but it will be how quickly we, as a country and industry, decide to step into this challenge. I absolutely believe that we are perfectly placed. We must open our minds. We must look at it as what is the art of the possible, and we believe the art of the possible is in front of us. Baseline farms start the journey. Give farmers direction and use the research and data we have.
Some of the people who have contributed to this meeting have shown the phenomenal knowledge and expertise we have in this industry, so we should use that. That is the baseline and we start from there. One then asks what direction we should travel in and how to answer all the challenges, because with every challenge there is an opportunity, including work around peatlands and work around biodiversity opportunity. Today we are talking about sequestration, and Professor O'Connor previously spoke about the opportunity and necessity to deliver on biodiversity and water quality. All these things can be met, I believe, as we look into this industry. We have seen it from around the world. We have seen where we stand on a global basis, but it is now a case of saying not what we cannot do but what we will do.
Dr. John Gilliland:
I will add to that. On sequestration rates and when we will have a scheme, it is fair to say that for the past 15 years the majority of public research went into measuring emissions, not measuring carbon sequestration. It is only in the past 18 months that this has become a public priority. When we bought Dowth in 2013, we saw a clear knowledge gap in respect of carbon stocks on-farm and the role that ruminant animals have in increasing carbon on a farm. The first thing we did in 2014 was start our base-lining. It was the first farm in the world to do aerial LiDAR surveys to measure every tree and hedge on the farm. In 2017, we measured our soil carbon as forensically as well. We have just revisited our LiDAR survey, but we have not done the compare and contrast yet. We will repeat the soils next year.
One of things we saw very quickly is that there are several really helpful things farmers can do to accelerate their carbon sequestration. We cannot tell exactly whether it is by 0.5 tonne or 0.8 tonne of carbon per hectare per year, but we can tell that it is improving and we will know better what it is. We are focusing on three key areas in sequestration and increasing carbon storage in swards. One is whether we can correct soil pH values in a mineral soil. The Food Vision 2030 document calls out the fact that only 18% of soils in Ireland are adoptable fertility, in which low pH is the biggest problem. We know that soil carbon is never permanent. It is cyclic and it sits within the soil biology. Soil biology churns better and locks up more carbon if it is more at an optimal pH in a mineral soil, at around 6.5. When we bought Dowth it was sitting at 5.4. Our first six years were to correct that deficiency, and we have improved it.
Dr. John Gilliland:
Our current figure is averaging 6.5, so it went from 5.4 to 6.5 in six years. We have a policy of measuring our soil fertility every two years. We do it with GPS and we go back to the same spots. We can compare and contrast every two years and assess whether we are on course. It is a very visible thing. If any member of society who is concerned about our soils visits Dowth-----
Dr. John Gilliland:
That is done with a little lime, but often. In our last lime application we took it one step further. As we do our soil sampling with GPS, we can build up soil pH maps and we can put in that data. The last time we spread lime, and the contractor who spread it for us has a variable rate lime spreader, we were able to put lime on where it was needed and not put it on where it was not needed. That is why we are passionate about switching over to the digitilisation of the landscape. It means using the right inputs where they are needed and not wasting them. We also need to be careful. We do not want to put large quantities of lime on highly organic soils and release carbon.
The second area we have looked at is multispecies. Anecdotally, our evidence is showing that already there appears to be an improvement in soil carbon. However, as Dr. Lanigan said in the previous session, measuring change in soil carbon is a slow process. It is really a five-year window. The initial results we are getting after year one and year two are looking positive, but we would prefer to tell the committee the result after year five. It is not that we want to delay it but that if we want to get cast iron figures, we must give it a chance. As we turn this supertanker we know there are certain things that will increase carbon.
As well as improving pH in mineral soils and multispecies swards, we are looking at silvopasture, which is putting trees, swards and animals together. That is alien to 99% of farmers, but one must look at the data. The longest trial in silvopasture in the European Union sits in Loughgall, County Armagh. There are more than 30 years of data on that. The carbon sequestration there has been trebled while still maintaining animal output.
In the case of economics, at the end of year one we had a 180% increase of profitability on the multispecies vis-à-visthe perennial ryegrass. We are just finishing year two and we are seeing nothing in that journey to say it is any different. We have reduced the greenhouse gas intensity per kilogram of beef and lamb by 26% in one year just by switching from the perennial ryegrass to the multispecies, dropping the nitrogen by 65% and improving average daily live weight gain. That is quite stunning.
Finally, on the international side, as an island we export 80% of what we produce. When we went on this journey we did not just partner with Teagasc and UCD. We went to the Netherlands and partnered with the world's leading university in agriculture and environment, Wageningen University & Research. The reason we did that is we wanted our science to be credible in the eyes of the international consumer who buys our product. It is very important when we go on this journey that our international consumers see our journey as credible. That is why we reached out to Wageningen University & Research as well as Teagasc and UCD. We believe that as a global company we must be credible in the eyes of the global consumer.
That is very interesting stuff. I will concentrate on one area as I am conscious of the time. It is the point I raised with the other two sets of witnesses. Mr. Kennedy spoke about what Devenish has been doing with regard to measuring all the hedgerows and trees and quantifying the soil in respect of carbon storage. My first question is to clarify a point that was made. Is it correct that Devenish cannot yet tell or does not have a way of measuring the improvement of carbon storage within soils from one year to another or from one time period to another?
Dr. John Gilliland:
No. What we did was we measured actual stocks. Our plan is to go back every five years. That is no different from the plan of Teagasc. We are just fortunate to have had the foresight to do it quite early. The process is exactly the same. All soil research groups are trying to find a magic digital wand that can be stuck in the ground and will tell one what the latest carbon is. That has not been found yet. LiDAR has been extraordinary for above-ground carbon but we do not yet have an equivalent digital tool for under the ground, so it is still rather laborious. One has to go out and sample the soil.
Dr. John Gilliland:
Correct. What we have done in the first five years is to take a tier 2 sequestration factor from peer-reviewed published paper. The chief agricultural inspector mentioned tier 1, tier 2 and tier 3. Our ambition is to get to tier 3, which is exact measurements for exact farms. As a farmer, I want to know what my carbon is and whether I am improving it or reducing it. I do not like being made a pariah. Our industry is being made a pariah by the media, who are saying we are the worst in the world. However, our carbon stocks are significant. We are custodians of the nation's carbon. We are not the monsters we are being made out to be. We in Devinish want to prove that ruminant farmers have a future and a significant role in maintaining and enhancing the amount of carbon while still producing nutritious food. That has been at the core of our research at Dowth and beyond.
Mr. David Hagan:
Another thing we are doing is that we have a specific experimental design in our soil sampling that is designed to statistically pick up the differences. As Dr. Lanigan stated in the previous session, we are trying to find a small drop in a big swimming pool, but if one designs it in the correct way such that one can pick up these statistical differences, that is the bit that helps and is critical in a measurement reporting and verification market.
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
What was always done in the past was that we have had the standard of best available technology. It is the best available technology at this point in time. From that point of view, the best available technology allows us to get carbon measurements in soil. As we stated, the first thing to do is to ascertain where one is and get a baseline.
I do not know if our guests heard our earlier discussion with the Department and Teagasc. I refer to what I am trying to determine in the first instance. Is it possible? Absolutely, it is possible. If you can do it on one farm, you can do it on all farms. Is it practically possible and feasible to do it at such a cost that it can be carried out throughout the country? That would be a game changer. I agree with Dr. Gilliland because it is not just about the sector. Agriculture is like every other sector - there are good players and bad players and those in between. If we could get to a point whereby every farm had an audit of what is happening here and now, and knew that if they were in a position to improve those figures in terms of improving sequestration and lowering emissions, that would be of benefit not only to society - all farmers want to contribute to society - but, crucially, to farmers in terms of being able to trade carbon and be rewarded through schemes or whatever other measures are put in place, as well as being able to use it as a promotional tool for their product. Across an array of areas, this could be a game changer that flips the entire environmental debate on its head.
I will finish this point and then let our guests reply. Devinish is a company, so I am sure euro signs are flashing in our guests' heads while we are talking about this. What would need to happen in a collaboration, as they have suggested? Obviously, there would be a need for the private sector but it would need to be driven by the Department if this were to actually happen and every single farm provided with this type of an audit. What steps would need to be put in place by our previous guests, namely, the Department and Teagasc, in order for that to happen?
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
First, the euro signs flashing in front of my head are not there in the context of making money. We have invested a significant amount of money in this research because we believe this is the future of farming and food. As I stated, there is no other game in town in the context of 2050. Ireland is a food-producing island. Senator Paul Daly stated that we are a multinational. I am a small farmer - maybe not that small - but I am from a small farm in Sligo in the west where I live. I do not see myself or us as being part of a multinational. We are a company that is trying to build a business but the fundamental of that business is that there is a food supply chain. As I stated, Ireland has been fundamental to our reputation in growing throughout the world. We believe that Ireland was a leader in nutrition when we stepped off the island and it now needs to be a leader in sustainability. I absolutely believe we can do that. We can and we should get a baseline for farms by gathering the information using the best available technology we have at our fingertips to find out where we are.
Mr. Richard Kennedy:
Ultimately, there is an upfront cost but in the long term it has the potential to deliver increased profitability for farmers and food because it changes the game. We would suddenly differentiate ourselves and advance. There are gains for farming, farmers, the food industry and the island. For us, that is where we see the potential. The first step is to get a baseline.
Dr. John Gilliland:
In the context of LiDAR, if we go on this journey, it will not only benefit farmers; it will actually benefit the nation. As the Deputy is aware, I work on both sides of the Border, as does our company. There has been an announcement that we are going to do LiDAR for the whole of Northern Ireland. When the business plan for that was in place, the point was made that LiDAR is really good for flood risk management or building a new road. We said this is a public good. In the North, it is the public purse that is stepping up.
Dr. John Gilliland:
I do not know. It is with the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland. It has signed off. The Minister has made the announcement. The business case has been done and it was based on the fact that LiDAR will give benefit to many parts of the region. We should be considering doing it on an all-island basis. LiDAR for the whole of the island of Ireland would deliver many benefits and not just put all the cost on farmers.
For information, Bill Callanan stated earlier that although he is not pre-empting anything and it is not his section, he expects that the OPW will do something in the context of LiDAR for Ireland next year.
Dr. John Gilliland:
It is the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. The data will be publicly available for all public interests. That will include bodies such as the Department for Infrastructure Rivers Agency, to reduce flooding, and the other sections of that Department as well when it wants to build a new road, motorway or whatever else. The LiDAR data gives-----
Dr. John Gilliland:
The whole idea is that the data will be made available for every farm. It will be tied with the information for soil fertility, because that is being done at the same time. Each farm will get what is called a soil run-off risk map that will show the risk of where, during extreme rainfall, nutrients, pesticides or soils could leave farms and where they may discharge into watercourses. It will also address how to improve water quality, as well as measuring carbon.
It is a completely different tack compared to what we are used to in here regarding the agricultural side of things. Dr. Gilliland spoke about the media. He has a vision that agriculture in Ireland can sequester an awful lot more carbon while keeping the stock we have, and perhaps even having more. He is putting that out there as basically a new way of going forward, compared to all the other stuff we hear out there. How long does he believe it will take to attain this?
Dr. John Gilliland:
Our chief executive has clearly articulated the need to do these baselines. That being done will make it possible, for the first time, to get a true inventory at an individual farm business level of what carbon is on what farm. That has never been done before. When that is done, the result will be some extraordinary figures. In soil, it can be anything from 50 tonnes to 300 tonnes per hectare. It depends on whether the soil is mineral or organic.
One thing learned from doing that will be that an awful lot of carbon is sitting out on farms and farmers do not get credit for that. We believe there is a need to bring that point to light. What all farmers do is manage the nation's carbon, but that is not recognised now. We ask farmers to produce good quality food and we reward them for doing that. We are now asking them to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and to increase their carbon stocks. That is not recognised now. We must get to a policy and regulatory system, through some kind of public-private partnership, that allows us to determine the carbon content and, in the case of peat soils, to reduce what we lose, and with mineral soils, to determine how we can get more storage. It must also include hedges and trees. Could we, for example, have a campaign to remove electric fences and to put hedges back again? It would involve looking at practical ways that are very visible and that will also deliver for biodiversity. There is a collection of things. We must, though, turn the dial on the narrative from one suggesting that farmers are the worst in the world and pariahs in this regard to one showing them as being the custodians of the nation's carbon. The question is what we can do to get them to store more carbon.
Regarding the multispecies sward, and we were lucky enough to have seen that, what is the story in that regard? I always understood that when nitrogen was put on red clover that it killed it. What is the story in that regard?
Mr. David Hagan:
Yes, we are using nitrogen on it. As I said, we are using 70 kg of nitrogen. What we do, though, is put the nitrogen on in the spring and at the back end of the year when the legumes are not as active and where they are not fixing as much nitrogen. We are augmenting those plants and not causing as much harm.
Can pit silage be made from multispecies sward plants? Regarding round bales, it was said that the material had to wilt a good bit. Can pit silage be made from it and will that turn out good?
Mr. David Hagan:
Yes. When making silage out of multispecies swards, because the dry matter is lower in the herbs in the sward, it is necessary to just allow it to wilt that bit longer. The standard wilt time would be anywhere from 12 hours to 24 hours. In this case, we recommend at least 30 hours, if not 36 hours, of wilting time to get the dry matter up as best as is possible.
When I talk to farmers some will say, and this is one thing that must be nailed down, that when red clover was being used some time ago there was a bit of swelling in some cattle. Is it the case here that other plant species in the sward are eliminating that problem? The aspect I am concerned with is the length of life of it in this regard. In addition, does it accept lime in the same way as the ordinary grass that we grow now?
Mr. David Hagan:
On the red clover, I think the Deputy was referring to bloat in the cows. In our experiment, animals were assigned to their swards at the start and they were on it for their lifetimes. Therefore, they are not changing their diet. Bloat happens in animals when they go onto clover-rich swards after they have perhaps been on a bare sward. Animals eating multispecies sward all the time do not suffer from that effect. The other point in this regard is that there are standard management techniques that can get over this problem as well, such as using bloat oils and ensuring that hungry cattle are not put on the swards, etc. We can manage the problem in that way. As Dr. Gilliland said earlier, we recommend that groups be put on multispecies sward and be kept there, or at least have them there for some length of time.
Turning to the subject of lime-----
I have to adjourn the meeting now because we are being called to a vote. We were overrun with all the questions thrown at the departmental officials earlier regarding what was being done in this regard. We will, with the good graces of the witnesses, be calling on their research in future as we try to formulate policy here. As the witnesses articulated well, this area was neglected. Representatives from Teagasc have admitted that it is not where it should be regarding technology in this area.
I am sorry we must adjourn, because we would have liked to have devoted more time to talking to the witnesses. With their permission, however, we will use their resources in future. This area is evolving at a fast rate. We must be able to show that we are the most sustainable producers of food in the world and it will only be possible to do that with the benefit of their research. We must modify our practices to reduce our emissions. I thank the witnesses on behalf of the committee.