Agri–Environment Conference focusses on Biodiversity, Water Quality and Reducing Emissions

Agriculture is currently facing a number of environmental challenges relating to biodiversity, water quality and reducing both greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions. That was the clear message at the National Agri–Environment conference, organised by Teagasc, which took place in Tullamore, County Offaly, on Thursday, 17 October.

Pat Murphy, Head of the Teagasc Environment Knowledge Transfer Department, said; “There will be a requirement for an unprecedented level of dialogue between a very broad number of partners in the sector to deliver on emission targets, biodiversity and water quality. The industry collectively must use all the tools available to it in order to deliver the improvements required. It is also essential that there be clarity for farmers and as much simplification of what they are being asked to do as possible.”

Greenhouse gas and Ammonia emissions

Dr Karl Richards, Head of Environment, Soils and Land-Use Research Department in Teagasc, told delegates;  “The recently published Government Climate Action Plan sets out the challenging targets for agriculture: Reduce emissions by 10 to 15% by 2030; deliver carbon sequestration; and support diversification including bio based products and bioenergy. “

This Climate Action Plan contains many of the measures identified in the Teagasc Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC), which assess the abatement potential of a range of mitigation measures, as well as their associated costs and benefits on both greenhouse gas (GHG) and ammonia emissions for the period 2020-2030.

A total of 14 cost-beneficial, cost-neutral and cost-effective mitigation measures were identified in the Teagasc MACC for reducing agricultural emissions (methane and nitrous oxide). These measures were estimated to reduce emissions by 1.85 Mt of carbon dioxide equivalents per year (CO2-e yr-1) between 2021 and 2030. The largest contributors to the abatement are using protected urea, improving dairy EBI and using low emission slurry spreading.

In addition, the MACC identified carbon sequestration from afforestation and management of high organic soils could potentially remove another 2.97 Mt CO2-e yr-1 from 2021-2030 reaching a maximum of 3.25 Mt CO2-e yr-1 by 2030. The cultivation of biofuel / bioenergy crops and anaerobic digestion has potential to account for a further reported reduction of 1.37 Mt CO2-e yr-1 by 2030, mainly associated with the displacement of fossil fuel usage.

The key message from Dr Karl Richards was that we know the potential for mitigation, but now we have a limited time to encourage farmers to adopt the actions and deliver mitigation. Early actions results in greater Greenhouse gas reductions.

Water Quality

The challenges on water quality were outlined by Bernard Harris, Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM).  He outlined that recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitoring has indicated that water quality has begun to decline again after a period of stagnation.  He pointed out that Nitrogen (N) use on Irish Farms has increased in recent years and this is a key factor which needs to be tackled by farmers in improving nitrogen efficiency.  The derogation and Nitrates Action Plan reviews will focus heavily on N efficiency, fertilizer formulation and on stocking density.

An update on the Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP) was outlined. It is a free, voluntary and confidential advisory service providing advice to farmers on reducing nutrient and sediment loss from farms to waters.

Noel Meehan, Teagasc said that the service is available to farmers located in 190 Priority Areas for Action (PAA). These are catchments identified throughout the country where water quality is under pressure. Advisors will visit farms, assess existing practices and offer advice on preventing nutrient and sediment loss to waters with a view to improving overall PAA water quality.


The increasing importance and concern for biodiversity can be seen from the evolution of global policy since the 1990’s. There is ample room for both agriculture and biodiversity to develop side by side if effectively managed space is left for nature.

Sean Kelly from National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) highlighted the status of our bird populations.  He indicated that while there have been improvements for a number of species there are a lot of species that remain under threat.

Teagasc Countryside Management Specialist, Catherine Keena spoke about the development of a scientifically based methodology to assess farmland habitats and the development and trialing of a biodiversity indicator in the Teagasc National Farm Survey.

A Biodiversity Management Practice Index (BMPI) is proposed for application on dairy farms to inform biodiversity management practice which enables the positioning of intensively-managed farms by their biodiversity management practice status. There are four broad characteristics of farms which provide readily accessible indicators, namely: the farmed landscape structure; hedgerows; field margins; and watercourses.

Constituents of the Biodiversity Management Practice Index would include; Average field size, hedgerow height, new sapling trees in hedgerows, uncultivated field margin, unsprayed field margin, fenced watercourses, watercourse margin of 1.5 metres or more, and absence of drinking access to watercourses.

Teagasc has organised a ‘Hedgerow week’ starting next week, 21 October with an event at Teagasc Kildalton Agricultural and Horticultural College. During the week landowners and machinery contractors will be encouraged to manage hedgerows for the benefit of wildlife.

A copy of the event booklet can be found here

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