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Sustaining momentum

The Agricultural Science Association (ASA) hosts its annual conference next month. The event always attracts an impressive line-up of speakers and this year promises to be no different. ASA president, Professor Tommy Boland recently spoke to Irish Farmers Monthly editor, Matt O’Keeffe about his expectations for the event

“One of the key strengths of ASA membership is the willingness of people to come together and network to the benefit of everyone involved,” says Tommy.
“The Association’s conference brings together a whole range of people from across the agri-food sector and is really important for the entire industry.”

Sustainable food systems

Tommy provided details around the various conference sessions: “Everybody is aware of the challenges that society is facing around sustainability, not only environmental sustainability but also social and economic sustainability. We are bringing together a group of national and international speakers to discuss the good work that is being done around primary production, food processing and around the agri-tech sector, all under the conference theme of 'The science of sustainable food systems’. ” 

Comparative progress

When asked how far along the sustainability journey Irish agriculture is, Tommy had this to say: “We had an event in the School of Agriculture and Food Science in University College Dublin (UCD) last December at which it was highlighted that Ireland is one of the few countries globally that has a comprehensive plan for our agriculture sector. We hear a lot in the media about the challenges facing our sector. There are some inaccurate accusations that agriculture is not acting on these challenges. The reality is that we are at the forefront internationally in actions being taken including a plan or roadmap as to how the food sector is going to address its sustainability challenges.
“The need for balance in terms of the economic, environmental and social aspects of sustainability will be reflected in our conference presentations and discussions. We will hear from farmers, and it has been said that the industry talks at farmers rather than with farmers, so we will hear the farmer perspective on what is happening on the ground to address sustainability challenges.
“Recent data produced by my colleagues in UCD shows some of the pressures that farmers are under in terms of mental health and the risks being encountered by farmers as well as some of the drivers of those risks and mental-health pressures among the farming population. It’s important to understand what it takes for farmers to

produce food in a manner that allows them to generate a good income for their families from their farms as well as supporting their local and regional communities,” says Tommy.
The food-processing sector will also be represented at the event, with the likes of Jeroen Dijkman, head of Nestle’s Institute of Agricultural Sciences, and Margaret Berry, head of sustainability with Kepak highlighting what food processors can do to promote sustainable food production.
“Processors are the conduit between the primary producer and the consumer and Margaret and Jeroen will look at what can be done to improve sustainability right along the food chain,” explains Tommy.
Jim Bergin, CEO of Tirlán and global vice president of ESG for Alltech, Tara McCarthy, will address issues around the solutions that are being developed and adopted for farmers in a commercial and practical manner.
“And several other speakers will broaden the debate so that we can be more fully aware of the challenges and solutions around the development and management of sustainable food systems.”

The UCD role

UCD has a strong reputation for bringing well-researched initiatives to reality. In providing some practical examples, Tommy explains: “Maybe when we were having more theoretical discussions 10 or 15 years ago about reducing emissions from the agri-food sector, there might have been an anticipation among some people that there would be a silver-bullet solution. It is abundantly clear that there is no single strategy that is going to solve all the challenges. We have been researching and developing, together with the wider industry, a suite of tools that are and will be available to the entire farming and food-processing sectors.
“I recently attended the launch of the latest iteration of Teagasc’s Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC). What came through very clearly was that we now have a number of viable and practical options for use on farms to decrease greenhouse gas, including nitrous oxide, emissions. What is clear is that there are fewer options to reduce enteric emissions from our livestock and that’s where UCD, along with industry our colleagues both in Ireland and internationally, are concentrating our efforts to come up with viable solutions.”

Practical solutions

The UCD academic discussed the progress being made in developing practical options for methane suppression in ruminants: “If you look at much of the work being done by companies in developing methane-suppressing technologies, the work is predominantly being done around confined herd management and nutrition. That’s an easier environment to work in with total mixed ration (TMR) feeding being the normal practice. Pasture-based production presents difficulties. A different approach to feed additives is required. For dairy herds, a slow-release additive that could be fed morning and evening at milking times is being explored. A bolus-based option is also being examined, or can we provide an additive through the water system that will effectively reduce methane emissions in cattle? We are still at early-stage research and effective commercial solutions are not yet ready to be applied but we are getting closer.”

The Lyons cow

Tommy gives an overview of a typical cow on the higher input/higher output production model at UCD Lyons Farm: “This is a grass-based system with cows fed 1.5 tonnes (t) of concentrate, annually. They produce almost 600kg of milk solids (MS), on average. That compares to the average cow producing 450kg MS on 1.2t of concentrate.
“It is not useful to get into a comparison of one system over another. Different production systems suit particular farms or herds or individual circumstances. The key point is that you can have efficient or inefficient production outcomes from any system. What favours the Lyons system is that our carbon figures compare very favourably both nationally and internationally.”

Monitoring and measuring

The Irish infrastructure to monitor, measure and collect data on carbon inputs and outputs from Irish agriculture is very well developed, according to Tommy: “We have seen huge investment in the necessary infrastructure over the past five years. We have the largest concentration of carbon flux towers in the world. Teagasc, with funding from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) and the industry, generally, has been to the forefront in these developments. There has been heavy investment in technologies to measure methane emissions from ruminant animals, and at Lyons farm, we recently took delivery of equipment to get methane output measurements of sheep and younger bovines. All of this provides proof of the importance placed in agriculture by our government and state agencies. It also highlights the commitment of our industry to meet the challenges of reducing emissions from our food sector and in promoting the positive carbon credentials of the sector.”