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01 October 2019

Agriculture and the Sustainability Challenge

Posted By: AIB Business
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Noel Meehan, Teagasc Agricultural Sustainability Support Advisory Programme Manager outlines some of the sustainability challenges ahead and the practical steps / supports available to Irish farmers

Irish agriculture has a global reputation for high environmental standards. However these standards are continually under focus from national, EU and international policy. The challenge of Water Quality, Biodiversity, Climate Action and Sustainability will influence agricultural practices and profitability into the foreseeable future. The agriculture industry is working hard to meet these challenges head on to secure the future of farming in Ireland.

New Joint Advisory Programme to Address Water Quality

The Agricultural Sustainability Support Advisory Programme (ASSAP) is a new collaboration between government and industry aimed at improving water quality in Ireland. The national programme, operated using 20 advisors from Teagasc and 10 advisors from dairy co-ops’ in conjunction with Local Authorities Water Programme, works closely with farmers to provide a free and confidential advisory service, focusing on three main areas:

  • Improved nutrient use and management
  • Land and stream management
  • Farmyard management and practices

At the end of each visit the advisor and farmer agree on potential improvements or actions for the farm to ‘break the pathway’ and prevent nutrients and sediment from entering water.

The programme is co-funded by the DAFM, DHPLG and Dairy Sustainability Ireland, and is supported by Ireland’s farm organisations.

Reducing Agricultural Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions

The focus on GHG’s and the role agriculture will play in helping Ireland reach its national targets have been given renewed impetus in the governments new Climate Action Plan. The Plan requires agricultural emissions to be in the range of 17.5 to 19.5Mt by 2030, equating to a 10-15% cut relative to 2017 levels. The Teagasc MACC (Marginal Abatement Cost Curve) identifies 3 main mitigation pathways (26 individual mitigation actions) to help reduce agricultural emissions and reach our 2030 targets:

  1. Reduce agricultural methane and nitrous oxide emissions
  2. Sequester Carbon via land use change and forestry
  3. Energy efficiency, biofuels and bioenergy production to reduce farm energy use and displace fossil fuel usage

Clearly the challenge facing agriculture to attain these targets is going to require changes to our established farming systems with an ever increasing focus on farm sustainability.

Improving Biodiversity on Farms

The most important direct drivers of biodiversity loss are habitat change including land use change. Both intensification and abandonment have had a significant impact on the levels of biodiversity in farmland all over the continent.

The quest for neatness and tidiness often misguidedly overrides ecological considerations in an effort to make farms appear well-managed. Hedgerows, field boundaries, field margins and roadside margins, which are potentially extremely valuable biodiversity hotspots and networks for nature, are all too often over-managed or sprayed, resulting in flowerless, structure-less wasted resources of little or no benefit to biodiversity.

7 steps to Improving Farm Sustainability and Profitability

Early action is key to meeting our sustainability obligations. There are a range of farm practices that farmers can implement easily on their farms that can combine profitability gains and contribute positively towards the environment. Teagasc has developed some practical tools for farmers designed to help improve farm sustainability:

1. Improved EBI and extended grazing

  • A €20 EBI increase can lead to a 3% reduction in carbon footprint
  • A 10 day increase in grazing season can give a €27 increase in profit per cow

2. Substitute clover for chemical fertiliser

  • A well-established white clover pasture will deliver a 10% reduction in carbon footprint

3. Changing to protected Urea

  • Delivers a 71% reduction in emissions of nitrous oxide gas
  • Used in spring will save 6 kg N/Ha worth €40/Ha in grass grown

4. Reducing ammonia and GHG emissions from slurry with Low Emission Slurry Spreading (LESS)

  • LESS used in spring has a N value (€/Ha) of €35 with splash plate worth €21

5. Improved energy efficiency and use of renewable energy

  • Potential to reduce electricity consumption and CO2 emissions by 60% and save over €2500 for 100 cow herd

6. Incorporating forestry and hedgerows on farm

  • Forest plantations sequester 4-14 tonnes of CO2 eq /Ha/Yr
  • Retention of habitats, correctly managing hedgerows and planting of new hedgerows and forestry will have additional biodiversity benefits

7. Use of the ASSAP advisory service to help improve water quality

  • Improved soil fertility through liming and appropriate nutrient use will help improve grass growth and farm profitability
  • Reducing nutrient loss from farms can result in improvements in water quality, biodiversity, GHG’s and profitability


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