Ireland Aims to Make its Green Island Greener: Leading the Way in Climate Action through Organic Farming

Lowering emissions from one of the leading industries contributing to greenhouse house gas emissions? Check. 

Stabilizing income for farmers in a difficult time for the industry? Check. 

Preparing for an increasingly prevalent shift towards eco-friendly eating habits? Check. 

Irish farmers are hoping to reap the benefits of increasing support for organic farming. The Irish farming industry is discussing the potential joint benefits of providing economic incentives for farms that are more environmentally sustainable. The Irish agriculture industry has been falling on hard times, especially following the Brexit referendum three years ago. But Eamon Ryan, the leader of the Green Party in Ireland, thinks that with economic support for on-farm environmental serviceslike watershed management, biodiversity preservation, and research into climate change mitigation technologies, the industry could grow greener and stronger at the same time.

Last month, Mr. Ryan spoke at a meeting for the Committee of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine debate on the future of the industry and their Foodwise 2025 plan. The plan aims to establish a more profitable and eco-friendlier agricultural and beef industry by “enhancing reputation and value through emphasis on grass fed, low carbon and proven sustainability of production methodologies.” 

According to the EPA, “agriculture is the single largest contributor to Ireland’s overall Greenhouse Gas emissions, accounting for over 30% of the total” as well as being its largest land user, claiming two-thirds of the country for pasture, silage, and grazing.  

But while it plays such a huge part in Ireland’s economy, you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at the economic success of the farms.  

A recent reportfrom the agri-business research body Teagasc explained that beef production in Ireland was responsible for 98 percent of carbon agricultural emissions in 2017, which overall generated 141 tonnes of agricultural greenhouse gases. But of those same farms, only 25 percent are considered successful economically. The Irish Farmers Association and Mr. Ryan think that by providing economic encouragement for on-farm environmental services, they can tackle the profitability and sustainability problems in the industry.  

So, what do we mean when we talk about on-farm environment services? Organic farming is an approach to farming that invests in the long-term. It relies on “ecosystem management” instead of synthetic and often dangerous fertilizers, pesticides, and GMOs. Organic farms engage in location-based management practices to maintain soil fertility and combat pests. 

This could happen in a number of different ways, like rotating crops, using organic pesticides, and tilling the land as little as possible. These methodscould dramatically affect the environmental footprint of the whole farm. Not only are farms more able to bounce back from crop disease or other natural disasters, but the soil, water, air, and overall climate will be healthier. Sounds like a good deal, right? 

Site-specific management practices lead to increased soil fertility, nutrient and water retention, soil biodiversity, and productivity all while decreasing soil erosion and the need for synthetic fertilizers. 

The groundwater provides 26 percent of the drinking water in Ireland, and in some counties it makes up 85 percent of public water use. With on-farm environment services, pollution of the groundwater is dramatically reduced as the soil retains more water and through the replacement of chemicals with “organic fertilizer” like manure and compost, groundwater pollution becomes less dangerous. 

By decreasing the need for chemicals in farming, organic farms decrease their energy footprint too. Techniques like crop rotation and crop residue returns increase the amount of carbon kept in the soil and eliminates the reliance on fossil fuels to produce agrochemicals like pesticides. And the more carbon retained in the soil, the lower the greenhouse gas emissions. 

Of course, all of these factors lead to an increase in the diverse combinations of plants, insects, and animals on the farm because harmful chemicals aren’t eliminating natural pollinators and pest predators. This is why “organic farmers are both custodians and users of biodiversity at all levels”, a necessary guardian in the face of the climate crisis.  

Organic farming has its disadvantages, as it requires more labor and produces smaller amounts of crops each year, and this can lead to premium costs being added to their final products. But these premium prices might just be exactly what the industry needs to pay farmers enough to keep their business afloat.  

The Irish Farmers Association (IFA) and Mr. Ryan believe that investing in sustainability in the agro-industry would not only lead the way in greening the industry but would help to increase profits for struggling farmers. “I think the climate way is the way for getting out of this difficulty by getting consumers on your side,” Mr. Ryan said earlier this month. “I think it’s actually the way to start paying Irish farmers properly.” 

And as more and more countries begin discussing the potential of greener farming, the market is growing worldwide, by about 20 percent annually. International organic retail sales have doubled since 2010 and are estimated to be worth €85 billion. Ireland markets itself as a green food island and yet it imports almost 70 percent of the organic fruits and vegetables purchased there. 

Dr. Andrew Tanentzap, the author of a UK studyon the economic benefits of organic farming, noted that more farmers are paid fairly for their jobs through these economic incentives. “Our results show that paying farmers to do things that are good for the environment actually seems to work when averaged across national scales,” Tanentzap said. “In many parts of the world, governments already provide huge subsidies to the agriculture industry; if we are paying people to be farmers, part of that payment – indeed, part of the job of a farmer – needs to be protecting the countryside as well as farming it,” he said.

Catie Brown

Although I’ve always loved writing, I embarked on my journey into science journalism about three years ago. I am fascinated by all things water — oceans, ice, coral reefs, currents, extreme weather, sanitation, energy, and (of course!) climate change. I also love looking into the different ways we talk about climate change as a social, cultural, economic, spiritual, and political crisis. Big thanks to coffee and chemistry jokes for keeping me going. Happy reading!