The Irish agricultural industry is undoubtedly navigating through uncertain times. However, rarely has there ever been such opportunity for alternative approaches to safeguard and strengthen the sector.
One such opportunity exists through the utilising of alternative energy and supply sources, particularly in biogas and biofertiliser.
As public concern for the long-term effects of climate change grows, states are looking towards new technologies and better approaches towards reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
As we look towards achieving a 50% reduction in carbon output and 70% reliance on renewable energy by 2030 (currently this stands at 16%), anaerobic digesters are largely overlooked, but are a potentially vital resource to the agri sector in Ireland.
The potential benefit to the state and to the local farmer cannot be overstated, so just how can they benefit the industry as a whole?
As you are likely aware, biogas can be extracted from manures and slurries to feed the energy requirements of local business through breaking down of organic material by microorganisms. Biogas is then burned to produce electricity for the farmland or energy grid.
The utilising of this potential resource would eliminate the overreliance on limited gas reserves and imported gas at a time of increasing market volatility, thereby protecting farms from external risks as they move towards a focus on self-sufficiency and long-term viability.
This can be particularly beneficial to the dairy industry and farms in peripheral locations.
The additional resource derived from anaerobic digesters is biofertiliser, which can be used to balance nitrogen and the localised effects of phosphates, which can be hazardous for biodiversity.
Locally produced biofertiliser would be a favourable resource to imported fertiliser and, moreover, it results in healthier soil and greater yields.
This organic fertiliser’s nutrient and organic matter content is called digestate and it offers a far more attractive option to more commonly used mineral fertiliser.
The localised sourcing of this material drastically reduces the carbon output of creating and transporting that is required in the sourcing of mineral fertiliser and can provide a further potential revenue for local farms should excess material be created.
The benefit to the local farmer is through maximising potential profitability, operating at a greater efficiency through recycling material and through improved soil conditions, improving the long-term viability for future Irish farmers, eliminating expenditure for energy and providing multiple opportunities for additional incomes as the farm becomes more adaptable to an increasingly changeable market.
The extent to which this could improve land use throughout the country cannot be overstated. The benefit to the State will also be immeasurable, as they look to meet their carbon reduction goals in line with the new Government framework.
As national energy security becomes more of a concern, the State has reduced its reliance on imported energy (2006: 91% > 2019: 66%).
However, there is still an immediate need to reduce the current expenditure of €3.4bn to €4.6bn, depending on primary energy costs.
The long-term cost efficiency to the taxpayer can be maximised through immediate action and the framework sets out to encourage this.
The time for early adaptation of this increasingly popular technology has already passed, as its use in many other European states has grown considerably.
But, nevertheless, the sooner we utilise this technology, the sooner we can safeguard and improve the whole sector.
This is where the farming community has an opportunity to not just support the carbon neutral approach, but to lead the approach and push for the change that can so greatly benefit the industry and the State.
This can be done through lobbying for grants from the State and individual councils and pushing to make immediate adaptation of this technology possible.
The consideration and use of incentives are key to ensuring the successful move towards anaerobic digestion (AD) projects.
In order to make the prospect of localised AD a more attractive one, funds must be built for the construction, installation and short- to medium-term maintenance of such systems on Irish farms and the key to making this possible is the will of the farming community.
The primary blocker to this technology being rolled out in Ireland is the fact that it remains relatively unknown here, in comparison with states such as Italy (1,500 AD plants nationally), Germany (9,000 AD plants) and France (500 new AD plants in 2020).
The potential grants that could be taken up or encouraged are many. Beyond the construction, installation and maintenance of these plants, there is room for potential tax exemptions, long-term feed-in tariffs, carbon credits, renewable heat/energy credits and even nutrient credits.
Current incentives in Ireland for Irish farms looking to potentially benefit from this opportunity extend to feed-in tariffs and carbon credits, but with enough support, there is potential for more.
Do your part
The Government needs to enable farmers, project developers and councils to utilise this viable technology now and immediately put into action what they have laid out in the Government framework, as well as the updated Common Agricultural Policy.
I would encourage all farmers to do your part to bring this forward by contacting your local politicians, engaging with your representatives in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to push this solution to the fore.
Talk with your colleagues in the farming industry and promote outside-the-box thinking.
New and extraordinary problems require new and extraordinary solutions and the only people you can truly rely on to revolutionise the agricultural industry in Ireland is the farming community itself.
Morgan O’Ciardha, Cork city, Co Cork.
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