A Trinity College team lead by Prof. Jane Stout is involved in a project led by the Bioeconomy Centre, BiOrbic, and backed by Carbery dairy Co-op and Teagasc, which aims to make the dairy sector carbon neutral. At the same time, it aims to improve on-farm biodiversity and pilot farm-scale natural capital accounting. Such an ambitious goal has been supported by a €2 million Challenge Prize from Science Foundation Ireland.
In contrast with the European average of about 10%, the agricultural sector in Ireland accounts for roughly a third of total greenhouse gas emissions. Of this, 58% can be attributed to methane produced in the rumen of cattle and sheep . The agricultural sector is expected to cut greenhouse emissions at least by 25% by 2030. It is therefore crucial to lower methane emissions (together with carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide) and the Farm Zero C project aims at doing exactly that (while improving biodiversity at the farm and still having a viable business). This would be a world-first example and could kickstart a wave that would make the whole sector sustainable.
The focal farm for this project is called Shinagh Farm, a demonstration site in west Cork acquired by dairy co-op Carbery a decade ago to make it an example of sustainability, and operated together with Teagasc. Its current extension is about 101 hectares and 250 dairy cows roam its pastures for about 300 days a year.
The Farm Zero C consortium (headed by SFI’s BiOrbic bioeconomy research centre’s Kevin O’Connor and with Jane Stout from Trinity College, Fionnuala Murphy of UCD, James Gaffey of Munster Technological University, Johan Sanders of Grassa NL and Laurence Shalloo of Teagasc) won a €2 million grant to make it happen.
The question though is: how do we do that? After all, the metabolism of dairy cows is a given and the prosperous Irish dairy farm sector doesn’t want to reduce animal numbers. A holistic view must therefore be taken and the whole production process must be streamlined to achieve neutrality.
The Farm Zero C project, working with the farmers at Shinagh farm, have already achieved 20-30% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and implemented strategies like using protected urea as a fertiliser to minimise nitrous oxide emissions (a very potent greenhouse gas), biorefining grass, installing a wind turbine and solar panels. To improve biodiversity, new hedgerows have been planted, areas of wetland and grassland fenced out, to achieve the target of 10% natural habitats (over 8% of the total is already classified as “natural”).
To track how changes in the way the farm is managed influences these environmental benefits, we need a tool that enables us to account for all the outputs of the environment that are relevant and have a benefit to us, often termed ‘ecosystem services’. These are the result of processes like carbon sequestration, water purification, biomass production, pollination and landscape creation, among others. Each one of them stems from healthy stocks of natural capital of an ecosystem (soil, water, plants, animals), and results in flows of ecosystem services (climate regulation, soil maintenance, clean water, forage, recreation/cultural amenity). Through the natural capital approach  we can account for all of this and make sure we reach carbon neutrality without damaging the flow of other ecosystem services (there are synergies but also trade-offs between the services).
The UN has proposed a framework called SEEA-EA (System of Environmental Economic Accounting – Ecosystem Accounting) to do exactly this. This has already been adopted in Ireland (see the INCASE project) and many countries at country or catchment scale and for the first time it will be applied at farm scale at Shinagh. Working with Professor Lars Hein, at Wageningen University, we will apply Ecosystem Accounting principles to Shinagh, to develop Natural Capital Accounts. The project will run until July 2023 where a full assessment of the natural capital and ecosystem services will have been completed.
The model at Shinagh will also be implemented at 10 other collaborating farms and the aim is to apply it to 5,000 other dairy farms in Ireland within five years and then abroad.
About the author:
Fabio Delle Grazie is a Research Assistant working with Prof. Jane Stout at Trinity College for the Farm Zero C project. Fabio is also completing is PhD on the ecosystem services of turloughs.