A high-profile audience from the world of local, national and international agrifood attended the inaugural lecture of Professor John Gilliland, marking his Honorary Professorship from Queen’s University Belfast.
A former President of the Ulster Farmers’ Union and Chair of DEFRA’s Rural Climate Change Forum, Prof Gilliland is a well-known figure in the UK and Irish food and farming industries as a leading businessman, policy advocate, farmer and scientist. He is currently Director of Agriculture & Sustainability at Devenish Nutrition and collaborates with the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen’s on research projects aimed at improving the sustainability of agriculture. He was appointed ‘Professor of Practice’ in November of last year.
The lecture and panel discussion were hosted by IGFS in partnership with the Irish Farmers’ Journal newspaper and took place at the Great Hall at Queen’s.
Among the audience was Lord Deben, former UK Secretary of State for the Environment and current Chair of the UK’s independent Climate Change Committee (CCC). He was accompanied by the Chief Executive Officer of the CCC, Chris Stark.
Panellists included Australian businessman and regenerative-farming campaigner Alisdair MacLeod, Chair of the Macdoch Group. It made headlines around the world when a subsidiary, Wilmot Cattle Farm, sold half a million US dollars’ worth of carbon credits to software giant Microsoft. Under the deal, Microsoft reportedly plans to offset emissions via 40,000 tonnes of carbon sequestered in the soil of the New South Wales ranch.
The other panellists were Hugh Harbison, a dairy farmer from County Londonderry and a member of the DAERA-European Innovation Partnership project ARC Zero (in which Queen’s is a partner), and Thomas Duffy, a dairy farmer from County Cavan and Chair of Teagasc’s Signpost farm advisory committee. Acting as Chair of the Panel was Prof Gerry Boyle, former Director of Teagasc.
Also in attendance were Tom Arnold, Chair of Ireland’s 2030 Agri-Food Strategy Committee, and Prof John Fitzgerald, Member of Ireland’s Climate Change Advisory Council. Closer to home, the President of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, David Brown, and the new Permanent Secretary of DAERA Katrina Godfrey were among the audience along with many representatives of the NI agrifood and environment sectors.
Dr Gilliland said the capacity for farmers to sequester carbon, eg, via soil, hedgerows and trees, had not been recognised enough in the debate to date about achieving agricultural net zero. He advocated a public-private partnership to create one credible framework to allow a ‘carbon credit’ marketplace as an incentive for farmers, to offset their own emissions or to sell to other farmers or businesses. He said changing behaviours could be financially beneficial, as well as costly, in some instances.
He added that comprehensive measuring of carbon needed to begin immediately and explained how the animal-nutrition firm Devenish was leveraging its knowledge from the lands at Dowth to accelerate seven farms across NI to net zero in the DAERA EIP funded ARC Zero project, through establishing baselines and subsequently monitoring carbon at regular intervals.
He said: “There will be a cost, overall, and that needs to be recognised. Some farms will never reach net zero, some farms will surpass it.” He advocated the public-private partnership manage agri carbon on a large scale going forward. “If you can’t measure change, you certainly can’t manage it,” he said.
The path to net zero “has to be practical, it has to be sound,” he added. “It has to be based on credible science. Here in Northern Ireland, we can’t do it alone, we need to do it together with our neighbours – east-west, north-south.”
In a lively panel discussion, Thomas Duffy said one of the biggest challenges facing farmers was ‘knowledge transfer’.
He said: “There is so much information out there – and sometimes misinformation too. It can be hard for farmers to pick up on the correct messages.”
Alisdair MacLeod said the debate on carbon needed to widen to include that all ‘natural capital’ was important – including water health, biodiversity and ecosystem services – and could potentially give farmers new income steams, compensating for the cost of changing other behaviours.
Hugh Harbison said that culture change was necessary but it was “really important that farming remains profitable”.
Earlier, Lord Deben and Mr Stark met with scientists from IGFS on Dr Gilliland’s own farm near Londonderry, Brook Hall, to hear about the latest research on de-carbonising agriculture, including innovative approaches to reducing methane emissions from ruminants. Much of this work happens under the auspices of the Queen’s-AFBI Alliance.
Dr Gilliland is actively involved with the Queen’s-AFBI Alliance, including chairing the ARC Zero project. He is also a participant in the AgriFood Competence Centre Food Futures research project, focused on developing metrics of sustainability for agrifood systems in NI.
Prof Nigel Scollan, IGFS Director, said the inaugural lecture event helped to emphasise the large opportunity agriculture has to contribute further to both reduction in carbon and GHG emissions and very importantly to sequester more carbon in soils, hedges and trees. “The need for a public-private partnership to create a framework for carbon credits is evident and the event laid an excellent foundation to catalysing this journey,” he said.
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