Northern Ireland farmers can grow ‘power’ in the future – ensuring the survival of the beef sector and benefitting the environment at the same time, it has been claimed.
The National Farmers’ Union envisages an industry at the cutting edge of technical efficiency with tackling climate change through renewable energy and carbon capture at its heart.
It is a scenario that would transform the current wholly misleading perception that farmers are among the worst offenders when it comes to environmental damage and instead put them at the forefront of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions a decade ahead of the Government’s target.
The NFU vision, outlined in a new report, was unveiled as it emerged that Northern Ireland is already ahead of schedule as a producer of renewable energy – with more than 40 per cent of output coming from green sources in the past 12 months.
The union paper, Achieving Net Zero: Farming’s 2040 Goal’, sets out three pillars that will help the industry reach its ambitious goal:
n Improving farming’s productive efficiency;
n Improving land management and changing land use to capture more carbon;
n Boosting renewable energy and the wider bio-economy.
Farmers, it says, can avail of a wide variety of techniques to reduce their own emissions while maintaining and even increasing productivity at current levels.
At the same time, it calls for bigger hedgerows, the planting of more trees including the creation of more woodland, enhancing the organic matter in our soils and conserving existing carbon stores in grassland and pasture.
NFU President Minette Batters said: “We aspire to be producing the most climate friendly food in the world. The carbon footprint of British red meat is only 40 per cent of the world average.
“And we can go further, whether that is through improving our productivity, using our own land to take up and store carbon, planting hedgerows and trees to capture even more, and boosting our renewable energy output.
“We know that there is no single answer to the climate change challenge facing us all.
“That is why we must work across a range of internationally recognised inventories and utilise the best available science, working in partnership with concerted support from government, stakeholders and the wider supply chain.
“This ‘white paper’ provides a strong foundation on which to talk to others about joining us on our journey.”
The acreage of woodland in Northern Ireland is pitifully low in comparison to the rest of the UK and Europe generally, meaning that, should suitable initiatives emerge in the future, the Province’s farmers would be in prime place to participate.
By comparison, the growth of renewable energy in the Province has been relentless in recent years with considerable scope for farmers to become engaged in the future.
In 2005, only three per cent of electricity came from green sources. Today it is 44 per cent, with a seven per cent increase in the past 12 months alone to June this year.
System Operator Northern Ireland (SONI) runs the electricity grid in Northern Ireland and is responsible for integrating renewable energy on the power system.
Managing director Jo Aston said the ground-breaking DS3 Programme, a world-leading initiative undertaken with its counterparts at EirGrid in Dublin, was allowing it to meet the challenge of integrating energy from renewable sources with traditionally-produced power.
“This work is enabling us to run the power system with up to 65 per cent renewable energy at any given time,” she said.
“This has enabled us to reach the 44 per cent average for the 12 months to June. We are not stopping there either: our ambition is to take that average figure significantly higher in the coming years.”
According to statistics published by the Department for the Economy, wind energy accounted for 85 per cent of the renewable energy during the period. The remainder was largely solar power, biomass and biogas.
The Soil Association applauded the NFU report for its ambitious targets but questioned its feasibility and potential impact on the biodiversity of the countryside.
Rob Percival, the association’s Head of Food and Health Policy, said: “The NFU’s ‘net zero’ plan is over-reliant on bioenergy and unproven productivity ambitions to offset emissions.
“Further intensification risks undermining their goal to store carbon in soils and will further threaten biodiversity.
“Trees on farms and soil carbon storage are already proven to work and should be a much greater focus.
“Dietary change is also needed. The NFU is right to shift the focus away from grass-fed ruminant livestock, but we need to eat less grain-fed pork and poultry, which are reliant on ecologically damaging imported feed crops. High consumption of grain-fed meat simply offshores our dietary emissions.
“The Government must now support farmers in a 10-year transition to agroecology, as called for in the recent RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.
“Agroecological systems like agroforestry and organic must be at the heart of our response to the climate and nature crises.”