Boyle: The ‘huge challenge’ of communicating in the agri-environment debate

A lot of work is ongoing in Teagasc on the research of agriculture and its impact on the environment – amid “evolving” science and communication challenges, according to the director of Teagasc, Prof. Gerry Boyle.

Speaking at a press briefing at the agricultural authority’s annual report and results for 2019 this morning (Wednesday, October 21), the director touched on agriculture and the environment, as well as the debate over the environmental sustainability of agriculture today.

He highlighted the challenges – both in ensuring that agricultural emissions are being measured in the most fair and accurate manner, and in encouraging the adoption of further environmentally friendly practices among farmers:

“There is, particularly on social media, an awful lot of heat generated in discussions around the contribution of the agricultural sector [to greenhouse gas emissions].

We would have striven to maintain a strict scientific approach to all our work and interventions in this space. That is especially challenging.

“But there is a huge challenge here in communicating what are complex issues,” Prof. Boyle said.

Methane

“For example, if we take one issue, science has evolved dramatically in recent years in the understanding of the distinctiveness of methane gas and its contribution to global warming.”

Highlighting that this change has been happening incrementally over a number of years, the director explained:

The Climate Change Advisory Council has recognised that this science is hugely significant because it does require us, in policy, to treat biogenic methane very differently to other greenhouse gases such as CO2.

Prof. Boyle stressed that this will have “profound policy implications” for the targets that are set into the future for methane. However, he warned:

“At the moment, we’re working on international agreements that take us up to 2030, which don’t enshrine this new science, and targets have been established in the context of the old scientific approach.

“We expect, over the next number of years, that that’s going to change and we anticipate fully that the splitting of methane from other greenhouse gases in agriculture will happen; but it will take time – probably up to 10 years, that’s the kind of timescale we think is reasonable.”

New Zealand model of ‘splitting’ emissions

Expanding on this, the professor pointed to New Zealand, which has already taken steps down this road, noting:

“In New Zealand they have already embarked on splitting the targets of methane and non-methane gases and established different targets for both sets of targets.

“I think that’s one very important step, but a very complex step to explain; there’s no question about that.

Nitrogen

“Also, we’ve been doing a lot of work over the years on soil fertility and particularly in relation to the use of nitrogen, chemical nitrogen.

“We recognise as we head into the future that less chemical nitrogen can be used.

We have identified alternatives which are environmentally friendly, such as the use of clover, so a lot of the solutions are apparent – what’s really going to be challenging for us is encouraging farmers to adopt these new technologies.

“We’ve had to put a lot of work into thinking about how we can progress the adoption aspect; the implementation aspect of the challenge, while at the same time, I think we have a responsibility to try and explain to the non-farming community the complexity and nature of the challenges that exist.

“We’ve no doubt on our minds that there is an awful lot of work to be done in that respect,” Prof. Boyle concluded.