While Ireland’s land base is probably sufficient to meet the demands of our ambitious food targets up to 2020, careful consideration to policy decisions are going to be required to ensure appropriate land use in the longer term to 2050.

This is according to Teagasc experts Dr Rogier Schulte and Reamonn Fealy who were before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine yesterday afternoon for a briefing on their work on land use in Ireland.

“Do we want agriculture to become carbon-neutral at the expense of biodiversity or do we want to protect all biodiversity at the expense of carbon-offsetting?” asked Dr Schulte.

There are four key demands for Irish land, namely, increasing food production under Food Harvest 2020, offsetting carbon, the provision of clean water and lastly, the protection of habitats for biodiversity, he outlined.

In order to achieve these four goals, more efficient management of the resource is essential, the Teagasc expert stressed.

“Our land base is sufficient to meet 2020 targets, if managed correctly,” he added, noting hard choices will be required beyond this target.

The committee was informed at present Irish agriculture absorbs about one third of the CO2 emissions it produces and there is now a greater need for a more sustainable position in the coming decades.

Given that not all soils are conducive to carbon sequestration, ongoing Teagasc research has important implications for our climate change targets, according to Dr Schulte.

Leading research is now under way on Irish soil, with detailed mapping and databases on regional soil types coming on stream shortly. This work is expected to feed into policymaking in the area, to ensure that soil types are used most appropriately and efficiently across the country.

The issue of renewables was also raised in the context of how Irish land use for bioenergy production, with the experts pointing to the current moves away from land in direct competition with food.

Over a series of hearings, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine is hoping to examine the most appropriate mix of policies to maximise the potential of Ireland’s diverse lands.

Chairman of the Committee, Deputy Andrew Doyle said: “There are few greater challenges for our €10bn agri-food industry than charting a sustainable and balanced land use strategy in the longer term. Making the right choices now has the potential to positively influence generations of farm families well into the future. While it is an issue that transcends the current Dáil term, our committee is expecting to examine the current policy options in the area with key stakeholders and experts in the coming months.”

Committee members also agreed that Ireland needed to play a proactive role in the shaping EU Directives on land use, which currently being formulated.

“We were encouraged to hear that Ireland is probably ahead of other member states in terms of research in this area,” the chairman added. “With over one billion of the world’s population going hungry, Ireland also has the potential to feed into a critical global debate on optimising how we use our land. Undoubtedly, the solid science and research exemplified in the presentations by the Teagasc experts this afternoon hold the key to ensuring our finite land resource can be best optimised for food production in a sustainable manner.”

Pictured Teagasc expert Dr Rogier Schulte