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EIT Climate-KIC and Ireland partner to reduce agri-food emissions

Decarbonising agriculture and food production is one of the biggest challenges of the decade. Ireland’s agri-food sector contributes 37 percent of the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the country has committed to cut a quarter of these by 2030 and to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, in line with the EU bloc’s target. How can food systems innovation accelerate the change needed?

Agriculture is not only Ireland’s largest domestic sector, but it has profound ties to the country’s social and cultural fabric. In a landscape dominated by green grasslands, ruminant livestock herds, and lush landscapes with ponds and wetlands, farmers regard themselves as its guardians.

That means that decarbonising agriculture and food production (the largest source of the country’s overall emissions) presents a unique sets of challenges and relies on more than simple technological advancements. The country is preparing for a systemic transformation to radically shift from a predominance of cattle, dairy, and grassland to more sustainable practices, including greater crop diversity, increasing forests, and cutting down food waste.

From incremental progress to food systems change

Ireland has already taken steps in the right direction. Since the 1990s, it has diversified land use and reduced grasslands in favour of croplands, forests, and other uses. The country now has new ambitious climate action plans and targets, as well as successful nationwide sustainability programmes such as Origin Green.

Yet the economic significance of the agri-food sector (exports were a record EUR 17 billion in 2022) combined with the smallholder, aging and low-income farming landscape, which often relies on subsidies and loans, has put the brakes on change.

It is true that government actions and incentives, such as new forestry schemes and premiums to farmers for planting trees, have resulted in a decrease in grasslands (one of the principal emitters of greenhouse gases) and an increase in forest cover (which conversely acts as a carbon sink). Yet this incremental progress is far too slow for the rate of climate action needed. Therefore, the country is increasingly turning towards solutions that are deep-rooted and can cause a greater impact, such as climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation.

The challenge: how can we demonstrate what climate-neutral food systems look like?

Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine and EIT Climate-KIC, Europe’s leading climate innovation initiative, have partnered to trial this transformative approach.

By applying to EIT Climate-KIC’s Deep Demonstration model of innovation, the partnership is fostering a collaborative process to identify, test at scale, and implement a range of connected, innovative solutions to accelerate systemic change. In Ireland, that means working with farmers, businesses, policymakers, researchers, and citizens to create and implement tailored solutions to sustainability challenges while learning from each other and collectively pushing forward climate action.

A key step in this process is gathering a comprehensive understanding of the system (complex by definition) across four key components: socio-economic drivers, environmental drivers, food system activities, and food system outcomes.

Supporting a just transition for Ireland’s farming communities

This mapping of the Irish land and agri-food sector has returned a complex landscape with promising levers that can be pulled to move the system forward. One such insight is that farming communities are both the most impacted by climate change and the main actors in its fight.

Farmers have been balancing the contrasting pressure of keeping up with food production demand with cutting down on harmful environmental practices, such as reliance on pesticides and methane-emitting livestock. At the same time, farmers’ livelihoods are challenging: family farm income in 2021 was on average a mere EUR 34 000, with almost a third of all Irish farms considered to be economically vulnerable.

It comes as no surprise that a sustainable land management approach requires farming communities and cooperatives to actively engage in its planning and implementation. Positive farm-level measures have been steadily taking place from conversion to more efficient and clean energy systems, such as photovoltaic technology or the purchase of precision agriculture equipment. What’s missing is a collective, systemic approach.

Beyond technology: shifting to sustainable food production and consumption

The combined challenge of reducing emissions and diversifying income streams goes beyond technology. It’s crucial to recognise the importance of social behaviours and choices, skills, and new business models.

Current distrust by farming communities towards national and EU agricultural policies is fueled by perceptions of hyper-criticism, limited influence, and changing priorities. In Scotland and Belgium, strategies where local food councils and taskforces involve farmers and rural communities in the decision-making are paying off, and they may represent a model to foster dialogue and collaboration for Ireland too.

As an effective way to connect farmers and citizens, fostering models centred on cooperatives and producer associations can also help in raising consumer awareness of the necessity to shift to healthy, local, and equitable food production. This would also help cut down on food waste, which currently amounts to one million tonnes per year.

The ambitious journey to climate-neutral food systems starts from the farm and ends on the table.  All actors in this chain have a role to play. In Ireland, our Deep Demonstration is taking stock of the progress already made, connecting the dots, and steering individual initiatives in the right direction. Now, moving to the partnership’s next phase calls for all hands on deck.

Learn more about Deep Demonstration

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