Niall O'Brolchain

Insight Sustainability: ‘A just transition with farming community welfare at is core is the only approach that will work’ Niall O’Brolcháin on data, paludiculture and the future of farming

Submitted on Tuesday, 02/04/2024

What is farming’s future?  Rural income and climate sustainability will sink or swim together

Niall O’Brolcháin, eGov Unit, Inisght SFI Research Centre, University of Galway

 ‘Carbon farming, where we get real transparent monitoring of what’s happening in our natural systems, is what we need and then to pay our farmers for their real skill in protecting nature as well as providing food.’

So said Environment Minister Eamon Ryan in Brussels this week as he urged his EU colleagues not to give up on the Nature Restoration Law in face of farmers’ protests across the bloc.

There is a world where farmers can earn a good living while farming sustainably but to get there, we need make very smart investment decisions now. Sinking more money into propping up farming practices that are in irreversible decline is not sound decision making.

Farmers and their funders need data to support land use decisions. The EU is currently processing applications for a major funding round to collect data on alternative farming practices. Among these is a practice that is so little known that it doesn’t even pass a spellcheck: paludiculture.

One fifth of the island of Ireland is suitable for this potentially lucrative form of agriculture that also happens to be a blue chip climate cooler. Otherwise know as wetlands farming, paludiculture is the practice of growing and harvesting plants that thrive on wet bogs.

Plants such as bullrushes (typha) and sphagnum moss, when harvested and dried, can be processed into very valuable, and very climate friendly, fertiliser and raw material for building supplies.

Meanwhile, the rewetted bogs are four times as effective at capturing carbon as the Amazonian rainforests. Instead of drying our bogs and stripping out the thousand-year-old carbon to burn as a fossil fuel, paludiculture leaves the peat in the ground and harvests instead its money-making, carbon-neutral yield.

Straight away we encounter problems with transitioning to this kind of farming. Local communities in Ireland, as we have seen, are unwilling to leave peat – a free source of fuel – lying in the ground.

Farming communities; who at this moment are struggling to put food on their own tables, never mind anybody else’s; have neither the budgets nor the appetite for taking an expensive gamble by rewetting their lands and pivoting to new crops.

In reality, the market for Typhaboard, which can be used as insulation board, construction board, inner wall or rigid filling, is not developed enough for Irish farmers to access. Sphagnum moss is widely used as an alternative to peat fertiliser in the Dutch flower industry, but it’s not a promising earner for Irish farmers yet.

A just transition to green farming that puts the welfare and earning potential of the farming community at its core is the only approach that’s going to work. Any moves toward paludiculture in Ireland have to be backed up by meaningful supports for transitioning farmers and attractive incentives for industries, such as construction and horticulture, to invest in palidiculture products.

Underpinning all of this we need data. We know that Ireland has the potential to rewet up to 20 per cent of its land area for this kind of farming, however, that land must be mapped and assessed for suitability so that any investment is not scattergun and ultimately wasteful. We need demonstrator wetland farms in Ireland, of the sort we already see in the Netherlands and the UK, to give farmers and investors the chance to see this kind of transition in action. Such demonstrator sites would also give researchers like the data scientists at Insight SFI Centre the opportunity to collect and process data using sensors, drones and machine learning techniques to identify the most efficient and productive approaches to Irish paludiculture.

Farmers across Europe are desperate for help and have come to view climate action as the enemy of prosperity. However, the reality is that our farming systems are collapsing. No amount of investment in current farming practices can stem the decline. The soils are exhausted, biodiversity loss is threatening critical plant species and climate change is creating harrowing unpredictability in weather patterns. Change in coming whether farmers protest or not.

Policymakers in Ireland and in Europe now need to draw together the strengths of the agricultural science community, the data community, industry, farming representatives and most importantly, farmers themselves to build our understanding of the paths out of agricultural crisis and into an era of farming that sustains our planet, yes, but most importantly, sustains our farmers.