Teagasc research staff explain their trials to find replacements for peat based growing media. Photo credit: R.Moss, 2022.

An Taisce’s “Legacy4LIFE” recently attended the Sustainable Food Systems seminar at the Teagasc Ashtown Food Research Centre, which was held on Friday the 3rd of June 2022. What is the reason for our interest in Sustainable Food Systems?

Quite simply it is because of the huge contribution by agriculture toward Ireland’s Green House Gas emissions.

This “Cow in the Room” contributed 35.2% of our total Green House Gas emissions in 2018, compared to the 2018 EU average of 12.4% (GOVERNMENT OF IRELAND, 2021, p158). The reason for the high level of emissions from Irish agriculture is due to it being dominated by livestock grazing. Ruminants, such as cows, make a huge amount of methane with their fermenting gut system, and collectively we do like to eat a huge quantity of ruminant burgers, and dairy products! By helping to supply this global food demand the Irish meat and dairy industry contributes towards an agri-food sector that is one of Ireland’s largest industries, delivering €14 billion of exports in 2020.

Clearly agriculture is vital for human life, for Irish prosperity, and specifically it cannot be curtailed in a similar manner to other energy themes. While we can make progress to reduce waste and also energy consumption for heating and transport, we cannot reduce food production with a growing global population. Therefore, the future of our food production will need to be more efficient, diverse, sustainable, resilient, and inclusive.

The relevance of food sustainability to An Taisce’s Legacy4LIFE programme is particularly pertinent to two of its three constituent projects. These being the “Green Communities Low Carbon Plan” and the “Advancing Farm to Fork for Biodiversity” projects. Find more details about these EU Life funded environmental and climate action projects here. 

As stated already, agriculture represents the single largest sector for Irish emissions, at 35.2% in 2018, yet within Ireland’s 2021 Climate Action Plan it is targeted for the smallest percentage of emissions reduction and has also been assigned the least capital investment in emission abatement technology. This appears to put a heavy burden on other sectors to decarbonise.

“Additionally as other sectors decarbonise, the share of the agriculture contribution to the national emissions profile will increase.” (GOVERNMENT OF IRELAND, 2021, p157)

The challenge of sustainable food production is not a phenomenon limited to Irish Climate Policy. Our difficulties in addressing agricultural emissions may be just a reflection of a global trend in terms of societies disconnection as to where its food comes from. This trend has recently been thrown into a sharp reverse by the huge increase in commodity prices fueled by Covid-19 supply chain disruption, limitation of the supply of oil and gas by OPEC, and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia which has removed a huge amount of grain and fertiliser supply from the global economy.

The sustainable food event itself featured a number of panel discussions, and expert speakers from various organisations at National, European, and UN level. These included Martin Heydon T.D. who is Minister of State with special responsibility for Research and Development, Farm Safety and New Market Development at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

During the seminar it was explained by Professor Joachim Von Braun that last year’s UN Food Systems Summit was organised in response to a lack of progress being made with UN Sustainable Development Goal 2: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. He went on to state that a key area still requiring attention remains building a policy synergy between food and climate change.

Tom Arnold, Chair of the High-Level EU Committee in Food Systems Science, pointed out that agricultural prices have fallen over the last 60 years … but that this has only been achieved at the cost of environmental damage.

Professor Ismahane Elouafi, Chief Scientist with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, added that the cost currently being paid for our food is much less than its true environmental cost, and that in order to move to a more sustainable means of food production it will be necessary to utilise the funding and efficiencies of the private sector.

Following on from this train of conversation An Taisce’s Legacy4LIFE programme posed the following question; How should food science and sustainability better engage with private equity in order to fund advancement in sustainable food and agricultural practices?

Professor Joachim Von Braun pointed out that “investment in agriculture and food is not forthcoming, because it is considered too risky, and therefore private investment remains stalled at the level of speculation on existing assets. There is a need to invest more in farming efficiency, nutrition, and climate resilience. Such investment would then lead to agriculture becoming less risky for private investment. Therefore, there is a need to invest in science to increase the sustainability of agriculture. The role of the public sector needs to be to de-risk investment in sustainable agriculture to incentivise private investment to follow.

Professor Ismahane Elouafi suggested that there is an opportunity to develop funding for agricultural sustainability from the carbon market. However, because of a lack of visibility of the carbon emissions and sequestration associated with land use and agriculture, this has not happened to date. Greater proof of farming practices that deliver carbon sequestration could be a powerful argument for investment from the evolving carbon markets.

Bill Callanan, Chief Inspector at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), explained that Teagasc is actively running a farming and research project that is measuring exactly these emissions and sequestration levels of land use by the different agricultural practices in Ireland. There are an immense amount of variables, but if this research can deliver solid baselines then we will be in a much better position to navigate toward a more sustainable agricultural industry.

Such farming research by Teagasc could become a valuable reference for An Taisce’s Legacy4LIFE programme “Green Communities Low Carbon Plan”, as agriculture and land use will be one of the data topics that will feed into this plan.

At the conclusion of the seminar attendees were invited to attend guided tours of the Teagasc Ashtown Food Research Centre, and to see at first hand some of the agricultural and food research programmes that might contribute toward our more sustainable food future.

The host for this event was Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority, which is the national body providing integrated research, as well as advisory and training services to the agriculture and food industry, and to rural communities. It provides a locus for research and progress connecting the arenas of agriculture, food science, commerce, and education. Beyond the agricultural sector Teagasc is probably little known, but is a highly industrious engine that helps power our present and future food and agriculture industry.

A major area of research, and of active trials at the Teagasc Ashtown Food Research Centre, is to find sustainable alternatives to the use of peat as a horticultural growing medium, which will also be commercially viable.

Significant progress has already been made within the Irish horticultural sector on this front, and there are interesting case studies for the successful replacement of the environmentally harmful peat based horticultural growing medium. One example is the use of a more sustainable coconut coir alternative by Keelings, a family owned business, based in North County Dublin. Within their sustainability commitment statement, available from their corporate website, Keelings have:

“Successfully converted from 100% peat to 100% sustainable coconut coir as the growing medium of choice. Since 2008 we have researched the use of coir as a growing medium for strawberries and today we use only coir to produce our strawberries. We believe we are the only producer in Ireland to have achieved this. In addition, Keeling’s has been conducting extensive research to maximise the life of the coir and is now using almost all coir from between two to three years per batch versus one season with peat” (Keelings, no date).

This is an impressive example of circular economic transition, from the highly damaging use of extracted peat, to one that utilises a waste product from the processing of coconuts. The coir waste product itself is then reused multiple times before its eventual disposal. Being an organic product coir can be composed at its end of life as a growing medium. It also brings Keelings strongly in line with the 2021 Climate Action Plan:

“Commercially extracted peat has been used as a feedstock for power generation, for the production of peat briquettes for domestic heating, and as an input for the horticultural industry.” … Returning peatlands to more natural conditions will deliver a range of climate benefits through reduced carbon emissions, long-term carbon storage, increased carbon sequestration, and enhanced resilience to the locked-in impacts of climate change” (GOVERNMENT OF IRELAND, 2021, p48-p49).

“Climate Action: 33 - Deliver the Enhanced Decommissioning, Rehabilitation and Restoration Scheme for Bord na Móna peatlands” (GOVERNMENT OF IRELAND, 2021, p56).

Unfortunately, the quantity of coconut coir that is available to the global horticultural industry is finite and cannot replace the current widespread global use of extracted peat as a growing medium. Therefore, Teagasc is engaged in research trails to find a more readily available and domestically sourced growing medium. These trials involve different mixtures of coconut coir, biochar, and various other organic materials. The trials themselves involve experiments growing mushrooms, strawberries, and bedding plants within a variety of different substitute media, alongside control trials of crops grown using the traditional peat based medium.


Teagasc staff tend bedding flowers grown in peat free horticultural trials. Photo Credit: R.Moss, 2022

Other areas of research at the Teagasc Ashtown Food Research Centre involve finding safe, sustainable, and commercially viable alternatives to the use of petroleum based plastic packaging for our food. While plant based biodegradable plastics do exist, they are around 5 times more expensive than the conventional non-biodegradable plastics that are currently in wide use across the food industry.

Alongside this research is another similar project to use waste blood from the meat industry to develop biodegradable plastics that could potentially be used for packaging meat products. At present the Irish meat industry creates a huge volume of blood waste product, which then requires rendering in Northern Ireland to create low value products such as fertiliser. The hope here is that a more high value product can be created using this material, contributing toward a circular economy.

Teagasc staff adjust a soft plastic extrusion machine from which further research will be conducted! Photo Credit: R.Moss, 2022.

Many thanks to our hosts Teagasc, and the various speakers and experts from the UN, Teagasc, the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine, and Food Vision 2030. The event was illuminating in terms of the challenges we face in continuing to feed ourselves, but also a source of optimism because of the research and innovation being carried out quietly behind the scenes here in Ireland.


GOVERNMENT OF IRELAND (2021) Climate Action Plan 2021. Dublin. Available at: https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/6223e-climate-action-plan-2021/.

Keelings (no date) Our Sustainability Commitments, Keelings Corporate Website. Available at: https://keelings.ie/corporate/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Commitment-Form.pdf (Accessed: 12 November 2021).