Livestock production is at the heart of NI farming

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When I was at school, many hundreds of years ago – the perceived wisdom was that the soils underpinning the Amazon rain forest were amongst the poorest in the world.

So, in effect, this endless canopy of growth was being anchored by a soil structure which, in places was only a few millimetres in depth. However, more recent research has confirmed that many parts of the Amazon Basin feature extremely rich - black soils. But, significantly, these were created by generations of forest dwellers courtesy of their waste management practises. So, in reality, man has known for generations that organic waste is in fact a resource. So what has all this got to do with agriculture in this part of the world?

The reality is that livestock production is at the very heart of farming in Northern Ireland. Our dairy, redmeat, pig and poultry industries underpin 30,000 jobs at farm level and many thousands more at processing level. Food output in Northern Ireland amounts to approximately £1.25 billion annually. Most of this is generated from our most important natural resource – the land. So it doesn’t take Albert Einstein to work out that our agri/food industries must be given every opportunity to grow and develop for the benefit of Northern Ireland as a whole.

Cattle and sheep grazing contentedly in fields constitute an idyllic image in all our minds. However, it is an inescapable fact that all farm animals produce waste. Call it farmyard manure, slurry or whatever, it’s that brown smelly stuff that does wonderful things to the average person’s olfactory system. And we produce millions of tonnes of it annually. Take the average dairy cow as a case in point. She will happily produce 20 tonnes of slurry every twelve months.

In the past, all of the animal manure produced on local farms was put back on to the land. However, in the wake of the EU Nitrates’ Directive, this is no longer a feasible option. In effect, Brussels has introduced strict limits on the quantities of animal manure that can be spread in the countryside. And given that the UK and the Republic of Ireland were in the last group of EU member states to implement Nitrates’ legislation, the option of dumping our waste in someone else’s back garden just doesn’t exist.

Food processing businesses – by their very nature – also produce large quantities of waste. Landfill is no longer a disposal option for any of these materials. So if we want to retain a viable food industry in Northern Ireland, the challenge of how we manage the waste emanating from the sector is one that must be actively addressed.

In effect we are now at a crossroads, where the future utilisation of farm and food wastes is concerned. And it’s a challenge that we must resolve ourselves. A useful starting point, in this context, is to review our understanding of what we actually mean by the term ‘waste’. The fertiliser value of animal manure and slurry has been long recognised. But if we look at what has happened in mainland Europe, there is ample evidence to show that these same materials represent an important source of energy. Animal slurries and food waste can be digested and/or combusted to produce valuable heat and electricity. And in countries such as Germany this approach is now regarded as the ‘green’ thing to do.

Here in Northern Ireland we must come up with an overarching solution which maximises, in an environmentally friendly way, the resource value of the waste materials emanating from our agri food industries. And the clock is already ticking!