Smart farming boosts income and helps planet at the same time – Irish Examiner, May 3 2018

In an ever-changing climate, we must adapt to keep up. Farmers are encouraged to do just that by the Smart Farming initiative established in 2014, while at the same time boosting farm returns and helping the planet.

Led by the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Smart Farming programme allows individual farmers to identify where they can cut costs and, in turn, reduce their environmental impact.

To date, 1,900 farmers have engaged with this programme, which focuses on eight key areas: Soil fertility, grassland, energy, water, feed, inputs and waste, machinery, and time management.

The programme is co-ordinated with the help of expertise from bodies including Teagasc, the EPA and the SEAI, to name a few.

“The lead and the drive on this came from the work of the IFA environment and rural affairs committee, at a time when there was an adversarial debate around climate change and greenhouse gases in Ireland. This was a genuine effort on their part to get involved in a positive way with the environment, and make a direct impact on their income,” says IFA Smart Farming programme manager Thomas Ryan.

The key objective of the programme is to identify €5,000 in cost savings and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5-7% per farm, on average.

This goal has been exceeded. In 2017, average cost savings identified on participating farms totalled €8,700, the average greenhouse gas emission reduction was 10%.

According to Ryan, most cost savings were made in the area of soil fertility, and the largest savings were seen on dairy farms.

“Forty-seven percent of the cost savings came from getting soil fertility right. In Ireland, almost two thirds of soil are classified as nutrient-hungry. The point we were able to demonstrate was that you can decrease your concentrates bill and increase grass growth by improving soil fertility. This may require an initial investment, in liming for example, but what we are able to show is the value in that investment.”

Meanwhile, increasing genetic merit through Economic Breeding Index (EBI) was identified as being the most effective measure for reducing greenhouse gases.

Although actions and results are unique to each farm, the initial Smart Farming procedure is the same. Each participating farmer receives a Resource Efficiency Assessment (REA) of their farm, which identifies potential cost savings. This is conducted by a qualified agronomist who, as well as evaluating farm data submitted by the participant, completes a farm walk with the farmer in order to gain a more complete understanding of management practices. Following this, a draft REA is drawn up recommending appropriate cost-saving changes.

A carbon reduction strategy for each farm is also developed, using a Carbon Navigator tool developed by Teagasc and Bord Bia; This provides an estimate of greenhouse gas emission reductions that can be delivered. Soil, water and silage tests are conducted, while feed management strategies are also usually recommended.

For the whole process to be a success, the complete co-operation of each farmer is key. Along with submitting a long list of documents including home and farm electricity bills, soil sample results and silage test results, participants must commit to passing on their knowledge.

“It’s quite innovative how this is working,” says Director of the EPA’s office of environmental sustainability Dr Eimear Cotter. “The farmer signs up, completes a farm walk, and identifies some improvements they might be able to bring in. The interesting part is, then, the farmer commits to sharing his or her experience with others.

“This peer-to-peer learning is quite different from anything else out there, but many environmental challenges are quite complex. Trying to effect change and action is going to require different ways of doing things”

The intention is that effective smart farming techniques will roll out through the wider agricultural community through word-of-mouth.

While not affiliated with the initiative, programme leader for the BSc in Agriculture at Waterford Institute of Technology and lifelong farmer Dr Tony Woodcock praises its approach.

“A huge amount of farmers are custodians of the environment. They care about it, and care about what they pass on to the next generation. You can also always say they will care about the profit of their farm. So the low-hanging fruit are changes where you are going to be environmentally-friendly and profitable at the same time.

“These programmes works much better than having an academic present a research project. That will go so far. It’s not that farmers don’t believe the research, but they’re more likely to engage if they see somebody they know who has made changes and saved money.”

While one method may prove beneficial on one farm, it may not on another.

This variability is what makes it difficult to recommend blanket agricultural changes across the country, according to Woodcock.

Affirming that there is “no silver bullet” when it comes to reducing costs and environmental impact, he says that the best thing a farmer can do is to educate themselves as much as possible about their own farms.

Irish farmers appear eager to do just that. The limit of 50 participants for this year’s Smart Farming programme was easily reached, with many more on the waiting list for 2019. It’s envisaged that up to 65 farms will participate next year. And many more farmers will engage with the programme as a result of peer-to-peer learning.

As the network of participants in the Smart Farming programme expands, so too does the scope of its plan. This year, the areas of nutrient planning and water management will be added to the current themes. Biodiversity will also become a key part of the initiative. The initial stage will see IFA working together with Teasgasc, UCD and the National Biodiversity Data Centre to create a shared understanding of biodiversity, and what it means in the farming context. Biodiversity priority areas will be agreed, and recommendations will then be incorporated into the existing programme.

While there is no end in sight for the initiative, there are certainly long-term ambitions. “The goal is to continue to demonstrate the real tangible effort that farmers are willing to make themselves to contribute to the sustainable development of the sector,” says IFA Smart Farming Programme Manager Thomas Ryan.

Ultimately, it’s hoped that sustainable practices will become embedded into common practice on farms, says the EPA’s Dr Eimear Cotter.

In Ireland, we have committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 2005 levels, by 2020; and agriculture accounts for 32% of our emissions.

Though it’s widely acknowledged that we will miss our target, could the Smart Farming Initiative help us to move in the right direction?

“If we get profit before scale right, we will continue to improve efficiency, and hopefully will decouple the link between size of herds and increased environmental impact,” says Ryan. “I’d like to think Smart Farming will play a part [in meeting our goals] alongside other programmes out there.”

Cotter echoes these sentiments.

“It’s going to require a build-up of lots of initiatives. Smart Farming is a part of that where we are looking at long-term behavioural changes but it won’t provide all of the answers. It’s one measure that we are supporting, along with many others.”

(First published in the Irish Examiner on May 3 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/farming/smart-farming-boosts-income-and-helps-the-planet-at-the-same-time-840692.html)

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The clock is ticking to save the curlew – Irish Times, April 23 2018

The haunting cry of the curlew has long been embedded in Irish literary culture as well as in individual memory. Yet, with the breeding population dropping by a staggering 96 per cent since the 1980s, we are left to wonder whether Ireland’s future generations will have any more than these tales to rely on when learning about this iconic bird.

With the inaugural World Curlew Day held on April 21st, the focus was on the plight of the Eurasian curlew in Ireland, as well as that of other curlew species worldwide.

In 2011, BirdWatch Ireland carried out the first survey in Ireland specifically focused on breeding curlew populations. These were conducted in Donegal and Mayo as part of the Halt Environmental Loss Programme (Help), a cross-Border initiative funded through the EU Interreg IVA scheme. Just eight pairs of breeding curlew were found and it was estimated that there were fewer than 200 pairs nationwide compared to an estimation of 5,000 in the early 1990s. The first national survey was commissioned by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in 2015 and 2016. It found numbers to be lower than estimations, with fewer than 150 breeding pairs discovered. Without action, it was predicted that the curlew will be extinct as a breeding species in Ireland within a decade.

This may surprise those who see curlew flocks between late July and early spring. However, these birds are likely to be wintering from Britain and Scandinavia whereas the breeding population can be found between April and early June.

“Without a doubt, the primary cause of population decline is habitat loss and degradation. This mainly occurred in the second half of the last century with things such as widespread agricultural change, drainage and restriction of bogland, loss of marshy pastures and afforestation,” explains Senior Conservation Officer with BirdWatch Ireland Dr Anita Donaghy. “As a result, curlew habitats have become more fragmented. This degradation and fragmentation has had a knock-on effect and the population are now more vulnerable to predation.”

BirdWatch Ireland established a year-long “Cry of the Curlew” campaign in 2011 in an effort to raise money to fund nationwide curlew research. Since 2012, they’ve also been calling on the Government to take action. These calls were finally heard in 2017 when Minister Heather Humphreys announced the establishment of a Curlew Task Force aimed at saving the curlew from national extinction.

Independent chairman of the Curlew Task Force Alan Lauder says their primary role is “to bring together all relevant stakeholders involved with curlew conservation across the country”. In total, 30 people attend Task Force meetings, including groups and individuals from farming, turf-cutting, conservation, governmental, research and various other backgrounds.

“Our aim is to form approaches to first, halt their decline and then restore populations as quickly as possible,” says Lauder, who chairs the task force on a voluntary basis.

The Curlew Conservation Programme was established by the NPWS in 2017. This action programme is currently focused on seven areas: Stacks Mountains, Lough Ree, Lough Corrib, north Roscommon, Leitrim, Monaghan and Donegal.

“In each area we have a “curlew action team” with a “curlew champion”. These teams are liaising with local communities and landowners. Most of the people we have employed are local people themselves, with a blend of backgrounds including farming, hurling and tourism,” explains head of the Agri-Ecology Unit with NPWS Dr Barry O’Donoghue, who manages the programme.

Tasks carried out by action teams include field surveys and working with landowners to protect nests from predation. Habitat improvement measures such as the removal of gorse and blackthorn scrub from the Lough Ree area were also carried out.

For such a programme to be successful, O’Donoghue says it must be appropriate for curlew and farmer needs, offer supports to landowners, promote local pride and ownership in our natural heritage and ultimately, lead to results.

Researchers from UCD are currently monitoring the Curlew Conservation Programme to evaluate what measures are positively affecting curlew productivity. The benchmark figure for sustainable curlew population growth is 0.5 chicks per pair.

“Our aim is to ascertain what aspects of land use are leading to success,” explains UCD lecturer in wildlife conservation and zoonotic epidemiology Dr Barry McMahon. “Areas around the lakes such as Lough Ree are showing productive signs but we don’t have the data to go with this yet so it’s too early to say for sure.”

McMahon, who is principal investigator for the research project, says productivity is likely due to the lower levels of predation in these areas. As a ground-nesting bird, curlews are highly vulnerable.

The Department of Agriculture introduced a specific curlew conservation option in the agri-environment scheme Glas in 2015, while a curlew conservation project granted funding under the European Innovation Partnerships (EIP) Initiative will soon commence in Galway.

While praising all positive moves, Donaghy says more needs to be done. This includes the provision of additional resources to establish additional Curlew Action Teams elsewhere, as well as better protection from development for the curlew at a national level.

“BirdWatch Ireland regrets that the government didn’t take action when the problem was brought to their attention in 2012. The curlew population has declined even further since then. Now it makes it very difficult to build a sustainable population,” she adds.

Though not directly involved with the projects, birding expert Eric Dempsey has been keeping a close eye. While fully praising the establishment of the task force, he says it’s “hard not to view the Government’s move with cynicism”.

“It was such a hypocritical thing for Humphreys to do because she was simultaneously pushing the section of the Heritage Bill allowing farmers to burn randomly in the uplands,” he says. “On one hand she was launching a wonderful curlew campaign and on the other, pushing legislation that puts birds on the brink of extinction.”

He adds: “We must stop the Heritage Bill to allow the task force to do its business.”

World Curlew Day

The Eurasian Curlew is one of eight curlew species worldwide. At least three of these are seen as endangered or near threatened, while the Eskimo curlew and the slender-billed curlew are considered likely extinct. To highlight the importance of these birds, manager of the Curlew Conservation Programme Dr Barry O’Donoghue established the idea of a World Curlew Day which took place on April 21st – the idea has quickly taken flight internationally, with events arranged as far away as Australia.

“It’s so important that it is community-led,” explains O’Donoghue. “The aim is to mainstream conservation issues and have them tie in with something that is well known in the locality. One of the key focuses from the day is that local people realise how important their area is on a national and international scale to this bird.”

Events in Ireland included talks, art competitions and even football tournaments such as the Curlew Cup in Stack’s Mountains – all of which are featured on the World Curlew Day Facebook page.

(First published in the Irish Times on April 23 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/the-clock-is-ticking-to-save-the-curlew-1.3470968)

A tern for the better – Irish Examiner, April 2 2018

A hugely successful conservation project has seen an Irish island nominated for a major European award, writes Amy Lewis.

In 1989, a conservation project on tiny Rockabill Island off north Dublin took flight and now it’s in the running for a major European environmental award.

The Rockabill Roseate Tern Conservation project is the only Irish initiative out of 25 finalists in this year’s Natura 2000 awards, a pan-European award which recognises excellence in the management of Natura 2000 sites.

Led by BirdWatch Ireland, this project focuses on conserving one of Europe’s rarest seabirds, the roseate tern, which owing to almost three decades of monitoring and conservation efforts, is now thriving here.

The Rockabill colony has grown from 152 pairs in 1989 to 1,603 pairs in 2017, making the island a nesting habitat for 47% of the European population.

This year marks the first time that an Irish-born project has been shortlisted for a Natura 2000 award.

Commenting on the nomination, senior seabird conservation officer with BirdWatch Ireland Dr Stephen Newton said that, in the coming weeks, he hopes to drum up support from the public, whose vote determines who will win the European Citizen’s Award.

“We think we have a good project. We have a tiny site with 80% of the biogeographical population of these birds on it,” says Stephen, who coordinates the project which is supported by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Commissioners of Irish Lights.

“It’s of phenomenal importance; every bird is ringed, we know each bird’s mother, father, where it was born and what year they were born in.

“We have built a big database of their movements and survival rates and know an awful lot about them. It’s quite unique.”

It was the departure of the last lighthouse keepers from Rockabill in the late 1980s that prompted BirdWatch Ireland to step in. Up until then, roseate terns had gained protection and nesting spots in the gardens of the lighthouse keepers and it was feared that their absence may cause the already small population to decline further.

In 1988, Rockabill was declared a Special Protection Area (SPA) and the following year, BirdWatch Ireland sent the first pair of wardens to the island. Since then, wardens have resided on the island annually between April and August.

Much of the work involves increasing the area of nesting space for these ground-nesting birds by removing non-native vegetation such as tree mallow and placing down nest boxes.

“The terns like nesting under tree mallow but only around the edges as they like seeing what is going on around them to avoid predators. We essentially remove all that, compost it and put out nest boxes so that we can get far more terns nesting in the same area,” explains Stephen, who says there are currently about 900 nest boxes on the island.

The wardens check each nest daily to monitor the bird’s progress, see how many eggs were laid and when they hatch. All of the chicks are then ringed and monitored throughout their lifespan.

We have four or five hides around the tiny island and we sit in those for a couple of hours at a time to scan and try to read ring numbers of as many animals as we can. Because of this, we have a lot of information on the birds and how long they survive. Our oldest bird is 25 years old.

The ringing system also allows the team to track the whereabouts of the terns post breeding season; occasionally, they receive photographs of them in unexpected locations such as Lake Geneva and the River Seine.

It’s uncertain why the European population of roseate terns declined to globally-threatened status in the years preceding this project.

According to Stephen, it’s likely that persecution by predators and loss of key breeding sites resulted in birds becoming displaced and not breeding for several years. While many of them eventually settled on Rockabill, there are also about 200 pairs at Lady’s Island in Wexford.

Though it has been hugely successful, the Roseate Tern project is not without its challenges. Stephen says that the main hurdle he faces is looking after the wardens who reside on Rockabill in accommodation leased from island owners Irish Lights.

“The main thing is keeping those people alive during these few months! Everything has to be taken out to the island, including food, water, gas and diesel.

“I have to keep a generator running and often I get a call during the night to say it isn’t working. If I can’t fix it over the phone, I have to get out there as soon as I can as we need electricity to power laptops and chargers.”

Ensuring that the project has adequate funding is another challenge; at present, it costs approximately €40,000 a year, much of comes from the EU LIFE programme.

While not involved in the project himself, bird expert Eric Dempsey has been following the work and says it’s an “incredible attraction” for birdwatchers on his guided tours.

“Very few of us are able to go to the island which is the way it should be. Terns are very prone to disturbance; if you disturb them from nesting, gulls can swoop in and take their eggs,” he explains.

“The wonderful thing about this project is that in places like Skerries, the birds are feeding right off of the piers and coastal walkways so I don’t need to bring people to the island.

For people to be able to see the roseate tern catching fish 20 metres off shore, it’s as good as seeing Trinity College or the Rock of Cashel.

“This is unique to Dublin and special to the east coast and we should cherish it.”

Voting closes on April 22 and votes can be cast via natura2000award-application.eu/finalist/3188

(First published in the Irish Examiner on April 2 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/outdoorsandgarden/a-tern-for-the-better-835300.html)

An introvert’s survival guide to the workplace – Irish Times, March 20 2018

Do you dread those morning brainstorm meetings, avoid small talk by the coffee machine at all costs, or simply feel drained by the frenzied office environment?

You probably don’t need a personality assessment to figure out whether you’re an introvert or not, but navigating your way through the contemporary workplace may require some figuring out.

We spoke to the experts about how introverts can cope with the social pressures of the 9-5.

Know your worth

Since its 2012 release, Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking has been credited with championing the essential role of introverts in society. In the New York Times bestseller, the author regularly refers to some of the world’s most influential people including Charles DarwinRosa Parks and Gandhi.

One thing they had in common? They were all introverts.

Co-founder of Irish remote jobs hub Abodoo. com Vanessa Tierney says employers are now recognising the importance of having a diverse workforce, one that balances the outspoken folk with the quieter, deep thinkers. “With the tech revolution, we have discovered that introverts can create amazing businesses,” she says. “The workplace is becoming more of a balanced field.”

Kevin QuigleyResearch and Innovation Psychologist at Seven Psychology at Work, says that people have no reason to believe that being an introvert is a bad thing. He refers to what are known as the five personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. “Research is clear, that however high you are on the extroversion scale, it doesn’t affect work performance and this is true across all sectors. Conscientiousness and openness are important. They predict success.”

Find your niche

While it’s impossible to love every aspect of work, dreading each day because the environment doesn’t suit your personality is a waste of time for you and your employer. Instead of trying to mould yourself into a top salesperson, take the time to recognise your personal strengths, preferences and work goals.

“If you’re an introvert, it’s important to be aware of it. Different personalities are more naturally suited to different roles,” explains Quigley, who adds that finding a job that suits your personality is not only important for productivity, but for mental wellbeing.

“We talk about bringing the whole self to work. This can be difficult if the role is not a fit with your personality. You can pretend for a while, but over an extended period of time, it can be very draining.”

Take time out

In her book, Cain notes the difference between a shy person and an introvert. While a shy person may avoid social interactions, an introvert can be good socially, but becomes overly stimulated with too much socialisation.

“One of the challenges for introverts is that they prefer less stimulation than extroverts. Open plan offices can be fine for them, but recharging their batteries and recovering from this kind of environment will take some time,” explains associate professor in Organisational Psychology at DCU, Dr Janine Bosak. “Getting the opportunity to break out of that environment and find a quiet corner is critical during the day. Research in occupational health psychology shows that people who constantly are not able to refill their energy resources will burn out over time and experience emotional exhaustion.”

Be prepared

In any career, you’ll eventually be required to speak out and that’s bound to feel uncomfortable. If an introvert is also shy, the initial job interview itself can be a stressful situation.

“Shy introverts benefit from thinking about what questions could arise so if their level of anxiety goes up, at least they are prepared,” advises Dr Bosak. “For the general introvert, a challenge for them is overstimulation. Sometimes jobseekers may have multiple interviews in the one day. My advice for introverts: if possible, have the interviews spaced out so you have time to turn inward, replenish your energy, and think through how things went.”

According to Quigley, practising communication skills can also prove useful in all aspects of work, from the first interview to the weekly office meetings. He recommends beginning with one-to-one conversations and building up from there. “When you’re more confident, you’ll be more willing to speak up in a meeting scenario,” he said. “Put yourself in public speaking environments such as Toastmasters or any situation that make you a little bit nervous. Developing communication skills is the only way to overcome your fear.”

Have the conversation

If any aspects of your role are proving overwhelming, don’t be afraid to let your employer know that you’re struggling.

“I think we are in a culture now of open, honest transparency,” explains Tierney. “It has never been as good as it is today to speak about how you feel. Despite feeling at times that you’re not part of a clique, you must remember that you’re a valued member of staff. If you’re finding it hard, be brave, make an approach and have the conversation.”

Tips for employers

With many contemporary work environments leaning towards the trends of open-plan spaces, networking and team projects, it’s little wonder that introverts can find work a challenge.

Without having to completely overhaul the office, there are things an employer can do to make work comfortable for a diverse range of employees.

– Tierney trains employers to use profiling tools during recruitment in order to learn more about employees and their work preferences. “A CV is only a quarter of what someone is. Their life experiences, personality, behaviour, motivation and speed to learn are just as important.”

– Quigley agrees that being “aware of employee’s differences” is crucial for employers. “It’s important to have open conversations with people, find their appropriate work style and ask what an individual is seeking from a job.”

– In addition to “embracing diversity”, Dr Bosak recommends putting infrastructure in place in the office such as couches for those who need some quiet time throughout the day.

(First published by the Irish Times on March 20 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/an-introvert-s-survival-guide-to-the-workplace-1.3424024)

We depend two times more on animal feed than our neighbours – Irish Examiner, March 15 2018

Ireland is renowned for rolling green pastures and sought-after food products.

But annual imports of 3.47m tonnes (mt) of animal feed are also part of the picture. Ireland is especially dependent on feed imports because of our high proportion of livestock production compared to tillage area.

About two thirds of the animal feeds marketed here are imported, compared to 37% in the UK, 27% in France, and 26% in Germany.

The main commodities imported are maize and maize byproducts, soyabean meal and soya hulls, and rapeseed meal. Up to 90% of the soyabean and maize products are imported from Argentina, Brazil, and the USA.

Our pig, poultry, and dairy sectors are particularly dependent on imports of GM soybean and GM maize by-products. Almost 1.7mt of soya and maize genetically modified (GM) products were imported into Ireland for animal feeds in 2017, constituting approximately 50% of total feed imports.

Significant quantities of non-GM maize and oilseed rape meal are also imported, from continental Europe, including Ukraine.

About 5m EU farmers raise animals, requiring 450mt of animal feed annually.

Recognising the EU’s over-dependency on imported proteins for animal feed, the EU Commission will publish a plan by the end of this year, with proposals to reduce over-reliance on imports.

Apart from dependence on getting feed from around the world, and the pollution and emissions associated with its transportation, soya is a particular cause for concern.

The worldwide growth of the soybean crop has caused large scale loss of biodiversity and wildlife habitat in already vulnerable places such as the Amazon rainforest.

The World Wildlife Fund recently focused on “hidden impacts that animal feed has on our planet”, and concluded that a reduction in meat consumption could alleviate these impacts. That is a shock for farmers, and others whose livelihoods are rooted in agriculture. But what role can they play?

Soybean production isn’t possible in Ireland, but growing other protein crops on our home soil can reduce demand for imported feed.

Ireland’s EU-funded Protein Aid Scheme, introduced in 2015, subsidises farmers for growing beans, peas, and lupins. Last year, the payment rate was set at €215 per hectare, and 1,200 people applied.

“The area of pulses, primarily beans and peas, grown in Ireland is 12,500 hectares. This is up from 3,500 hectares in 2012,” says head of crops science at Teagasc John Spink. “In terms of bean production, they would be grown on existing tillage land in a rotation with cereal crops.”

“From an environmental standpoint, they provide an important flowering crop of value to bees. They also fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and transfer it to the soil.”

However, as noted by animal and grassland researcher at Teagasc Laurence Shalloo, growing these crops domestically can only get us so far.

“In terms of potential production, we could only produce a fraction of the protein requirements of our livestock industries. If we absolutely maximised bean production on our existing tillage area, we could produce 360,000 tonnes per annum.”

Increasing the number of grazing days for livestock could be a way of further bringing down the reliance on imports, says Shalloo.

“Grazed grass obviously has sufficient protein to meet the requirements of dairy and beef animals and sheep. Maximising the grazing days in livestock production systems will reduce supplemented protein requirements.”

Co Cork dairy farmer Peter Hynes operates a grass-based system. But the 90 tonnes of animal feed he uses annually contains soya, something he’s trying to change.

“One of the big issues we are all well aware of is that the price of soya can fluctuate greatly, and can drive up the price of dairy rations overnight, so we definitely need to steer away from it,” he says.

The fact that most imported soya is genetically-modified (GM) is another incentive to seek out alternatives, according to Hynes, who says there is growing consumer demand for GM-free products in some of Ireland’s biggest dairy markets, such as Germany.

When it comes to reducing soya imports, he says this is likely to be a greater source for concern to Irish farmers than deforestation abroad.

“I do think we need to look at the carbon footprint of our milk, and that includes what we put into the feed, the haulage process and everything else,” he adds. “We can’t discount where our feed comes from. The carbon footprint of soya is huge, and it’s only going to get bigger.”

Professor emeritus of European agricultural policy at Trinity College Alan Matthews does not regard our reliance on imported soya as a large worry, and has no personal worries about the safety of GM soybeans. However, he does recognise the reality of “asynchronous approval” problems.

“A high share of soybeans are GM. In the EU, there’s no legal problem with that, except that each particular GM needs to be approved, before it can be brought in. This is quite a complicated and time-consuming process.”

Matthews says that this can be problematic if a supplier country introduces a new GM variety of soybean that has yet to be approved in Europe.

“They may try to ensure that shipments to Europe are separate, but it’s inevitably going to get contaminated somewhere along the line. You end up in a situation where you have a shipment from somewhere with this new GM variety, it’s detected at entry and then refused,” he says.

“That’s a concern for the European livestock sector, that they could find themselves inadvertently unable to import feed.”

Matthews believes that growing more protein crops in Ireland may have other consequences, saying we will either have to substitute other forms of production or clear more land to facilitate it.

“Are you therefore protecting the environment, by increasing the area granted to protein crops in Ireland, if the objective is to reduce land usage overall?”

However, he also recognises that deforestation and biodiversity loss occur elsewhere. In order to conquer this, he says we should “use our market power as an importer” to insist on the countries we get the feedstuffs from protecting their vulnerable habitats and raising their standards.

Secretary of the Irish Pig Health Society Shane McAuliffe, from McAuliffe Pig Farms in Co Kerry, has worked with nutritionists from Cargill to reduce the amount of soya protein in his pigs’ diets by 20%, subsequently reducing his pigs’ ammonia emissions by 15%. He also incorporates seaweed into the diets, which he says is reducing his costs and need for antibiotics, while maintaining the health and growth-rate of his animals.

As technology advances, he’s positive we can “significantly reduce” our reliance on imported feed. “Science and technology are moving forward rapidly and more sources of feed are available. It’s up to the government to provide incentives and make policy to use more sustainable practices,” adds McAuliffe, who says he sees promise in new feed sources such as algae and insect protein.

 

PANEL

There has been much abuzz about the potential for insect protein to feed the humans and animals of the future and a pair of Meath-based innovators are getting involved.

The brainchild of Alvan Hunt and John Lynam, Hexafly was established with the aim of developing sustainable feed for the agriculture and aquaculture industries using insects. Using biomimicry techniques, Hexafly takes black soldier flies into the lab, breeds them and hatches the larvae. The larvae are then fed with by-products from the brewing industry which they convert to a higher quality protein source before being used in feed.

“I looked at the production figures several months ago and on a per tonne basis, our method produces 90 per cent less greenhouse gases than one tonne of soy for example,” explains CTO and co-founder John Lynam. “In terms of space efficiency, on a good year on a soya farm you get one and a half tonnes of soya protein per acre. We are using one third of an acre and can produce 2,000 tonnes within one year.”

Hexafly is currently finalising the completion of their commercial pilotfacility and soon after will begin exporting their product. At present, EU legislation only permits the use of insect protein in the aquaculture industry and as Ireland has no compound fish feed manufacturing facilities, they will be focusing on exports in the beginning. However, once they receive the green light to supply to the pork and poultry industries, they envision being able to provide a local feed source to farmers on their home turf. “While we may not be able to replace traditional feed completely, we will be able to produce insect meal in addition to soya and fish meal to ease the demand on the food supply chain,” says Lynam.

(First published in the Irish Examiner on March 15 2018. Also available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/farming/we-depend-two-times-more-on-imported-animal-feed-than-our-neighbours-832683.html)

Tackling Ireland’s alien invaders – Irish Times, March 8 2018

The Japanese knotweed, rhododendron and giant hogweed are fast becoming household names as these pests continue to invade Irish landscapes. These ill-famed plants are just some of many invasive species causing destruction to Ireland’s ecosystems.

An inaugural global register of invasive species recently presented in Scientific Data shows that the Republic of Ireland is currently home to 1,266 non-native species – 63 of which have a negative impact. Ireland was one of 20 countries randomly selected for inclusion in this Global Registry of Introduced and Invasive Species (GRIIS), which will include every country by 2019.

“We focused solely on environmental and economic impacts,” says Shyama Pagad, lead author of the work and member of the IUCN SSC Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG). “We think it will help countries with trading partners. When you know your trading partner has listed this invasive species, you can set preventative measures to stop them from entering your country. It forms a basic alert system.”

While the ISSG researchers formed their database through analysing existing publications, they required the assistance of local editors to check and add to it. Invasive species officer at the National Biodiversity Data Centre Colette O’Flynn was recruited as editor for Ireland. The use of universal terminology, in addition to the fact that her team are currently undertaking a similar exercise, meant that editing wasn’t difficult.

“It’s always going to be a dynamic list,” O’Flynn says. “Assessments must be repeated as more animals come in and things we thought were invasive turn out not to be, or at least not as invasive as they appeared.”

Asked what our most harmful invasive species is, she says aquatics like the zebra mussel are particularly problematic. These creatures arrived in Ireland in the 1990s, attached to the hulls of imported leisure boats.

“Zebra mussels change the whole ecology of the lake system. They filter water when feeding; you would think that’s a great thing as they clean out the water but this causes more sunlight to reach the plants on the bottom. Those plants then grow more vigorously and this completely changes the food web in the lake.”

In addition to threatening lake systems and native mussels, Zebra mussels also block water intake pipes, filters and boat engines where they settle in large clusters.

Notorious plants such as Japanese knotweed are also acknowledged by O’Flynn as damaging species, which hold the potential to undermine road and building foundations. However, she feels that recent years have seen a big shift in efforts to deal with invasive species.

“This is driven by a number of things. Finding out more about species through databases like this definitely helps, as does people sending sighting reports to our centre,” she adds. “When we have the data, we can analyse it and use it to inform decision-making.”

The European Regulation of Invasive Alien Species enacted in 2015 involves a dynamic list of 49 invasive species of concern in the EU. Once a species is added, each member state is required to carry out appropriate prevention, early detection and rapid eradication and management measures.

Acknowledging the regulation’s potential, head of the Department of Environmental Science at IT Sligo Dr Frances Lucy says it hasn’t truly been enacted yet in Ireland or other member states. “The reason why [it’s not being followed] is because it’s a very new regulation. The European Commission is still gathering information and there hasn’t been any punitive measures attached to it yet.”

Lucy is a firm believer that citizen science is key to tackling our invasive species and in turn, protecting biodiversity. “Even if we had 1,000 biodiversity officers and a whole legislative system in place, it’s not what is going to save biodiversity in Ireland,” she notes. “Right now, we are in danger of disengaging from nature because we don’t spend as much time outdoors as we used to due to the virtual reality we’re using. Why not use virtual reality to re-engage people?”

She refers to the use of various apps, Twitter and other tools currently being used by the public to report and record various species. For example, the National Biodiversity Data Centre receives 10,000 sighting reports a month through interactive tools.

“The recording of species is one key area where citizens can get involved. The other vital part regards invasive species management, particularly biosecurity. The man on the street needs to know how to manage and prevent their spread,” she says. “This can be done by taking simple precautions every time we engage in outdoor recreational activities; this should be automatic, like putting on your seatbelt.”

If the Government put more funds into educating people on recognising and managing these species, money would be saved in the long run, Lucy points out.

While recognising it’s a concern, campaigns officer at the Irish Wildlife Trust Pádraic Fogarty feels the invasive species issue has “been overblown”.

“A lot of ecologists have taken their eye off the ball. Habitat loss, pollution and biodiversity loss are still our biggest problems in Ireland. Invasive species thrive in habitats that are damaged and degraded,” says Fogarty, who feels these big issues are not being addressed.

“The idea of invasive species is easier to tackle than habitat loss. That’s often more controversial, particularly as agriculture and peat extraction industries can be difficult to deal with.”

There’s an app for that

Technology plays an integral role in identifying and mapping locations of particular species, including invasive ones. The National Biodiversity Data Centre’s Biodiversity Data Capture App allows people to capture details of any species they encounter and send them directly to the National Biodiversity Data Centre’s database.

Meanwhile, the Report Invasive Plants app was developed by Limerick County Council in 2016 specifically in response to invasive plants. It records four species – Japanese knotweed, winter heliotrope, giant hogweed and Himalayan balsam – in addition to having an “other” category.

To date they have received 900 sighting reports from 130 individual users, with Japanese knotweed being the most commonly recorded. Collected data is fed back to the National Biodiversity Data Centre.

“We used cameras and GPS prior to this but it was very time consuming. With just one person doing it, it was never going to work,” explains senior executive engineer with Limerick County Council Anne Goggin. “There are other apps out there to capture invasives but many are complicated. We wanted something quick and simple, aimed at someone who is not a specialist but does have a passing interest.”

Inland Fisheries Ireland also have developed an app to allow for the reporting of invasive species occurring within Irish fresh water.

(First published in The Irish Times on March 8 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/tackling-ireland-s-alien-invaders-1.3419509)

How microbes may influence our behaviour – The Scientist, September 2017

Stress, anxiety, and depression are emotions we all feel at some point in our lives, some people to a greater degree than others. Part of the human experience, right?

“It may seem odd that my research focuses on the gut if I’m interested in the brain,” says  John Cryan, a researcher at the APC Microbiome Institute at University College Cork in Ireland. “But when we think of how we express emotion in language, through sayings like ‘butterflies in your tummy’ and ‘gut feeling,’ it isn’t surprising that they’re connected.”

In a recent study, Cryan and his colleagues reported a link between the microbiome and fear. By examining mice with and without gut bacteria, they discovered that the germ-free mice had blunted fear responses (Mol Psychiatr, doi:10.1038/mp.2017.100, 2017). Their findings may pave the way for the development of novel treatments for anxiety-related illnesses, including posttraumatic stress disorder.

Researchers at Kyushu University in Japan were the first to show, in 2004, that bacteria in the gut can influence stress responses, prompting many subsequent investigations. Yet despite mounting research, scientists remain uncertain about exactly how the gut microbiome affects the brain. While some bacteria influence the brain through the vagus nerve, other strains seem to use different pathways. It is known, however, that the population of the gut microbiome begins in early life, and recent research suggests that disruptions to its normal development may influence future physical and mental health (Nat Commun, 6:7735, 2015).

Researchers are finding that this gut-brain connection could have clinical implications, as influencing the gut microbiome through diet may serve to ameliorate some psychiatric disorders. Together with University College Cork colleague Ted Dinan, Cryan coined the term “psychobiotics” in 2013 to describe live organisms that, when ingested, produce health benefits in patients with psychiatric illness. These include foods containing probiotics, live strains of gut-friendly bacteria.

While there are many rodent studies linking probiotics and mental health, UCLA biologist Emeran Mayer and his colleagues were the first to test them in humans, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to assess the results. After administering probiotic yogurt to a group of healthy women twice a day for four weeks, the researchers found that the women had a reduced brain response to negative images (Gastroenterology, 144:1394-401, 2013).

“We reanalysed the data several times and convinced ourselves that it’s real,” Mayer says. “You can almost say it was a career-changer for me.”

Having conducted this study on healthy participants, Mayer is reluctant to conclude that probiotics can cure mental illnesses such as anxiety. “It’s a complex emotion, not just a reflex behavior like in the mouse,” he says. However, Mayer says he’s very supportive of the potential of prebiotics—fiber-rich foods  that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

Researchers at Deakin University in Australia recently trialed a Mediterranean-style diet, which is predominately plant-based and fiber-rich, in a group of adults with major depression. They found that one-third of the participants reported a significant improvement in symptoms after 12 weeks on the diet (BMC Medicine, 15:23, 2017). One of them was Sarah Keeble from Melbourne. “I’ve suffered from depression for 17 years. At the start of this study, I was right at the bottom of the barrel,” she recalls. “After a few weeks, that sinking feeling slowly lifted, and my motivation and enthusiasm improved.”

Just as activity in the gut seems to affect the brain, mental stress can lead to intestinal problems. Scientists have demonstrated this in research on irritable bowel syndrome. For example, a study by Mayer and colleagues linked early-life emotional trauma to an increased risk of developing the bowel disorder (Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol, 10:385-90, 2012).

As data on the brain-gut axis accumulates, many scientists are taking notice. Trinity College Dublin researcher Shane O’Mara says that there is “great potential” in this area, but cautions that it’s too early to say whether targeting the microbiome will play a role in psychiatric treatment. University of Manitoba gastroenterologist Charles Bernstein also feels the research is promising but believes we are “far from manipulating the microbiome to treat mental health disorders.”

Those spearheading this research are equally aware of the need for more studies, particularly in human subjects, but they are hopeful that change lies ahead. “I’m almost certain that in several years, diet will be considered one branch of therapy for many mental illnesses, alongside medication and psychiatric treatments,” says Mayer.

“People with severe mental illness will still need something very strong, but this is a useful adjunctive,” agrees Cryan. “I think when we go to our GP in future, we will not only have blood tests, we will have the microbiome tested.”

“Within five years, I hope to see more clinical trials that demonstrate the efficacy of prebiotics and probiotics on mental health disorders,” says University of Chicago microbial ecologist Jack Gilbert. “There needs to be a revolution in how we deal with mental illness in our society.”

(First published in The Scientist magazine September 2017. Also available online at: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/50146/title/How-Microbes-May-Influence-Our-Behavior/)