A group of 40 tillage farmers is joining forces with Guinness to pursue one of the most ambitious regenerative agriculture projects ever undertaken in Ireland.
Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that seeks to work in harmony with the natural environment by putting back more than it takes out – it is increasingly regarded as an effective way of minimizing environmental damage associated with food production, especially in reducing carbon emissions.
The three-year farm-based program will focus on opportunities for reducing emissions associated with barley production by implementing nature-based actions, while boosting output and farmer income.
The pilot project puts major emphasis on soil health and on enhancing its carbon sequestration potential; boosting biodiversity, reducing synthetic fertiliser use and improving water quality – with the barley output being used to brew Guinness.
The 40 participating farms grow spring and winter barley on the island of Ireland. As it develops, many more farmers will have the opportunity to take part, Diageo announced on Wednesday.
A network including technical partners and agronomists will help shape the project. “Guinness will work in collaboration with Irish farmers and suppliers including Boortmalt, Glanbia and Comex McKinnon to understand the most effective regenerative practices, adapted to the local context and the specific needs of Irish barley production,” it added.
Farmer Walter Furlong jnr said he was delighted by the initiative. “The great thing about regenerative agriculture is the simplicity of the approach. It’s not a complicated process – it works in harmony with nature whilst providing a commercial benefit for farmers,” he added.
On his farm near Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, they have been scaling up use of regenerative agricultural practices since 2001 and have seen a marked improvement in soil quality. “It is a highly effective approach that leads to much better outcomes,” he said.
The main emphasis in his case is on planting crops to provide permanent soil cover and greater fertility, while limiting soil disturbance during planting. Essentially, they grow various combinations of crops such as beans, oilseed rape, vetch and buckwheat after barley is harvested in August every year. These provide cover over winter until new-season barley is sown in the spring. It means “you constantly have something living and breathing in the soil”.
Regenerative agriculture enables capture of atmospheric carbon dioxide by growing plants that move it into the soil, Mr Furlong explained. Independent verification using Cool Farm Tool technology shows his barley crop captured 2,000kg of CO2 per acre last year due to use of cover crops and minimum tillage, which was also increasing organic matter, he confirmed.
“Diageo is not forcing us to farm this way; it just makes sense to us. The future is bright for tillage farmers if they embrace this approach,” he told The Irish Times.
“This pilot is the first such program being implemented by Diageo and the outcomes will help inform other potential opportunities, not just in Ireland, but in other countries where we source raw materials,” said Diageo Europe president John Kennedy. It is investing €4 million in the programme.
He confirmed they would openly share results so other farmers could learn and adopt practices demonstrated to have highest potential impact from an environmental and farm profitability standpoint. “Like the Irish farming community, we are ‘all in’ for the long haul – for our people, products, partners and planet. At St James’s Gate, we are only 263 years into our 9,000-year lease and we will never settle in pursuit of a more sustainable future.”
Its role in this case was a supporting one, he said, while they were considering extending it to other grains, hops and dairy cream used in making its products.
The program is part of Diageo’s 10-year sustainability action plan which includes a commitment to achieve net-zero carbon across its direct operations, and a 50 per reduction in “scope three emissions” that arise throughout its supply chains by 2030. The key action was using renewable energy in its breweries and distilleries.
Progress was encouraging, Mr Kennedy said, but as a decade of action was required there was no complacency, “because it takes time to learn and apply it at scale”. With agriculture, it would take several seasons, he added.
“This pilot shows the importance of sectors working together to reduce emissions,” said Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue. “It is welcome that one of Ireland’s most iconic brands is taking a strong leadership position on farming and the environment, as we all work towards reducing carbon emissions and meeting our ambitious but necessary climate change targets,” he added.