Colm Warren, Chief Executive of Ireland’s leading organics recycler Natural World Products highlights the importance of returning organic matter to heavily farmed soils to not only complete a local bio-circular economy and protect growing sustainability but to make a hugely positive carbon capture impact in the global fight against climate change.
The recent staging of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow has placed a renewed focus on environmental and sustainability issues, and rightly so. Now, more than ever, businesses, public bodies and governments are asking themselves ‘how can we do things better?’ and it is not before time.
Described by Prince Charles as the “last chance saloon” to save the planet, the significance of the summit could not be overstated. There is a growing awareness that drastic action is needed.
Working with local authorities across Northern Ireland and some of the largest waste collectors in the Republic, NWP manages around 300,000 tonnes of household food and garden waste a year, delivering over 50 per cent of all household recycling in Northern Ireland.
The results in terms of diverting high volumes of material from landfill and incineration are obvious but increasingly, the hugely significant contribution our recycled product can make to soil health and carbon capture is starting to be properly appreciated.
By converting the organics we receive into quality peat-free compost, we produce a strategically useful product that can flow into our agri-growing sector, horticulture and back to the very communities from which it was originally received.
Whether it is retailers, farmers, landscape gardeners, schools, men’s sheds or greenkeepers, it is hard to imagine a more immediately tangible example of what a local circular economy should look like.
Accordingly, policy-makers and politicians in the areas of environment, energy and “waste management” have to be aware of the impacts of their decision-making beyond the potentially easiest-to-grasp soundbites of “landfill diversion” or “renewable energy”.
Over my time in this sector, too many poor decisions, encouraged by the slickest of lobbies (often funded by financiers with little understanding of our bespoke circumstances), have been made around, for example, hugely generous taxpayer subsidies for ill thought-through technologies and schemes.
These have allowed poorly conceived projects to completely distort markets and hold back genuine attempts to improve our situation. In some cases, literally millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money have been squandered attempting to get over-hyped and fanciful projects off the ground or kept on life support.
And the taxpayer pays again in the end, both financially and environmentally, as these inevitably fall over or stutter along inefficiently.
In Northern Ireland, years of intensive farming practices mean that much of the ground beneath our feet has been left overworked and stripped of organic matter.
A nitrate vulnerable zone, we remain over reliant on synthetic fertilisation and, with Sir Peter Kendall due to issue a report on local farming’s future imminently, it is beyond doubt that how we support farmers to manage our land, soils and growing resources must change.
“There is no quick fix and there is no doubt adjusting from traditional practices cannot and should not be done overnight. However, we have to look at ways of assisting that transition.”
When changing weather patterns (wetter winters and hotter, drier summers) and increased risks around global food supply in the wake of Covid are added to the mix, it is clear we need to do all we can to protect and restore the health of our soils and give our land the nourishment it requires for the benefit of ourselves and future generations.
Full of organic matter and releasing key nutrients slowly over time, organic soil conditioner is now widely viewed as playing a vitally important role in the restoration of a healthy soils eco-system, rich as it is in plant available nutrients with an alkaline pH vital to the high carbon exchange rate that represents a plant’s ability to absorb these whilst counteracting the damage of high acidity chemical fertilisers.
Building up organic content helps reduce the requirement to add lime and other chemicals to the earth. It can reverse the trends of declining earthworm populations, poor soil structure, address friability and compaction issues, help with moisture retention and run-off, produce better crop yields over time and lower fuel bills for farmers.
An increase in organic matter in soil by just 1 per cent will improve water retention capacity by 25,000 litres per acre.
Perhaps even more significant is the ability of organic compost to trap carbon in the earth. A single tonne of organic compost applied to soil equates to around 375kg of CO2 kept out of the atmosphere, rising to around 900kg of CO2 saved where compost is a substitute for peat in horticulture.
There is no quick fix and there is no doubt adjusting from traditional practices cannot and should not be done overnight. However, we have to look at ways of assisting that transition. What could bring substantial long-term gains, protecting the future sustainability of our local agri-economy and contributing to the global fight against the climate crisis, can only be realised through sensible and well thought-through strategic investment in the medium-term.
A new generation of ‘carbon farmers’ are already ploughing ahead, if you’ll pardon the pun! They are intentionally minimising soil cultivation and disturbance in order to prevent the release of CO2. In addition to applying organic compost, planting crops such as grasses and cereals pulls in more carbon which over time is sequestered in the earth.
By certifying the amount of stored carbon, landowners can then sell these as credits to corporations wishing to offset their emissions.
Such practices require ‘out of the box’ thinking but clearly could have a major impact in a place like Northern Ireland where we know carbon neutrality will be a real challenge due to our heavy reliance on a traditionally methane-centred agri sector.
The Executive’s recently launched Green Growth Strategy consultation, combined with the Department for the Economy’s 10x, are welcome opportunities to discuss how we might support a new generation of jobs in a local circular bio-economy, where Northern Ireland can lead the way in new agri-tech while also protecting our environment and propelling ourselves towards the noble goal of genuine carbon neutrality.
Soil health is not a choice. It needs support from government through the introduction of policy initiatives that encourage the agriculture sector to transition to new methods of working the land.
Acting now, on a cross-departmental basis, to make the big decisions on the shape of policy over the next decade that could safeguard our land resources and ensure growing sustainability locally for generations to come is a must.
We must avoid the pitfalls of the narrow and isolated thinking, focused only on set goals at one end of a broad spectrum, that has distorted markets and held us back historically.
Massive challenges no doubt, but what an opportunity.
Colm Warren is Chief Executive of Natural World Products, Ireland’s leading organics recycling company.
T: 028 9060 0145