Re-thinking pasture-based ruminant systems towards a sustainable future

PhD project by Cecilia Ayala. The role of ruminants in present and future food systems is currently highly contested, among others because of their impact on the environment and human health. This PhD will explore the potential of diverse beef and sheep pasture-based systems in Ireland to better balance the divergent sustainability issues.

Ruminant farming systems are criticized for their negative impact on the environment (e.g. land-use change and GHG emissions) and for the health concerns associated with red meat consumption (e.g. links to non-communicable diseases). However, ruminants can be a valuable source of macro and micronutrients and deliver important ecosystem services (ES), such as nutrient cycling and preservation of cultural landscapes. Moreover, both positive and negative aspects of ruminant production are highly dependent on the type of system, its context and management.

Taking Ireland as a case study, this PhD will explore the potential of diverse beef and sheep pasture-based systems to better balance the divergent sustainability issues, such as ensuring farm profitability, reducing environmental impacts and provisioning of other ES. at a farm-scale. For this, we will first inventory the most pressuring issues in the Irish beef and sheep pasture-based systems as seen by different stakeholders and characterize the current farming systems. Then we will update and expand a multi-objective optimisation model (FarmDESIGN) to the Irish context. We will model the previously characterized farming systems and include new variables to account for the issues raised by stakeholders. That will allow us to better understand the relations between components of the farms and potential trade-offs between different objectives at farm level. With this information we wish to model and propose a feasible set of farm configurations for Irish beef and sheep pasture-based systems that simultaneously meet societal demands and are economic and environmentally sustainable. Finally, we will quantify the resilience of these proposed alternatives and identify levers and barriers that could drive or bound farms to introduce management changes to better perform at an environmental, economic and social level.

This project will be one of five PhDs contained within the EU funded project: HEARTLAND+ (Health, Environment, Agriculture and Rural development: Training on Land management)