Listening to the national radio airwaves on Tuesday, you would think farmers were going to be the main beneficiaries in a new Irish gold rush.

The official launch of the much-anticipated biomethane strategy was being heralded as if it was going to solve the agri greenhouse gas dilemma overnight and provide an alternative income option for farmers. Not alone that but it was going to improve water quality and see land that grazes cattle and sheep morph into land used for feeding biomethane plants.

The reality of the document released on Tuesday is it does little or nothing to make farmers central to anaerobic digestion.

In fact, it relegates farmers into a grass growing business only where they might get the opportunity to grow and sell grass to large scale, institutional, developer-led businesses.

Strategy announcement

The promise of a modest €40m in grant-aided capital funding announced in March was re-issued in this week’s strategy announcement.

Surprisingly, it is still not guaranteed and remains subject to European Commission and Council assessment and approval. The minuscule amount of money dedicated to the strategy as a sort of start-up grant obviously reflects the fact that one or more of the Government parties doesn’t want this to work.

It’s fine paying lip service to a prospective business opportunity for farmers, but when it’s not matched with realistic financial commitments, the truth is laid bare. In this case, it looks like the grant aid will be the preserve of maybe 10 large institutional investors that are going to invest in this space anyway.

An opportunity to make our farmer-owned co-ops central to this project has again been missed when they would have been an ideal vehicle to get central farmer involvement and ownership.

The reality of what we learned this week is that potentially 500 farmers might have the opportunity to sell grass to these businesses if they decide to sign a contract to grow and sell grass to these businesses.

An opportunity to make our farmer-owned co-ops central to this project has again been missed when they would have been an ideal vehicle to get central farmer involvement and ownership.

The Government’s stated aim was that farmers could own, operate and supply feedstock to anaerobic digestion plants. The reality of this first step would suggest supplying feedstock is as good as it gets.

Of course this may suit some farmers, however, if that is as good as it gets, then farmers will not be central to owning, running and supplying these units.

The paltry scale of the investment in grant aid or start up funding for these operations is clear when we compare it to the development cost.

Stephen Robb estimates it would cost up to €10m to build a 20GWh biomethane plant and about €3.5m per year in working costs to keep it going and feed it.

If you sell the biomethane and the carbon dioxide generated from this business at current prices, you might generate €3.5m in a year.

That sort of a business case with little or no grant aid, and no guaranteed prices for the biomethane or the carbon dioxide means the business case is unviable as far as a bank is concerned.

If we are serious about meeting the Climate Action Plan 2024 then surely now is the time to invest and front load the investment in the sector.

Also for farmers to gain funding to get involved without a guarantee of what they would be selling is very difficult. Certainty of income streams is required when seeking finance.

Capital grants are required to enable farmer involvement in the construction and ownership of anaerobic digestion plants.

The snail’s pace at which this strategy was delivered shows that the Government and even the Green Party don’t fully believe in anaerobic digestion. It seems it was a Trojan horse in getting agreement on tricky climate talks and a way to reduce livestock numbers with a so-called “diversification income” carrot.

It’s clear and unfortunate now that the carrot doesn’t exist and €40m wouldn’t even buy the carrot seed. Anaerobic digestion has been pitched as the great white hope for agriculture to deliver on its climate targets. This current proposed strategy means again farmers become price takers and not architects of their future. Chalk this down as: Must do better Government.