It was not Deputy Creed I was thinking about.
I thank the joint committee for inviting us to make a presentation. I note this opportunity has arisen from the presentation on climate change which we made in Dublin Castle in January. Today's presentation will encompass some aspects of that presentation, but we will broaden it to give more information on developments internationally and apply it in terms of what we propose we could do in Ireland.
Conservation Agriculture Ireland was founded in 2003 by farmers — particularly crop producers — for farmers in Ireland. We considered that there was a need for us to work together and facilitate a process of awareness about sustainable soil management, an issue in which we became particularly interested in the early 2000s. We run farmer meetings annually; we have one or two technical meetings during the winter months, at which scientific experts make presentations to farmers, as well as one or two practical field meetings during the spring and summer dealing with aspects of conservation in agriculture of practical benefit to farmers. We produce a quarterly newsletter, and I sent the clerk to the committee a copy of the spring edition last month for distribution to the committee members. Included in the newsletter are topics of relevance to members, including reports on the legislative developments in Ireland and in Europe.
In recent years we have organised farmer visits abroad, mainly to the UK, to visit no-tillage farmers and practitioners of conservation systems in Cambridge, Lincoln and Essex. The development of these systems is at an advanced stage in the United Kingdom and across Europe compared with Ireland. Why would we wish to raise awareness about soil management? In excess of 95% of the cropping area in Ireland is run on a plough-based system. With a plough-based system we carry out soil inversion, which puts oxygen into the soil. The effect of that is to encourage biological oxidation, an effective burning of organic matter. One of the by-products of that is carbon dioxide which, together with fuel emissions from tractors, are contributory greenhouse gases which we are told by experts cause climate change. At its extremes climate change leads to flooding and drought instances. A report launched two days ago predicts what the effects of these would be for agriculture and other sectors in this country.
The burning of organic matter is critical. Organic matter helps land deal with excess rainfall or excess drought. Organic matter holds 90% of its own weight in water and prevents soil from drying out. This will be hugely important, as Professor John Sweeney has predicted, during the wetter winters and drier summers in the east of the country. Another aspect to organic matter that is hugely important relates to natural fertility of the soil. When we take organic matter out we are forced to use extra fertilisers, particularly nitrogen fertilisers. This leads to increased nitrous oxide emissions, another greenhouse gas. The depletion of natural soil fertility means farmers are forced to use more inputs to achieve good yields, and the cycle starts again.
By any evaluation, either practical or scientific, this is an unsustainable system. However, it is the foundation stone of crop production here. The slide shows how the depletion of organic matter looks in the field. Committee members might think these two soil samples came from different counties or fields but they are from the same field. The sample on the left is from a field margin while the sample on the right is from 5 m away in what was intensively cultivated soil over a 15-year period. Under laboratory analysis the two soil types are exactly the same — they have the same percentages of sand, silt and clay. However, there is a difference. The soil on the left, which has not been intensively cultivated, has 60% more organic matter than the soil sample on the right. This gradual depletion of these organic matter reserves has been happening in intensive continuous tillage systems for over a decade.
If one examines crop production systems worldwide, they can be divided into three in terms of crop establishment. There is the plough-based system, which is predominant in Ireland. It involves inversion tillage. We turn soil over to a depth of more than six inches; in many instances it is over nine inches. It is greater than 15 cm or 20 cm. The soil is turned and intensively cultivated and what is left is bare soil while the crop is establishing. One of the features of the system is monoculture where we have continuous wheat or continuous spring barley production. Another feature that has been developing over the last decade and a half is a dependence on high inputs with this system.
The second system is a minimum tillage system. Internationally it is called conservation tillage. This is where we cultivate the ground but we do not turn the soil over. We do shallow cultivations and when the cultivations are finished, ideally there should be greater than 30% soil cover to protect the soil with straw, as members can see from the photograph. Depending on how the system is operated, there can be high or low inputs over time.
The final system, which is increasing globally on an annual basis, is no-tillage, and this is called conservation agriculture. In this system there are no cultivations. There is minimum soil disturbance; the only disturbance that takes place is for the actual placement of seed in the soil. Specific equipment and drills are required to do it. When one is finished sowing there should be greater than 60% soil cover. Soil cover is hugely important both to protect the soil and to maintain soil organic matter levels. The feature of the system is that one must use rotations. That includes the use of cover crops during fallow periods, when there is no cash crop growing in the soil. In practical terms, we would harvest the spring crop in the autumn, grow a cover crop from the autumn through to the following spring and then re-establish a spring crop. That is the practical sequence under the Irish system.
If we change from a plough-based to a minimum tillage or no-tillage system, certain things might happen. There might be a drop in yield for the first year or two. Sometimes, depending on how we manage the soil, water relations can deteriorate for a short period of time. Organic matter will be maintained and will increase over time, depending on the conservation practices one implements. Biological activity and biodiversity in the soil will increase significantly once one stops the excessive soil disturbance. Teagasc has been researching these systems, particularly minimum tillage, over the past ten years in Oakpark and the negative drop has not happened. In fact, yields have been maintained. That is the main criterion on which farmers would evaluate the system. Over ten years of research in Teagasc yields have been maintained with the system, along with significant cost reductions.
I do not know if Deputy Mattie McGrath from Tipperary South is present but my home town is Clonmel. The photograph I am showing the committee was taken since the meeting was held in Dublin Castle in January. It shows flooding in Clonmel, a regular occurrence. The newspaper reports and television and radio broadcasts come from the urban areas. They discuss the significant costs that accrue to the local council, civil defence and the emergency services as a result of flooding.
When this happened in Clonmel, a few of us conducted a tour around the catchment area of the Suir. The photograph shows what we saw. There was water flowing out from fields. The colour of the water means there is also soil erosion. This is a widespread happening, particularly during extreme weather events. The water runs across fields and collects at the sides. It causes gullying or rilling, as we call it technically, across wheat fields that were established the previous autumn. The other photograph is another example of this. All the attention is on flood damage and emergency services but there is not enough attention on mitigation.
By changing land practices, we can significantly reduce the amount of water flowing into the main streams and rivers that cause these problems during extreme weather events. The recent report stated that in years to come the Suir, Blackwater and Barrow will experience these events on a more regular basis.
I do not have an aerial photograph from Ireland but I have one from Malvern in Worcestershire in the United Kingdom. This photographs depicts what it looks like there. It was taken in autumn 2007, but it is not just a question of the flooding. Members should look at the colour of the water. When organic matter is taken out of soil, soil structure is disrupted and that leads to the breaking apart of soil particles which are easily carried away through surface water run-off during these extreme weather events.
It does not have to be like that. This photograph is of work that Gerry Bird and myself were doing in Meath a number of years ago. It is the same field on the same farm two years apart. In terms of the difference between what happened on the left and on the right, on the left is plough-based agriculture, with poor soil structure and water collecting in a lower part of the field. In terms of the right hand side, we stopped the plough-based system and put in a cover crop, changed the rotation and put in oilseed rape. This is the subsequent wheat after the oilseed rape yet with the same amount of rainfall in the preceding days, we get better holding of water that has fallen.
Soil cover for conservation is hugely important. This is a common phenomenon in greater Europe. In other words, the cover crops are used as productively as cash crops would be used but they are used to protect the soil and benefit soil health and nutrition for the benefit of the succeeding crop. Cover crops and green cover are a vital component of sustainable crop production, and that can be seen both globally and in European terms nearer to home. Education in the practical commercial use at research extension and farmer level is urgently required. It is provided for under the nitrates directive but farmers have received very little training in these areas.
When we move away from this intensive cultivation, soil biodiversity is increased in terms of earthworm numbers. There is an impressive positive effect from earthworm activity in soils. Dr. Rothwell is one of the leading people in Europe in terms of research in these areas. She has conducted a PhD on different cultivation systems and earthworm numbers and will be able to provide the committee with more information during the discussion.
In addition to that, when we improve organic matter levels in the soil many other biodiversity aspects occur. There is greater bacterial, fungal and soil faunal activity, which has improved benefits for succeeding crops that are grown.
This photograph was taken in County Meath and shows a small cover crop of oilseed rape. In fact, it is volunteer oilseed rape that was left on the ground after the harvest of the main crop, but the oilseed rape is covering the ground. We note the improvement in organic matter from the presence of mushrooms or the reproductive phase of a fungal population but in practical terms this has major benefits for the farmer because in this instance the farmer can come in and drill a crop directly into the standing cover crop. There is no ploughing or time involved. The labour is reduced and there are massive reductions in diesel — by up to 70% in this instance — with an associated reduction in costs but all that we need is to highlight these areas and educate farmers in the way these types of practices can be used for profitable crop production.
Regarding the diesel consumption aspect, under a plough-based system, and we are using figures from Dermot Forristal's work in Oak Park, Carlow, 85 litres per hectare are used for the production of, say, a winter wheat crop. Under minimum tillage that would be reduced to 60 litres a hectare and under no tillage it would be further reduced to 45 litres a hectare. When diesel is burned we are producing carbon dioxide emissions, approximately 3 kilos for every litre of diesel we burn.
Carbon dioxide emissions, which we want to reduce under our Kyoto obligations, are dramatically reduced by moving towards conservation systems. We can reduce them depending on the types of conservation systems we put in place. The orange bars on the slide represent minimum tillage and the green bars represent no tillage. We are talking about tens of thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide reduced by a move towards these conservation practices.
Conservation Agriculture Ireland is part of a greater network throughout Europe. There are 15 member organisations in the European Conservation Agriculture Federation, and further information can be got from that website, but that brings us into contact with researchers in these areas in those different countries and, more importantly, with farmer practitioners in other parts of Europe.
Globally, conservation agriculture is now practised as far south as the Falkland Islands, through the Equator, Kenya, Uganda, and as far north as Finland. With regard to rainfall, it is worked in semi-arid areas, for example, in Namibia, to areas of the most intensive and heavy rainfall instances such as Chile and southern Brazil in South America, where the rainfall can be in excess of 3,000 millimetres, even more than we experience in Ireland.
Furthermore, conservation agriculture is practised on different soil types. In Australia, it is practised on 95% sands whereas in southern Brazil it can be practised on 85% clays. Some people in this country believe that either Ireland's climate or soil type is not conducive for these systems but the evidence from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation is testimony to the opposite being the case.
We have links with people in North America, Canada, throughout South America and Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Kazakhstan, China and up to Scandinavia giving practical evidence that these systems are operating well. They are slightly different among different countries but farmers are benefiting and the evidence, after 30 years' experience and research findings, is testament that society and the environment is benefiting as well.
Conservation agriculture has increased year on year and at the end of 2008 there were 105 million hectares globally devoted to these practices. There was no tillage, cultivation or disturbance of soil involved.
Nearer to Europe — I will show the table in graph format because it is easier to see — among all those countries Ireland has the lowest rate of adoption, not alone of no tillage but of minimum tillage compared with other countries that are members of the European Conservation Agriculture Federation. The United Kingdom is shown in the blue graph on the right hand side. A total of 50% of the arable area in the United Kingdom is non-plough based and, in addition, 3% to 4% of that is no tillage. Switzerland, which has the same arable area — approximately 400,000 hectares — has in excess of 25% of reduced cultivations or minimum tillage and approximately 3% to 4% of no tillage. Meanwhile, Ireland has less than 3% minimum tillage.
I was asked to outline initiatives ongoing in European countries where conservation agriculture practice adoption has been greater than it has been in Ireland. I refer to these four federal states in Germany. There are a total of 15 and in all 15 states conservation measures are being adopted. A common objective among those different initiatives is the reduction in intensive soil cultivation, the promotion of soil cover, and the adoption of non-inversion tillage, or minimum and no tillage, with varying subsidies for farmers who take up those particular practices. It would be similar to a specific rural environment protection, REP, scheme for tillage operators.
Spain has a bonus system to eliminate and reduce soil erosion over 50% of the arable area. Depending on the practice that a farmer adopts, he gets an incremental subsidy from the Spanish Government for adoption of these services and systems, the essence being that these services are of benefit to the greater society and to the Government in terms of full compliance with environmental legislation.
Similarly, in Portugal there are subsidies for stubble conservation on the soil surface, the use of cover crops and straw conservation, which is leaving straw on the soil surface, because there is a major environmental benefit. When these subsidies were introduced and once they were supported by the Portuguese Government, there was a dramatic increase in the uptake of conservation systems. Between 2004 and 2005 alone there was a 111% increase in uptake.
Outside the European Union, even Switzerland is supporting conservation systems. It has a similar nitrates directive in the Berne province. Farmers there also receive subsidy payments, funded by the national exchequer, for different crops under a REPS-type initiative for adopting minimum and no tillage enterprises.
In these different countries we see the effect the support from central government has had for the uptake of these systems. In Ireland, with little support other than a supplementary measure in the REPS 4, there has not been the same degree of official support, education or training at farmer level.
Conservation agriculture developed in Ireland between 2000 and 2007 when we last conducted a survey. We are due to conduct another one in the coming months. It has risen from 2,000 hectares to slightly in excess of 10,000 hectares. In the initial years, support came from the commercial sector in the promotion of these systems. We were able to deliver an on-farm extension service at ground level. We were able to bring together farmers who were practising these systems so that they could learn from one another. Since then, funding ceased and there has been a drop-off in the uptake of these systems. On a county basis, the 10,000 hectares in the system are spread evenly among the crop-growing areas from Louth to west Cork. The greatest amount of minimum tillage practice is in operation in counties Kilkenny and Wexford.
Conservation Agriculture Ireland is a voluntary organisation. Its annual budget is between €2,500 and €3,000, funded exclusively by farmer members like Tom Shortt, Julian Hughes and Jane Smith. We have made submissions to the Government on the nitrates directive, to the Office of Public Works on flood mitigation, to the Department on cross-compliance and to this committee with regard to the productive use of modulated funds. We attended the committee in May 2005. As a result of that meeting, the then Vice Chairman, Deputy Hoctor, organised a visit with farmers in north Tipperary. On the strength of that meeting, she organised a meeting with the then Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, at which we brought some of this information to her attention.
We have briefed several Deputies and Irish MEPs on the development of soils legislation at EU level. We are also in regular contact with European Commission officials, especially those in the environment directorate general, DG, responsible for implementation of the soils directive and who developed a soils thematic strategy published in October 2006.
Back at home, we have briefed officials in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and the Environmental Protection Agency. However, it is difficult to identify the key focal person in any of these agencies responsible for soil and environmental legislation and policy development. We do the best we can considering the funding we have.
The main impediment to conservation agriculture practices is little or no official support or encouragement. A supplementary measure is contained in REPS 4 but it alone is insufficient. It does signify a reaffirmation from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that there are environmental benefits to the systems we are promoting.
There is, however, poor knowledge levels for the successful extension initiatives. The best form of extension is farmer to farmer, to give a practising farmer to one who is thinking of adopting conservation practices. Mr. Gerry Bird, Dr. Rothwell and I try to facilitate this process on behalf of the farmer members of CAIR. However, CAIR has limited resources with only farmer subscriptions, giving it an annual budget of €3,000. All our work is voluntary. Despite this, we adhere to the latest global scientific and technological developments in this field.
For farmers, there is a concern about the capital cost of entry into conservation and for the purchase of suitable equipment. Farmers are also unsure of the best approach towards adopting conservation. In different counties with different soil types, there are slight variations in the best approach. There is a strong conventional ploughing tradition and prejudice towards it in Ireland. While we have a culture of ploughing, in North and South America the culture is one of not ploughing. This cannot be changed overnight. Through education and increasing awareness, however, we can move slowly towards this practice. The lack of a support scheme to increase adoption rates is also an impediment.
Official support must be given to conservation agricultural initiatives. The joint committee could be a great help in this regard. It will not just be agriculture that will benefit. There is a cross-linkage with other initiatives such as those in nitrates, the environment, soils, biodiversity, climate change and flood mitigation. The committee could decide to instigate significant changes in agricultural production processes which could benefit farmers and greater society.
Legislation should be complemented with education. Not just in Ireland but in other countries, legislation is introduced but there is no training package associated with it. Understandably, there will be resistance if people do not understand the reason behind the legislation. Farmers need to understand that conservation practices actually equal farm profit. What is required is a concurrent conservation agriculture support scheme with well-thought out initiatives that are farmer friendly and which will increase adoption and uptake rates. We believe the productive use of modulated funds arising from the tillage sector could be redistributed to those farmers who agree to adopt conservation practices. Everyone will gain from this. It is one of those rare occasions where it is win-win for the farmer, society and the environment.