Soil management is a fundamental issue for anyone making their living from the land. It’s our factory floor.

On Wednesday, Skills and Research Minister Damien English launched the Landmark programme in Co Wexford. The privilege fell to the Minister because the LANDMARK programme is being funded from the Horizon 2020 EU research programme, to the tune of €5m. It’s the first funding drawn down by Ireland from this programme, meaning LANDMARK has already achieved it’s first objective.

What’s it about?

Soil management, basically – a considerable challenge when you think of all that our soil is asked to do. In the words of Teagasc director Gerry Boyle, “the number of mouths to be fed from each parcel of land continues to rise, but the ecological footprint that we can afford ourselves continues to shrink”.

Irish farmers understand soil as well as anyone, because the typical farm has many different soil types, every field requiring a different technique. Diminishing returns kick in and productivity drops if soil is not maintained and replenished.

Soil directive shelved

Brussels had for years planned a soil directive, similar to the water directive that led to our nitrates regulation. An initial linked measure was the requirement to test the organic matter content of tillage fields.

However, the Juncker presidency of the EU has shelved the soil directive. This does not mean that the recognised need to ensure our soils are maintained and utilised is being abandoned or downgraded.

Instead, we have the LANDMARK project, which will concentrate on soil function. It involves 14 EU countries as well as Brazil and China. It is equally as wide-ranging in its stakeholder selection, with everyone from Brussels officials to farmer representatives (Copa-Cogeca).

The LANDMARK project has, using existing information and data, assessed the ability of each land parcel, depending on soil type and rainfall levels.

A simple colour-coded chart is being created to demonstrate the results, creating a decision support tool for farmers. The results are not that surprising – fertile, free-draining land is best attuned to food production, mountain land to biodiversity.

The trick is that the new tool quantifies the extent of the natural disposition of land on a field-to-field basis. Legislators and policy-makers can then match programmes to play to the strengths of our landscape. Schemes like DAS (now ANC) payments, GLAS and the Basic Payment Scheme can utilise this information to ensure that farmers are encouraged to match land use to the natural ability of its’ soil.

This is sustainability and productivity being placed on an equal footing. Just what EU Ag Commissioner Phil Hogan has stressed is his core objective since long before he ever when to Brussels.

Better understanding

One benefit of this type of pan-national project is better understanding. For instance, wide-scale land drainage has been unfashionable with DG Environment for a while now.

Yet land drainage has the obvious benefits to farmers of improved trafficability and a longer grazing season with less poaching, both leading to increased productivity. The downside is increased removal of nitrates and phosphates from the soil.

Modelling by Teagasc, using the layers of information available, has created a map that evaluates both these outcomes and the economic impact.

Carbon loss can be evaluated in money terms, using the levy applicable on the State for every tonne of CO2 lost. Teagasc’s modelling demonstrates that the output increase currently far outweighs the environmental cost. CO2 would have to reach about €40/t before that begins to change.

The next level is to try to minimise the losses. Through LANDMARK we can assess the cost-benefit balance of investing in methods of trapping nutrients from drained land. This clarity would help farmers to justify draining land both to themselves and to Brussels.

The Landmark project not only crosses national and continental boundaries, it also involves stakeholders, from farmers to research, and advisory personnel to policy-makers. DG’s agri and environment are both involved, as is the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

China and Brazil are included in the project as there is much to learn from them. For instance, China has almost halted the growth of the Gobi desert through targeted actions, while Brazil has slowed the destruction of the Amazon rainforest with massive environmental benefits at a fraction of the cost associated with any EU environmental programmes – one thousand times cheaper, in fact.

It seems a much more sensible approach to sustainability than the blunt weapon of a directive. LANDMARK will soon be available online.