Increased interest among consumers in plant-based foods, the need to reduce carbon emissions from agriculture and limit our reliance on imports, mean there is significant potential to develop the crop and horticulture sector across Ireland, scientists maintain.

Speaking at the AFBI research conference last Wednesday, Professor Fiona Doohan from University College Dublin said that we need to learn from the past and get back to a mixed/integrated farming model.

“We don’t score very high on the island of Ireland in terms of security of plant-based food systems. We are growing a very narrow range of crops,” she said, adding that in NI, crops and horticulture account for only 3% and 5% respectively of total output from agriculture.

While Ireland needs to grow more crops, the sector faces some immediate challenges, with continued pressure to reduce pesticides, and in the case of glyphosate, a constant battle to get it approved for use. “I don’t think we are going to have it much longer,” she suggested.

As a result, Doohan said that researchers and farmers will have to look at how pests are controlled, with the development of resistant varieties, biological inputs and use of regenerative agriculture (rebuilding soil organic matter, etc).

There are some crops, such as oats, that are better suited to the island than others, maintained Doohan. In general, she said that the focus in plant breeding must shift away from simply yield to disease resistance and ability to perform in low input conditions.

As well as oats, there is huge potential to grow more rye in NI, added Dr Lisa Black from AFBI. She outlined how the crop is drought-tolerant, hardy and requires significantly less nitrogen than barley. It can be used in pig diets, flour manufacture and high-fibre foods.

Black, who heads up AFBI work at Crossnacreevy, also highlighted the need for more mixed farming in NI, suggesting that policy makers should consider the development of a plant science/crop strategy as a first step in growing the sector. Farm payments could then be used to encourage uptake.


With spring barley the favoured crop in NI, she accepted that breeding for yield has led to later ripening times, leaving farmers battling autumn weather.

“Pull back from yield as the only key measure we need. Sustainability is also about being able to harvest a crop,” she said.

Growers uncompetitive without gene editing

A UK public consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies closed to responses on 17 March 2021. With government now considering a change to the law, it could pave the way for the use of gene-edited crops in England.

According to Dr Johnathan Dalzell from AFBI, gene editing and related technologies would allow plant breeders to rapidly generate new crop varieties that are more productive, resilient and sustainable.

“If we continue to pass up on new technology like this we will continue to lose ground and become less competitive relative to new adopters,” he said.


During his presentation at the AFBI event, Dalzell also highlighted the need to develop and retain state-of-the-art plant health surveillance ability in NI, given the risks posed by new pests and diseases. That risk has been heightened due to the implementation of the NI Protocol from 1 January 2021.

“With issues around soil movement from GB to NI, we are now beginning to see planting material being sourced from high risk countries in the EU to circumvent the trade barrier between GB and NI,” said Dalzell.

‘Right place, right time’ for slurry

Applying slurry when ground conditions are dry is the most effective way of limiting nutrient losses to waterways, AFBI researchers have concluded.

“We looked at a whole range of mitigation measures, but by far the most effective method is the old mantra of ‘right place, right time’. It was way above any of the other measures,” said Dr Donnacha Doody.


Speaking at the AFBI science conference, Doody said his research found a 46% difference in phosphorus (P) losses when slurry was applied to “moderately drained soils” compared to “poorly drained soils”.

When slurry applications on “well-drained soils” were compared to “poorly drained soils”, there was an 87% difference in P loss.

“Getting slurry on to well-drained soils will help reduce P loss in overland flow. There still will be some loss in drain flow but there will be time for phosphorus and other nutrients to be taken up by the grass and soil,” Doody said.

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