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Farming under threat as soil fertility falls 40pc in 10 years


Digging deep: The programme’s presenter Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin at Teagasc’s Soil Research Centre

Digging deep: The programme’s presenter Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin at Teagasc’s Soil Research Centre

Digging deep: The programme’s presenter Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin at Teagasc’s Soil Research Centre

Ireland's fields have suffered a 40pc drop in fertility in just a decade, sparking concerns for the future of our world-renowned farming industry.

The worrying trend is to be highlighted in RTÉ's flagship science show, '10 Things to Know About', which will expose the little-known effects of modern farming practices on the nation's land, which has 213 different soil types.

A recent UK report estimated that our nearest neighbours only have 100 harvests left before soils become too degraded to grow crops. And Teagasc soil scientist Dr David Wall says there is concern about the rapid decline in Irish soil fertility.

"Without a balanced mix of essential nutrients in soil, agriculture, which is a big part of the national economy, would decline," said Dr Wall

"If nothing is done, we'll arrive back in the 1960s in terms of poor yields, poor quality crops, declining farm incomes and then it will affect the whole food economy."

'10 Things to Know About' will reveal how tests on 200,000 soil samples from around the country in 2016 showed just 11pc of soils were fertile.

This is a sharp fall from the 18pc of fertile land recorded in 2006.

"Our soil nutrient reserves are being mined over time," said Dr Wall.

"The evidence from our samples show there has been a massive decline in soil fertility since 2006. It's a fast drop but it will be a slower process to get it back."

Soil fertility declines when more nutrients are removed from the earth by crops over time than are introduced back into the soil.

Dr Wall explained that the sharp drop in fertiliser use on agricultural soils in recent decades is due to factors including increased regulation and cost, poor weather and environmental concerns.

In '10 Things to Know About', which is presented by Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin and airs on RTÉ 1 at 8.30pm tonight, Dr Wall reveals how a drop in fertilisation coupled with more intensive farming practices, which remove more nutrients from the land, has caused the decline in fertility of Irish fields.

"Our fertiliser use has declined since 1990, our use of phosphorus and potassium [fertilisers] has more than halved - along with nitrogen, they are the biggest nutrients needed to grow crops," he said.

Ireland's grass-fed agriculture is different from the farming systems used by our European counterparts, where most of the beef and dairy herds are fed indoors on imported feed.

This leaves Irish farmers more reliant on fertile soil to grow grass to feed their animals directly.

But Dr Wall said that action is now being taken in the form of awareness campaigns to encourage farmers to introduce measures to improve the quality of the soil.

"Teagasc, through our advisory services, the dairy industry, the farm organisations like the IFA, and policymakers are acutely aware of this and there are various awareness campaigns running in recent years," he added.

"The general consumer probably sees fertilisers sometimes in a negative light because in the past we may have overused them in certain areas."

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