Adopting reduced and min-till systems offers huge environmental benefits, Nuffield Scholar John Geraghty believes.

A proponent of Conservation Agriculture, Mr Geraghty, who studied the concept in South America in 2003, says several European member states have given it the thumbs up.

The initial spur for farmers in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay was the need to curb erosion, he notes.

“Having adopted no-tillage they encountered problems with managing residues and weed control.”

These were overcome by setting up farmer groups and sharing information.

“There is a great community spirit, and even though they may not have the latest machinery and technology I believe they are world leaders in CA.”

With their elementary problems solved they began to appreciate its many other advantages, including lower machinery and fuel costs, less parts wear and tear, and reduced herbicide and fertiliser needs, especially where nitrogen-fixing crops are used in association with cash crops, he explains.

“They are obsessed with soil cover and good soil management practices.

“It’s intriguing to note that a few of the pioneers came to the UK in the early 1970s to learn the new min-till techniques being adopted then.

“I suppose that with our accession to the then EEC and guaranteed prices the pressure to find more economic ways of production then eased.

“The irony is that that CA’s benefits are part and parcel of desired environmental directives at EU level, and member states are required to implement these directives on a national basis.”

Some countries, notably Germany, Spain and Portugal, have already introduced measures to promote CA, he points out.

And as an Eire* consultant based in Tipperary and general secretary to the non-profit organisation Conservation Agriculture Ireland he is lobbying the parliament there to follow suit.

Detailed briefings have been given to its Agriculture and Food Committee.

“We argued that by encouraging farmers to take up CA and/or min-till the government could help realise its agricultural and environmental objectives in the medium to long term.

“Wouldn’t it make sense to use some subsidies or modulated funds to assist farmers with the transition process?

Even if it was only for five years it could help with teething problems.

“Subsidies could be tailor made to assist with uptake of appropriate practices.

In some countries a partial once-off grant is available for cultivator type drills.

Other subsidies are available for re-incorporating straw, using cover crops to ensure constant soil cover over the winter period.

“Subsidies won’t last forever, so isn’t it advisable to put schemes in place now that will help farmers adopt systems that other farmers across the world already use without receiving direct subsidies.”

Mr Geraghty accepts that the English ELS is a step in the right direction, but believes it should offer more action-based options such as planting cover crops rather than simply leaving stubbles untouched over winter.

“If we were more pro-active in using modulated funds we could achieve our environmental goals, assist the implementation of sustainable systems and make arable farms more economically viable.”

Germany’s federal states offer CA support ranging from 25 to 115/ha a year depending on the particular project, he notes.

Half of Spain’s farmland is covered by a soil protection law offering a system of bonuses for specific practices such as no-tillage cropping.

Portugal’s Rural Development Plan provides specific area-linked subsidies where farmers undertake to use reduced and no-tillage methods for five years.

Switzerland too has a scheme of rewards for mulch-tillage and zero-tillage, he notes.

For the first time in Eire agricultural graduates in the 2006 academic year have access to specific CA courses via a new course at Waterford Institute of Technology.

andrew.blake@rbi.co.uk