October 25th, 2017
Elevated nutrient concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen continue to be one the most widespread water quality problem in Ireland.
Nutrient losses from agriculture and domestic wastewater discharges are among the primary reasons why the water quality objectives of both the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) have not yet been met.
In freshwater environments, elevated concentrations of phosphorus are the primary reason for ecological impact in our rivers and lakes, while nitrogen is a more significant factor in our transitional and coastal waters.
Although nutrient inputs into the marine environment have shown some substantial decreases over the last two decades, the rate of decrease has certainly slowed in recent years, and in some cases the level of nutrient inputs to the marine environment has increased.
The EPA states that one of the leading causes of nitrate pollution is fertiliser run-off from the land, and point to source pollution associated with farmyards.
For some time now, the European Commission has stated that it is ‘considering’ the removing special allowances on fertiliser use given to farmers, known as “the nitrates derogation”, as part of a number of moves designed to prevent further declines in the water quality of Ireland’s waterways.
Last month, Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) President Joe Healy outlined to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine what his organisation saw as the “chief priorities” of Ireland’s Nitrate Action Plan (NAP3) review.
Mr Healy said that the finalisation of regulations for its fourth NAP (NAP4) must be the “continuation of both the derogation for the dairy and livestock sector and the transitional arrangements for pig and poultry farmers”.
He also repeated requests previous made by the IFA in 2016 for the 28 EU Member States to support the immediate suspension of anti-dumping duties on ammonium nitrate and the abolition of tariffs on fertiliser imports.
Ireland, in common with other EU member states in which intensive agricultural activity is practised, currently avails of a derogation from the 170kg livestock manure nitrogen limit, as provided for in the Nitrates Directive.
For farms which are 80 per cent grass, the derogation increases the application limit of 170kg/ha of livestock manure to 210kg/ha each year (in some cases 250kg/ha) and essentially allows farmers to spread up to 50 per cent more fertiliser on their land than is normally permitted by EU regulations.
According to previous statements made by the Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine (DAFM), such derogations are provided for “where justified on the basis of long growing seasons, crops with high nitrogen uptake, high net precipitation or the occurrence of soils with exceptionally high denitrification capacity”.
In Ireland, the derogation is of critical importance to the government’s ambitious plans for the dairy industry, particularly the Food Harvest roadmap which outlines plans for a 50 per cent increase in milk production by 2020.
Ireland was originally granted derogation by the Commission in 2007, which was subsequently renewed in 2010 and 2014. The current derogation expires on 31 December 2017, when the third NAP3 concludes.
The IFA President sees a review of Nitrates Regulations as “an opportunity to address poor soil fertility on farms, which, if left unchecked will limit Irish agriculture’s ability to reach its growth targets”.
In his statement made to the Joint Committee, Joe Healy stated that the decline in soil fertility levels in recent years was “due to a reduction in fertiliser use”, which he said was brought about due to low farm incomes and heavy regulatory activities.
“Reviewing the rules surrounding the use and management of nitrogen and phosphorous on Irish farms provides a real opportunity to reverse decades of declining soil fertility levels,” he said.
The IFA President not only advocated the continuation of derogation but also promoted an increase in adoption of the exemption across the agricultural industry, stating that “less than 5 per cent of farmers in Ireland avail of the nitrates derogation”.
Nearly 7,000 farmers across Ireland currently avail of the nitrates derogation here each year, however, over 1,600 are fined close to €2m annually for breaching either the 170kg/ha or 250kg/ha limit.
Earlier this year, the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) said there was an “overwhelming need to keep the derogation”, and that they are also looking for “increased flexibility in slurry spreading during the closed period” under certain conditions.
Considering that five among the seven companies named by the Environmental Protection Agency on its latest list of worst offenders for breaching environmental regulations are in the dairy sector, the continuation and expansion of derogation at the scale proposed may set environmental alarms ringing.
Pushing the limits
Joe Healy also said the “inflexibility of the calendar farming regime when it comes to fertiliser spreading” meant that farm families, particularly in the west and north-west, had struggled to farm the land “due to the exceptional weather this year”.
“More flexibility must be shown to ensure farmers who want to do the right thing are not penalised,” he stated.
But just how flexible should we be – or indeed can we be?
The granting of derogation is conditional on meeting requirements, including the regular monitoring of groundwater levels and complying with required phosphate restrictions.
The NAP3 review itself states that a range of biophysical and socio-economic parameters are used to evaluate the impact of the NAP measures and the derogation implemented by farmers under the Nitrates Directive.
The Nitrates Directive is designed to provide a basic general level of protection for the water environment against pollution from agricultural sources.
The NAP3 review found that, despite significant initial improvements in water quality since the NAP commenced in 2006, “further improvements have not been observed within the past six years” and compliance levels among farm holdings have “not improved since the introduction of the NAP”.
Furthermore, the Agricultural Catchments Programme run by Teagasc suggests that there is “poor understanding of the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) regulations” and that “more direct one-to-one advisory support is needed to assist farmers to understand and comply with the regulations.”
Any future declines in water quality will threaten the possibility of future derogations being granted under the Nitrates Directive.
The EU Commission recently revoked the nitrates derogation for Denmark and imposed cuts to the number of cows that Dutch farmers are permitted to retain, leading to further ramifications in the EU dairy and beef markets.
In conclusion to his statement to the Joint Committee, Joe Healy said that the farming community is “well positioned to continue to play its part in Ireland’s recovery” and the NAP review should play its part to “deliver sustainable growth”.
While Joe Healy is quite correct in stating that the “nitrates review cannot miss [this] opportunity to support agriculture’s sustainable growth”, it is clearly debatable if this is the best course of action, not only for the future of Irish farming but also the future state of our environment.