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‘We need time’

Ireland’s 6,700 farmers who are availing of the Nitrates Derogation would require an additional 30,000 hectares of land if that derogation is reduced, MEP Billy Kelleher, told the recent 'Fine-Tuning Irish Dairy Conference'. It would, he said, have societal as well as farming implications, writes Bernie Commins

The theme of this fifth Fine-Tuning Irish Dairy Conference focused on a ‘radical assessment of the future of Irish milk production’ and the underlying message of the day was that time is not on the side of the farmers where policy and legislation are concerned.

MEP, Billy Kelleher, who spoke at the event laid out several items currently being discussed and negotiated in the European Union that will impact the farming industry and farmers’ livelihood.

And he made the point that before concrete decisions are made with long-term consequences, sufficient time should be allowed to monitor the ways in which farmers’ actions to mitigate climate change and enhance water quality are making a difference.

“Traditionally, agricultural policy was looked at through the prism of agriculture, firstly, and then you tried to amend it to lessen the impact on the environment. Most of the flow of legislation and policy is now put through an environmental prism first and then agriculture is forced into it,” he said.

“That has been the significant policy shift that has happened in the last 10 years, a lot of it for good reason, but a lot of it will cause significant challenge as well,” he said.

The MEP said there can be no doubting the degradation of our environmental system across Europe, although it is not all dairy related. But, he said, Ireland’s derogation is based on a number of conditions, and water quality is the big issue here. “If we lose that fight, we lose the derogation. The fear and expectation is that the Commission will reduce the 250kg nitrogen to 220kg nitrogen.” It is not a foredrawn conclusion, however, he said.

EPA report

A few days subsequent to the conference, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its water quality report for 2022, which found that, overall, there was no significant improvement in the biological quality of our rivers or lakes in 2022. Improvements are happening in some areas but these are offset by declines elsewhere, the report stated. Overall, nitrogen levels in rivers and groundwater increased between 2021 and 2022. Nitrogen is too high in 40 per cent of river sites and in 20 per cent of estuarine and coastal water bodies. In addition, phosphorus levels are too high in 28 per cent of rivers and 36 per cent of lakes. This report will inform the European Commission when it officially reviews Ireland’s water quality – in 2023, as part of our derogation – this will be done by comparing EPA water quality results for 2022 with 2021. Where the water quality has not improved, the Commission could reduce the 250kg organic nitrogen per hectare derogation to 220kg organic nitrogen per hectare.

“Time is required for the mitigating factors that we have put in place over the last number of years to have an effect on water quality in rivers and estuaries throughout the country, and that is something we haven’t been given, is time to show that there will be a positive impact.”

The derogation, if removed, he said will have a massive impact in a number of ways, he explained, such as displacement of agricultural practices. “The dairy farmers will require additional land to maintain their income levels, they will have to procure and rent more and it will be in certain pockets such as west Cork, east Limerick, south Tipperary, south Kilkenny and west Waterford where there is significant concentration of dairy animals and it will displace other farmers in those areas not involved in dairying – beef, tillage, sheep, sucklers, etc. It will have a knock-on societal effect, other than on the farm itself,” he said.

Industrial Emissions Directive – concerning

One piece of European legislation of concern, the MEP highlighted is the Industrial Emissions Directive. This aims to achieve a high level of protection of human health and the environment by reducing harmful industrial emissions across the EU.

“This is also an area of concern,” he said. “The European Parliament was already talking about farms of 150 livestock units being included in this directive – this is 110 or 115 cows, plus replacements. The average dairy farm in Ireland has about 92 dairy cows, so just a little over the average would have been included.

“We have tried to change that, so they are now talking about an upper limit of 350 units for dairy and beef farms. I would like that to be higher. We have asked that it wouldn’t be stringent in that farms would not be assessed in the same way as waste management facilities or other big industrial sites.”

Policy certainty

Billy Kelleher added that there needs to be policy certainty so that farmers can plan ahead, otherwise 'you will have this continual rolling of concern, anxiety and uncertainty'.

Dairy farmer, Joe Deane, who also spoke at the event, commented on the importance of Government support for the industry’s efforts in tackling climate action: “There is great opportunity for dairy farmers in Ireland to run highly profitable and sustainable businesses going forward, once we are not strangled with regulation before new science and technology has the chance to be implemented to combat the challenges facing the industry, such as nitrates and climate change.

“It is very important that the farming organisations and the Government fight hard in Europe for the retention of our derogation at 250kg nitrogen per hectare. If given more time, farmers can continue to help to improve water quality,” he said. He added that Irish farmers are very adaptable and, given the opportunity, will adapt to further improve the sustainability of the industry.

Fellow dairy farmer, Victor O’Sullivan, who spoke at the conference, also stressed the need for joined-up thinking between scientists, farmers and policy makers: “A significant challenge for the future will be maintaining political support regarding the issues of water quality and emissions. The science involved does yield favourable results for Irish dairy farmers; what will have an impact is the political will to back the science.”

Animal transport

There is significant risk to the continued transport of animals from Ireland to Europe, the MEP said, so Ireland must go above and beyond when it comes to ensuring and implementing the highest animal-welfare standards possible. “The regulation that governed the transportation of animals – Council Regulation (EC) No. 1/2005 – was implemented in Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and the Nordic countries, but many countries didn’t [do that] and we had some appalling cases of animal cruelty,” he said.

“We all remember the ships, with 900 steers on board for months, bobbing around from port to port and they couldn’t disembark or be slaughtered because there were concerns about bluetongue infections in the animals and nobody would accept responsibility.

“We had cases of heifers being taken from Romania to Kazakhstan, a more-than 2,000km journey and only 50 per cent got there alive. These are the things that cause concern. We are good people, but we will still have to do more to ensure that we have the highest standards because the one country that will be affected most if there is a ban, will be Ireland.” It is expected that new animal transport regulations will be published by the European Commission in October, he said.