Farming having ‘disproportionate’ impact on falling water quality, says EPA

Environmental regulator says `we really need to stop talking about action and move to delivery’

The agriculture sector is having a “disproportionate” impact on declining standards of water quality across the country, the head of the State’s environmental regulator has said.

Laura Burke, director general of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said when it came to greenhouse gas emissions and standards of water quality, Ireland was going in the “wrong direction”. The EPA official was speaking during a panel talk on food sustainability organised by the Department of Agriculture in Dublin Castle on Thursday.

Ms Burke said Ireland had long “traded on the image of a clean, green island” to promote tourism and its agriculture sector. However, a report by the EPA, due to be published in the coming days, will show water quality standards were falling rather than improving, she said. “We are not on track to meet our commitments that by 2027 Ireland will have good or better water quality in all our [water] bodies – we are trending in the wrong direction.”

The farming and agriculture sector was having a “disproportionate impact on our water quality,” she said. “Water quality is declining and what we’re seeing is with regard to agriculture, 63 per cent of the water bodies that are at risk or impacted are impacted by agriculture,” Ms Burke said. “Our greenhouse gas emissions are increasing … they are going in the wrong direction.”


The senior EPA official also said current methane emissions were nearly 20 per cent higher than in 1990.

Companies that were involved in food and drink production were often among the worst offenders when it came to not complying with the EPA’s environmental regulations, she said. “We really need to stop talking about action and move to delivery. I’ve been in the agency a long time and I keep hearing ‘next year, next year, next year, we’re almost there’, we are not seeing it on the ground.”

Philip Carroll, chair of Meat Industry Ireland, the industry body representing meat producers, criticised the current narrative that farming herd numbers should be cut to hit emission-reduction targets. “That’s not helpful in circumstances where I believe farmers are absolutely committed to the [reform] process ... I think we need to tone that down a little bit for the time being.”

The burden of reducing environmental emissions “cannot solely be the responsibility of the farming sector”, he said. “We can do much better. We have to do better … Now is the time, I think we recognise that as an industry,” he told the conference.

Tim Cullinan, president of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), said he did not want “all the blame to fall on agriculture” when it came to poor water quality. Efforts had to be made to sustain life in rural Ireland, as the farming lobby official said “we don’t want everybody living in Dublin”.

“We’re unique here in Ireland that we can produce top quality food with a low carbon footprint.” Farmers had been making serious efforts to reform practices to be more sustainable, he said.

Pat Murphy, chief executive of Kerry Group’s dairy business, said increasingly customers wanted to know if products were more environmentally sustainable. The company’s dairy farmers were regularly audited by Bord Bia to rate their carbon footprint, which he said showed “we’re taking this very seriously”.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times