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What is the nitrates derogation and how does it impact Irish farmers?

Tighter EU regulations in light of worsening water pollution crisis could have far-reaching implications for Irish farmers

Irish farmers are battling challenging headwinds. For starters, they are wrestling with unrelenting weather extremes this year. They must reduce emissions such as methane from belching cattle, knowing a livestock cull is being considered to help decarbonise agriculture by 25 per cent in the period to 2030.

A boom in dairying, fuelled by State supports – especially coinciding with milk quotas ending in 2015 – is probably coming to an end.

Stricter EU rules on spreading fertilisers are heaping additional pressure on farm families. The European Commission is tightening up a nitrates derogation granted to Ireland in recognition of its supposedly more environmentally benign grass-based production system.

The implications could not be clearer. Limiting nitrogen use has a direct impact on productivity, which hits the bottom line – profitability.


All this is happening against a backdrop of increasing water pollution linked to farming. That is the overriding factor in the EU’s curtailment of the derogation, while also being of growing concern to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as water quality in Irish rivers and lakes deteriorates alarmingly.

What exactly is the nitrates derogation?

The EU nitrates directive came into force in 1991, aiming to protect water courses from agricultural pollution and to promote good farming practices.

Member states are required to produce a nitrates action programme (NAP) every four years, which sets rules and regulations for farm management including the application of slurry and chemical fertilisers.

Ireland applies to Europe for the derogation every four years, based on the argument that we have a long growing season, our fields can absorb fertilisers and their use will not put water quality at risk. Once granted by the commission, Irish farmers apply annually to the Department of Agriculture for a derogation licence, which allow certain farms to exceed the organic nitrogen limit of 170kg per hectare, by up to 80kg.

The commission is, from next year, lowering the maximum nitrate allowance for Ireland to 220kg per hectare in line with EPA recommendations. It cited EPA reports stating that agricultural run-off – notably excess fertiliser application – is a contributory factor in Irish river pollution.

Some 3,000 dairy and beef farmers will be directly affected by the change, either having to reduce their herds or find additional land.


How did the nitrates issue come to a head?

Ireland is currently applying for its fifth NAP for the period 2022-2025. But the spectre of past failures stand out. As An Taisce has flagged, NAP consultation documents highlight one of the key reasons.

“NAP measures are currently failing to protect water quality from agriculture, as required under article 1 of the directive. This is in part as a result of the industry expansion but poor enforcement and compliance is also hindering progress in implementation. A significant change in future enforcement and greater compliance is a prerequisite before any further consideration of what additional measures are required to protect water quality.”

The writing has been on the wall for some time. Despite protests from farmer representatives about the curtailment being sprung on them, a NAP review confirmed the position. In effect, the change has been lockediin for some time and, arguably, the time to secure concessions has passed, even though the chances of success would have been limited.

Hence Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue’s insistence that the EU decision would not be revisited, despite a move by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to discuss the matter with environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius.

How bad is Ireland’s water quality crisis?

Nearly half of our rivers (47 per cent) and a third of lakes are failing to meet their environmental quality standards for nutrients, with serious consequences for their health, the EPA says.

Rather than meeting obligations under EU law to halt and reverse water pollution, it is rising. Some 38 per cent of river sites have increasing levels of nitrate pollution as well as phosphorus loadings.

Rivers such as the Barrow, Slaney and Lee are of particular concern, with 85 per cent of the nitrogen found in these coming from agriculture. Radical changes in managing nitrogen inputs to agricultural land are needed to comply with the nitrates and water framework directives.

The most damning long-term indication is that only 32 rivers are now in “pristine” condition, down from more than 500 in the 1980s.

The EPA has produced maps indicating where targeted measures are needed. While they apply throughout the country, the most radical measures are proposed for southern areas where intensive dairy production is concentrated.

Why do livestock numbers matter?

Irish farmers contend they have the most sustainable beef and dairy production systems in the world. There may be some evidence for this when compared to other countries, but agriculture is by far Ireland’s biggest source of warming greenhouse gases.

It accounted for 38 per cent of carbon emissions last year, mainly methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from nitrogen fertiliser use and manure management.

Meanwhile, EPA evidence confirms the sector has become the single biggest contributor to water pollution. Put simply, increasing emissions and water pollution are directly linked to increasing cattle numbers.

How have cattle numbers increased?

Dairy cow numbers increased by 50 per cent between 2010 and 2020 up to 1.6 million. Fertiliser imports increased by 35 per cent in a similar period.

There are a variety of predicted scenarios up to 2030, and a likelihood of increased dairy cattle numbers compared to beef cow numbers. EPA modelling suggests dairy cow numbers could reach 1.76 million, while beef cow numbers are projected to reduce by 748,000 head, down 16 per cent compared to last year.

The national herd has reduced by more than 550,000 head in the past 20 years, according to Department of Agriculture data. There were just over seven million cattle in Ireland at the end of 2002, compared to just over 6.5 million at the end of last year.

What has heightened farmer concerns, however, is confirmation that the department is considering a cow cull scheme that would remove up 200,000 dairy cows, the equivalent to reducing milk output by one billion litres a year, on foot of recommendations from its Food Vision dairy group.

An Irish Farmers Journal analysis suggests this would cost those remaining in milk production about €39 million. However, their figure excludes the downstream impact on the rural economy, which is likely to be substantial.

What are the future risks?

An Taisce says all environmental indicators highlight the need for a decrease in input of slurry and fertiliser on intensively farmed, free-draining soils. This requires changes in the management of nitrogen inputs to comply with EU directives backed by a far more rigorous compliance and enforcement regime.

Nothing short of drastic action is needed, but it has concluded the current draft NAP will not deliver this. That raises the possibility of a nightmare for farmers in the form of even tighter nitrate restrictions and even bigger cow culls.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times