Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 20 March 2024

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Compliance with the Nitrates Directive and Implications for Ireland: Discussion (Resumed)

Mr. Fintan Towey:

I thank the committee for inviting the Department to discuss compliance with the nitrates directive. The Department is responsible for the nitrates action programmes, NAPs, and the good agricultural practice, GAP, regulations as well as the national river basin management plan. We work in close collaboration with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, DAFM, in developing these, and DAFM is responsible for authorising and implementing the derogation under the nitrates action programme. Our Department co-chairs the nitrates expert group with DAFM.

Regarding the six questions posed by the committee, our Department is in a position to respond to four of those. Currently, 54% of more than 4,800 water bodies are achieving their environmental objective of at least good status, but 46% are not, according to Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, monitoring. We urgently need to demonstrate improvements in water quality where our water bodies are not achieving at least good status and ensure there is no deterioration in those water bodies that are achieving at least good status.

Agriculture is the most significant pressure on waters, posing a risk to more than 1,000 water bodies. Local authority inspection data from 2022 shows that approximately 30% of farms inspected were non-compliant with the regulations. Therefore, in response to question No. 3 on the possibility of maintaining Ireland’s nitrates derogation at its current level while improving water quality, we feel this is significantly more likely if full compliance with the GAP regulations is achieved. However, we must face the reality that a significant reduction in nitrogen loads being lost to water in the catchments of concern identified by the EPA will be necessary to resolve eutrophication problems in their receiving coastal waters. It is our view that farm advisory services and agri-industry will be essential in supporting farmers to achieve compliance with the regulations. Their advice on reducing nitrogen loads will also be essential.

In response to question No. 4 on whether the nitrates action programme is fit for purpose in protecting Ireland’s water quality, the answer is "Yes". The programme provides a strong common baseline standard of environmental practice across the State. The programme implements and is compliant with the nitrates directive, which is a basic measure under the water framework directive. The purpose of the nitrates action programme and the GAP regulations is to provide a regulatory framework to protect water quality from agricultural impact arising from nitrogen and phosphorus losses to water. Compliance with the regulations is the critical first step in ensuring the protection and improvement of water quality. However, because of the diversity of the Irish landscape, the NAP alone will not deliver all water framework directive objectives where agriculture is a pressure.

While a “common standard of farming environmental practices” will provide a baseline level of protection on all farms in the State, assuming full compliance with the regulations, risk mapping by the EPA has identified risks at farm level that require more spatially targeted protection measures, which go beyond the regulatory standards.

This targeted approach, which is known as the right measure in the right place at the right time, must be supported by supplemental measures.

In response to this challenge, the Department, as part of the second river basin management plan, established LAWPRO, which works in conjunction with the agriculture sustainability and support advisory service, ASSAP, which is co-funded by the Department of agriculture, the dairy industry and my Department. These initiatives will be continued in the third river basin management plan. Following a review of ASSAP, which identified the need to provide agri-environmental advice and financial support for costly supplementary measures, a new farming for water EIP has been established by the Department of agriculture and my Department. With an investment of €60 million, it is the largest EIP ever undertaken in the State. This initiative has broad support across all stakeholders. It is collaborative in nature, is focused on environmental outcomes and provides the opportunity for the farming community to co-lead in improving water quality. My colleagues from LAWPRO will provide further details on the farming for water project.

Question No. 5 asks whether additional supports are required to ensure farmers can be compliant with the nitrates action programme. The interim review of the fifth nitrate action programme has identified that more awareness-raising and knowledge transfer are required. Knowledge transfer from ASSAP, the farming for water EIP, the Waters of Life integrated project and other EIPs are critical to informing the broader advisory services on the key water quality issues on the ground. In addition, the whole agrifood sector has a role to play in supporting farmers.

In response to the final question, additional resources are being provided by the Department to ensure the measures required by the nitrates action programme are adequately enforced. In 2022, the CCMA identified that an additional 57 staff were required to undertake local authority agricultural inspections. In 2023 and 2024, the Department has allocated funding for these 57 agricultural inspectors in addition to the 11 staff already in place. The Department also allocated funding to the EPA for five staff to establish and provide oversight to the local authority national agricultural inspections programme, and four staff in LAWPRO to provide assistance for inspection co-ordination and to support training of staff. In 2024, the local authorities are scheduled to undertake inspections on at least 3,300 farms, increasing to 4,500 farms in 2025.


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