Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Nitrates Action Programme: Discussion (Resumed)
I welcome the Minister and his officials. He mentioned that a strengthened nitrates action programme and nitrates derogation in 2022 are key commitments in the programme for Government. I would like to put on the record that this is not true. I have searched the programme for Government and it does not state that. I mention that in the context of the challenge we have and my concern that with the nitrates derogation we are not going to achieve our targets on water quality and that we are going to fail with regard to our objectives under the EU water framework directive to have our water bodies in good status by 2027. As things stand, that simply is not achievable. That is what we were told by the experts from the EPA when they appeared before the committee in recent months.
I note from the Minister's statement that he is aware of the importance of the derogation for many farmers and that he is entirely committed to protecting it while at the same time improving water quality. I am not sure those two objectives are consistent with each other. The EPA has noted that a one-size-fits-all approach will not be adequate to achieve the outcomes that we need and, therefore, measures must be targeted to achieve water quality objectives. They need to be targeted and specific to the soil activities and risks on the farms. The nitrates derogation is a blunt instrument. We know that there is a correlation between the derogation farms and the collapse in water quality in the catchments around those farms. We need to look very seriously at this issue. I acknowledge that the Minister is serious about his role and the objective of improving water quality in those catchments, but this situation whereby we continue to go to Europe to apply for the derogation and we concurrently have to bring in ever-more severe and challenging nitrates action programmes that apply to all farmers is not going to lead to an improvement in our water quality. Farmers throughout the country who are not derogation farmers are effectively being penalised because of that.
I would like to hear more from the Minister. Does he believe that we should get more targeted in our approach to dealing with water quality issues, in particular in the south and east of the country, which are particularly badly affected? There has been a significant increase in nitrates and phosphate levels in our watercourses. If we are not listening to the EPA, we can bring in a fifth nitrates action plan or a sixth nitrates action plan but we simply will not get to where we need to go. The fourth nitrates action plan was an abject failure. How can we have confidence that the fifth plan, with its more stringent criteria, will achieve the improvements in water quality that we need to see in our watercourses throughout the country, but particularly in the south and east of the country?