Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Friday, 15 September 2023
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Ireland's Water Quality and the Nitrates Derogation: Discussion
Deputy Matthews is substituting for Deputy Leddin. Deputy McNamara has indicated that he will also be in attendance. In order that I will not be accused of a conflict of interest later on, I would like to declare that on my family farm, we farm in derogation. We are derogation farmers. After the last meeting I was accused of a conflict of interest, so I want to put that clearly on the record.
Members are requested to ensure that for the duration of the meeting their mobile phones are turned off completely.
Before we begin, I want to bring attention to the note on privilege. Witnesses giving evidence within the parliamentary precincts are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to a committee.
This means witnesses have a full defence in any defamation action relating to anything said at a committee meeting. However, they are expected not to abuse that privilege and may be directed to cease giving evidence on an issue at the Chair's direction. Witnesses should follow the direction of the Chair in this regard. They are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that, insofar as is reasonable, no adverse commentary should be made against an identifiable third person or entity. Witnesses giving evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts. They may consider it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. Privilege against defamation does not apply to publication by witnesses outside the proceedings held by the committee of any matters arising from those proceedings.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Parliamentary privilege is considered to apply to utterances of members participating online in the committee meeting if their participation is from within the parliamentary precincts. There can be no reassurance in respect of participation online from outside the parliamentary precincts. Members should be mindful of this when contributing.
The purpose of today's meeting is to examine Ireland's water quality and the nitrates derogation. The committee will engage with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue; Mr. Bill Callanan, chief inspector at the Department; and Mr. Ted Massey, senior inspector responsible for the Department's nitrates and biodiversity division. They are all very welcome to the meeting. I thank the Minister for attending at fairly short notice. We appreciate it.
Before I ask the Minister to make his opening statement, I offer some background to the situation for farmers as a result of the announcement two weeks ago from Brussels. It is not an overstatement to say there was great disappointment with the decision by Brussels to reduce our derogation, from 1 January, from 250 kg to 220 kg of organic nitrogen per hectare. There are a number of reasons farmers are sorely disappointed. One is that farmers who are in derogation have taken on a lot of different recommendations and conditions attached to that derogation. They feel those conditions and regulations have not been given time to work and show their impact on water quality. Another issue is that there are different views on the science and the way it is being interpreted. We have referred on numerous occasions to the Timoleague pilot project. In an area that is intensively farmed, with the highest number of derogation farmers in the country, water quality is improving. In that context, farmers are finding the decision by Brussels extremely galling.
The third major issue for farmers concerns county councils and municipal waste. As we all know in our different counties, sewage treatment plants, etc. do not have enough capacity. There are even cases of significant population centres with no sewage treatment plant whatsoever. While scientists tell us they can determine what is causing deterioration in water quality, farmers find it hard to stomach that while they have significant storage capacity for slurry and so on, with dates when they can and cannot spread, they see county councils most definitely contributing to issues in regard to water quality.
There is also the whole investment aspect. It is only a decade since quotas were abolished and there has been huge investment at both farm level and co-operative level. That investment is still being paid for. It was national policy to drive on our dairy industry. Less than a decade on from that, we now have a quota being brought in through the back door. Farmers find that very difficult to cope with and understand.
There is an idea out there at times that this derogation only affects very large farmers.
In fact, that is not the case. The ones hardest hit by this are small to medium-sized farms that are intensely farmed but which have low acreage. Their viability is going to be seriously threatened by this. The Minister and I met some of these farmers in Tipperary on Monday and Tuesday. Some of them outlined their personal cases and what exactly is going to happen to the stock on their farms. If you own a herd of 70 or 80 cows, or anywhere in that region, and have to reduce numbers, your farm's whole viability is threatened. The attractiveness of that farm for the next generation will be severely curtailed. We have an issue with generational renewal. The average age of our dairy farmers is 59. Could some recognition be given to those small to medium-sized farmers whose viability this is going to seriously threaten? I would like the Minister to try to address that today.
There are two other issues arising from the decision the EU has made. We are here today to listen to what the Minister has to say about that decision and so on. On the welfare side of things, the cows on farms are in calf and due to calf next spring in the vast majority of cases. Farmers are being told that, by 1 January, the stocking limit will be 220 kg nitrogen per hectare. How are those farmers going to destock, cognisant of animal welfare? There is also the issue of the impact significant numbers of stock will have on the marketplace. Cows are heavily in calf and are being tested for sale and so on. Everyone would like to get a proper financial return for that stock if forced to sell. There is an issue with the amount of stock that will be coming onto the market. Farmers in my own county have raised the issue of taxation with me. If you are forced to sell a given amount of stock, it will have an impact on your taxable income for the current year. This is stock farmers did not intend to sell. This will obviously have an impact on their closing stock and so on, which will affect the farmers' taxation. That is also an issue that has to be looked at.
Can low-protein concentrate feeding do something for the banding figures introduced on 1 January? Banding has resulted in an additional complication in this matter. It has driven up the figures on farms with regard to derogation. It is definitely a twin whammy. If farmers commit to feeding cattle a low-protein ration, can that be recognised in the banding figures? Any reduction in the banding figures would obviously be of benefit with regard to the 220 kg figure.
The other point I will make on stocking rates on farms relates to young animals on farms. Calf welfare is a very significant issue. We are encouraging dairy farmers to keep their calves on farm longer than has heretofore been the case. If young animals are counted in the figures for the stocking rate, dairy farmers will want to get those calves off their farms as quickly as possible, which contradicts what we are trying to achieve on calf welfare.
They are just points on the implementation of the 200 kg limit, which will have an impact on farm levels. Putting on my derogation farmer hat, we urge the Minister to try to get the Commission to reconsider its decision on the basis of our unique production system. We were in Brussels two weeks ago as an Oireachtas committee and we heard from the Commissioner about the decision at first hand, about which he is inflexible. It is fair to put that on the record. There are three other members here who were with me. The Commissioner was definitely intransigent in his view. I will not try to pronounce his name because I will only get tied up in knots.
However, his intransigence on the decision was frightening. That worries me as regards the derogation, our battle to get this decision reviewed and our battle to hold the 200 kg limit into the future. That is an outline of where we are coming from as a committee.
I have introduced some personal issues but as I said at the start, I am a derogation farmer. This is what I am hearing from farmers on the ground and these are the issues with this decision. I know that the Minister is fully aware of the huge effect that this drop from 250 kg to 220 kg will have on farmers. It will cause huge financial hardship and leave farmers uncertain about their future. That is the background. I now invite the Minister to make his opening statement.
I thank the Chairman and committee members for the invitation to today's meeting and for giving me the opportunity to come in to discuss this issue. Before I start, I wish to do some housekeeping in relation to the arrangement of this meeting. As the Chairman knows, I have very strong and ongoing communication with this committee on all issues and I very much value our relationship. Given the importance of this issue, I was conscious of the fact that it was important the committee was fully aware of where it was at and how it was evolving. Obviously, a key date in relation to the process and the challenge we face was the publication of the data on water quality between 2021 and 2022 on 30 June. As soon as the data were published, I wrote to the committee to indicate that this had happened and also to indicate, given the importance of this committee, that I would like to make sure it was fully briefed in relation to where we now stood and the challenge ahead. The map was published on 30 June and my officials, at my instigation, met with the committee to brief it fully on 5 July. The committee then requested on 26 July, after the Dáil term and committee sessions had finished, that I would attend the committee, which of course, I always do. The committee communicated with my office and offered two dates, namely 20 September and 4 October. After further engagement between the committee and my office, it was clarified that 20 September was during the National Ploughing Championships, which I and most committee members would be attending, and that 4 October was the only one of the two dates offered by the committee that was viable. My office communicated my provisional acceptance of that date, at the committee's request. The reason I am touching on this as a matter of housekeeping is that comments were made in public which are not accurate and which are misleading in relation to that representation. Senator Lombard criticised me publicly for the fact that I would not be meeting the committee until 4 October. The simple fact of the matter is that I had responded to the committee's two dates-----
Obviously, given the importance of the issue, I initiated further contact with the committee and offered 7 September and today. Given that comments were made in public which do not represent the accuracy of the engagement between the committee and myself and that there was no request from this committee for any other date, I wanted to put that on the record. I very much value the importance-----
Since I was mentioned in public by the Minister, in what was an unbelievable statement, I would like to clarify the situation. In relation to the October date, we had a private meeting of this committee and went back and looked for a date before that. This is why we are sitting here today. We had a private meeting of the committee and I raised the fact that I was not happy with an October meeting because I did not believe it was appropriate. We had a private meeting of the committee and we went back to the Minister's office. That is why we are sitting here on a Friday. It is the morning of the Fine Gael think-in but I am still here. I have no issue with clarifying that information.
While the Minister is clarifying matters, he might also clarify why his opening statement only arrived at 8.31 a.m. Why did we only get his opening statement half an hour before our meeting? That is totally inappropriate and has never happened before.
-----my ongoing relationship with this committee, my initiation of a meeting at the start of July to brief the committee and the correspondence between my office and the secretariat in relation to organising this meeting. In light of Senator Lombard's public comments in the meantime, which were in no way representative of, or accurate about, that engagement, it is important I clarify that at the start of the meeting.
As I said, I welcome this opportunity to engage on the important topic for farmers and our farming sector of water quality and the nitrates derogation. In my opening statement, I would like to address three key points. I will first provide an update on developments since I last engaged with this committee. I will also set out the next steps in implementing the derogation decision. Finally, I will highlight the need for a clear focus on actions that will deliver improvements in water quality from now on in order that Ireland will have a strong hand to play in an application to renew the derogation, a process which must commence in 2025.
The committee will be aware that negotiations on the derogation in 2021 were particularly difficult. The backdrop to these discussions included increasing dairy cow numbers over the previous period, increasing use of chemical nitrogen and an increasing trend in nitrates levels in water. The context of any negotiation is also increasingly difficult as fewer member states have a derogation and those with a derogation are seeing reduced limits, given the approaching 2027 deadlines under the water framework directive. Against that background, securing a renewal of the derogation at all was extraordinarily challenging. As a condition of the renewal decision, the Commission insisted on a mid-term water quality review and a step-down in the limits of the derogation in areas that would fail any one of our four identified water quality criteria.
The water quality review required a report to be completed by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and this exercise resulted in a map showing the areas that failed the criteria as set out. This was completed in line with the Commission’s implementing decision and the resulting map was submitted to the Commission on 30 June. Following this mapping exercise, I asked my officials and their colleagues in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to engage with the Commission services to seek more time before any reduction was necessitated. Thereafter, I personally sought a meeting with the Commissioner, Mr. Sinkeviius, on the matter.
To fully represent and capture stakeholder views in advance of my engagement with the Commissioner, I engaged extensively, including seeking submissions from the agriculture water quality working group. Those views, which were reflected in my engagement with the Commissioner, include identifying the unique nature of our pastoral systems, the potential for adverse impacts arising from the Commission decision, the efforts being made by farmers in recent years and, most important, the Government's focus on bringing all stakeholders with us to achieve our shared ambition of delivering improved water quality.
The Commissioner made it crystal clear that he was not prepared to reopen the Commission decision of March 2022, the formal legal instrument that granted a derogation to Ireland. He also made it clear that only three member states had a derogation and that Ireland's derogation was the most generous of the three.
The Commissioner identified some very limited scope, within the strict confines of the existing Commission decision, to interpret elements of the mapping. The impacts of this exercise will be marginal. It would be misleading and wrong to suggest otherwise. My Department has committed to concluding it by the end of this month so that derogation farmers will have the definitive information necessary to make their plans. This is certainly not the outcome I had hoped for. It clarifies the situation, however, and I am committed to moving quickly in terms of engagement with stakeholders to bring clarity to farmers impacted as well as the broader industry as soon as practically possible. To that end, my Department will issue interim 2023 nitrogen and phosphorus statements to all farmers in the coming days. These figures will be based on cattle numbers on farm up to the end of August and, therefore, represent the most up-to date information available.
As stated, I understand and very much appreciate the challenge this change represents for those farmers who are impacted. However, it is important that I also outline that there are actions that impacted farmers can take.
Farmers will be supported through this period. My Department has engaged directly with Teagasc and private consultants this week to provide farmers with the necessary assistance to manage their way through this period.
I cannot speak to members today without addressing the absolute need for all stakeholders to work together on the shared objective of securing a renewal of our derogation from 2026 onwards. Ireland's derogation is an exception to EU rules provided for in the nitrates directive. It cannot be taken for granted and it must be recognised that water quality improvement must be at the heart of Ireland's robust defence of our derogation facility. It will never have been more critical for the Government, industry and farmers to work together over the next two years to deliver water quality improvements and facilitate maintaining the derogation at the maximum limit possible. Leadership from all stakeholders is required here.
On recognising the challenge, earlier this year I set up the aforementioned agricultural water quality working group, involving industry, farm representatives and officials across several Departments and agencies. The group is working on three key areas currently, which I very much support. The first is connecting farmers and water quality data locally, the second is improving compliance and indeed the enforcement of current regulations, and the third involves actions and measures we can take as part of this year's review of the nitrates action programme to support the objective of improved water quality. The group has engaged intensively since it was established in May. It is important that I recognise its work as I see it as critical to building a collaborative approach.
This is not the only action that I have taken on water quality. As members know, earlier this year I approved all applicants under the agri-climate rural environment scheme, ACRES, which includes many actions farmers can take to support improvements in water quality. More recently, I have confirmed the eligibility of all applicants under tranche one in the targeted agriculture modernisation schemes, TAMS, and the introduction of a system that will facilitate the prioritisation of approvals for those intending to construct slurry storage. In addition, the work of the agricultural sustainability support and advisory programme, ASSAP, continues, with 42 advisers providing free advice to farmers in areas identified for priority actions. I recently announced a €60 million contract with the local authority waters programme, LAWPRO, delivering a specific support for water quality actions. This will provide funding directly to farmers, focused on a locally led approach of working with farmers and industry using the right-measure-in-the-right-place approach. Following enactment of primary legislation on a fertiliser database, I am delighted to confirm that, in recent weeks, 106,000 farmers have registered on this important resource for farmers in calculating their fertiliser use. This is a very strong signal from farmers of their commitment to overall delivery on sustainability.
In conclusion, we now need to work together to deliver water quality improvement and ensure we approach the end of the current derogation period with confidence regarding our application for a further derogation.
I am aware that members will have a good bit to contribute so I will give each a quarter of an hour for the first contribution. If members want to contribute a second time, we will have a second round of questioning. Senator Boyhan was the first to indicate.
I thank the Minister. I thank the Cathaoirleach for setting out the details. As he confirmed for us before, he is in derogation. He is a farmer and knows the experiences, which he has outlined very well. I thank him for setting the scene for something he knows very well personally. It makes it more real because we have to talk about the lived experience.
I thank the Minister and his officials for attending. While this is a very heated debate, I want to put on record my thanks to the Minister. As the Cathaoirleach has said, the Minister has emphasised today the importance of a strong, practical, pragmatic working relationship with this committee. He has always done that and has always been available. More important, his officials have been available in the background. We do not need to see the Minister every day but I know that if we pick up a phone and ring the Department, we can get a response. That is important. We have a very informed response. It is important that we do not lose sight of the importance of a very good working relationship. We do not always like the outcomes, but let us not make it personal. It is important that we continue to have dialogue. That has always been my experience on this committee.
I welcome the IFA. It is a new bunch of IFA people who I have not often seen before the committees. They know the situation on the ground and the experience. It is clear farmers are exceptionally vexed by the decision to cut Ireland’s nitrates derogation limits from 250 kg of organic nitrogen per hectare to 220 kg. Let us be clear about the number of farmers in derogation versus the number of farmers in the country. We have to set the scale and context to the public listening in.
I acknowledge Agriland and other agri-journalists here today. They play an important role and function in communicating the messages of agriculture, agri-politics and the issues that are discussed in this committee. They are invaluable to the committee, the Oireachtas and farm organisations in getting crystal clear, factual messages out there.
Last Monday on RTÉ television we saw the Minister and the Tánaiste in Horse and Jockey, County Tipperary, in the constituency of the Cathaoirleach.
Has it changed? It is his neck of the woods, clearly identified with him and he was in the shots on RTÉ news. The Tánaiste spoke, as the Minister did, and talked about a constructive meeting with IFA leaders. There was a discussion at the Fianna Fáil think-in, which was reported on Monday and Tuesday. It promised that the Minister and Tánaiste would reflect on the discussions with the IFA. Will the Minister tell the committee something of those commitments? He had an engagement with the IFA. The press, RTÉ and everyone covering it said the Minister and Tánaiste were reflecting on some strong points. The committee is charged with dealing with agriculture. Will the Minister share with us the discussions they had? What promises or commitments did they give? There was that great quote that the Minister and Tánaiste would “reflect" on it. What was the Minister's reflection? One week on, where do we stand on that? What discussions did he have and what commitments did he make to the IFA around the Fianna Fáil think-in last Monday?
We had a constructive discussion with the IFA last week. Of course, that is not the only discussion we have had. I issued an invitation to all farm organisations and met with the ICMSA the previous week, when I briefed and updated that organisation on the engagement and meeting I had with the Commissioner and the outcome of it. We also discussed the other key issue at the moment, which is the payment dates. I gave a commitment to the ICMSA that day in respect of on-farm investment and TAMS that we were approving 100% of applications received and were putting in place a mechanism to ensure those ready and waiting to do work this autumn would be expedited. I also gave a clear commitment on payment dates that for next year we would return to the previous dates people were used to, given we have our systems built and rolled out and will be in a position to nip, tuck and bring everything back to the dates everybody was used to previously.
In Tipperary, on the border of the Cathaoirleach’s future constituency and in his current constituency, which he represents very strongly, we had good engagement with the IFA on the same issues. We discussed many issues. It was not just in relation to nitrates but was broad-ranging across a number of issues. I outlined the fact the Government has been working hard on the derogation to get the best outcome possible and stated the Government, will, as it has done, work together to support farmers in the time ahead.
We have 130,000 farms nationally, of which 7,000 are currently in derogation and farming between 170 kg and 250 kg of organic nitrogen per hectare of land. Somewhere over 3,000 of those 7,000 are farming between 220 kg and 250 kg and are, therefore, particularly impacted by this change to the limit in the derogation.
It is really about how we work to support those. I will be engaging further with the water quality working group in regard to how we do it. I am very open to proposals and suggestions as to how we can best support them.
The IFA president, Tim Cullinan, made a very strong case to the Minister to basically stop the talk, get back to Brussels and make a stronger case. That was his call. What assurances did the Minister give him or the delegation when they were in Tipperary meeting the Minister last Monday? Has there been further discussion specifically with the IFA? I do not want to focus particularly on the discussion within Fianna Fáil, which is a matter for itself, but the IFA will argue that it has made the case through its president that it wanted the Minister back in Brussels. Did the Minister consider that? Did he say he would do that or did he refuse?
I had a very open engagement with the IFA, as, indeed, did the Tánaiste on that occasion. I had the same conversation with the IFA that day that I had with the ICMSA the previous week, because I had not had an opportunity the previous week to engage with the IFA. We have been working together very closely on this. I have been working very closely with the IFA, the ICMSA and all of the farming organisations in regard to this challenge that we are clear is facing us, and especially clear since 30 June, when the water quality data for 2022 was published and finalised, which would mean us dropping to 220 kg of nitrogen per hectare.
After that map was published, I contacted this committee and asked my officials to brief it on where we were at. Alongside that engagement with this committee, I also engaged with the water quality working group, which I had established, in terms of how we would actually put the case to the Commission. I updated the IFA last week on that and listened with regard to the real impacts this will have for farmers, which I am very much aware of and which they were very clear on. They were also clear we would look to see how we would work to support them in that. I was also clear, in terms of the outcome of the meeting I had with the Commissioner, that the Commission is adamant and has given absolute certainty that there will be no amendment to our current derogation until it comes up for renegotiation again at the end of 2025.
Okay. Moving on, farmers are strongly focused on environmental matters and, in fairness, the Minister has echoed and reinforced that in his comments here today in terms of investing in sustainable products, services and farm practices. We all know that and I have seen it at first hand through the agricultural and horticultural Teagasc training and education centres. There is a real move, particularly with young farmers but with all farmers, to engage with sustainable environmental practices. These things take time, and that is the essence of what I am saying. A change takes time. One of the strongest arguments is that the efforts that have been made take time to kick in, so maybe we do not fully know the results of changes that have been initiated, and the Cathaoirleach has made that point strongly in all of his discussions around this area.
This has been recognised in regard to the transition. I want to leave the Minister with a very important argument. Transition has social, environmental, economic and financial implications and impacts, and that is something we have to guard against. I am not convinced that a strong enough case has been made by Ireland through the Commission, the environment Commissioner and others in terms of the overall impact, the financial impact, the environmental impact and the social impact of all of this. In the lead-up to the discussions about the European Green Deal, the case was made very strongly, and I know Ireland made a strong case, that we must take on board the environmental, financial and social aspects of this. I think that is where we have lost our way a bit.
Agri-politics is in a very precarious state in Ireland. There are many people who are vexed and agitated and many who do not feel they are getting a fair or decent deal. It is about livelihoods, homes, income and sustainability, because if these places are not economically viable or sustainable, they are not going anywhere.
We have the best chance of making a strong case at the levels of the environmental, social, financial and economic. That is where a case should be made.
Farmers want the derogation changed. What is the Minister's take on that? Is there any movement on that? Is it possible to negotiate an extension to address environmental, financial and social concerns? I ask because these aspects will dictate whether these very successful farms can remain viable and stay in business.
Those are very much the arguments that I put to the Commissioner in my submission that I made to him in August, and also in a follow-up meeting at the start of September. Farm representatives and those on the water quality working group would have fed those arguments to me as part of the consultations that I did with them in advance of compiling the submission to the Commission.
There is a real challenge, which has led to the fact that we are facing a derogation of 220 kg N/ha. Water quality over the last ten years has not improved and the trend over that period has not been to our favour. That situation has made it very difficult to secure a derogation from the norms that face other member states. I mean 24 of the 27 member states have to farm at 170 kg N/ha being spread but our derogation allows us to now farm up to 250 kg N/ha.
The derogation and nitrates directive are based on water quality and seeking water quality improvement so that has been the challenge. To get further flexibility or renew the derogation at the start of 2022 was made very difficult by virtue of the fact that we were not meeting those thresholds and the trend was going in the wrong direction so I put those economic arguments.
I am very conscious of farmers with small and medium-sized farms, particularly in some areas of the country, for whom this is a particular challenge and for whom, in terms of seeking to get an amendment to the current derogation, it would be the first priority to have flexibility. It would have been the first priority to get flexibility for them if we could get an amendment to the derogation. However, an amendment to the derogation would have required a new statutory process. A derogation is a legal entity so it would have required the Commission being willing to seek to reopen it, and member states being willing to vote to give us an amendment to our derogation. Unfortunately, it is clear that that is not possible. The Commissioner made it very clear to me that given that the derogation was only negotiated in the last 18 months, given the fact that it is the Commission's very clear view that the derogation that we have is the most flexible of any member state in the EU, and given the fact that our trend in water quality did not meet the thresholds that it simply was not viable to seek to amend that at this point in advance of it being renegotiated at the end of 2025.
I wanted to achieve an amendment but, unfortunately, that is simply not possible. Our objective now must be to work collectively to put ourselves in a position where we hold 220 kg N/ha in 2015.
To be clear, in our negotiation with the Commission, it wanted the 220 kg N/ha threshold to be lower. It would have been much lower but we fought hard to raise it to 220 kg N/ha. We continue the hard work and farmers are doing massive work across the country. We must continue that collaborative work to put ourselves in the strongest possible position for the derogation to be secured at the end of 2025.
We do not have the figure it will be once banding is fully taken into account. That will be established in the next period of time. We expect it to be somewhere in the region between 3,000 and 4,000 farmers.
I expect that banding will have an impact. We only know what we know at the moment, which is the current figure of 7,000 farmers in derogation of whom just over 3,000 farm between 220 kg N/ha and 250 kg N/ha. We accept that banding will have an impact and will somewhat increase the number of farms in the category of between 220 kg N/ha and 250 kg N/ha.
I will not ask the Minister why he sent his submission to us at 8.22 a.m. or had a Zoom call about not going to Brussels because I want to know what we can do now.
The committee met the Commissioner. I want to acknowledge the four committee members who travelled. The Cathaoirleach led a really good delegation and my two colleagues seated on my left did a fantastic job when we met the Commissioner.
We had a good engagement with the Commissioner. We thought he was open to dialogue. I want clarity from the Minister, if possible. I will bring him back to the famous red map on page 27 of the EPA report. Water quality is not good on some of the map and on some of it meets the criteria. Will the area marked in white on the map be subject to the reduction to 220 kg N/ha? That is a "Yes" or "No" answer.
That was helpful in communicating our message. It is important that we, collectively, communicate our message and get it across. As the Senator will know from that engagement, the Commissioner was clear, based on the report he received from the committee, as he was with me, that there is no possibility of reopening and renegotiating an amendment to the derogation at this point in time. That means we have to work within the remit of the derogation we have. The Commissioner made clear to the committee and to me that, based on data and robust scientific evidence, there may be some capacity for minor amendments to the map.
It is very important that we provide that clarity. The map required and requested of us by the Commission in line with our derogation was published on 30 June. It was clear from the meeting I had with the Commissioner, and from the meeting the committee had with him, that some very minor adjustments to the map may be possible. Arising from that meeting, I have engaged with my team on assessing the data. My team has also engaged with the Commission around clarifying what minor adjustments might be possible. As I said in my opening statement, we are continuing with that work and we want to complete it by the end of this month, so that farmers are crystal clear on where they stand.
I would like to be helpful. When we met the Commissioner he gave the four committee members who sat in front of him for an hour the clear impression that, under a European Court of Justice ruling in June, we would have an opportunity, on 30 September, to make a further submission to clarify matters and look at the red map area. The Commissioner had the red map; one of his officials was pointing at it. I am trying to get a very clear statement. Is the Minister looking at having two zones in the country, one with a 220 kg N/ha limit and one with a 250 kg N/ha limit?
The information the Minister is looking at is the map on page 27 of the EPA report, which shows some areas in white and some areas in red. We call it the "Cork map" down our way. It suits us. Is that what the Minister is looking at?
Okay. That clarity alone is very helpful because that information on what is being looked at was lacking in the Minister's press release and it is lacking in the farming community. This meeting has, therefore, been a success in some ways.
Will the Minister explain what the detailed mapping proposes? What is he proposing to do? Is he proposing to put areas in or take areas out? What are the criteria he is looking at for the detailed mapping?
Before we go any further, I must declare that I am a derogation farmer who is contract rearing.
I have only one way of meeting my targets, which is culling cows, so forgive me for being blunt, but this affects my livelihood.
It affects the livelihood of everybody who is in derogation, and that is the real challenge here. It should be no surprise that the Commission had that map when its representative met with the committee because the map was required by the Commission to identify the areas that would have failed the test which had been set to decide whether farmers could hold the 250 kg N/ha or would have to move to 220 kg N/ha. From 30 June the position has been that those areas affected by the red map, according to the derogation we have, would be the areas that would be in 220 kg N/ha under the current derogation. In my engagement with the Commission then, it had indicated that it may be possible to have some minor amendment to that based on data. We are now engaging further to clarify that with the Commission and to bring absolute certainty to that by the end of this month. We have to be honest, however, that that will mean only very minor adjustments to the map. Under the current derogation, and from 30 June, it is those areas that would have been in red on that map which we forwarded to the Commission which would be impacted by the 220 kg N/ha.
So the areas in the red area that will now potentially be stuck in the 220 kg N/ha will be stuck with a welfare issue. The majority of us, if not all of us, put our heifers and cows in calf in April or May. They will be calving in January or February. I have spoken to agricultural advisers and they are absolutely hopping at the idea that now, with all the other schemes put in place, they have been given this task of liaising with the farmers to see how they can deal with this issue. There is a huge welfare issue now. What are we going to do? To give an example, the in-calf heifer trade has collapsed in the past two weeks. They are down €300 or €400 a head. You could not give them away. Nobody wants them. Guys are trying to get rid of them and they cannot take them. What is going to happen next January and February, when there will be the potential for in-calf cows and heifers that have no other avenue but to be slaughtered? What is the Department's view on that?
With the deepest respect to the Minister, I have only now got clarity from him that farmers in Barryroe who are potentially in the white area might be 250 kg N/ha. They were selling animals at Bandon mart last Monday because they thought they were in the 250 kg N/ha. Clarity has been very much required here.
The position since 30 June, when that map and those data would have been returned to the Commission, as was an obligation under our derogation, has been that those areas in red were facing 220 kg N/ha. That has been the position since the end of June. Also, we have known since the derogation was renegotiated that one of its requirements was that there would have to be an assessment of the 2022 water quality report when it was published and available with the 2021 water quality report and that, if there were not improvements, areas affected would drop to 220 kg N/ha. Obviously, from the start of this year, farmers were quite concerned in terms of-----
Was the Department telling farmers not to put cows in calf last May and June on the back of the derogation? That is where this went wrong. Last January and last April and May, when I started my breeding programme, the Department had not issued any indication to me because the red map had not been published. We did not know where red and white were. Nobody could tell us where the 250 kg N/ha or the 220 kg N/ha would be. The Cathaoirleach on his farm in Tipperary put his heifers in calf in good faith. I did so on my farm in good faith. I will be in a 250 kg N/ha area; the Cathaoirleach could be in a 220 kg N/ha area. How can that be worked in the area?
The Senator had access to the same information we had and faced the same situation and challenges that were coming down the tracks. From the point at which the derogation was renegotiated, the start of 2022, from any reading of the media or in terms of actions and steps farmers were taking and the consequences of that in terms of land prices, that has very much been a feature throughout the course of this year because farmers were very much aware of the fact that there was a very strong risk of dropping from 250 kg N/ha to 220 kg N/ha.
That has been a feature throughout the course of this year because farmers were very much aware of the fact that there was a strong risk of dropping from 250 kg N/ha to 220 kg N/ha.
Will the Minister clarify what exact submission he will make on 30 September and the timeline in which he hopes to get a response from the Commission? People were under the illusion that there would be no more conversations with the Commission.
We have said that since our meeting with the Commissioner. I would have informed the farm organisations of that as well. From 30 June, the red map was the data which the Commission required. The meeting I had with the Commissioner indicated that there could potentially be some small changes to that, but they would have to be very small and based on data. We are now engaging with the Commission on that to bring that clarity. I have said that we will have that clarity from the end of this month. I am also saying clearly that we expect that the changes and adjustments relating to that will be very minor.
I thank the Minister. I have two minutes and 50 seconds to speak. On the nitrates statement, farmers who want to export slurry and spread on the land have 14 days to actually do it. They are driving up a motorway at the moment because they do not have the information because the nitrates statement has not been published yet. Is that very unfair on the farming community? We have a spreading date set for the end of this month. No nitrates statement has been given out yet to the farming community and farmers who want to export slurry and spread it cannot do it. For the love of God, how can they operate? They cannot.
There is an inch of rain after falling in Minane Bridge today. They needed to have the nitrates statement two months ago. Two years ago, it came out in July. I realise there was slippage last year. This is basic stuff. We cannot farm unless we get help. That is in the Minister's remit, not mine. I am looking up the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, ICBF, to see what the story is and it cannot calculate it off the back of this because it does not have my landmass. Does the Minister not believe we need to do more regarding informing farmers when it comes to the nitrates statement? They are being given 14 days and there is an inch of rain tonight. We cannot do it. Can the Minister bring clarity to the absolute mess of the nitrates statement?
That new system has been designed over the last period of time. Farmers absolutely need that information. As I said in my statement in the start, we will get that to them over the next number of days. I have the team prioritising this because the Senator is right that farmers need information.
The Minister's advice to me is to spread my slurry early in the year. It is to get it out early and work it into the land to make sure that we can reach our water quality but he will not give me my statement so that I can work out what I need to send.
I welcome the Minister, Mr. Callanan and Mr. Massey to this debate. There has been a robust debate nationally for the last week but a time has to come where one stops flogging the dead horse and we start looking at resolution and solution-driven debates.
As was mentioned, a delegation from this committee was in Brussels last week. It was evident for anyone who was there – all members were welcome to attend – that the Minister would be totally wasting his time going to Brussels. People demanding the Minister go to Brussels is pure semantics and tokenism. I am not saying that as a party colleague but rather as a member of the committee who met with the Commissioner. We knew what was coming down the line. Once the water results did not come to where we needed them to, it was a fait accompli. The Minister’s and the Commissioner’s hands are tied. The Commissioner is a lovely man who gave us a very good welcome. However, he cannot change anything without going back to square one and going to the European nitrates committee, which will not happen with 24 other states. That is being blunt and honest about it.
It would be remiss of me not to say the following, about which people will say sure, what else would I say as a party colleague. We would not be in this situation if the Minister had not hammered out the derogation we got at the start. It was an achievement to maintain the 250 kg nitrogen per hectare. If the water quality had improved, we would have 250 kg nitrogen per hectare going forward. The midterm review had to be built in or there would have been no derogation. Let us be honest about it; we have to call a spade a spade.
I wish to move on to where we are and the situation many people find themselves in. Senator Lombard covered the maps, which I was going to talk about. My colleagues have stated their interest, however, I have no interest in the dairy side, but I am a suckler farmer. This derogation reduction will affect me along with the tillage farmers, the processors and the employees of the processors. I am not trying to take anything from the likes of Senator Lombard or farmers who are affected by this. The impact this will have on the agriculture sector across the board is not being recognised. That is why it is so important that, first, we do everything within our power to make sure we hold on to the 220 kg nitrogen per hectare and, second, we try to mitigate as much as possible so the minimum effect possible comes to compound the situation for the other farmers down along the line, possibly through a rise in land prices. How will a suckler or tillage farmer, for example, compete with that? Some of our creameries and processors may not have the milk quantity they require going forward and may find themselves in difficulty. There is a major knock-on effect.
We need, and there is room for, some negotiation with the Minister and Brussels to try to mitigate the effect of this going forward. I have a couple of questions on that. People are talking about herd reduction. There are other mitigating factors that could be taken. For example, I mentioned acquisition of extra land, destocking – which is the one we want to try to avoid – and slurry export. I wish to touch on that again because the last time we had the officials in – the Minister was not here – I asked about the reduction of the nitrogen quantity that has been given to exported slurry. It was reduced from 5 kg/cu. m to 2.5 kg/cu. m. Mr. Callanan came back with an answer but I want to tease this out more because I am not happy with the explanation. I am fearful that we are not getting our calculations right. There quite possibly could be beneficial changes we could make if we get our sums right. I cannot get my head around the fact that while every cow was classed as 89 kg, we were allowing and saying there were 5 kg N/cu. m of slurry. Now we are saying there are only 2.4 kg N/cu. m of slurry and some cows are characterised up to 106 kg. It does not make sense to me and perhaps it is because I am not getting the explanation.
A big mitigating factor is the export of slurry. If one does a bit of research on this, Teagasc is advising that 0.33 cu. m of storage per week for a cow is needed. In other areas, one reads that a cow produces 20 l of slurry per day. For the purposes of conversation, if we take a zero graze cow whose slurry is being captured at all times, she is producing based on the 20 l per day 7.3 cu. m. If one goes by the Teagasc storage requirement, she is producing 17.16.
Either-or, using 2.5 kg in that cubic metre of slurry, she is only producing 18.25 kg on the 20 l per day example. On the 0.33 cu. m Teagasc number and the storage it states will be required for a cow per week, she is only producing 42.9 kg. How did we get to 106 kg, 92 kg or 80 kg? Are our sums right here? To go back to the start, were our sums right when we said a cow was 89 kg and there was 5 kg of nitrogen per cubic metre? I cannot get my head around it. It needs to be revisited. It could be a big help to many farmers who are exporting slurry if they got the correct quantity of nitrogen in that cubic metre of slurry as a mitigating factor against their stocking rate. I will give the Minister a chance to answer.
I thank the Senator. I will ask Mr. Callanan to come in on the scientific and calculation points regarding the measuring of slurry.
The Senator is correct in his account of where we are at with regard to the fact we now have clarity that there will not be a change to the derogation. Many parts of the country will have to drop to 220 kg N/ha. That is the situation we are in. In addition, we will have to work very hard together to make sure we keep that 220 kg N/ha into the future and when we renegotiate that derogation at the end of 2025. As I said regarding our negotiations with the Commission, it wanted that 220 kg N/ha review benchmark to be significantly lower. We had to fight hard to get it to the 220 kg N/ha mark. It was our water trend, and the trend over recent years, that was against us during the negotiation and what made that derogation negotiation very difficult. It meant we had little option, as part of and to secure the derogation, to agree to a year-on-year review between 2021 and 2022. If we had to do it based on trends, the trend over the previous number of years meant we would immediately have been in a much worse situation.
The objective now has to be to work and back the work farmers are doing throughout the country. Farmers are taking very significant measures. We also have to be clear in making sure everybody complies with the rules and, as regards enforcement, that some do not undo the great work that many others are working hard to achieve and do damage, and see how we can support farmers in that. The other key thing we have to do is to quickly bring clarity to farmers regarding where they stand. Arising out of the meeting with the Commissioner, there will be some potential adjustments to the mapping, which we have been clear on since 30 June and on which we are engaging, that will bring clarity by the end of this year.
We also have to complete and finalise our own nitrates action programme review over this autumn period. We have two separate things. We have the nitrates action programme, which we do ourselves, and on the back of that we have the derogation decision, which is entirely a Commission competency. As regards finalising our nitrates action programme review, we have to look at what steps we can take to make sure we are in as strong a position as possible come the renegotiation in 2025 to hold on to that 220 kg N/ha. We will give absolute clarity to farmers within that red zone by 30 September regarding any minor - we expect very minor - adjustments to that. On those who are in the white zone at present, and we know there are inconsistencies regarding how people might view that map, the special areas of conservation, SAC, assessment and the environmental assessment in our nitrates action programme review will assess all data. That may mean, for example, some adjustment in those white areas. In that regard, it is very important those farmers have time to adjust to that, if there are any changes. I will work with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to make sure any of those changes or any adjustments in that white area which could potentially be necessitated by the data and science will not take place until the start of 2025.
We have to work off the data and science.
We will do that as regards areas that are in the red and engage with the Commission to ensure any adjustments are clear, by 3 September. We expect that to be quite marginal. As for assessing the further data in terms of the areas that may be in white, and a couple of areas in particular, if any changes that come out of that I am working to ensure those farmers have time to adjust by January 2025. We are very aware of the need to bring certainty to farmers and the need to give farmers as much time as possible to prepare, working within the derogation we have, knowing that farmers who are obliged by mapping to drop to 220 kg nitrogen per hectare per year must adjust by 2024. The key objective, knowing we must work with the derogation we have, is to give certainty and clarity to farmers. Will Mr. Callanan take the technical point?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
The excretion figure for a dairy cow is calculated using intake and offtake in terms of how much the animal is taking in. Nitrogen is looked at as being a basic block of protein. As the cow's output increases, her nutrient excretion increases as well. That is what generates 85 kg to 89 kg of nitrogen. Effectively, if we were to use a single figure for all cows it would be 91 kg to 92 kg of nitrogen today, rather than 84 kg of nitrogen when the nitrates came in in 2006.
The easiest way to describe this is when quotas came in in this country there were 1.5 million dairy cows who were producing 5.5 billion litres of milk. Some 20 years later that was actually produced by 1.1 million dairy cows, illustrating the growth in output and production of those cows. Compared to other European countries, Ireland's dairy system is quite a low output one. We average 5,000 l to 6,000 l whereas the indoor systems are 8,000 l or 10,000 l.
The excretion figure would have increased to that average figure in any event. The Commission required us to disaggregate between high, medium and low output dairy cows. I can assure the Senator that if he combined the numbers related to those three categories he would come back to the same average, which would be 91 l or 92 l - I do not know the exact figure. That is now simply translated into 80 kg for a low output cow, so those cows have seen their nitrate excretion figure go from-----
With the greatest of respect, Mr. Callanan is not answering my question. I get that total, the 80, the 92, the 106. I get that the average was at 89 kg of nitrogen and that is as close as we will get to the average. I imagine the bands were worked out from that. That 89 kg figure was calculated on the basis of there being 5 kg of nitrogen in a cu. cm of slurry. It is now down to 2.4 kg of nitrogen per cu. cm of slurry. Will Mr. Callanan explain how and why that is the case? That is the question I am asking.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
The nutrient of slurry in the original calculations was based on taking 89 kg, dividing it over 12 months, and the animal was housed for three months or whatever the number was, so a nutrient content is created for the period the animal is in, which translated into a nutrient content from the anticipated slurry produced on the farm. That figure needed to move, based on the realities of having taken samples and conducting assessments on farms in terms of the actual nutrient content of slurry that is being produced today. Issues such as additional water going in and the volume of slurry being produced potentially being larger, has resulted in the difference. I understand this figure is quite different from the previous book calculation.
Let me be clear, we are quite open that it is a number based on, effectively, surveying what is the nutrient content of slurry out there. We know that, for example in terms of movement of slurry whether pig manure etc., farmers are being encouraged to understand the nutrient content because it differs greatly, depending on the slurry they get. If new assessment or survey results suggest the nutrient content of slurry is higher, we will simply change them within the regulations. That is the process. We need scientific evidence to determine or to be correct in terms of the number we use. That was based on surveys.
Mr. Ted Massey:
The figure changed in March of last year. It was changed to reflect the Teagasc publication, Green Book of Major and Micro Nutrient Advice for Productive Agricultural Crops, in 2020 or maybe 2021. This publication, in terms of cattle slurry, sets the figure of 2.4 kg as the average value of nitrogen content for slurry. It goes further and says the values will range from 0 up to 5. That reflects the differences there can be.
Will the Senator wait for just one second? On the point Mr. Massey made about going from 0 kg/cu. m to 2.4 kg/cu. m, and up to 5 kg/cu. m of nitrogen, surely the nutrient value of the slurry that dairy cow would be producing would be higher given her level of feeding?
Mr. Ted Massey:
There was one figure for cattle. It is an average figure of 2.4 kg/cu. m but under that table it very clearly sets out that the values can range from 0 kg/cu. m up to 5 kg/cu. m. This is based on the analysis Teagasc has done on slurry coming from farms. The figure was changed to reflect the actual analysis of the slurry. In using an average figure, it is a very simple process. If one gets into anything that deviates from that, things get very complicated very quickly.
It is based on an average. It is what it is but it was 5 kg/cu. m. The question I am asking relates to the fact that this had to be taken into consideration in the matrix that determined the average cow generates 89 kg of nitrogen. For whatever reason, whether it be through surveys and testing etc, we are now saying it is 2.4 kg/cu. m but yet we have a band up to 106. What matrix was used to achieve the bands? Maths and science were my two weak points going to school and I am finding it hard to get my head around the science.
Maybe it is too simple, but it looks so simple that if we were using the figure of 5 kg/cu. m when we were working out 89 kg, now we say it was not 5 kg/cu. m at all but it was 2.4 kg/cu. m. Therefore, if we were using 2.4 kg/cu. m when we were creating our bands, our bands should be something like 60, 72, and 85.
On that point, why do we not have the scope to test our own slurry here? Why are we taking an average? The majority of farmers are asked to make sure the nutrient value of what they are doing is appropriate. We have all been told this is what needs to be done and now we are taking an average. Surely there could be a mechanism put in place by the Department that a farmer could test his or her own slurry, which would benefit them long term regarding the nutrient value of it. This is a win-win.
Can Mr. Callanan see where I am coming from with how the bands are calculated given that if it was 5 kg/cu. m and now 2.5 kg/cu. m, it has to affect the calculation of the bands? It has to affect the bands in a downward direction.
I thank the Minister and Mr. Massey and Mr. Callanan for coming before the committee.
A few things need to be put on record. There has been a lot of commentary over the past week. Being honest, if the Minister had gone out to Europe and on the beer with Commissioner Sinkeviius for a week, it was not going to change the decision; that is being straight up. The simple reason is that we sent over a document on water quality which the Commission's scientific and legal people looked at and it made a decision. It is not even the Commissioner. If only people knew the truth of what goes on over there. We met a few commissioners and I put on record that it will be frightening if some of the stuff we heard comes to pass in the line of a single farm payment, which is starting on Friday week. I would like the Minister's comment on that.
A remark was made to us that indicated that they are basically going all environmental. If Pillar 1 goes all environmental, then we are in trouble.
In the line of the derogation, when we met the guy, Sinkeviius or whatever his name is, he said that Ireland applies the 250 kg N/ha derogation as a country and that we do not regionalise anything. We need to clarify one bit from Senator Lombard's statement because he stated that we were asking if we can revisit this. He said there would have to be new evidence and that it would have to go to a vote of the 27 member states. He told us bluntly that 23 or 24 of them have no derogation and that there would be no way they would support Ireland. He was very blunt about it.
In my opinion, and I would like the Minister's views on this, and I am saying this to all farmers and farmer organisations, there will be a battle in two years' time to hold the 220 kg N/ha limit. I ask everyone that whatever needs to be done must be done. The one part of it I am asking the Minister about is that a body giving stuff to Europe, and I am not a scientist, and that comes out politically and tells people not to eat meat has become political. I ask the Minister if funding would be given to the likes of Teagasc to do independent reports or research. Let us call a spade a spade: in our water quality monitoring, about 700 to 800 rivers in Ireland are not tested, there are 1,600 rivers are tested once per year, and about 260 or 270 are tested fairly regularly. The decisions that are made have a lot of consequences for the agricultural sector. From an agricultural point of view, and I am not accusing anyone of anything, we deserve an independent body on the farmers' side that is able to monitor this as well so that we know everything is being done right. I ask the Minister if he would look at giving Teagasc funding or working with the farming organisations to come up with an independent approach. I saw it done and we did it with the bogs, and in fairness it worked. Would the Minister allow that to be done?
I was the person who brought up the point on cows and heifers in calf in September. The man in question was not comfortable when I asked him what will happen and if he expects cows to be killed next February, March and April if they are in calf. I know the Minister will say this, and yes, there was a lot of commentary on this over the past year; there is no point in saying there was not. My understanding from him was he stated 30 September. He also stated that he would work with the Minister or the Department and that he would not like to see anything bad in animal welfare. There might be an opening there - I am not going to go making rash comments - under animal welfare because of the lateness of the final decision. I ask the Minister if he would look at that.
There is another thing that is worrying, and I think it is one thing we as a committee, farming organisations and the Minister's Department could learn, or I learned anyhow, and I think the rest of the guys learned, is that we went into different Commissioners, including the Commissioner for forestry, and all we were told about was the groups from Ireland on the environmental side that were going in and whistling their stories. We as farmers and our committee - I am not exempting us from it - should be going more often to those places, to those Commissioners, the legal people and the other ones who are with them, to give the story of the Irish farmer, because sometimes there may be a different story being told by others that is not helping our cause, and that was quoted to us. I ask the Minister's Department to do that more. We talked about it as a committee and I ask the farming organisations to do it as well.
The 220 kg N/ha is the next game in town. We can give out and call the Minister everything but I will not do that because the Commissioner has been clear. We can give out about everything and call everyone anything but the bottom line is that the decision was made in Europe with the tablet we sent over to them from the EPA. That is being quite frank about it. We gave them the medicine to finish us off. That is what I have to say on it. Some people might not like what I have to say but I am saying it.
Is the Department on course for the payments to farmers on 17 and 24 October? In fairness the person over it in the Department is very good. Will the Minister give me some update on moving cattle 65 km, which I hear about day in, day out? To put it simply, it is about a farmer going to a mart throwing a lot of cattle into a trailer and heading off 40 miles. Will the Minister clarify whether that farmer needs anything?
The Minister might deal with transport at the end of the meeting because it has been raised by a good few members. Deputy Fitzmaurice also raised the issue of payment dates. We will stick to nitrates and water quality and when we get to the end of the meeting the Minister might deal with them. I know there is something the Minister wants to attend to in the meeting also. We might just stick to nitrates and water quality and then deal with Deputy Fitzmaurice's other points at the end of the meeting.
That is perfect and I thank the Cathaoirleach. I thank Deputy Fitzmaurice. As he said, the committee visited and got first-hand feedback on the backdrop to the negotiations on the derogation and on the challenge whereby we have to make sure we are working collectively to ensure we hold the 220 kg N/ha. We are one of only three member states that has a derogation. Every other member state has to farm at a maximum of 170 kg N/ha. We believe, and have clearly communicated, that there are good reasons why we have it. To continue to have that derogation from the 170 kg N/ha we need to meet the ambition of improving water quality. If we do not show that these trends are improving, it will be a very challenging situation. Deputy Fitzmaurice was clear on the backdrop and his engagement with the Commissioner.
Deputy Fitzmaurice mentioned several issues, including the nitrates figure with regard to welfare and calves and in terms of how we will do our nitrates action programme review over the course of the rest of the year. We are looking at several issues where we could adjust the nitrogen excretion rates for certain categories. One of these is calves from zero to nine months. There is one standard average. We believe by looking at it and making an assessment on zero to three months, there is a possibility to make an adjustment. The team is also looking at protein content for meal and whether this is something that could provide flexibility.
We must also see how we can support farmers working together with regard to the export of the slurry. We already have 6,500 farmers who export some slurry. It is much more challenging in some parts of the country where there is not the same land available. It varies throughout the country. In some parts of the country there are not the same opportunities to export because there is not the same tillage land. There is potential in some parts of the country to see how we can integrate it better and make sure the advisory services look to provide this support.
Deputy Fitzmaurice made a point on the CAP and the single farm payment. He discussed these with the Commissioner. That discussion will kick off shortly.
There is no doubt about the trend we have seen in recent CAPs, with Pillar 2 becoming more important and eco-schemes entering Pillar 1. This is something on which I have already been making my position clear at national level with regard to the importance of both these pillars and support for farmers. I will come back to the other points at the end of the meeting.
The big problem here is the small family farm that is getting hammered. We have to try to protect the small family farm.
How are the officials looking at classing calves? I think a year old, or between a year and two years is at 55 kg N/ha.
That is a woefully high figure. If a calf is 24 kg N/ha, it is a woefully high figure for what we call the yearling or the year-and-a-half-old. Is that going to be looked at in the line of nitrates? There is an awful need to look at it. It is very high. A suckler cow is 65 kg N/ha, is that not correct?
A 13-month-old or 14-month-old heifer weanling is 55 kg N/ha. That is what they go down as. I ask the officials to look at that. There is an opportunity and the guys who came out to Brussels with us, namely, the Cathaoirleach and Senators Paul Daly and Lombard, think there is an opportunity under animal welfare to make a case to be able to work with the Commission on that, though I might be wrong.
The other point the Minister did not address that I would like him to was whether he would be prepared, with the likes of Teagasc or speaking to the farmers' organisations, to put a fund together to get an independent analysis of water. Anybody who puts out a tweet or puts it up anywhere to say to get out of meat or to not be eating meat has gone political, and if you are gone political then you have agendas. We need to get an independent analysis for the betterment of everyone. If two doctors tell you that you are sick, you can believe them better than if there is only one doctor. I am asking the Minister whether he would be able to put a fund together for Teagasc or an independent company or body to look at it and to work with the farming organisations, because we need to ensure the evidence we are given is concrete. Will the Minister address that point?
I thank the Deputy. The EPA is the national scientific body that gathers the data, as the Deputy knows. It gathers that data in a robust and scientific fashion. It is important we support it to do that and ensure data is comprehensive as well. We will seek to continue to ensure there is funding in place to make sure the data we have best equips us to provide the best outcome for farmers. I agree it is important the EPA sticks to the science, but the agency is robust and provides robust scientific data and it is important that is its focus.
On a wider basis, there is the matter of how we work with Teagasc and the advisory services to support farmers with the practical implementation of advice on farms. We are doing that significantly, but we also announced recently a new €60 million water project that will see systems and services put in place to work directly with farmers and to pay them for actions they will be taking at farm level through the European Innovation Partnership, EIP, funding in areas of the country that most require that extra assistance and work. That is a significant investment I expect to see significant results from as well.
I thank the Minister and his Department officials for being here. I want to go back briefly to the science. In response to Senator Daly, the Minister said we have to work off the science, and of course we are going to expect farmers to buy into that when we are looking at climate action in particular, so it is important. I want to get right the title of the official I will mention. The Teagasc agricultural catchments programme adviser has said soil type and weather have a greater impact on nitrates losses than the whole-farm stocking rate when slurry and fertiliser are spread in a timely manner. The question I have is on this link or this determination that has been made between stocking rates and nitrate losses into water. There is a real question mark over that and over the fact that, again, we have had the recent report from Teagasc on nutrient use and it also concluded stocking rate is not the key driver when it comes to nitrates in water. I will begin by asking the Minister and his officials whether it is their understanding and whether they believe reducing the stocking rate from 250 kg N/ha to 220 kg N/ha will improve water quality. Is that the Minister's view and that of his Department?
It is complex. Many factors have an impact on water quality. Land type and soil type are important, as is how nutrients and nutrient load are managed. Soil type can vary from field to field. It is challenging. What is done in one field, even with a high nutrient load, could have a minimal impact whereas what is done in another field with a lower nutrient load could have more of an impact. That is how complex it is. When we look at how our specific derogation is approached at European level, we see that ultimately it is an exemption that gives us the flexibility to be at higher than 170 kg N/ha. The directive itself and the derogations are very much focused on the overall figure, whether that is 170 kg N/ha, 250 kg N/ha as we have at the moment, or 220 kg N/ha as we are going to. That is very much part of the equation. At the moment, the three countries with a derogation are Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands. The Netherlands is on its last derogation. It has been told by the Commission it will not get another one. By the time we come to renegotiate at the end of 2025, we will be the only country that has it. The Netherlands is being dropped down from its current two rates of 220 kg N/ha and 240 kg N/ha, and next year it will be on 210 kg N/ha and 230 kg N/ha. The following year it will be on 190 kg N/ha and 200 kg N/ha and the year after that, 170 kg N/ha. It is in a very different situation from us. We have much better water quality than the Netherlands, but it has a derogation. It is one of the three countries to have that at the moment. Denmark’s derogation is up for renegotiation. It runs out at the end of July 2024. Denmark is currently renegotiating its derogation and this will continue over the next few months. It is currently at the maximum of 230 kg N/ha.
Those figures of 170 kg N/ha, 220 kg N/ha or 250 kg N/ha are very much part of the derogation process and how the Commission looks at it. However, in terms of the impact it makes at land level and at water quality level, it is quite complex. We have made that argument to the Commission. One of the key arguments I put in my submission to the Commissioner - we discussed this with him when we were seeking an amendment to the derogation and looking for a statutory process to be opened up to do that - was the option of looking at an overall nitrogen loading. I argued that instead of what is currently in our derogation - I refer to the drop in the review from 250 kg N/ha to 220 kg N/ha, to which we had no choice but to agree - we would look at further drops in the overall maximum that is there for chemical nitrogen. I suggested that we would drop that instead. However, it simply was not possible to get a statutory reopening of the derogation.
On the two figures regarding the stocking rate, does the Minister believe that by reducing from 250 kg N/ha to 220 kg N/ha we are going to see improved water quality based on that measure alone? That is the question.
Teagasc would say that there would be an impact from it, but that it would not necessarily be the step that would make the most impact. As well as that, it is the step which has the most financial and economic impact. There are other steps that could be taken, and which we are taking and have already taken. One of the main steps which I wanted to put on the Commissioner's table was seeking to reduce our chemical fertiliser further so that we could hold our overall organic maximum of 250 kg N/ha. Certainly the big issue is that it has a significant economic impact for those between 220 kg N/ha and 250 kg N/ha. Teagasc would say that it has some impact on water quality but it is the measure which would obviously have the biggest impact economically at the same time. That is why we wanted to avoid it.
It is important to make that point because farmers are obviously frustrated on two levels. First, they did everything they were asked to do in order to seek to improve water quality, but now the rug has been pulled out from under them because the time has not been given to see the outcome of the actual measures they broke their backs in doing in the first instance. Second, as the Minister said, we have to work off the science. We are paying for these reports. When Teagasc did a report in regard to nutrient use, it concluded that the stocking rate is not the key driver of nitrates in water. If that is the conclusion, we are not working off the science. It is important to make that point. If we are paying for these research reports and to get work done, but we are then doing the opposite, that does not make any sense to me when it comes to following the science or not.
On the announcement that was made two weeks ago, the biggest frustration is that we do not know who or where is affected and we do not know what supports are going to be put in place for farmers who are affected by the drop from 250 kg N/ha to 220 kg N/ha. I appreciate that the Minister has said that the areas will be known by the end of the month. It is important that this timeline is stuck to. There is much uncertainty now, as if there was not enough already across the board in farming due to how difficult it is for so many farmers to make ends meet.
The way output and input prices and everything else have gone has put a lot of pressure on farmers, particularly in the dairy sector where they did invest. The Minister made the point about the difficulty of negotiating in 2021 against a backdrop of increasing cow numbers at the time. However, in many cases that was on the back of instruction by Government policy to invest, grow and expand. All that was done in good faith by farmers in the dairy sector. They end up paying the price every time and will do so in this case also.
Before the announcement of the decision at that meeting, had the Department at any stage considered that the 220 kg N/ha might come to pass? Was any work done by the Department to look at what would be done if we got to 220 kg N/ha ahead of the meeting and ahead of all that? Did the Department work on that beforehand?
We would have focused on communicating the challenge that it might drop because obviously a farmer must look at it and work with their adviser to see how best to deal with a potential drop to 220 kg N/ha. The Deputy made a fair point about time. Farmers, particularly farmers who have a derogation, are closely monitoring how they apply nutrients. As part of the derogation process, there are extra requirements on those farmers who farm above the 170 kg N/ha in how they manage their farms and nutrient loadings.
When accepted for derogation each farmer must comply with additional measures and steps. There is a lot happening there and across the board. We need to double down on that and put ourselves in a good position to improve water quality so that we can renegotiate and resecure the derogation. However, whenever we make the argument, which I did, about giving time for measures to take effect, there is that backdrop of a ten-year period during which water quality did not improve and, indeed, disimproved in many instances. From 2006 to around 2013, we saw improvements in water quality but the trend from 2013 onwards has been one of disimprovement, and that has been the challenge for the time argument. We ended up with no choice but to agree to a year-on-year comparison between 2021 and 2022 in order to hold the 250 kg N/ha for the first part of the derogation. If we had looked at trends prior to that, we would have been automatically in a situation whereby it would be very hard to start off a derogation with 250 kg N/ha.
Regarding the possible minor adjustments, the Minister referred to the issue of the 250 kg N/ha limit being kept in certain areas and dropping to 220 kg N/ha in other areas, which would then need to show improvement in water quality. It appears from the Commissioner's statements that all of this is based on evidence. Given that the stocking rate is not the be-all and end-all, as the Minister also said, if the 250 kg N/ha is kept in certain areas, is there a possibility that the 220 kg N/ha limit will increase to 250 kg N/ha if there is evidence to show improvement in water quality and the Department does an awful lot more to support farmers in improving water quality? Clearly not enough has been done and farmers will be supported to do more I presume. If this is all about the evidence and if the 250 kg N/ha limit is held in certain areas, will there be an opportunity for the 220 kg N/ha to go up based on evidence?
That is why we fought very hard to hold the 250 kg N/ha and fought very hard in the review to continue to have that possibility. Obviously, the water quality data did not support that. We then fought to try to have the derogation and renegotiate it.
Regarding where we will stand under the next derogation post 2025 and whether there is a possibility for some parts of the country showing very good progress to go from 220 kg N/ha to 250 kg N/ha for example, that is something we want to put into the negotiation process for the next derogation to try to make sure that it is following the data and the science in every way possible so that it is as strong as possible in supporting farmers in the actions they are taking. That really needs to be put on the table then. In the meantime, however, our focus must be on working to bring about the improvement in water quality that puts us in a position to hold that derogation. As I said, the last time we were fighting a battle even to get to that 220 kg N/ha because, as part of the review process, the Commission wanted it set much lower than that.
On 1 January, farmers who will be dropping to 220 kg N/ha will face a choice between reducing their herds or scrambling to buy or lease land at enormous cost. In many cases, buying or leasing land will be absolutely impossible. Is there any wiggle room in respect of additional time? The Minister has talked about allowing farmers time to prepare, which is important. By the end of this month, we will know which areas are affected. Farmers will have three months to reduce their herds or to buy or lease land. The opportunity to buy or lease land is not there in many cases or, where it is, it would come at enormous cost. Does the Minister believe there will be wiggle room on 1 January?
The derogation we have goes from January to December. It is the average of nitrogen loading over the year. That is the derogation we have and there is no possibility of renegotiating it and getting a legal, statutory amendment to it. We must work with the terms and conditions of the derogation we have.
The map and data indicating which areas were failing at least one of the four tests set under the derogation were published at the end of June. Those areas would be required to drop to 220 kg N/ha. We have engaged with the Commissioner and the Commission and there may be some possibility for very slight adjustments in that regard but we expect any adjustments to be marginal. Those who are in the red area at the moment have been there since the end of June. As I said earlier, some catchments may not be in the red area at the moment but might have higher nitrates that were not captured in the data. That issue will be assessed as part of our national nitrates action review in the autumn of this year. If any adjustment were required outside the red zone based on the scientific data, we can assure farmers that those adjustments would not take effect until January 2025 to allow them time to plan ahead and adjust.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
It is important to note that it is not 220 kg N/ha every day. It is an average. The typical summer grazer might have a higher figure in the summer but the relevant measurement is the average over the year. A winter finisher would be at the opposite end of the scale. The calculation of 220 kg N/ha is based on the livestock numbers on every day of the year.
That is okay. Those who will be going to 220 kg N/ha are going to be under an awful lot of pressure and do not have time. I imagine there will be supports for those farmers above and beyond what is there for them now because support is going to be needed. As has been mentioned, there are wider implications for other farmers, including beef and suckler farmers, when it comes to competition for land. It is already very expensive to buy or lease land. There is a lot of competition. Forestry is now competing in many areas. We must also consider the impact on young farmers who are starting out and trying to buy farms and land close to home and whatever else. It is important that all of those matters are considered. There are wider implications.
The conversation is now about retaining the 220 kg N/ha, given that it is now, to all intents and purposes, a done deal. We must also bear in mind that there will be new Commissioners with responsibility for agriculture and the environment after the election next year, so what is a challenge now in respect of retaining the 220 kg N/ha may be even more of a challenge then. There is an awful lot more to do to support farmers to improve water quality.
I want to ask two brief questions on the basis of the Minister's opening statement. The water quality working group was established in May and the Minister said it has engaged intensively since then. Will the Minister tell us how many meetings of that group have been held to date? There was also a mention of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The Minister said he would ask that Department to engage with the Commission on this issue at some point. Does the Minister know what engagement at any level or communication that Department has had?
I thank the Deputy. We have worked closely with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage because this is a joint effort and that Department is technically the lead Department. We have worked very closely.
I have been engaging with Teagasc and the advisory services on providing additional support for farmers. We will also be reflecting on how we can further support that. There will be further engagement with the water quality working group with regard to the challenges that are there, and gathering information and its thoughts on the matter too.
The working group has had five meetings. I established it back in May. In the past, when this was an issue it was carried out much more informally between the Department and farm representatives. I was very conscious of the challenge that we have and I was very conscious of the backdrop of the really difficult negotiation we had to get the derogation renewed, and with the review to have that at 220 kg N/ha rather than at a lower figure. I am very conscious that we have a big challenge and a big battle on our hands for 18 months to two years' time to get the derogation renewed. This is why I have put together the water quality working group, bringing all stakeholders together, to work together in partnership, to meet that shared challenge, and to make sure we are in a stronger position than we were in the past come the end of 2025 to renegotiate that derogation. We must also communicate the message that we cannot take any of this for granted. It is a big difficulty and a challenge at European Union level. We must be improving water quality if we are to keep it and we must do that work together. I will continue to do that. We will be holding a meeting shortly of the water quality working group again to assess how we step it out.
I thank those members who declared an interest because it is beneficial to this committee to have people with such farming experience and from a farming background. It is a complex area and the more I engage with farmers, the more I learn about it. I do not think members having an interest is a difficulty. Where it does become a difficulty is when people point a finger at an independent scientific agency such as the EPA and infer that it is somehow political. That is not an acceptable statement for anybody to make, regardless of their experience and background.
I have had an interest in water quality for a long time. My interest is in having good, clean water in our rivers, lakes, estuaries and groundwater because that is from where we extract our water for drinking and where a lot of recreation takes place. A lot of people depend on having good water quality and our health and safety must always be foremost. That is where my interest in this area comes from.
Notwithstanding that, I fully understand the shock, disappointment and anger among the farming community. I engaged with farmers and they want to know how this happened and why it is happening now. I thank the Minister because he has been very straight in his answers. He has been honest and open in setting out exactly the reasons this is happening and must be done in this manner.
He has not led people on a merry dance that we will be able to get around this or do something and that we do not need to worry about it because we have had this for far too long in many areas such as government, water quality, policy direction for farmers and climate action. How did we get here and what is the pathway to allow farmers to have confidence in their job of producing excellent food over the next five, ten or 20 years? Every business needs to know that. Businesses do not want to know there will be chopping and changing along the way.
This is a 1991 directive. The first nitrates action programme was in 2006. Why was there a gap between 1991 and 2006 when it came to action or were there actions that predated the nitrates action plans?
It goes way back before my time so I am not necessarily in a position to give that background. It would have been managed by the Department with responsibility for housing over that period. The bottom line is that the nitrates directive was about improving water quality across EU member states. Everyone in the EU works to the same food and environmental standards. This is even more important for us because we export 90% of the food we produce. The vast majority of the food we produce is exported to other EU member states, which is by and large the best paying market at global level. When we export our food to EU member states, although we export a good bit to the UK, we must work to the food safety and environmental standards those EU member states have to apply themselves. This is the context. The bottom line is that we must show improved water quality. This must be our objective.
I appreciate that much of this was before the Minister's time as it goes back to 1991, which is a long time ago. We are on the fifth nitrates action programme. The first was introduced in 2006. Did every action that was recommended and required take place and was this audited and monitored? Did we have auditing and monitoring of all the recommendations and actions required under our nitrates action programmes so we can see where we fell down? The Minister is right. The reason this is happening is because we are not showing improvement in water quality. The nitrates directive is not about imposing hardship on farmers. It is about improving water quality, particularly with regard to the impact of nitrates in agriculture on water quality. This is where we need to get to. The nitrates action programmes were there to address this problem. Obviously, they have not worked to date or we would not be facing this because we are not seeing the improvement in water quality. Were all the actions in the five plans implemented? Were they implemented by everybody? Was enough advice and information given to farmers? Did we audit and improve as we went along?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
Legally, the regulation is a regulation of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage as the nitrates action programme. I cannot recall in full but I have been in since 2010. During the period proceeding the first nitrates action plan, we had voluntary measures but none with a legal framework, and that is where we fell foul of the EU regulatory requirements of compliance. This is what the 2006 regulation effectively addressed, so we now had a legal requirement in terms of compliance. The control mechanism is through the local authorities in terms of compliance with that but the Department does a lot of inspections in terms of farms, etc., where it aligns with the requirements of the nitrates regulations. The derogation has a specific compliance element where we traditionally inspected 5% of derogation farms. Now 10% of derogation farms are subject to an annual inspection of compliance.
Would a larger inspection programme help? Is it practicable to do this? I note that the Minister spoke about assistance in his opening statement. I will come to that in a moment.
In my view, it is a matter of more information, more assistance and more education, although I do not like to use word "education". It is a matter of showing farmers how to do this. If we were to up that, would we get better water quality?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
I always caution that effort and impact are not the same in terms of some of the work we do. We are doing actions, and farmers are doing actions, on the assumption that we are looking to reduce the load. As has been pointed out, it is a question of the load, how it is transferred to water and how it is seen in the water. In terms of the focus, where there is additionality we have increased the derogation inspection rate. We also have 42 advisers in the areas. They are not derogation-focused, just to be clear. They are focused on farming within prioritised areas for action. That has come out of collaboration with ourselves at the local authority waters programme, LAWPRO, in terms of understanding where those resources should be applied. I refer to the likes of the best measures. Specific to derogation farmers, they are required to do a certain level of training annually to increase their understanding. We are also increasing the education of advisers to better connect the rules. I refer not to their understanding of what the rules are, but to their understanding of why the rules are there, in order that they can connect them. That is part of the education process to bring advisers up to speed. They will then translate that onto farms, so we are very much working with farmers.
Aside from the nitrates action programme recommendations, when the EPA was in there was reference to Timoleague, where a much more rapid frequency of water testing is being carried out on a micro level. There is some suggestion that there have been improvements in water quality there, but my understanding is that essentially it is following the same trends as we have seen in the EPA report. Is it reasonable and practicable for all farmers to implement the measures that are in Timoleague and would the business be viable?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
That includes periods when one cannot spread slurry, the amount of storage and the limits on fertilisers. That is applied to every farmer, irrespective of whether they are in derogation. The same applies in Timoleague. It is no different. Within the Timoleague catchment, there is a higher density of derogation farmers who have additional requirements of them. We pay for the agricultural catchments programme, which gives that monitoring. Traditionally, the team would always say that the derogation farmers have been the most engaged in their understanding of water, what they need to do and their awareness of it. That has been a positive. The actions that are required in Timoleague are required in all other areas of the country.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
It is the same for everybody. The catchments programme was a monitoring programme that was put in to effectively understand the response to those actions that are available everywhere. There are six identified areas of different soil types, different farming etc. that are representative of the country. Yes, they have dedicated advisory support within those areas. A technician is monitoring and an adviser is working with farmers in terms of understanding what is happening because it is quite intensive. It is not in any way different. It is reflective of the whole country.
Is it the case that it is just more carefully managed, observed and reported on in Timoleague? If so, the suggestion would be that if we had that same level of monitoring, reporting and inspection across the country, we would see the same results countrywide as we see in Timoleague.
I will just come in. The point the Deputy is making is a fair one. The more advice, assistance and hands-on support we can give to all farmers, the better. In Timoleague they have been working together and they have done great work. They are looking to manage and monitor nutrients in a very strong way with the objective of monitoring water quality alongside that. That is where our €60 million water project comes from. It seeks to provide that hands-on support and indeed payments to farmers for taking actions at a farm level. It can help to assist that. It is crucial that they manage their nutrient load, regardless of whether they are in derogation, and that they match how they manage farms to soil types and prevailing climate conditions, etc. We are doing a lot on that. Derogation farmers in particular are doing a lot, but all farmers are.
... we are doing a lot in that area, particularly derogiation farmers, as are all farmers, but We
We must continue to improve intensity and supports in the area.
We have to continue to improve intensity and supports in the area.
That is the direction I want to go in and not how we got here because I think many people are aware of how we got to this situation. It is not a surprise because we have seen that trend in deteriorating water quality. Many of the NGOs, which come in for a lot of criticism, such as The Sustainable Water Network, SWAN, and An Taisce, etc., have highlighted this for many years. The Commission has received the report that proves a lot of what was being commented on and warned against for many years. What is the pathway to maintain farming in areas that are difficult? What level of assistance is required for farmers to adjust to this change over the next few years and over the next five to ten to 15 years? If our water quality does not improve, the next Minister for agriculture will stand in front of the next EU Commissioner and asking to keep the 220 kg N/ha though water quality has not improved. I do not want to end up in that situation for farmers; I want actions to be in place to allow them to be viable and to protect our water quality so we can go back to Europe and say we took these actions and to show the proof. It is a win-win for everybody. What are the Minister's views? I have only left him two and a half minutes.
That has to be where we are at and it is my message to farmers as well. We fought very hard to get 220 kg N/ha; it could have been a lot lower this time around. We negotiated hard to make sure we got where we are but we were in a very difficult position. What the Deputy said is accurate - to make sure we are in a stronger position at the end of 2025, we have to show continued improvement and get the trend in the right direction in relation to water quality. The current nitrates action programme review puts us in a good place to do that. The €60 million investment in the water quality project through the European Innovation Partnership, EIP, is important in that regard because it is about working down at farm level with farmers in terms of how we manage nutrients and how to ensure that it grows grass or crops, rather than impacting water quality in the area.
I thank the Minister. There is a political responsibility on every one of us as public representatives not to go out and blame. Some parties blame this on a flawed process and others criticise the messenger - the highly-competent, experienced and dependable EPA reports. That is not the way this will be solved. It will be solved by ensuring farmers have the supports they need to protect water quality, which I believe they want to do. They have now seen the cost of not doing that. The financial assistance must be available to get them through these couple of years as we approach 220 kg N/ha. We need further monitoring inspection supports and better support for the EPA because we depend on those reports. They are the proof we bring to Europe to demonstrate that the actions we have taken have improved water quality. It is not to try to damage the reputation of those, it is to actually enhance it and improve the work it does. That is the solution.
I thank Deputy Matthews. We are and will continue to take many steps to support farmers. We discussed the €60 million water project, which I announced in the last few weeks. There is also the agri-climate rural environment scheme, ACRES, in which record numbers are participating. It makes a significant contribution in this regard, as do some of the other schemes I have introduced over the last couple of years, for example, multi-species sward grant aid, in which there has been a strong uptake by farmers, and the soil testing programme and support, in which there has been a strong uptake by farmers also. The liming programme is another example in relation to keeping a focus on soil fertility. All are grants put in place over the last couple of years for which farmers have had a strong appetite and can make a difference and contribute to the progress we need to make.
I thank the Minister for coming in. Looking at the EPA's report and the famous, or infamous, map on page 27 that points out areas identified as "Areas draining to [those] waterbodies that have met [or exceeded] the criteria specified by the Commission under Article 12, and will therefore require additional measures", and also looking at the 2022 derogation herd locations, information which is also very helpfully contained in the report, there is a discrepancy in some areas. This is particularly the case in counties Clare, Kerry and Leitrim. The areas identified as requiring additional measures in County Clare are basically the north and east, perhaps unsurprisingly, whereas there is no particular concentration of derogation herd locations there. In fact, if there is a concentration, that is elsewhere. Likewise in County Kerry, the big concentration in derogation herd locations is, again unsurprisingly, up in the very northern part of the county, whereas the area requiring additional measures is south Kerry. Equally, from the map, County Leitrim looks to me to have perhaps one derogation herd, whereas almost all the county seems to be included in the areas requiring additional measures.
One thing north and east County Clare and County Leitrim have in common is that there is a huge amount of forestry, especially monoculture Sitka spruce forestry. Much of this is in the ownership of the State through Coillte. My worry is that while agriculture has undoubtedly played a part in the degradation of our water quality and equally undoubtedly must act to counter this impact, and it would be disingenuous to claim otherwise, many other actors also have an important role to play. If they do not play a role, then we are going to be back here in three years' time with the Commission telling us there has not really been much of an improvement in our water quality. Agriculture will be referred to. There is a zeitgeistout there that drug dealers may get a better play in the media now than farmers in terms of how they are being portrayed. This is not to say that farmers do not have an important role to play and do not have to take action. They absolutely do, but the issue is broader than that.
On the other side of the house, therefore, what is going to happen in the Minister's Department with regard to forestry practices? In particular, I refer to forestry the State effectively owns. The State owns Coillte and it owns vast tracts of lands. I refer to its practice of continuing with these Sitka spruce plantations, and specifically the clear-felling of them and the environmental havoc that causes. Are there any plans to do anything in this regard? Is the only response to the degradation of water quality the reduction in the derogation? The Minister did not reduce the derogation. We have lost it. I am not into this blame game thing, but we all have to act.
There is a role and responsibility for all sectors. Nitrates is obviously primarily an agricultural issue. Phosphorous is primarily an urban waste issue in terms of its contribution in impacting water quality. We must also be careful in how we manage our forestry. Our new forestry plan and programme, which we have just initiated, is very much conscious of this and of buffers being in place in terms of having a mix of trees, including native broadleaf and Sitka spruce and other conifers.
It is important to get the right balance and to have both. I agree that we must ensure that people are fully aware of all potential impacts on water quality and take full mitigation measures to make sure that water quality is not impacted.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
It would be incorrect if it is in any way suggested in our presentation that the reduction or removal of the derogation will solve water quality issues; it will not. Let us be clear on that. It is a quite complicated area. It was alluded to in earlier interventions that the reality of soil type, how management practices are applied, intensity and different types all have to be taken into account. For example, under the agricultural catchments programme, there are two sites in Wexford that are five or six miles apart. One is very free-draining, not heavily stocked in terms of irrigation farming and has a much higher nitrate level than the other, which is quite intensively farmed with livestock from a derogation point of view. Soil type is predominantly driving that. It is not as simple as suggesting that a single sweep of a pen can resolve this. It is about taking the right actions and the right measures in the right place. That is the evolution that our policy, under the Minister's direction, has tried to deal with, by using such tools as water quality mapping, as the Deputy stated. For example, the targeted agricultural measures map on page 21 identifies where nitrogen pressure and phosphorous pressure are arising. Entry for applicants under the agri-environment scheme is prioritised based on water quality. The actions they take are determined by delivery of the objectives of improving water quality and the integration of the Department's policy with the knowledge we have, whether from EPA mapping, water quality or elsewhere. All sectors, including livestock, arable and forestry sectors, have to contribute to that achievement, as the Minister has stated, based on taking the right action in the right place.
Mr. Ted Massey:
I reiterate Mr. Callanan's point and refer the Deputy to the targeted agricultural measures map where it can be seen that in many of the areas, the problem relates to phosphorous or sediment. The reason those areas failed the Commission's test is the water quality failed to meet the parameters set down by the Commission. That has nothing to do with the presence of derogation farmers in those locations.
I will go back to what the Minister said when he linked phosphorous emissions to urban waste. There is no apparent correlation between urban centres and phosphorous sediment in County Clare. The big urban centres in the county are Ennis where the River Fergus drains southwards towards the Shannon Estuary, and Shannon and Sixmilebridge in the south. They are the second and third biggest towns now. The map indicates however, that the emissions are in north Clare, which is an area where there is a lot of forestry. There has been a huge degradation in the Graney catchment area, where there is certainly agriculture, but it is not an area of intensive agriculture by any stretch. Scarriff is at the end of it but that is the only big settlement on the river. I am not hearing anything from the Department about any plans to do anything in forestry. Will the witnesses speak about that? I am not saying farmers and agriculture do not have a role to play; they do. However, we must look at the hugely ambitious forestry targets. I cannot see how they will be met, yet it is a type of forestry practice that appears to be environmentally disadvantageous. It is reflected not only in a loss of biodiversity, which we are not here to discuss, but in an impact on our water quality and the water table.
Is there a plan to address that, and what is that plan?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
The EPA has modelled where the catchment pressures are arising. That is disaggregated whether agriculture is the main driver, which it is not exclusively, or where forestry is the main driver. I do not have the figures. These are really questions for the EPA. My understanding, off the top of my head, is that the catchments primarily impacted by agriculture are around 60%. I think it is 15% or 16% in terms of forestry, and then there is urban wastewater, residues, etc. There is a disaggregation at national level in terms of what is generating the greatest pressure for the water body locally. I am not an expert on the forestry side, but it is not correct to say there are no actions with regard to those. The requirements for appropriate assessment, indeed for the planting of forestry and so on, must all take account of issues the Deputy is talking about and how to minimise loading from the likes of forestry. However, in the context of today's discussion, in particular around the 220 kg N/ha derogation, etc., I would be careful about suggesting that forestry as opposed to livestock is the major issue in those areas with derogation farming. The Deputy has said it himself that the map represents where derogation farming is happening. I do not have the forestry figures, but they do not align particularly closely with the level of activity of the pair.
There is no correlation with the level of derogation farming or intensive farming in the parts of Clare identified as requiring remediation in water quality. I do not know County Leitrim as well, but I would be surprised. I would say there is less intensive farming. I am open to correction by the Minister, who is closer to Leitrim than I am.
There is less intensive farming going on in Leitrim than there is in the Golden Vale. I think that is a fair comment, yet almost all of Leitrim is in the map. I do not want to mention the war, but there is also this stuff about Coillte engaging with private capital funds to buy land and try to buy existing forestry, and it is all Sitka spruce monoculture forestry that is having an effect. I offered to bring the Minster of State, Senator Hackett, several times and the Minister is also welcome to come. It will get better as time goes on, but if you look at some of Coillte's forestry practices on Slieve Aughty, it is appalling. It really is. For the State to be telling farmers they have to make these sacrifices, which they do, and I am not arguing otherwise, while huge State actors on the other hand seem to be getting away with murder in terms of the environment is sickening for farmers. It is hard for them to see. It is particularly hard for farmers around where I live in north-east County Clare. They see what Coillte does. They see what it is up to. There are deadlines on spraying and all sorts of environmental regulations, and Coillte is above them because the National Parks and Wildlife Service does not want to know and does not want to get involved. Take on a farmer and you will get a result. Take on Coillte and you will get bogged down in paperwork for months. That is the attitude within the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
The reality is that Coillte has been leading the change of approach with regard to our national forestry. There is no doubt, if you go back between 20 and 40 years, that the way we do forestry is very different now.
It is about the right tree in the right place. There is no doubt, if you go back, that trees were planted in places that were not appropriate. It would have been monocultural, and in terms of buffer zones and so on, it would bear no resemblance to what we now have in place. Coillte has been at the forefront of changing that in terms of the blend of deciduous broadleaf trees versus conifers. Our new forestry programme now also has a 50-50 requirement for broadleaves versus conifers. However, you really need that mix. Both of them have a strong role to play in building our timber industry. We need that wood if we are going to displace higher carbon inputs into housing and building and use wood instead. If we are going to use wood in building and reduce our need for concrete, for example, we need to have the trees growing and to replenish them.
Continuous cover is also a key part of our new forestry programme. As with every aspect of life and the economy, what we know now is a million miles ahead of what we knew 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Therefore, the approaches we are taking are entirely different.
Obviously, Coillte is better at PR around the issue now, but I am not sure that the actual change in practice is as profound as the Minister has portrayed. However, I accept that Coillte is at least talking the talk at this stage. Perhaps the Minister will come back to us with the detail on what concrete changes there will be in forestry generally, and in Coillte in particular, in areas that have been identified as being under pressure because of forestry. I appreciate that the Minister did not come prepared for that question, but he might reply in writing. Is that-----
I will certainly provide the Deputy with an update on those points. As I said, Coillte is leading on the changes and the different approach to forestry that we are taking. Our new forestry programme is entirely different from the forestry programmes that were in place 20 years ago and more.
When you see County Leitrim, which has very low stocking rates, on the red map you have to question where that water pollution is coming from. It is definitely not coming from organic nitrogen anyway. Senator Lombard has ten minutes this time.
Following on from the Leitrim example, the reason the county is on the red map is because of the four water quality criteria that were set out 18 months ago. Was that not the mistake that was made? The criteria that were set out 18 months ago ensured that places like Leitrim, which had very low stocking rates, could not pass. When it comes to the next derogation and the debate around it, we need to ensure that the criteria are workable. Leitrim is a prime example. One derogation farmer with less than 3,000 cows is in the red. We know the criteria are not about stocking; they are about water quality at a different level. Stocking is related but the example of Leitrim proves that it is not the main indicator. Is Leitrim where it is at the moment because of the four criteria set out 18 months ago?
We need to be clear about the very challenging position we were in when we were negotiating the derogation. It was a very difficult negotiation. What the Commission had on the table was much less than the 220 kg N/ha that we ultimately negotiated. We fought very hard to get the strongest possible outcome. Those were the four tests the Commission required as part of that derogation.
I will refer to Mr. Callanan or Mr. Massey to provide more of the technical detail on the four tests. It was not just one particular aspect; there were four different aspects to it, which I will ask Mr. Callanan to outline.
That is correct. That is the requirement and that was the position we were in. We fought hard to get a really strong derogation. The battle now is to make sure that, come the end of 2025, we are in a position to continue to secure that derogation and to keep it. The situation could have been a lot worse if we had not fought the way we did to get the derogation we have. Perhaps Mr. Callanan will comment on the technical detail.
I am tight for time. Perhaps Mr. Callanan could correspond with me in writing on that.
On the economic impact of the decision, what has happened in the last month is probably the worst decision for agriculture and the dairy industry in 40 years. Can the Minister give me a breakdown of the economic impact the decision will have on the State, for milk processors and farmers, and in respect of where we are going with the economy? It is a €17.2 billion industry potentially. What is this going to cost us?
It has a real and undoubted impact for farmers who are farming at between 220 kg N/ha and 250 kg N/ha. Teagasc has done modelling on it. That is why we have to work to support those farmers throughout this period. It is also why we have to work to make sure we hold the derogation above 220 kg N/ha.
I will send it to the committee. It speaks to the necessity to work hard to ensure we hold it. We have seen the impact that going from 250 kg N/ha to 220 kg N/ha can have. Were we to drop further from where we are now, it would be even more serious.
It is very important we all work collectively to put ourselves in a strong position.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
It is very difficult for us to model the economics when there are alternatives available to farmers. For example, how many of them would use that? We have 6,250 farmers who are currently exporting slurry for compliance and we do not know how many of those who are impacted, which we estimate at approximately 3,000, will avail of that opportunity.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
It does not include banding, but if we look at it in the round, given the area they have, there is certainly availability of other lands in terms of receipt of slurries, which we assume would be one of the things farmers will avail of. We have to be careful. Any modelling is dependent on the assumptions we make, and whether farmers will engage in alternative actions will determine the exact figure. That is what I am saying to the Senator.
For example, a number of years ago Holland brought in a phosphorus quota. That phosphorous quota directly impacted the number of dairy cows, yet their milk volume went up. They took 120,000 cows out of the system and their milk volume went up. It is very difficult. My job is just the science of it and I am not political, but in terms of modelling the impacts of these, we can do them but they all depend on the assumptions we make. That is the point. The volume of milk being produced by our own cows and internationally has grown in terms of processing and so on.
We have a different modelling system compared with the international model of milking cows. We have a grass-based system, not a high-feed system, so the potential for us to cull the 10% worst cows to increase production is not there because we have maximised that, in particular in the past 18 months.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
I am sorry, Senator, but I would not fully agree with that. I was looking at the numbers in terms of our economic breeding index, EBI, and how EBI improves our overall national herd, and it improves the top-end cows, the middle-end cows and the low-end cows. Looking at a quantum in that regard, I worked out that there are 100 farms that are averaging 300 kg of milk solids per cow, which I am sure the Senator understands is a very low production figure. There are quite a number of cows at very low production levels.
I want to get clarification about the targeted measures the Minister is proposing. What are the targeted measures that could be enforced in red areas going forward? Will the Minister be proposing to have those target areas for derogation farmers and non-derogation farmers or only for derogation farmers in the red areas?
I am referring to whatever targeted measures the Minister is proposing to use to make sure we reach that target. We have a red area, as can be seen on the map on page 27. Some of those farmers are derogation farmers and some are not. Whatever is brought forward in the new plan, is the Minister proposing to have them for both derogation and non-derogation farmers?
What we have to complete over the course of this autumn is our nitrates action programme review, which applies to all farmers. That is basically looking at and assessing what steps we take and what amendments we make to our own national nitrates action programme, separate to the derogation as such, in regard to improving water quality. That is something I will be engaging on closely with the water quality working group that I have put together with regard to how we do that, and we will also be consulting the wider public and the farm stakeholders before we finalise it.
Mr. Callanan might answer this question. A family farm of 60, 70, 80, 90 or 100 cows - a small farm - will be under pressure to get land, and there is no point in us codding ourselves, whereas a bigger conglomerate would have more flexibility as to where it will go. Particularly where there are small family farms with a lot of them doing the same thing, the land would not be available. It puts them in a situation where the only thing they can do is cut back on numbers or else do contract rearing or something like that. If the big person has heaps of cows and heaps of money, in theory, according to the Department, how far can they go to take land? I have heard stories of silage being moved 120 miles.
Where does it stop with regard to slurry moving around the country? What is the story on that?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
We do not have a distance requirement. We have moved to remove what was effectively a potential loophole in terms of people using marginal land to dilute stocking rates. In the most recent action programme there were a lot of additional actions that farmers had to take on. That was a challenge. One of these was changing the stocking rate allowances in terms of commonage land to avoid it being artificially used to dilute the overall farm stocking rate. That was moved to 50 kg of nitrogen with no chemical nitrogen allowance. A number of farmers were utilising on a whole-farm basis the creation of a reduction on paper but it was certainly not a reduction in what was happening at farm level.
If land is designated as a special area of conservation, one of the 36 things farmers are supposed to do is to get the go-ahead to put out slurry. It is the damnedest ever with what is involved. It is not the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that is involved, it is the National Parks and Wildlife Service. There is fear in certain areas because of the pressure coming on land. People speak about bringing slurry 130 or 150 miles. It is crazy. Does Mr. Callanan agree?
Mr. Bill Callanan:
In terms of the discussion on new measures, the book is open on what is required to be done. There will be an opportunity through the public consultation for everybody, including the committee, to discuss what actions should be on the table in the review. This includes ensuring that compliance is happening with regard to the movement of slurry. It is very much an open question on how best to deal with it.
Does the Department not agree that small family farms are the biggest losers in all of this? They do not have the numbers or the capacity to do what someone else may be able to do. Does Mr. Callanan understand what I mean? The small family farms that supply milk in many parts of the country are the ones that will really take the hit on this. They do not have the same flexibility as someone else. Do the witnesses agree with this?
It is not a political question; it is a straight question. Mr. Callanan knows better than I do that someone rearing a family on a farm with 60, 70 or 80 cows does not have flexibility or acreage. If everyone around them is doing this, the land is not available. They do not have the flexibility to go 70, 80 or 100 miles for land compared to someone who has 1,000 acres.
I ran out of time earlier and I want to go back to the issue I raised because I need further clarification. This is with regard to the number of kilograms of nitrogen in a cubic metre of slurry. What is the European default with regard to the nitrogen content in a cubic metre of slurry?
I am not arguing and I accept the bona fides that we were wrong at 5 kg and we are right at 2.5 kg. I am not throwing aspersions at anybody but I need serious clarification. We need wriggle room. I cannot see how our banding could be right after the amount of slurry has been reduced and that the only effect it has is in limiting slurry export qualities.
It had to affect the banding also. The banding of 80 kg to 106 kg results in an average of 93 kg. We were on 89 kg. In my opinion, we started our model at the average of 89 kg. To get it right, there was a little chopping and changing; it was never going to end up at 89 kg. It ended up with 93 kg as the average but we started with 89 kg. We came to the figure of 89 kg based on our old figure of 5 kg N per cubic metre. Therefore, Mr. Callanan will need to produce a serious paper for me to prove to me that we were not wrong on 89 kg and therefore are not wrong now and that our bandings are way too high.
Mr. Bill Callanan:
I will make an absolute commitment here that we will produce a paper on the figures. The only issue in terms of the banding, though, is what is recognised internationally. The Senator asked whether there was a figure for slurry. Looking at the actual emission factors used under nitrates rules in other member states, you see the figures are substantially higher in the countries where there is a higher output per cow. I believe the Dutch figure is 125 kg or something - do not quote this as an exact figure – but I suppose our numbers are proportionate to our yield based on international benchmarking of yield and numbers.
Can Mr. Callanan see how I could be confused if we go from 5 kg to 2.4 kg and the only thing that changes is slurry exportation, nothing else? Everything has to change. If we were too high at 5 kg, so be it, and maybe 2.4 kg is the right figure-----
Mr. Bill Callanan:
My job is to ensure science is translated correctly in the Department. I give the Senator an absolute commitment that we will produce a paper. Let that be open. Our numbers are based on what was the Teagasc green book outlining the excretion figures, the volume of slurry, etc. We have numbers for everything, effectively from lowland ewes to goats, ducks and geese.
I am trying to get a bit of wiggle room to help the people who are now caught and have to come back to 220 kg N/ha, the people who were staying below 220 kg N/ha and indeed the people who are trying to stay below 170 kg N/ha. If we are wrong, it is not helping them. It will take a lot to prove we are not wrong.
We would welcome a paper but Mr. Callanan needs to come here with it because it will take digesting here. As Senator Daly says, we find it very hard to comprehend how we can halve the value for slurry and not have an impact on other parts of this equation.
I have just one brief supplementary question. To go back to what we said about 1 January being the date, there is now very little time for farmers. They have three months – October, November and December – before January and their options will be to either buy or lease land or reduce their herds. Is the Minister considering financial support in the budget now that we know the figure will be 220 kg N/ha? Is he considering specific funding for the farmers in the budget to support them with the options they will have, now that we know the figure will be 220 kg N/ha?
The situation facing each farm will be different. I will be engaging with the water quality working group on this challenge as well and seeing how we can support in the best way possible those farmers who are affected. It is something we will be reflecting on.
We have a lot of work to do, even before the budget, on stepping all of this out. I will be meeting the water quality working group very shortly as well and continuing to engage directly with farmers. I have been engaging strongly with all farmer representative organisations on the issue throughout, particularly through the water quality working group, because we have a shared challenge here. I want to ensure I am providing leadership on it to make sure we step this forward, deal with the challenge we have at the moment and put ourselves in a very strong position to maintain and renew the derogation in 18 months' time.
Lastly, on that, the Minister referred to the economic impact that this will have. I presume he is looking at financial support for farmers who will be forced to reduce their stocking. There will have to be money on the table for them. It is really important to get that point across to the Minister given that he offered up, in response to me earlier, the great economic impact this will have on farmers. It is important that work is done.
I will engage with the water quality group on that too. I would welcome Deputy Kerrane's own proposals. Obviously, in advance of the budget, everybody will make his or her proposals. No doubt, Sinn Féin will put its proposals on the table as well.
In the context of the budget, I will do my very best and get the very best outcome possible for farmers and farm families, delivering on the 50% increase that we have delivered from a Government point of view in the new Common Agriculture Policy. Everything will be considered.
Yes. The other issue the Deputy raised with me earlier as well was the issue of payments, which has been topical recently, and I will touch on that. On animal transport, however, the only recent change relates to cross-border transport whereby any transport of animals cross-border has to be registered in the tracing system. That is an EU requirement so that people know what is going from one jurisdiction to another.
Payments are something we discussed at this committee previously and something on which I have been clear in giving certainty and clarity to farmers on from earlier this year. In March, we wrote to all farmers outlining the payment schedule for this year so that they would know what it was in advance, particularly given the fact that it was a necessity to have some changes to the dates this year compared to what would have been the case over the past number of years given the logistical challenge of delivering the new CAP and building new systems to do that. From March, farmers were written to directly to inform them of the payment schedule, and that has been communicated on an ongoing basis since then. There is also a letter going to farmers this week reminding them of the dates that were laid out in March. All the officials in my Department are working hard to make sure we meet those dates that we laid out in March.
I have given a clear commitment as well that next year we will revert to the old dates. It is a logistical challenge. In fairness, the Department for many years has been one of the best performing across Europe on delivering dates within the year where the schemes are operating. That is something we want to maintain and continue. There are slight adjustments this year but we will revert next year.
In summary, one of the points that was not discussed today or really raised was the meeting I had with the Commissioner but it was raised much over the past few weeks in the wider context. I emphasise the ongoing engagement I have had with the Commission and the Commissioner in respect of this challenge. I had my team visit over recent months to prepare the way regarding the potential challenge we would have at the end of June and then worked closely with farm representative organisations as well to gather submissions to put together the best possible proposal and submission we could in August to the Commission seeking a renewal of that derogation.
As people can tell from the meeting we have had today and from the discussion over the past week or two, providing clarity quickly is really important. That is why I sought to meet the Commissioner early. In fairness to the Commissioner, he met me the very first week after the August break in the European Parliament. I was attending a European Council meeting at the time in Córdoba with the agriculture Commissioner and other agriculture Ministers, and we had an online Zoom meeting to seek to move this forward because we needed clarity for farmers. If it was to be possible to reopen the derogation process and to go through a statutory process to do that, it would take time and we needed to commence that promptly if that was the case, or if that was not to be possible, it was equally important that we had time to allow farmers to prepare. That is why it was really important I met him.
Based on feedback from the committee, and from its own meeting with the Commissioner, which was useful in getting an assessment and feeding in our national position, it was clear whether it was online or in person was not an issue because the Commission and I meet every month in person. We meet much more regularly than that on Zoom because it is the same Commissioner who deals with fisheries as this issue.
We engage on an ongoing basis. Clarity is really important here. The backdrop was that going back to the negotiation at the start of last year, this could have been a much worse situation. We were in a difficult negotiating position and got the best possible outcome. We all have to work collectively, including me, farmers and all stakeholders, to keep this derogation and improve water quality, continue the significant steps and hard work farmers are undertaking and maintain this important part of our agricultural model into the future. I thank the committee.
This is not a political point; I do not make them. All I will say is that clarity regarding the red map on page 27 of the EPA report was the most important thing we got this morning. That was something farmers were looking for. I know farmers who sold ten calf heifers last Monday in Bandon because they had not clarity on that, and got crucified.
Since 30 June, that red map has been the position. As to any minor adjustments to it, we will bring that clarity by the end of the month and will work with farmers through the water quality working group on stepping it forward.
I thank the Minister and his officials for coming in this morning. The Dáil is still not in session, so we appreciate it.
I do not argue with the point he made that he got the best possible outcome but it does not disguise that it is a bad outcome for the country. It will impact our ability to process efficiently and pay a competitive milk price and it will have a severe impact on family farms. There are huge issues here.
There have been significant developments in our processing industry at huge cost. It is not long since we were arguing with An Bord Pleanála about a big plant in one of our processors. Will the volume of milk be there now to fully utilise that plant? That will add to the cost of processing and the ability to pay a competitive milk price will depend on the throughput of the plant. There are a huge number of economic questions, as well as environmental ones.
I accept fully the Minister's point that we have to get our house in order to make sure we, at the very least, hold the 220 kg. Any movement from that would be catastrophic for our dairy industry. When we had our economic difficulties in the last decade, that industry was one of the drivers of our economy and had a huge impact on getting it back on track. It is a vital industry for our economy and it is essential that we demonstrate to the Commission that water quality is improving. If we can demonstrate that, hopefully we can hold the level we have now and maybe we can, at a future date, revisit the derogation we have lost.
As a committee, we saw first hand in Brussels two weeks ago that this decision, unfortunately, was a fait accompli. We have to make sure the slide stops here. Every contributor to the deterioration in water quality has to play a part, not just the dairy industry. There are many other implicating factors. There has to be serious investment in our infrastructure for dealing with waste by municipal authorities. We are a long way behind the curve. That has to improve.
A question was raised about forestry. The red map raises questions about pollution from other agricultural sectors besides dairy. We fully accept the Minister’s bona fides and the difficult road he had in these negotiations. When we go back to review it, it is very likely we will be the only country in derogation at that stage, so we have to have a lot of science on our side if we are to win this argument.
However, it is an argument that we have to win for our rural countryside. I thank the Minister and his officials.
The next public meeting of the committee on the challenges facing the horse sport industry will be held next Wednesday at 5.30 p.m. As there is no further business, the meeting stands adjourned.