Thursday, 13 July 2023
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
5. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to outline the discussions or engagements he has had with farmer representative bodies with respect to the proposed changes to nitrates limits for derogation farmers from the period 1 January 2023 to date; his response to concerns that such changes will inevitably lead to a reduction in herd numbers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34244/23]
Will the Minister outline the discussions and engagements he has had with farming organisations with respect to proposed changes to nitrates limits for derogation farmers from the period 1 January 2023 to date? There are concerns this will inevitably lead to a reduction in herd numbers. At least 6,900 derogation farmers are affected. Assurances to date from the Government have not alleviated the serious concerns and anxieties of these derogation farmers.
I thank Deputy Nolan for the question. Last year Ireland secured renewal of our nitrates derogation covering the period 2022 to 2025. As part of that approval, the European Commission attached increased conditionality to the derogation in the granting of it, including a requirement that we would conduct a two-year water quality review. Its implementing decision states that where water quality is poor or where worsening trends occur over the period 2021 to 2022, the maximum stocking rate must reduce from 250 kg of organic nitrogen livestock manure per hectare to 220 kg from January 2024.
Affected farmers in that instance would have three choices to bring their stocking rate in line with their new lower limit, if they were farming at a rate between 220 kg and 250 kg. The three options would be obtaining more land, exporting nutrients to other farms, or reducing livestock numbers. That is something that farmers in that situation will have to look at to adjust, if they are in that range. The Department has had a number of meetings with farm organisations and industry representatives on this topic this year. I am very aware of the pressure and the concern farmers have in this regard. Discussions with stakeholders on this commenced in spring of last year. Since then I, along with officials, have worked to communicate the risks associated with this conditionality that was attached to our derogation and the need for us as a country to show significant improvements in water quality if we are to maintain our nitrates derogation in the long term. The Government very much recognises that farmers have made significant efforts and continue to do so to address water quality. The challenge for us all is that the level of nutrients in many of our water courses remains too high, as evidenced by the reports from the Environment Protection Agency, EPA.
I have established the agriculture water quality working group with all farm representatives on it so that we can work together on this issue in the short term to try to achieve flexibilities with regard to the mid-term review, and in the more medium term to ensure we retain and get a renewal of our nitrates derogation post 2025.
I thank the Minister. I see little point in being deliberately adversarial on this point. I acknowledge the Minister has agreed with the European Commission to an interim review of the nitrates action programme 2023. This still means we would default to a maximum limit under the derogation, as the Minister pointed out, of 220 kg, and that is down from 250 kg, from January 2024. We know from the research conducted by Teagasc that one of the reasons Ireland's nitrates derogation is in the firing line is because of recent declines in water quality. That makes it more difficult to secure future derogations. As the IFA and others have pointed out, this interim review will only be based on comparing water quality between 2021 and 2022. I have met the IFA and discussed this very point. Will the Minister accept this is flawed, since measures coming into place in 2022 and 2023 will not have had a chance to improve water quality? Clearly there is a recognition that farmers need additional time. The Minister mentioned a working group. Will he support the IFA and other farming organisations in seeking a review from the Commission to revisit this? We need to give them more flexibility and more time.
We are working together to try to seek extra time. I have brought everyone in the sector into that working group. It is the first time there has ever been a working group on this issue, so we can pool ideas and pool resources for what is a real challenge on maintaining our derogation. My team has already engaged with the Commission with regard to flexibilities. We will engage further over the course of this month. There will also be a meeting of that working group shortly to get ideas from all of the farmer representative organisations as to how we can actually put together the case that will give us the best chance of getting those flexibilities. In the medium term, the role of that working group is to make sure we make improvements in water quality over the next two to three years that give us the platform to have our nitrates derogation renewed.
The Deputy makes the fair point that some of the increased steps that were taken over the past year to 18 months to two years to improve water quality will take a little bit of time to show results. However, the challenge at European level is that we have had a derogation for a long time, and over the time we have had that derogation, our water quality has not actually been improving. The level of nitrogen we have been using has not been reducing. Therefore getting that derogation from other member states against that backdrop becomes challenging when that is the background. However, it speaks to the need to double down in regard to everybody working together to improve water quality as we step forward.
I thank the Minister. Engagement is one thing but it has to be made clear to the European Commission by the Minister, as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and by the Irish MEPs that farmers need more time and more flexibility. There has to be fairness. In regard to water quality, I notice that the finger is always pointed at farmers. In my constituency I have seen instances where there has been no farming activity and where it has been down to poor sewerage systems and where Irish Water has actually been responsible for some instances. I do not believe it is right to penalise farmers on the water quality issue, which is obviously related to this issue. I believe the Government needs to be fair about this. I am sure the Minister will agree, as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, that farmers are not to blame all of the time and that there is a bigger picture here in terms of water quality. They should not be penalised, therefore. We have to make a case to the European Commission. Our farming is important to our economy and to our local economy and needs to be defended and protected. Farmers cannot be made scapegoats.
Yes, multiple issues impact water quality, and certainly wastewater from towns, villages and sewage are a key part of that, mainly contributing to the phosphorus side. The biggest challenge from the nitrates side comes from agriculture. That will be recognised by all. While we have to address the phosphorus side and the sewage side, which is a real problem, we also have to address the nitrates side in terms of agriculture.
To be clear, it is not about saying the Minister needs to thump the table with the Commission or take a hard line, and if the Minister would just do that, then we would keep our derogation. This is not something that is within our gift. We have to go out there and we are, and we will seek to get this. However, it is wrong for anyone to be complacent or believe it is simply about the Government banging the table enough in order that we will continue to get it. The reality is we have a challenge in that we have not delivered over the past ten years in relation to improving water quality or in relation to meeting the targets under the nitrates directive. That has put us in a challenging situation at the moment. We now have to work together to make sure we reverse those trends. We will work together to make sure of that. The reality is that if we do not, then come 2024 and 2025, securing the derogation again will become a big challenge.