Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications Eamon Ryan has agreed to “improving” the level of environmental ambition to reduce the risk of harmful pollution, including from the livestock sector.

EU environment ministers recently held a policy debate on a proposal to revise the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), which would see more livestock farms being included within its scope.

Earlier this year, the European Commission proposed to update the IED and include large cattle farms in addition to large pig and poultry enterprises which require a permit to operate.

Ireland’s minister for environment told the council that the nature of the livestock regimes has to be taken into account, and that the characteristics of a farming system need to be considered.

“Yes, we have to measure and stop the water pollution, ammonia, nitrogen and other pollution including methane emissions, but there are different characteristics of that depending on the intensity not just the [livestock] numbers,” he said.

While the debate showed broad recognition that these new elements contribute to reaching the European Green Deal goals on pollution, several member states expressed concerns about bringing small and medium-sized livestock farms under the scope of the IED. 

Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevicius, however said that livestock farms that would be affected are “not small”, as the revised directive covers farms with, for example, over 500 pigs; 250 meat cows; or at least 21,400 broiler chickens.

Within the European Union around 52,000 installations are regulated by the IED, of which about 39% are industrial farms, according to the EU Council.

Revised IED

Out of 1.5 million livestock farms operating in the EU, 184,000 farms would be affected under the proposal, according to the commissioner who added that farmers will have “a lot of time” to implement “best practices” – at the earliest in 2029.

The commissioner also said that this will allow time to adapt the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to support farms that will be affected by the wider scope of the directive.

To ease the administrative burden on livestock farms, a simplified regulatory approach is proposed that allows member states to opt for registration instead of permitting.

Discussing penalties and compensation rates for health damages due to pollution, Minister Ryan emphasised the need for flexibility to allow member states to set the rate for penalties.

EU environment ministers were also told by Commissioner Sinkevicius that proposed provisions on compensation remedies would implement the “polluter pays” principle, and that so far the directive did not provide for compensation.

Livestock farms

Livestock rearing accounts for over half of EU methane emissions and two thirds of ammonia emissions, according to the commissioner.

Until now, the directive has covered less than 4% of pig and poultry farms with a limited contribution to curbing emissions, he said on behalf of the European Commission.

While he emphasised that all economic actors have to contribute now, Commissioner Sinkevicius said livestock plays a key role in reducing ammonia emissions as 94% of these come from the agriculture sector.

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Under the proposed changes, 13% of the EU’s largest pig, poultry and cattle farms would require permits, which the commission said are responsible for 60% of EU livestock emissions of ammonia and 43% of methane.

The official document from the European Commission outlining changes to the IED published earlier this year set a threshold of 150 livestock units (LUs) for a farm to require a permit.

A ‘conversion rate’ is used to determine the ratio of a single animal to a single LU. In other words, smaller animals will only constitute part of an LU. These are as follows:

  • Bovine animals:
    • Under one year old – 0.4LU;
    • Over one but less than two years old – 0.7LU;
    • Males aged two years and over – 1LU;
    • Heifers aged two years and over – 0.8LU;
    • Dairy cows – 1LU;
    • Other cows aged two years and over – 0.8LU;
  • Pigs:
    • Piglets with liveweight less than 20kg – 0.027LU;
    • Breeding sows weighing 50kg and over – 0.5LU;
    • Other pigs – 0.3LU;
  • Poultry:
    • Broilers – 0.007LU;
    • Laying hens – 0.014LU;
    • Other poultry – 0.030LU.

Next steps

The EU Council will now continue to examine the proposal at working level, and once a position has been agreed it will start negotiations on the text with the European Parliament – which is also currently examining the proposal – and agree on a final text.

The final text will then be formally adopted by both institutions and enter into force, and member states will have a certain time to bring into force the laws to implement the rules agreed.

However, the EU Council confirmed that it is difficult to estimate when the file will be ready for an agreement, and an implementation date has not been decided yet as this, it said, will take “many months”.

Concluding the council meeting, Commissioner Sinkevicius told the ministers: “I count on you to support the overall approach and the level of ambition of this landmark proposal.”