The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Water Event 2019 – which was being held in Galway today, Tuesday, May 29 – heard that while farmers need to become more efficient in the way they work, the custodians of Ireland’s land also need appropriate financial supports and help to tackle climate change effectively.

The conference focused on water quality and how – as a country – we can move “from knowledge to action” on the matter.

Jack Nolan, of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, told attendees that farm inefficiencies, fertiliser use, inadequate supports and customer apathy towards paying for quality produced food are just a number of factors that are placing additional pressures on an industry that must “work smarter and do better”.

Nolan expressed the sentiments as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) post-2020 Consultative Committee met with Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, in Dublin.

He indicated, also, that he was mindful of the fact that there is now a high percentage of beef farmers in this country dependent on subsidies for income, and was critical of the shift – in recent years – to dairy farming.

There has been a huge swing over the last few years towards dairy because it is more profitable; we have 400,000 extra dairy cows.

He added: “In 2017, fertiliser use increased by 10% in nitrogen; in 2018 it increased by 10% and so far this year it has increased by another 10%  – so the reality is that we have increasing pressure on our water quality in this country,” he continued.

“Sometimes you will hear that farmers are getting more efficient, and they definitely are, but there is a huge gap between the really efficient farmers and the most inefficient farmers.”

‘Nitrogen and efficiency’

The department official went on to say that the “really efficient farmers” are using more nitrogen than ever before and nitrogen use efficiency on “a really good farm” is about 30%.

On a less efficient farm, he continued, it’s about 16% – so for every 100kg of nitrogen you apply from an efficient farm, you lose 70kg. If you think of someone using 200kg of nitrogen – they are losing about 140kg/ha,” he added.

“With regard to phosphorous, efficient farmers are three times as efficient as inefficient farmers, in terms of its use.”

He continued: “We have a huge amount of work to do with farmers who are not using fertilisers properly; but then these people are not paid well.

“Compared to the average industrial wage, agriculture is less than half. Why is that, and particularly at a time of subsidies?

“We have €1.3 billion a year in subsidies here.”

‘Common Agricultural Policy’

Nolan then told those gathered at the conference that while CAP was being reviewed “it was not going to solve every problem” for farmers.

“Farmers have to engage with this as well,” he added, before pointing to commodity price changes over the last 30 years.

If you take a bottle of water – it is dearer than 2L of milk; how does that make sense?

The department official continued: “In 1980, we spent 28% of our income on food – today it’s 14%; so when you think why is a farmer expanding? Why is there intensification?

“That is why – they are making less from what they are producing and so they produce more to try and make a standard of living.

“You will always hear about the willingness to pay for water, biodiversity and so on…but it is not actually translating into an income in the farmer’s pocket.”

He went on then to point out that while “nobody has a right to pollute” there is an onus on all of us to become informed and aware of the environmental changes that are taking place.

“We must all be aware of what is going on. The direct payments received from Brussels is now part of beef farmers’ income. There are 16,000 dairy farmers in this country and they are streets ahead of everybody else with regard to income,” he added.

‘Income and expenditure’

Meanwhile, the National Water Event 2019 heard that the average beef farmer in Ireland gets 100% of their income from direct payments.

The problem with this, Nolan pointed out, is that the market is not giving a return.

Yet we are exporting 500,000t of beef every year.

He continued: “Our dairy exports last year were worth €4 billion, agricultural exports topped €13 billion and is on target to reach €19 billion by 2025.

“Now, there is something wrong here because the primary producer is not receiving enough money,” he continued.

“Industry has to step into this space; consumers have to pay more for their food – they have to pay for good-quality food because that is what agriculture wants; to produce top-quality food that is not competing with mass-produced stuff from factory farms.”

Nolan said that farmers wanted to produce better quality food but they “can’t do it”.

He continued: “We have less and less farms; 16,000 dairy farms use 50% of the nitrogen used in Ireland and only 20% of the land.

“We have more dairy cows in Cork than we have in the whole of Northern Ireland.

“And yes, the pressure is building.”

He then pointed to climate, biodiversity and water.

“These will be the three main objectives of the next CAP and 30% of the €1.3 billion that comes into Ireland must be spent in that area. But what are we going to do about the rest? CAP is not going to change it. We have had CAP now for a good number of years and it isn’t causing change,” Nolan added.

We have to work smarter and do better – but we all need more money and more support to do that.

“We know climate is changing and – just to let you know – things are predicted to get worse not better,” the department official warned.