Improving water quality could come at a real cost for Irish dairy

The outworking of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) is about to hit the Irish dairy sector for six, unless our farming organisations get their act together very quickly.

I sat in on an environmental conference recently, at which the issue of Ireland’s water quality standards was discussed at length.

Several salient points were made by the grouping of speakers, who addressed the event.

In summary, they confirmed that the progress made to improve the quality of our water has levelled off since 2015 and – here’s the real kicker – agricultural practices continue to impact negatively on the status of many water courses found throughout Ireland.

The beginning of next year will see the adoption of a new strategy to address Ireland’s water quality challenge. It will take the form of a River Basin Management Plan (RBMP).

This has been designed to put community groups and other relevant stakeholders in charge of the remedial actions that can be put in place for every river catchment area in the country.

But the subtext for all this is that production agriculture will come under greater pressure to justify its management practices, particularly where the utilisation of slurry is concerned.

Many of the representatives from the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in attendance at the aforementioned event made it clear that they wished to see constraints on agricultural output in those areas where water quality issues already exist.

They did not buy in to the principle of sustainable intensification, as espoused by Simon Coveney during his tenure as the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Dairy came in for particular criticism with a proposal coming from the floor to the effect that production targets set for 2020 and 2025 should be re-visited. This is in light of the continuing water quality problems.

Many delegates also questioned the role played by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in executing its responsibilities effectively within the overall remit of the WFD, up to this point.

Some even suggested that some form of independent oversight of the Department of Agriculture should be brought to bear, where all relevant issues relating to water quality are concerned.

To my surprise I did not see any representation from the mainstream farm stakeholder groups at the conference, the exception being the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA).

I was shocked to learn that the implementation of the WFD has been under discussion since 2014. It is now obvious that NGOs, such as the Sustainable Water Network (SWAN), will call for a restriction on dairy farming expansion in areas which they deem to already have a water quality problem.

But I sense that many of these areas are those which the likes of the IFA and the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) would regard as prime for future dairy growth.

The new RBMP strategy will get the green light from government at the beginning of 2018. According to Brussels, Ireland is two years behind in implementing the full rigours of the WFD. So to say that the clock is ticking for production agriculture, where water quality is concerned, would be an understatement of some magnitude.