Comments from Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue on the nitrates derogation are “at odds” with comments from the European Commissioner for the Environment, senator Tim Lombard has claimed.

Lombard, a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine (and Fine Gael’s agriculture spokesperson in the Seanad), said that there is uncertainty around the next steps regarding Ireland’s nitrates derogation following comments made by the minister in recent days.

Lombard described these comments as “very definitive”, and suggested that they do not tally with the views of Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius, who met with the Oireachtas agriculture committee last Thursday (September 7).

The previous day (Wednesday, September 6), Minister McConalogue said that the commissioner had ruled out any possibility of changing the regulations attached to the nitrates derogation.

This means that the derogation – which currently allows farmers to exceed the standard level of on-farm organic nitrogen (N) of 170kgN/ha up to 250kgN/h – will be reduced to 220kgN/ha in large areas of the country due to deteriorating or unchanging water quality trends in those areas.

However, according to Lombard, the commissioner indicated a possibility that the number of farmers that will be impacted can be limited.

The Co. Cork-based dairy farmer and senator said: “There is uncertainty around the next steps regarding our derogation following comments made by Minister McConalogue over recent days where he said negotiations on changes to a nitrates derogation will not be reopened.

“The minister’s comments were very definitive and are at odds with what myself and my Oireachtas colleagues from the agriculture committee were told at the meeting with Commissioner Sinkevicius.

“It was a tough but good engagement, and the commissioner was clear that there was still scope for engagement and that flexibility is possible,” Lombard added.

According to Lombard, the committee “made great strides” in its meeting with Commissioner Sinkevicius.

The senator said: “On the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] map, which defines the red areas which will need additional measures, it was made clear that it is up to the Irish authorities to implement and submit the mid-term review to the commission by September 30.

“Flexibility around areas requiring additional measures as defined by the EPA map…was not ruled out by the commissioner.

“Those of us present at the meeting were told there is a possibility of flexibility and this is what the commissioner also told the minister, and this is where we can still explore how to apply and where to apply this flexibility,” Lombard added.

He said: “When the commissioner is talking about flexibility, the minister has to grab the opportunity to make the best case possible for Irish farmers. Why slam the door shut when it is slightly open?”

Minister McConalogue will be attending a meeting of the Oireachtas committee on agriculture on Friday (September 15) to discuss the water quality and derogation issues.

Lombard said: “I hope the minister takes this opportunity to provide clarity, detail of the pathway forward, and his planned engagement with the European Commission between now and September 30 to explore the options and flexibility within the framework that the commissioner had indicated.”