Nitrates derogation: Review underway as 269 waterways deteriorate in quality

Ireland’s nitrates derogation is now under threat because of poor water quality, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has warned.

Nitrates derogation is part of the nitrates directive, which has been in place since 1991. The nitrates directive aims to protect water quality from pollution by agricultural sources and to promote the use of good farming practice.

But the latest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on water quality – which was issued towards the end of 2018 – indicates that approximately 269 waterways in Ireland – including rivers, coastal areas, canals, estuaries and lakes – deteriorated in quality between 2015 and 2017.

The report points the finger of blame at human activity, and in particular, at the presence of nitrogen and phosphorus – from farming – which are used in artificial fertilisers.

Water quality and emissions

Leanne Roche, assistant agricultural inspector with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, told AgriLand that one of the fundamental difficulties for farmers now – under the nitrates derogation – was that water quality is deteriorating and greenhouse gas emissions and ammonia emissions are increasing.

Ireland’s nitrates derogation provides farmers with an opportunity to farm at higher stocking rates, above 170kg livestock manure nitrogen/ha, subject to additional conditions designed to protect the environment.

She added: “The derogation is an important facility for more intensive farmers and almost 7,000 intensively stocked farmers availed of the derogation in 2018.”

Roche went on to say that recent EPA reports indicate that river water quality had declined by 3% and that in 2016 Ireland breached its ammonia emissions.

Ireland is also expected to be in breach of its ammonia emissions in 2017 and 2018.

She continued: “Taking account of these environmental pressures, a review of our nitrates derogation is currently underway examining further opportunities for derogation farmers to improve efficiencies and to reduce their environmental footprint.”

Roche also pointed to the expert group that is carrying out the review which comprises of officials from the department, EPA, Teagasc and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.

“They will draw up recommendations on possible additional measures for derogation farmers and it is expected that the outcome of this review, including recommendations, will be published by end of June this year in order to allow derogation farmers sufficient time to plan for the 2020 year,” she explained.

Low Emissions Slurry Scheme

Meanwhile, in an effort to try and help farmers address the issues, the department has introduced the Low Emissions Slurry Scheme (LESS). They will have to opt into it in order to secure their full Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) under Pillar 1 of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Roche says that the scheme – which is being rolled out under TAMS – provides grant assistance to farmers for purchasing LESS equipment for the spreading of slurry for reduced ammonia emissions and increased nutrient use efficiency.

As regards the new CAP 2021- 2027 there will be eco-schemes under Pillar I which will be voluntary for farmers to participate in.

She continued: “Eco-schemes are an incentive to farmers to adopt practices that are beneficial to the environment and climate.

“The new CAP negotiations are ongoing and progressing towards the completion of the CAP strategic plan, but the specifics of the eco-schemes are not yet finalised.”

Carbon emissions

Roche also pointed to a recent EPA emissions report which she said showed an increase in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from increasing livestock numbers and fertiliser use.

This trend needs to be reversed. Agriculture accounts for 33% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions.

She added: “There are requirements to reduce emissions by 20% below 2005 levels by 2020 and 30% by 2030.”

The Teagasc Marginal Abatement Cost Curve provides information on measures that can be used to reduce emissions including: fertiliser type; low emission slurry spreading; improved nutrient use efficiency; extended grazing; livestock breeding; and water-table manipulation as well as others.

Roche continued: “Implementation of such measures will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector. Failure to address the issue will have implications for future regulatory requirements.”