Nitrates Directive: Motion.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

—condemns the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats Government for its incompetence and mismanagement in its handling of the nitrates directive;

—denounces this Government for its failure to take any action on implementing this directive from 1997 to date, and for failing to build on the 1996 Code of Agricultural Practice to Protect Water from Pollution by Nitrates;

—recognises that this directive will place severe financial burdens on farmers in its implementation, estimated to be over €1 billion annually; and

—expresses its concern that this Directive will threaten the continued livelihood of Ireland's most productive and efficient farmers due to the storage and stocking densities, which will result from this directive;

calls on the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats Government to:

—explain the scientific basis underlying the current Government proposals for nitrogen levels and storage periods; and

—seek an increased nitrogen level of 210kg/hectare and derogations up to 250kg/hectare on a countrywide basis.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Crawford, Stanton, Neville and Breen.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the House. While I realise the matter is an environmental responsibility, I regret the Minister for Agriculture and Food is not present. Perhaps he will contribute later in the debate.

The importance of a good quality environment to our individual well being, and to the national economy cannot be over-emphasised. This is especially so in the case of the agricultural sector which promotes high quality produce from a green, pollution free environment. Water is a major national asset that, some time ago, may have been taken for granted by some sections of our population. However, the sectors that realised its economic importance were always aware that, as a basic raw material for agriculture and industry and an important amenity, it was essential that it be protected. I am not aware of anyone unconcerned with the protection of water quality.

The agricultural community knows more than most that modern farming practices must be managed with due care. If not, they will be the main victims from the fallout. This realisation led to the farm organisations signing up to the code of good agricultural practice to protect waters from pollution by nitrates in 1996. Farmers are committed to a high quality rural environment.

Directive 91/676/EEC concerning nitrates is a 1991 directive concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources. The directive generally requires member states to monitor waters and identify waters which are polluted or are liable to pollution, promote good agricultural practice to protect water quality, develop and implement action programmes to reduce and prevent pollution of waters from agricultural sources, monitor the effectiveness of action programmes and report to the EU Commission on progress in reducing pollution.

Excluding the period 1995 to 1997, when the then Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Mr. Ivan Yates, and the then Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, got agreement on good agricultural practice to protect waters from pollution by nitrates, what have successive Fianna Fáil-led Governments done since 1991? Nothing. The failure to implement the directive in the 13 years since its inception means that we may face its implementation at the strictest possible levels and against a background of European Court rulings against various member states, including Ireland.

What the Government had to do was not too difficult — an implementation timeframe for the directive was laid down in black and white at the time. The Government should have identified waters with nitrate problems or those at risk from nitrate pollution by 1992, whether through a whole territory approach or nitrogen vulnerable zone approach. In addition, Ireland's first four year action programme to address this problem should have been in place by 1995.

The organic nitrogen level to be adhered to in this initial action programme would have been 210kg per hectare. All but 2,000 to 3,000 of Ireland's most intensively stocked farmers would be below this 210kg level. Ireland should now be completing its second action programme and a level of 170kg per hectare is set for this. However, Ireland would have had the opportunity throughout the period 1995 to 1999 to put forward a strong case for derogations for intensively stocked farmers — derogations which would have been in place by 2000 and the commencement of Ireland's second action programme. However, procrastination and a failure to act has left us staring at a 170kg per hectare stocking rate across the country, whether farmers are in an area which has a problem with nitrate in groundwater.

The directive is enforceable under cross-compliance from the mid-term review from January 2005 and failure to comply with it may result in penalties on the single farm payment. This threat, aligned to changes that farmers will have to make if the Government does not act on the 170kg limit, has led to serious concerns in the agricultural sector as it faces the options of up-sizing in land or decreasing stock levels. The approach proposed by the Government in its draft action programme, which I believe is still policy — the Minister might confirm this — will have a disastrous impact on the efficiency, income and competitiveness of Irish farmers. Farmers have invested heavily in improved farmyards and manure storage facilities. It is estimated that approximately €1.5 billion has been spent in this area over the past 15 years, a clear indication of the commitment of farmers to protecting and improving water quality.

The EPA's latest monitoring of water quality suggests that 70% of our rivers are unpolluted and 85% of our lakes are in a satisfactory condition. This is an improvement in water quality on previous reports and water quality has improved dramatically, particularly since the advent of the rural environment protection scheme. There has been a decline in the amount of river channel classified as seriously polluted from 1% to 0.5%. This improvement needs to continue and is continuing as farmers adhere to the code of good agricultural practice.

Other groups and organisations, including statutory ones, need to get their houses in order and it would be welcome if they were pursued with the same vigour as the farming sector. At a rough estimate, the action programme as it currently stands could result in an income loss of €60 million per annum. Some 9% of farms will have to reduce stock numbers or up-size and, as the Minister is aware, most farmers cannot compete for the purchase of land given the current climate. In some more intensive farming regions, up to 18% of farmers may have to reduce stock numbers. In County Cork, the home county of the Minister for Agriculture and Food, the majority of which does not have a nitrates problem, 18% of farmers will have to reduce stock numbers at a cost of €13 million per annum to the county. The capital cost for extra farm storage will be approximately €1.5 billion, which will impact on 10,000 to 12,000 farmers, many of whom have no nitrates problem. Over 40% of dairy farmers would have to either cut production or expand their land area.

Criticism of the Government draft action plan has come from many quarters in addition to the Opposition. Dr. George Smilie of the Department of Crop Science at UCD has dismissed the directive, stating: "There is a total of lack of scientific facts in the plan." He also criticised Teagasc for its lack of research in the area. He noted that the two crucial determinants for the acceptance of slurry on land are climate and soil and that the storage requirements in the action programme do not take into consideration the different land soil conditions within various counties.

The farm organisations point out that Teagasc cannot provide scientific evidence for the 170kg limit. Teagasc, in defence of its position, stated:

In January 2002, the agency recommended a whole country approach as the best option for Ireland based on the assumption that the option of 210kg organic nitrogen per hectare provided for in the directive for the first four years of an action programme would be available to Ireland.

Teagasc also stated that the ultimate decision has been taken by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, and the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh. In addition, farm organisations insist that during partnership talks they were led to believe that 210kg per hectare on a countrywide basis would be implemented, with subsequent derogations up to 250kg per hectare.

The directive is most definitely not a case of "one size fits all". It might be appropriate in some parts of Europe where soil temperatures and growth over the five months of winter are close to zero. However, in Ireland, particularly along the south coast, soil temperatures are higher. Growth rates there cannot be equalled elsewhere in Europe. It is important to note that the directive discriminates heavily against the grassland farming practised in Ireland. Intensive dairy farmers in Ireland currently take advantage of our very high grass production as a consequence of an unusually long growing season. As conditions for grass growth are exceptionally good over a very large part of the year, high stocking rates can be sustained, unlike parts of the Continent. A scientific survey carried out in the Ballyroe Co-operative area, a copy of which I am sure the Minister's colleague has at his disposal, indicates that with a growing season of 330 days, 320 grazing days and more than adequate rainfall and livestock indoors for just six weeks of the year, a level of 250 kg. of nitrogen per hectare can be justified without any negative impact on water quality.

The Irish Grassland Association put forward arguments against the current proposals. It states that water quality in Ireland ranks as one of the highest in Europe, and I acknowledge the role the Minister has played in achieving this. The grassland crop has a longer growing season based on permanent grassland. Irish climatic and soil conditions allow a longer grazing season in many areas of the country. The majority of Irish dairy herds calve in spring with the aim of optimising grass utilisation. Grazed land is normally harvested in a three to four week cycle, which ensures that the grass remains in a vegetative state and capable of high nitrogen uptake rates over a very long period. Intensive Irish grass-based farming systems do not pose a threat if point source pollution is contained and good agricultural practice is adhered to, which is happening.

In a parliamentary reply on 1 June 2004, the Minister for Agriculture and Food stated:

Under Sustaining Progress, the Government is committed to using the flexibility of the Nitrates Directive to seek European Commission approval for a derogation allowing organic nitrogen limits of up to 250 kg. per hectare, per annum. After the draft action programme is finalised and submitted to the European Commission, a derogation proposal designed to take account of the unique characteristics of Irish agriculture will also be submitted. [I assume these characteristics are the ones I have already outlined]. In the context of finalising the derogation proposal, the objective is to achieve approval for appropriate derogation arrangements in a manner that underpins the future of our commercial agriculture sector.

The proposed closed periods make no sense, which has been recognised by all sides. The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Aylward, pointed out that the Department will examine alternative options to the calendar-based approach to slurry storage in the proposed nitrates directive action plan. He went on to say that one has only to look at the weather of the last 12 months to realise that slurry spreading and storage limits based rigidly on calendar months may not be the best policy from an environmental point of view. We could have been spreading slurry very safely at Christmas last year, for example. He expressed concern if bad weather coincided with the end of a banned period.

A common sense approach is required. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government does not appear to understand the needs of farmers. An unpublished draft action plan for the directive implementation suggested that there would be a ban on spreading slurry on week days and bank holidays, clearly indicating how out of touch is the Department. The Department of Agriculture and Food has a role to play here but, ultimately, the buck stops with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

I am concerned that the Minister may seek to temporarily pacify people by outlining how he intends to seek derogations. While he sought to create an impression that these will be obtained, the EU Environment Commissioner, speaking in Dublin last month, suggested that this was far from guaranteed. The only derogation granted by the Commission is in regard to Denmark. It provides a very restrictive derogation for the 170 kg. per hectare organic nitrogen up to 230 kg. It is only available based on an individual farm application and applies to just 5% of the land and 10% of livestock units. There is now concern that the derogation process may be too penal to go through for some farmers. There is also speculation that the Minister may seek to have an implementation date of July 2007. The endless speculation and uncertainty is causing difficulty and I hope the Minister tonight, or Government speakers tomorrow night, will be able to clarify the situation.

We need to see if there is any scientific evidence to back up the Minister's proposals of a 170 kg. limit. He should not hide behind the court ruling. There is something inherently unfair and unjust if the ability of farmers to earn a living is restricted by a directive that cannot be scientifically justified, which is the nub of the issue. There is something unfair and unjust about a society which places an unfair burden on farmers with a directive for which there is no scientific evidence. This is not the only country which has a difficulty with the directive. It can be changed if the political will exists. If the Minister or any other speaker can demonstrate to Fine Gael that in order to protect and improve the quality of our water we must have a level of 170 kg., then so be it, but I do not believe they can.

We need to go back to the drawing board with this directive. Our water quality has improved dramatically since the directive was agreed in 1991. Let someone show me how, by adhering to a 170 kg. limit, we can improve our water quality. No one in the country will suffer more than the agricultural community from poor water quality. It has voluntarily invested €1.5 billion in it over the past 14 or 15 years and the investment continues. I recognise the role the Government is playing by providing money under the national development plan to assist in storage facilities. However, we must not place another burden on farmers. Where is the great catch cry, "freedom to farm", which was sold to everyone in recent years? While we got rid of red tape, we now talk about having to comply with every other directive. It goes without saying that we all want to protect water quality but how will it be damaged by having a level higher than 170 kg.?

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very serious issue. My colleague, Deputy Timmins, outlined many of the technical issues in the proposal. I do not entirely blame the Minister because the man who should be sitting beside him is the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh. He is in charge of agriculture and he should have led the way to ensure this issue was dealt with in a proper and structured manner, and not under pressure from the court.

This directive was agreed in 1991. There was some progress on it during the short time the former Minister, Ivan Yates, was in office. As nothing has happened since, our backs are now against the wall. Earlier today, someone telephoned me from Cork to explain how serious the situation is there. If the Minster's proposal is accepted it will mean a lower stocking rate, lower output and the demise of commercial farming as we know it.

In areas along the Border, in Donegal, Leitrim, Cavan and Monaghan, where people have suffered 30 years of troubles, they are now being asked to provide 24 weeks storage accommodation. There is a parish called Killanny, half of which is in County Louth and half is in County Monaghan. How can one explain a proposal whereby a farmer in one half of the parish must provide 16 weeks storage while a farmer in the other half of the parish must provide 24 weeks storage? Is there any scientific basis for such a proposal? Is it common sense to have a directive that is so arbitrary it will ensure living on one side of the river is very different from living on the other side?

What will the directive mean across the Border? Will farmers across the Border have to meet the same criteria as people in Cavan, Monaghan, Donegal and Leitrim? I suggest not. We stood idly by over a number of years and allowed the poultry industry to explode in Northern Ireland. They did not have to have planning permission or meet any regulations, yet people in County Monaghan could not get planning permission for one new poultry house, even though it was the home of the poultry industry in Ireland. Will people involved in the poultry, pig and mushroom industry in Cavan and Monaghan in particular have to deal with the grassland issue? In recent years people have been able to dispose of that product in other counties such as Louth, Meath and Northern Ireland, which will no longer be possible.

No plan has been put in place in this regard. The Minister, Deputy Walsh, and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government let this proposal go down to the wire, and we are now told that if we do not implement the proposals the directive payments from Brussels will be withheld. There were many opportunities to get a better deal but nothing was done. We are now being told we can get a derogation. However, if it is similar to what the Danes got, it will not be much use. A dairy farmer with 40 cows will either have to lease extra land or cut down on his stock. Any expert will confirm that a dairy farmer can no longer make a living from 40 cows, not to mind if the number is reduced. Most will confirm that the farmer needs to have 80 cows or more. If a farmer and son is involved in the farm, the number would have to be more than 100.

Will the Minister sit there and allow the demise of commercial farming as we know it? That is what is happening. I have some experience of dealing with farmers' problems and I have a dairy farm. I know what it costs to provide the necessary storage capacity for the slurry. Most interesting, however, is the concept that we should spread the slurry according to the calendar. Look at what happened in the past two years. The year before last we cut the first cut of silage on 15 June. Some cut it right up into July. That did not happen in Cork except, perhaps, in west Cork. The weather conditions were not suitable. However, October and November of last year were extremely suitable for spreading slurry and the reaction of the grass was magnificent. Anybody could see it. If we implement this regulation, that will be illegal. The regulation forces the spreading of slurry into a short period of the year. If the grass has grown too quickly or the weather conditions do not permit it, what will we do? Will we have to provide slurry accommodation for 28 to 30 weeks?

I ask the Minister to apply a degree of common sense to this issue. We need to ensure that commercial agriculture as we know it remains one of the mainstays of this economy. How many agricultural colleges have been closed by now? Five have been closed in my area, possibly more. That does not say much for the encouragement of young farmers.

The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, will go down in history as the Ministers who ended commercial farming in this country if they allow this directive to be implemented as it stands. I urge the Minister to take seriously the request of farm organisations that he study the facts before him. I could spend the day discussing them. If he allows this proposal to be finalised in Brussels, commercial farming is doomed.

This directive is a negative milestone in the history of agriculture in Ireland. If it is implemented as planned, many farmers will not be able to survive. I appeal to the Minister and his colleagues to look at it again. It is an extremely serious matter.

It is not just Opposition Members who oppose this. Dairygold is currently the country's largest farmer owned milk processor. It processes over 200 million gallons of milk or 20% of the country's milk pool. Recently, Mr. Henchy, the chief executive of Dairygold, said that farming at present is under a great deal of pressure. As Deputy Crawford mentioned, many young people might decide not to enter farming as a result. Mr. Henchy pointed out that successful expansion at farm level can only be achieved if farmers are allowed to utilise fully the potential of their holdings in a manner that is environmentally correct. He said that the nitrates directive limit of 170 kg per hectare will prevent the development of this form of responsible, intensive dairy farming. He went on to say that the stocking rates imposed by the proposed nitrates directive will force most Dairygold suppliers to cut stocking rates by between 15% and 20%, with a consequent increase in milk production costs and a cap on future expansion potential. He believes this will be disastrous for the future of dairying in the region.

The directive ignores the fact that nitrate levels have been improving in recent years and will continue to do so. A scientific assessment of soil and weather as opposed to arbitrary calendar dates should be the guide for suitable spreading conditions. This reminds me of something that is said to have occurred in the Soviet Union. It appears that at one stage its centrally controlled economy sent out directives which stated that the wheat should be set today and should also be harvested today. This directive smacks of something similar. It ignores local conditions. It ignores the fact that the south of Ireland, where I live, has a different climate, different types of rainfall and different weather patterns from those in other parts of Ireland and other parts of Europe. It has been argued that in parts of west Cork the grass never stops growing.

This directive will also attempt to put in place expensive infrastructure. That will be another burden on farmers and I am not sure that the Ministers have taken account of this. It will also undermine the competitiveness of the agriculture industry. Many thousands of people depend on agri-industry for their livelihoods. Agriculture is still one of the biggest industries, if not the biggest, in Ireland. This directive has the potential to undermine and destroy the industry.

The Minister promised to cut down on the amount of paperwork and record keeping in the industry. This directive will have the opposite effect. Farmers will be obliged to maintain all kinds of extra records and that will also increase costs. The Minister should bear that in mind. Furthermore, the Department of Agriculture and Food should be the competent authority. I urge the Minister to examine this and find out if it would be possible. Qualified farmers should be able to fill out their nutrient management plans. They are capable of doing it so why should they have to pay other people to do it?

Other issues have been brought to my attention. A claim has been made by the deputy president of the IFA that Teagasc has been silenced. I have been told that this has been done under the Official Secrets Act. I do not know if this is true but the Minister should confirm or deny it and state whether Teagasc can comment scientifically on this directive. There is also the issue of the presence of clover in grassland. Are we not eligible for a derogation because of that? Has that been taken into account?

This directive will have a negative impact in the Minister's constituency. I am told that Carbury Milk Products, for example, recently signed an agreement to spread sludge on 17,000 acres. If this directive is implemented, the consequences for that factory will be enormous. It will not be able to do the work because farmers will have to withdraw the land. Scientific evidence shows that the 170 kg. limit is too low. It is possible to safely raise the limit much higher. I have seen the scientific evidence but I do not know if the Minister has taken the trouble to look at it.

I agree with the Deputy.

Why can it not be changed?

That is why we are applying for 250 kg in the derogation.

Yes, but what does that mean in practice? What will it mean to farmers when it is implemented? Will it mean more paperwork and more expense for farmers? Will it be workable? We need to do more. The Minister must go back to the drawing board where this directive is concerned.

Northern Ireland was far faster off the mark. As Deputy Crawford said, they have achieved something that has not been achieved here. We would like to know why.

The code of good farming practice was put into effect in 1996 with a view to putting in place an acceptable implementation plan for the nitrates directive. The Minister, Deputy Walsh, has stood idly by since, when he should have been working on this. He allowed the implementation date for the directive to drag on.

I commend Deputy Timmins on the introduction of this important motion. We are discussing a serious problem which affects the future of Irish farming. The Government's draft action plan for the nitrates directive produces measures that are unnecessary, unworkable and unaffordable for Irish farmers. A legally enforceable standard organic nitrogen limit of 170 kg per hectare translates to at least 1.25 hectares per cow. It has been accepted since I was young and at home on the farm that a viable farming unit was one cow per acre. These provisions mean that an 80-acre farmer will have 50 cows and its followers. This level of production is not economically viable.

The minimum storage requirements of 16 weeks in the south and east, 20 weeks in the midlands and west and 24 weeks in the far north-west cannot be funded by farm incomes which have declined over recent decades. Farmers will not be in a position to meet these requirements. The investment involved will make farming not viable for many farmers and force them out of the industry. There are severe restrictions on animal manure application on grasslands for three and a half months in winter without reference to the good-quality water that currently exists or to weather or ground conditions. The Government's proposals will severely undermine commercial farming in Ireland. Production on many farms will be reduced to a level which is not viable and additional costs, independently estimated to be more than €1 billion per annum, will be imposed on farmers.

The EU directive is concerned with preventing and reducing pollution by controlling nitrates in agriculture. However, concerns which emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s about the health effects of nitrates in drinking water are being reconsidered. Furthermore, studies by the EPA show that groundwater quality in Ireland is very high and has improved over the past decade. Ireland's water quality compares favourably with that in other member states.

Ireland is not alone among its EU counterparts in encountering difficulties in implementing this directive. The European Commission is in dispute with 13 member states about the directive. I ask the Minister to review the implementation of the directive. The Commission must allow Ireland to adopt an action programme which allows standard organic nitrogen limits of up to 250 kg per hectare without unnecessary costly regulations. Water quality in Ireland is improving and the farming community is committed to perfecting the quality and cleanliness of water across the country. Farmers are guardians of the countryside and its heritage and have long recognised the importance of protecting their natural environment in its own right and as a vital resource for agriculture and the food industry.

Successive reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy have favoured extensive production with lower stocking densities, resulting in a reduction of fertiliser and feed input. Approximately 38,500 farmers, or half of all farmers in the community, are participating in the rural environmental scheme, which requires participants to enter into contractual programmes with the Government and the EU to meet high environmental and heritage protection standards. Since 1994, intensive agricultural enterprises in Ireland have been subject to integrated control licensing, meeting standards on a par with the highest environmental standards of the industry in Europe. All these environmental protection measures have been undertaken at a significant cost to individual farmers. Gross investment in farm buildings in the last decade amounted to more than €2 billion. Environmental protection to improve manure storage and handling facilities feature heavily in our farm building expenditure.

The proposed measures are unnecessary in the context of the overall excellent and improving quality of Irish water. Changes that have occurred and are forecast to take place in livestock numbers and levels of fertiliser use, the likely effects of CAP reform phase 3, the introduction of the single farm payment and the significant participation by farmers in the REP scheme ensure that there will be an improvement and renders the proposals as outlined by the Minister totally unnecessary.

I commend Deputy Timmins for introducing this timely motion. The directive, as other speakers have said, was introduced by the European Union in 1991. Most other European countries have implemented it. Unfortunately, however, Ireland has not done so and has been forced by the European Commission to implement the directive. It is sad for Irish agriculture, given the fact that we have held the EU Presidency for the past six months, that very little has been done in this area and that the Minister, Deputy Walsh, has not obtained concessions from the EU to protect the livelihood of many farmers.

As Deputies Stanton, Timmins and Crawford said in their contributions, commercial farming is at stake. Very few young people now see a future in farming. The directive is the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I know submissions have already been made, but the Minister, Deputy Cullen, and the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, must, at this late hour, work to obtain special concessions for Irish agriculture in this area.

I represent County Clare, which is in the west of Ireland, and I represented west Clare as a county councillor for five years. West Clare has many small farms. Large farmers will not be seriously affected by this directive but the small farmer with 50 acres and 40 or 50 cows will be affected. Dairy farmers will be particularly badly affected. The directive will impose considerable costs on many young dairy farmers. In a place such as west Clare, where there is bad land and good land, many farmers planted forests in the bad land and maximised the use of the good land, with one cow per acre or more. Dairying was often the only viable income in such areas.

Deputy Neville gave the example of a farmer with 50 acres and 40 cows. Under the new directive he will have to reduce his stocking density by ten units or acquire 12 additional acres. I do not know how many farmers could afford to do that. Very few in west Clare could. Then there is the matter of storage facilities. In County Clare, the storage requirement is 20 weeks. Most young Irish farmers are well educated and they use good farming practice. Much farming is dictated by the weather. If we have good weather that is fine but if we do not, particularly if August is bad, people cannot spread slurry because the land is poor and tractors get stuck and do terrible damage to the land. Most farmers agree that there are certain times of the year in which they cannot spread slurry. They will go along with that. However, good farming practice and common sense are all that is needed. I hope the Minister will take note of this because it is an important point.

According to Teagasc, if this directive is implemented farm incomes will be reduced by up to 20%. How many young farmers will stay on the land if this directive is brought in? Farming is expensive enough and there is little profit to be made. People live from year to year. There is so much form-filling to do and there will be even more when the directive is implemented. I hope in light of the submissions being made by the various farming bodies and others, the Minister will consider this issue with a common-sense attitude. It is a matter of good farming practice. Our farming community is well educated. I was secretary of a group water scheme for 800 houses for ten years before entering politics. The water quality was good. The recent EPA announcement indicated that water quality is good all over the country.

A special case needs to be made for Ireland. Farming in Ireland is totally different. It is not as intensive as it is in other European countries. I hope the Minister and the Minister for Agriculture and Food will make a special case for Ireland as we approach the end of the EU Presidency.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:

"—endorses the Government's policy of securing the optimal and least cost arrangements for compliance with the nitrates directive, thus protecting the interests both of the Government and of those Irish farmers whose activities would be affected;

—notes the range of measures which have been taken by the Government to address the costs at farm level which arise from the directive;

—recognises the extensive consultations with farming interests which have taken place, and will continue, in relation to the implementation of the national nitrates action programme;

—notes the connection between the early finalisation of Ireland's nitrates management regime and the application, for the benefit of Irish farmers, of the new EU agricultural support arrangements; and

—supports the Government's proposal to use the flexibility in the Directive to secure European Commission approval for limits of up to 250 kg/hectare per annum, on the basis agreed with the Farming Pillar under Sustaining Progress."

I thank Deputy Timmins for tabling this motion because I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss this very important issue in the House. While I might disagree with the motion, I thank the Members opposite for their calm and reasoned contributions this evening. On many of the issues, there are no major differences between the Government and Fine Gael. I will outline where we stand on the issue and where we are going with it.

The Government's position on the implementation of the nitrates directive is based on the agreement reached with the farm organisations last year in the Sustaining Progress negotiations. The directive is about protecting our water quality from pollution, and this is an environmental objective of the greatest importance. Everybody in the House agrees on that. However, we must achieve this objective in an optimal and efficient way, and avoid imposing unnecessary burdens, costs or restrictions on any sector, including agriculture. I subscribe to that view.

Most of the public debate on the matter in recent months has focused on the limits on the amount of organic nitrogen which can be spread on land. There is a requirement in the directive that each member state must set a general limit not exceeding 170 kg per hectare. However, the directive also allows member states to set higher limits where it can be shown that this will not result in water pollution. The Government's objective is exactly the same as that of the farm organisations — it believes the climate and soil conditions on most Irish grassland will justify limits of up to 250 kg per hectare. That is the view of most people who spoke here this evening. I confirm again that I subscribe to that view.

Recent judgments of the European Court of Justice have made it clear that a member state cannot simply set the higher limit of its own accord — it must present the detailed scientific evidence to the European Commission and must secure the approval of the Commission for what is proposed. In that I have no choice. The court has removed several ambiguities which previously existed regarding the interpretation of the directive. We now know it is simply not permissible for a member state, acting at its own discretion, to set a general limit above 170 kg; the only way in which a higher limit can be applied is with the approval of the Commission.

It has been represented that there is a difference between the Government and the farming organisations regarding the appropriate limit for Ireland, but that is not the case. The issue is about how we secure the appropriate limit, and the reality of European law is that there is only one way we can do this — by securing the Commission's agreement to a derogation. This is exactly what we agreed with the farm organisations in Sustaining Progress and it is what we are now doing.

A first draft of the action programme was issued for public consultation last December, and the comments received have been taken into account in refining the programme. I now propose to issue the revised version before the end of June, so that stakeholders have a further opportunity to comment before it is finalised for submission to the European Commission. I intend to meet the farming organisations again shortly in association with my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh.

I also propose to appoint an independent adviser to review the comments which will be received and to make recommendations on how these can best be taken into account. I intend that this will be a person with the standing and credibility to command the trust and respect of all stake holders. I also intend that this adviser will have a continuing role in the consultation process on the detailed implementation of the action programme.

I completely reject the claim in the Fine Gael motion that the Government has mismanaged its handling of the nitrates directive, or that it has failed to take any action on its implementation since 1997. The Government has at all times acted in a balanced and responsible manner regarding the implementation of the nitrates directive and will continue to do so.

The directive was adopted in 1991 and was implemented at an early date in terms of the monitoring of waters and the promotion of good agricultural practice. An extensive range of measures was put in place to promote and support good agricultural practice. All Irish Governments from 1991, including a Fine Gael-led coalition, took the view that these measures met the requirements of the directive, given our generally good level of water quality.

In 1996 the Code of Good Agricultural Practice to Protect Waters from Pollution by Nitrates was jointly developed by the then Departments of the Environment and Agriculture in consultation with the farm organisations. In 1998, however, water quality monitoring results indicated that certain groundwater might be affected by pollution by nitrates. Further investigations were carried out in 1999 and an expert panel recommended in May 2000 that vulnerable zones be designated under the nitrates directive in relation to the affected groundwater in five counties. This gave rise to a need to develop action programmes which would apply to the designated zones.

In March 2001, an EPA assessment of water quality in 47 estuaries indicated that 17 of these estuaries were eutrophic or potentially eutrophic. This assessment, commissioned by my Department, gave rise to a need to review strategies to deal with water pollution from agriculture and from urban waste water treatment plants.

In June 2001 regulations were made to designate an additional 30 water bodies as "sensitive areas" under the urban waste water treatment directive. The regulations require that discharges into these waters from large sewage treatment plants must be subjected to a higher level of treatment involving nutrient removal.

Having regard to all available data on water quality in rivers, lakes and groundwater, my predecessor as Minister for the Environment and Local Government indicated his view in January 2002 that good agricultural practice needed to be strengthened in all areas and his preference for a "whole territory" approach to implementation of the nitrates directive. I subscribe to the "whole territory" approach.

Following discussions and consultations with interested parties, the Government decided in January 2003 that an action programme under the nitrates directive should be applied on a "whole territory" basis. It was in that context that the commitment in Sustaining Progress was agreed. A draft of an action programme was issued for public consultation in December 2003. Following the consultation process, a revised draft is currently being finalised. I emphasise that no draft has been issued by me. No divisions have been issued around the country. There is no suggestion of closed periods, and no nonsense about not allowing spreading on weekends. None of this has been stated by me and no such report emanated from me. I make that clear.

It was in an unpublished draft.

It did not come from me.

I appreciate that. It was in an unpublished draft.

Neither do I subscribe to much of what was purported to be in it. I have also made that clear to the farming organisations. I have indicated to the farming organisations that I will discuss these matters with them. These are the people who are most directly affected. I am not living in an ivory tower seeking to undermine and destroy agriculture. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are the facts as I see them.

We will shortly produce a draft programme and I will discuss it in some detail before it is formally submitted to the European Commission. In parallel with this process, the scientific case for a derogation on the landspreading limit is being prepared and will also go to the European Commission, as I have told the farming organisations and those involved in the debate in the House tonight. This sequence of decisions and actions clearly demonstrates an active, considered, consultative and balanced approach by the Government in addressing water quality problems.

We have responded in the appropriate way to emerging evidence on specific water quality problems and to the firming up of the interpretation of the directive itself on foot of European Court of Justice judgments. The entire issue must be handled carefully, given the importance to Ireland both of our excellent water quality and our modern agriculture industry. I am working closely with my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, as indeed are our two Departments, to ensure we get the best possible outcome.

There is now a widespread appreciation of the need to strengthen the application of good agricultural practice in order to protect the environment, especially water quality. All farming organisations have stated this publicly. Agriculture is a major economic activity in Ireland with a very substantial impact on the environment. It is estimated that agriculture generates 56 million tonnes of managed waste per annum and accounts for about three quarters of all waste generated in Ireland. The vast bulk of this waste is in the form of animal manure, slurry, silage effluent and soiled water, all of which have a high polluting potential. An additional 55 million tonnes of organic material is deposited directly on land by grazing animals. Livestock numbers are, in terms of pollution potential, equivalent to a human population of some 68 million persons.

Agriculture also applied some 44,000 tonnes of chemical phosphorus and 388,000 tonnes of chemical nitrogen fertilisers to land in the most recent fertiliser year. Clearly there is a need to ensure that the use of these substances is properly managed. In that context, it is important that I should acknowledge and commend the responsible approach to the environment adopted by the vast majority of farmers. Tangible evidence is provided by the high level of investment by farmers in waste storage facilities and other infrastructure for pollution prevention. We simply would not have the high level of water quality we now enjoy if farmers generally were acting irresponsibly, which they are not.

To put the level of investment in context, grant aid paid by the Department of Agriculture and Food from 1995 to date under the farm waste management scheme and its predecessors amounted to some €320 million, a not inconsiderable amount of money and equivalent to about €1 billion worth of investment overall. However, we still have challenges to address in combating water pollution. Successive reports by the Environmental Protection Agency illustrate these challenges.

The most recent data indicate that 15% of lakes are unsatisfactory in terms of water quality; 23% of groundwater samples had nitrates levels in excess of the guideline values; 25% of groundwater samples showed faecal contamination; 30% of river channel is eutrophic; and 36% of estuaries are classified as eutrophic or potentially eutrophic. When the EPA report comes out to inform us that 94% of public water in this country is in excellent quality, I spend the next three or four weeks dealing with colleagues in other parties who cause a row about 6% of the water quality. There are issues but we cannot have it every way. A Deputy spoke earlier about group water schemes and in fairness to people involved in those, we are making great progress. It is a planned and measured approach.

Agriculture is implicated by the EPA as a significant source, if not the dominant source, of pollution in all these waters. Eutrophication is caused mainly by the overenrichment of waters by excessive amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen. This leads to an imbalance in plant growth and a depletion of dissolved oxygen levels in water, which in turn impairs its capacity to sustain flora and fauna. Agriculture is the source of some 70% of phosphorus and 80% of nitrogen entering the relevant waters. Water needs to be protected against pollution emanating from all sources. Measures taken in any one sector cannot be effective on their own. Most sectors are now covered. We have a high level of protection in place regarding discharges from industry which are subject to licensing by the EPA and local authorities. Waste management activities are subject to a strict licensing regime under the Waste Management Acts. The water services investment programme is about to reach a point in 2005 when we will have met and surpassed all the requirements of the urban waste water treatment directive. We have virtually eliminated the marketing of phosphate-based laundry detergents by virtue of a voluntary agreement with the detergents industry in 1999.

Agriculture is the last major sector remaining largely unregulated in terms of environmental protection. We need to ensure that farming is carried on in a manner that maintains this protection. This objective is fully supported by the farm organisations which have made clear their own commitment, particularly in their support for the code of good agricultural practice to protect waters from pollution by nitrates. This code, of course, is voluntary. By definition, it is not possible to enforce compliance with a voluntary code of practice. In completing the implementation of the nitrates directive, we need to give a statutory basis to the already well established standards of good practice so as to give a higher level of protection to the environment.

I will now look in some detail at what will be covered in the nitrates action programme. Last December, a draft programme was issued jointly for public consultation by my Department and the Department of Agriculture and Food. It set out a range of proposed measures to strengthen the application of good agricultural practice in all areas. These measures relate to matters such as the timing and procedures for the land application of fertilisers, which was raised tonight. There has to be flexibility on this. I have spoken to members of the farming community on the weather conditions in this country as late as November last year. There has to be a capacity within Irish agriculture to respond to these conditions. We have to work with the farming organisations so that we can do this. I accept that agriculture in this country is a grass-based industry and is very different to many European countries. That is why the derogations and flexibility mechanisms in the directive were made available when this was first agreed.

We need a focused approach from everyone, irrespective of political affiliations, as well as the farming bodies to be absolutely certain that what we are submitting stands up scientifically. Many Members have questioned the issues that have been raised tonight. I want to see the facts as much as anyone else. We must have the capacity to protect and to ensure that Irish agriculture can continue to grow and remain a significant economic force in this country.

Other measures include limits on the land application of fertilisers, livestock manure storage requirements and the monitoring of the effectiveness of such measures. Following the consultation process, both Departments have been refining the proposals, taking account of the comments received and also drawing on the technical and scientific advice of Teagasc. I have to get scientific advice from some credible organisation. At least the accusation cannot be made against me that this is being done by scientific experts solely from my Department. If that was the case it might be open to some bias. We need to examine this carefully and see what is being put forward. It has also been necessary to take account of some implications of recent European Court of Justice judgments in various cases taken against member states by the European Commission on the implementation of the directive, particularly the case against Ireland in which the judgment was given on 11 March last.

The regulations which will be proposed under the action programme will establish certain basic requirements and principles which will apply nationwide. However, they will allow for flexibility where this is appropriate to reflect local or regional variations regarding factors such as soil conditions or climate. For example, it is likely that different waste storage requirements will apply in different areas. The basic principles underlying the directive are that organic fertiliser should be used in a manner which relates to the nutrient needs of the crop and the need to avoid water pollution, with which I do not believe anybody disagrees, and that the slurry storage capacity on a farm should cover at least the full period during which land-spreading is not appropriate. I take it there will be serious cost implications in terms of the methodologies used to achieve that. I and my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, want to work with farming bodies to ensure we achieve it.

In keeping with the principle that the amount of slurry applied to land should not exceed the nutrient requirements of the crop, the regulations need to specify a limit on the amount of organic nitrogen which may be spread. There has been some misrepresentation of the terms of the nitrates directive and it has been suggested that we have discretion as to whether we adopt a general limit of 170 kg per hectare. That is a matter with which I wish to deal.

The Fine Gael motion calls for a general limit of 210 kg, with derogations up to 250 kg, and some farm organisations have called for a general limit of 250 kg without a requirement for a derogation. Let me take this opportunity to remove any possible doubt. Annex III of the directive specifies a general limit of 170 kg. It goes on to make two important qualifications. First, member states may, in their first four-year action programme, allow a general limit of 210 kg. However, the European Court has ruled that this qualification is no longer applicable. It was intended to apply in the period immediately after the adoption of the directive in 1991. Member states were supposed to draw up their first action programmes by 1995 and would therefore have had the option of this 210 kg limit until 1999. Ireland did not do that so the matter is irrelevant. No other country has such a limit because we are now in post-1999 phase.

The court has ruled that a member state cannot now, by virtue of not having had an action programme in the prescribed period, seek to avail of the higher general limit at this stage. That ruling applies to all countries, there is no exception. The second qualification, however, is of continuing relevance and provides the basis on which we will seek the derogation to apply 250 kg. Member states may fix higher limits on an ongoing basis provided that the amounts do not prejudice the directive's overall objective, to reduce water pollution caused or induced by nitrates from agricultural sources and to prevent further such pollution. The higher limits must be justified on the basis of objective criteria, many of which were referred to tonight: long growing seasons, crops with high nitrogen uptake, high net precipitation and soils with exceptionally high denitrification capacity.

There is not the slightest doubt that Ireland's climate and soil conditions satisfy the conditions for a higher limit in areas where it is necessary. The majority of Irish farmers operate within the lower limit. I appreciate that those who are operating at a higher level are among our most modern and progressive farmers and we need to ensure that unnecessary restrictions are not placed in their way. However, the process that must be followed is clearly defined. There had been some ambiguity about how this aspect of the directive was to be interpreted, particularly as regards whether the Commission's approval was required. Some countries applied a general 250 kg limit without a derogation having been received from the Commission. This ambiguity has now been removed by the European Court of Justice.

In a case against the Netherlands last October, it ruled that the directive must be interpreted as requiring higher limits to have the approval of the Commission. In other words, a derogation must be sought based on the appropriate scientific evidence. It is not open to us to do it ourselves. It has always been our position that a limit of up to 250 kg is warranted and must be secured. We have accepted, however, that it would have to be achieved on the basis of a derogation. This was made clear to everyone in the text of Sustaining Progress, which was agreed by the farming organisations. The following is the exact wording of the relevant paragraph: "In the context of the regime soon to be adopted to transpose the provisions of the Nitrates Directive, the Government will also use the flexibility in the Directive to seek to secure European Commission approval for limits of up to 250 kg per hectare per annum to be allowable in appropriate circumstances."

I will not demur one iota from what was agreed with the farming bodies. The only thing that has changed since that commitment was given is that the non-availability of the 210 kg general limit has been clarified. We had intended to avail of it and it was included in our first draft of the action programme. We have no choice but to apply a general limit of 170 kg but the needs of the farmers affected will be met by obtaining the derogation. The commitment made in Sustaining Progress is being honoured in full and the application for a derogation will be pursued in parallel with the submission of the action programme. The scientific case for the derogation will be based on the unique characteristics of Irish agriculture. It is being drawn up with the assistance of Teagasc and I have no doubt that it will fully justify the higher limit that we require.

Another implication is that many farmers may be affected by the requirement to provide a certain minimum storage capacity for animal manure. There is known to be a significant deficit of waste storage capacity on Irish farms despite significant investment of recent years. The provision of adequate storage capacity is an essential feature of sustainable farm management and good farming practice. It is essential for a farmer to have adequate storage to ensure that slurry does not need to be spread at inappropriate times.

Significant undertakings were made in Sustaining Progress to help farmers address these storage issues. The changes in the farm waste management scheme introduced this year ensures that the vast majority of Irish farmers will now be able to avail of grant aid to undertake the necessary improvements in manure storage facilities. Provision has been made for €30 million in the 2004 Estimates, an increase of almost 60% on the 2003 allocation. It is important to mention that an improved rural environment protection scheme, REPS 3, is now in place. It is anticipated that participation in the scheme will increase from the current level of 38,500 farmers to 59,000 farmers at the end of 2006. The provision for REPS in the 2004 Estimate is €260 million, an increase of more than 40%, a 28% increase in average payments to participants.

I should spell out for the House the implications for Ireland, and Irish agriculture in particular, of our failure to respond adequately to the European Court of Justice judgment against us. While some of the counts on which we were ruled against have been addressed, and were addressed before the judgment was handed down, the key ruling in the present context is that we had not established action programmes which met the directive's requirements. Ireland had argued that the wide range of measures we had taken to improve water quality, particularly as regards good farming practice, could be taken as constituting an action programme. That was our position. The court rejected this and said that to comply with the directive an action programme must include the mandatory measures referred to, including the limitation on the amount of organic fertiliser that can be applied. This judgment against us, with the clarifications of the directive which have emerged from other European Court of Justice rulings, has put the European Commission in a very strong position to ensure that we comply in full with its requirements.

The Commission could, in the first instance, return to the court to seek daily fines against Ireland if our response to the judgment is not satisfactory. Of even greater significance, however, is the implications for Ireland and Irish farmers under the new EU single payments system for agricultural supports. Under the single payments scheme, which will apply to virtually all farmers from next January, compliance with the nitrates directive will be one of the conditions of what is called cross-compliance. There will be a range of legislation with which farmers must comply as a condition of receiving the single payment. Apart from the possible impact for the individual farmer, if Ireland is found not to have made adequate arrangements to comply with the directive, the Commission has the power to impose a disallowance of funding under the single payment scheme while also threatening support for the CAP rural development plan measures. Given that expenditure of €1.7 billion is involved annually, the House will appreciate the potential severe cost to Ireland and Irish agriculture if we do not implement the directive satisfactorily.

Compliance with the nitrates directive is not optional. However, the Government believes we can ensure compliance in a way which meets both important objectives, to protect water quality while also protecting the interests of Irish agriculture. I urge the farm organisations to work constructively, as they have done, with my Department, the Department of Agriculture and Food and Teagasc to ensure that our action programme and application for a derogation are successful to that end. I have had numerous meetings with farming organisations on this important and complex topic. I believe that all parties understand the issues involved. I am resolved to continue to work towards achieving an accommodation which will meet the concerns of all interested parties, in particular farmers.

I wish to share time with Deputy Gilmore.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The most important aspect of the nitrates directive is its original purpose, namely, to ensure the quality of our water supply. The failure to implement the directive since 1999 is now, at the 11th hour, presenting something of a crisis situation. Surely that is not the way to do business. It is certainly not the way to inspire confidence in the decision-making capacity of this Government. The Minister has set out very clearly — and I tend to agree with him — that at this stage there is no option regarding the implementation of the directive as set out by the European Union. In March 2004, the European Court of Justice, as the Minister said, decided that Ireland was non-compliant.

The consequences of that non-compliance are quite serious for this country. The tab for the daily fines arising will be very severe financially. The problem is that there is an additional threat that agricultural funding will be affected, something the Minister also pointed out. That is a totally unacceptable state of affairs for those people who are not responsible for polluting our water supply; nor is it fair to farmers who are endeavouring to put best agricultural practice in place and remain compliant. The failure to take the necessary action before now is coming home to roost, with hardship for people who have no responsibility for that state of affairs.

The comment that has been made more than any other this evening relates to the scientific evaluation of the nitrates directive. I confess that I am totally confused in that regard. There is nothing short of total confusion, as far as I am concerned, regarding the evidence and counter-evidence that is being produced, seemingly in support of whatever point of view is being aired at any given time. I would like to know why the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government have not been able to produce in a clear and unequivocal way the scientific reports of the State agency charged with the responsibility of advising on the use of organic nitrogen on the land, stocking levels and farm management. Is it the case that the experiment must be repeated until the correct result is arrived at? I simply do not understand the delay in the production of the scientific results that show the precise impact of the proposed regulations and limits.

Just last week the chairman of Teagasc was reported as saying it was at an advanced stage in summarising its research results on key aspects of nutrient use and management, such as stocking rates, manure storage, handling and land application. It surprises me that there is a need to summarise the research results at this late stage in the game. I would have thought that they would be in place and available and that we would not be looking at a summary but rather that we would have the complete scientific facts in front of us.

The Government makes no reference in its amendment to the scientific evaluation of the impact of the nitrates directive, although it has been referred to at length here. Surely such assessments have been made since 1997. The Ministers must have access to that information. Why is there such confusion and contradiction in the reporting? Why do we still await, at least according to theIrish Farmers’ Journal report, the summary of the Teagasc findings? The imposition of the new limits will affect about 5% of farmers quite significantly. Surely the Ministers have a responsibility to ensure that the appropriate derogation be put in place.

It is true that derogations have been applied in the case of Denmark. I understood from Commissioner Fischler that such a derogation could not be ruled out for Ireland. Equally, there is no guarantee that it will be allowed. It is important to note that the draft action document will use the flexibility of the directive to secure approval for limits of up to 250 kg. per hectare in appropriate circumstances — that is the important part of that sentence. It is also true that, when such derogations are sought, and if they are accessed, the bureaucracy and red tape that have been thrust on the farming community up to now should at least be minimised. I hope that such derogations will not be a recipe for further red tape, should they be made available.

The adoption of the whole territory report for the application of the directive as recommended is appropriate. Six other member states have also adopted that approach. It seems the only appropriate course to take based on the need to enforce, as the Minister has stated, several other realistic European directives which are also relevant. Something mentioned by almost everyone who spoke is the need to ensure that storage facilities and capacity, and quality of the storage conditions, are adequate. That will undoubtedly impose additional financial burdens on farmers to meet the specific requirements. While there are various financial supports in place, in meeting the requirements many farmers will undoubtedly suffer significant financial burdens on account of the capital cost that they will have to meet.

The outcome of all the noise concerning the nitrates directive is that farmers and farming organisations have been misled. The Government has failed to come clean with them regarding what is called "the near final revised action plan". Furthermore, there is total confusion surrounding the role of Teagasc in its preparation. Some Teagasc researchers state that they were involved in drafting the plan, while others state that the revised plan is not a Teagasc document. We need clarity on that and on the negotiations between the stakeholders, namely, the farmers, the scientific advisers and the Minister. From my reading of it and the reports, particularly in such newspapers as theIrish Farmers’ Journal, I am totally confused about Teagasc’s role, the information that has been provided, whether we have total or summary information, and who has a role.

For the Deputy's information, Teagasc has now accepted an invitation to appear before the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government to discuss the nitrates directive.

That is entirely appropriate. However, the Minister must agree with me about those reports. One half of Teagasc is saying that it had nothing to do with it while the other is saying that it had a role in preparing the action plan. It is crucial that we know the exact situation. I welcome the decision to invite Teagasc before the committee.

Teagasc has accepted the invitation.

I welcome that.

Farmers had an expectation arising from discussions held with the various Ministers. Their understandable concerns relate mainly to output costs and future income. However, water quality is the basis of the directive and it is the responsibility of this Government to ensure farmers are not undermined in their efforts to ensure their livelihoods. It is a parallel responsibility to guarantee a safe water supply.

There are several aspects of the Fine Gael motion with which the Labour Party can agree, particularly the condemnation of the Government's incompetence and mismanagement of the nitrates directive, and its denunciation of the Government for its failure to take any action to implement the directive from 1997 to date and failing to build on the code of agricultural practice to protect water from nitrates pollution introduced by the rainbow Government in 1996.

It is quite remarkable that it is 13 years since the nitrates directive was introduced in 1991. Given the European Court of Justice's decision in March this year, we are more at the 13th hour than at the 11th, with the nitrates directive not implemented and very serious implications arising from its implementation being presented to Irish agriculture and the section of farming most directly affected by it. We have the case of the European Court of Justice in March 2004 which could result in this country facing massive fines and farmers suffering financial loss if support payments are tied to the implementation of the directive.

There is no doubt that the Government has mismanaged and mishandled the directive's implementation. It did so because up to now, with the decision of the European Court of Justice, it simply refused to bring the bad news to those most affected by it. Worse than that, it has seriously misled farmers. The Minister has effectively acknowledged that the delay in implementing the directive has now directly resulted in a situation where the 2010 regime can no longer apply since we are too late and it is no longer an option. It has not been an option since 1999.

That is irrelevant. It finished everywhere in 1999.

Clearly, Irish farmers were misled in the Sustaining Progress agreement. The Minister read out the text of the agreement. That text is capable of being interpreted in a number of ways. It is clear that the farm organisations interpret it as meaning that the Government would seek a general derogation of up to 2050 and that it was possible to achieve that derogation. I do not believe that experienced negotiators from the farm organisations sat at the Sustaining Progress talks and emerged without being clear in their minds as to what the text meant in practice. If they have concluded that the text meant that the maximum derogation was going to be sought and was achievable, it is because they were led to believe that during the discussions.

It is therefore understandable that there is considerable anger among Irish farmers, or at least among the section that is likely to be directly affected by the directive. It has to be acknowledged that not all farmers will be affected by it. The anger is understandable given the implications for stocking levels, income, buildings and so on. However, it is important we do not lose sight of what the nitrates directive is about. It is about protecting the quality of our water.

We have a serious problem in this country and there is no point in anybody trying to pretend that we do not. One of the fastest selling products in this country, including rural Ireland, is bottled water. The reason bottled water is selling so fast in rural Ireland is that increasing numbers of householders no longer trust the water supply delivered to their homes, whether through group water schemes or the public water supply.

There is no evidence to suggest that.

There is little comfort to be found in some of the material circulated in connection with the implementation of the nitrates directive, for example, the discussion document on the nitrates amendment circulated by the Minister's Department and the Department of Agriculture and Food. The Environment Protection Agency report, Water Quality in Ireland: 1998-2000, states that 30% of the river channel length in this country is affected by pollution to some extent — 17% slight, 12% moderate and 1% serious pollution. It states that elevated nitrate levels are recorded in approximately 20% of well sampling stations and high ammonia values were found in ground water across eight counties. The most recent EPA report on the quality of drinking water in Ireland, for 2001, indicates that breaches of the prescribed standard for nitrates in drinking water supplies, public and private, were recorded in 15 counties through Ireland — Carlow, Cavan, Cork, Galway, Kerry, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Louth, Meath, Offaly, Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford and Wicklow.

Two issues arise. There is the concern and anger felt among the section of Irish agriculture which is now expected in the 13th hour to implement the measures necessary to give effect to the nitrates directive. The blame rests with the Government for that because of its delay. There is also the concern throughout the country among people about the quality of the water. Life depends on good quality water. In this country, unfortunately, we have——

The Deputy wants it both ways.

No, I do not want it both ways. I will be clear, whoever drafted the text of Sustaining Progress in the "Bertie language" in which it was written, wanted it both ways. He or she wanted on the one hand to talk about the implementation of the nitrates directive while on the other to give a misleading, as it has turned out, signal to the farm organisations that a derogation would be sought in appropriate circumstances. The term "appropriate circumstances" has many meanings. It is confirmed by the fact that the farm organisations are so firm in their view that they were given an agreement on something which has not turned out to be what they understood to be the case, and that they were misled. The most recent data from the Environment Protection Agency indicates that 15% of the lakes in this country are unsatisfactory in terms of water quality, 23% of ground water samples had nitrate levels in excess of the guideline values, 25% of ground water samples showed faecal contamination, 30% of river channels are eutrophic and 36% of estuaries are classified as eutrophic or potentially eutrophic.

Apart from the issue of the consumption of water by the citizen, consideration must be given to the business associated with inland fisheries. This is seriously affected by the diminution in standards and the poor water quality. Anglers and angling organisations will tell us that the fish are not in the rivers or lakes anymore, that they have been polluted out of these waters. The recreational value of angling is diminishing, with the tourism-linked income that sustains local economies in many parts of the country.

There are a number of issues to be considered. There is the mismanagement of the implementation of the directive by the Government, leading to a point where the farm organisations, in the 13th hour, were misled in the Sustaining Progress agreement and where the European Court of Justice has found against Ireland, with the country facing fines and financial loss as a result. There is the corresponding difficulty that we continue along these lines. There is no point in the Minister or anyone else trying to pretend that we do not have a problem with our water quality. Not much can be built on clutching at the last EPA report which showed some marginal improvement in surface water.

I did not do that, I never mentioned it.

I am not surprised the Minister did not mention that. As we all know, that turn may not be sustained. It will be interesting to see what the next report shows in terms of the quality of our water.

Debate adjourned.