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.