I am grateful for the invitation to speak with the committee on the topic of Ireland’s nitrates action programme and nitrates derogation. My colleague, Bernard Harris, joins me here for this discussion and we hope we can address any questions members may have.
As set out by our colleagues in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine works closely with other Departments to ensure a coherent approach to meeting agriculture's commitments to the environmental challenges of climate, air, water and biodiversity. Agriculture has a significant role to play in meeting environmental targets. Existing water protection measures must continue to be implemented and accelerated but, nonetheless, new measures will also be necessary. The strong support and work being delivered by farmers to address our environmental issues must also be acknowledged.
Ireland's nitrates action programme is the key regulatory framework by which farmers support the objectives of the water framework directive, WFD, but it is not the only mechanism to support farmers. Support is available through our targeted agricultural mechanisation scheme, TAMS, and its support for infrastructure, actions to support water quality in our agri-environment schemes and investment in the agricultural sustainability support and advisory programme, ASSAP, as well as research and monitoring, for example, through the agricultural catchments programme, ACP.
In supporting the work to improve water quality, both Departments have committed to renew the ASSAP, which works directly with farmers, industry and advisory services to protect and deliver improvements in water quality. It must be noted that industry has provided additional resources to the programme, which sets a clear intention of the ambition to reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment. From the Department’s perspective, the agricultural sector is committed to stabilising and improving water quality. The review of the nitrates action programme provided a timely opportunity to review the impact of agriculture on our water environment and support agricultural ambition to stabilise and improve water quality while seeking as many co-benefits for climate, air and biodiversity as possible.
Specifically on water quality, our waters are under increasing pressure. The EPA has reported that almost half of our water bodies are not in satisfactory condition. The most significant pressures on water are from excessive nutrients, namely, phosphorus and nitrogen, and agricultural activities contribute significantly to those losses. From a policy perspective and by way of policy response, Ireland has been a leader in the EU in protecting the environment through strong regulation that includes both nitrogen and phosphorus, unlike most other EU member states. As mentioned earlier, our Department is working closely with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage in the delivery of a new nitrates action programme and related agri-environment policy measures. This has built strong relationships to collectively develop a cohesive policy response in delivering and implementing policy on water to coincide with the delivery of Ireland's next river basin management plan. Both Departments are also working closely with the Environmental Protection Agency on an ongoing basis in reviewing water quality, monitoring water quality trends and investigating and understanding the pressures from nutrients, pesticides and sediment loss from agriculture.
The fifth nitrates action programme process conducted a broad public consultation and held discussions with key stakeholders, including farm organisations and non-governmental organisations. Ireland's fifth nitrates action programme contains a number of measures for the protection of the environment.
These include new requirements for slurry and soiled water storage and management, revised livestock excretion rates, new controls on chemical fertiliser, a chemical fertiliser database, green cover on tillage ground, new requirements on grazing land management, a commitment to review compliance and assurance activities by local authorities, and enforcement by local authorities.
The Department is also responsible for operating Ireland's derogation. The Commission approved Ireland's derogation in early 2022 and the terms of the decision were presented at a meeting to the EU Nitrates Committee on 11 March 2022. Member states voted to approve Ireland's nitrates derogation until 31 December 2025. Ireland's nitrates derogation was transposed into Irish legislation through SI 393 of 2022 on 29 July 2022.
Additionally, in securing a nitrates derogation for Ireland, the commission introduced additional conditionality to its approval such that an interim review must be undertaken in mid-2023 to include an assessment of water quality results for a defined period to include 2021 and 2022. This review will be considered and the terms of reference will be developed in due course. It is important always to recognise that the derogation is provided on the basis that it is a derogation to the baseline commitment of 170 kg of organic nitrogen per hectare, not a derogation from the objectives of the water framework directive. Key scientific criteria must be presented before a derogation can be sought, which, from an Irish perspective, includes a long growing season and crops with high nitrogen demand, among other criteria. Ireland easily satisfies these conditions. However, it should also be recognised that in the process of securing a derogation, it falls to the Commission to propose a vote of the committee of member states provided they are satisfied with our action programme. As was said by my colleague, only four countries have sought to avail of this facility.
In implementing the derogation, farmers availing of the facility must carry out additional actions, including the likes of a farm nutrient plan, training and using low-emission technology. It is important that the long term viability of the derogation be secured through the achievement of the requirements to secure good water-status outcomes.
If in developing the mid-term review next year, and when the assessment is complete, key criteria following the water quality assessment process are not met, there is a risk that the stocking rate equivalent of 250 kg of nitrogen per hectare, currently approved under our derogation, may be reduced to 220 kg of nitrogen per hectare from 2024 onwards in some areas.
In order to guide this assessment, and following on from the initial assessment completed as part of the fifth nitrates action programme review, Teagasc has again been asked to review and model the impact of potential measures and the impact of reducing the stocking rate limit to 220 kg of nitrogen per hectare. This work is to conclude shortly.
Ireland's grass-based model provides many environmental benefits, and our farmers and industry have structured its development around this. While it is acknowledged that more needs to be done to reduce the agricultural impact on the environment, a strong regulation provides the bedrock to achieving this. We are on the right path to achieving environmental sustainability while balancing the economic and social aspects. I thank the members for their attention and time this evening. We will be happy to take any questions from them.