Nitrates Directive: Presentations.

I welcome the officials from Teagasc and the Departments of Agriculture and Food and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and thank them for attending. Dr. Seamus Cross is representing Teagasc, Mr. Michael O'Donovan, principal officer, and Mr. Tom Quinlivan, agricultural inspector, are representing the Department of Agriculture and Food and Mr. John Sadlier, principal officer with responsibility for water quality, Mr. Tim Morris, assistant principal officer, and Mr. Pat Duggan, senior adviser, are representing the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

I draw attention to the fact that members of this committee have absolute privilege but that the same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before it. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I ask Dr. Seamus Cross to address the committee.

Dr. Seamus Cross

I wish to briefly outline the role of Teagasc in the development of the legislation. Teagasc was asked by the Minister to provide scientific advice to both Departments and, in recent years, was involved in doing so. It is also involved in preparing, in conjunction with both Departments, a derogation document on the nitrates directive. That summarises Teagasc's role.

I am sure members will have questions in due course. We will take all three presentations together. I call on the officials of the Department of Agriculture and Food to make their presentation.

Mr. Michael O’Donovan

We do not have a presentation; however, Mr. Sadier will make a presentation on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government which was drawn up in consultation with us.

Will Mr. O'Donovan and his colleague be available for questions as they arise?

Mr. O’Donovan


Mr. John Sadlier

As Mr. O'Donovan stated, the Departments of Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Agriculture and Food jointly prepared an information paper which I sent to the committee yesterday. I understand the paper, which gives a summary of the background and position generally, has been circulated to all members.

After a long period of public consultation, the European Communities good agricultural practice regulations were made by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on 11 December 2005. They aim to protect water from agricultural pollution and give effect to the nitrates directive and a number of others. They set limits on the amount of fertiliser that can be applied to different crops. The underlying principle is quite simple, that farmers should not apply more fertiliser than the crops need. The limits set in the regulations are based on the guidelines developed by Teagasc and published during the years. They relate to both nitrogen and phosphorus.

The Teagasc guidelines advise farmers on the amount of fertiliser that should be applied to crops to promote optimum yield. Obviously, this includes the secondary advice that a farmer who applies fertiliser in excess of this amount is both wasting his money and creating the potential to pollute the environment. Consistent with this principle, the regulations take the Teagasc guidelines and specify them as maximum limits. That was the position when they were signed in December. However, Teagasc has indicated that some amendments could be made to the phosphorus standards and in a manner that would improve the effectiveness of the regulations. In response, both Departments, in consultation with the European Commission, saw the merit of giving Teagasc the opportunity to elaborate on this advice.

The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, with the agreement of the Department of Agriculture and Food and the European Commission, announced what he called a brief deferral of implementation of Part 3 of the regulations, which relates to fertilisation standards. This is a de facto deferral. In fact, the regulations came into force on 1 February 2006. No action will be taken in implementation of Part 3, pending clarification of this issue, which we hope will be clarified in a matter of weeks. We do not envisage long-term deferral because we are also pursuing a derogation from the nitrogen limit specified in the directive. This is a derogation that we must negotiate with the European Commission and other member states. It is very important that we achieve this derogation, which we hope to achieve by the middle of the year. We will not be granted a derogation while there is an open question on the regulations.

I will open the discussion to the floor. Let me remind members that we are dealing with a new situation and do not want to go over old ground.

Everybody accepts that the nitrates directive must be implemented, but it must be seen to be fair. However, the confusion in people's minds illustrated on last night's television programme was due to what Teagasc was telling the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Farmers are up in arms about the directive, although I accept there was a period of consultation and understand the Brosnan proposals received wide support in political and farming circles and the Department.

The issue at stake is between the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Teagasc, which is not being frank. The Minister has stated he was appalled by what Teagasc was saying on the national airwaves. That should not happen. I would like absolute clarity on what Teagasc is saying. Are there two wings of Teagasc, the provisional and official wings? Clearly, the farming community is deeply concerned, worried and angry at this division of advice which, as the Minister stated, was not given to him.

There is certainly an allegation that Teagasc is divided on the issue, which it needs to address.

Dr. Cross

Teagasc is not divided on the issue, but I accept there is a great deal of confusion among farmers, many of whom are contacting Teagasc advisers to state Teagasc brought forward this regulation. In Teagasc, we fully accept that farmers are concerned about the legal implications of what are farm management issues and part of good farming practice. We understand why they are concerned when they do not fully understand what is contained in the regulations. The role of Teagasc was to provide advice for both Departments. We provided advice on a number of technical aspects of the statutory instrument. What is confusing farmers is that the EU directive sets out a number of good farm management practices which have to be dealt with in legislation. This is spelled out in detail in the regulations. Teagasc provided the best scientific advice it could in the process of doing this.

With respect, that is not what was stated by the Teagasc representative on the RTE television programme. It was stated different advice had been offered to the Minister. Let us have this issue clarified. I do not wish to be offensive to the representatives from Teagasc, but Teagasc is a highly respected national organisation and it was totally unacceptable that such a public division of opinion between the Minister and his advisers was highlighted on television. I am not satisfied with Dr. Cross's answer.

It appears there is a range of interpretations of the directive in terms of its severity. From last night's discussion, it appears the Department is implementing the restrictions at the maximum level, whereas the spokesperson from Teagasc was suggesting a different level could be applied.

Dr. Cross

What is written into the statutory instrument includes agronomic tables for a range of crops. Two tables are at issue, one for nitrogen and the other for phosphorus in grassland. There are regional differences which have been condensed in one table. That is what is required from a regulatory point of view, whereas Teagasc has a role in dealing with agronomy and soil science, which is a different matter. That is where much of the confusion arises. We did not establish the regulations. Our role is in the area of economic responses and the environmental impact of various fertilisers. In regard to some aspects of this document, the Minister has again asked Teagasc to come back with new information available internationally that can be brought to bear on some of the issues that are a cause of controversy in the industry.

Does Teagasc as an organisation believe the Minister has gone too far with this directive?

Dr. Cross

We can only speak from an environmental and agricultural perspective. We have no role in EU regulations. Regulations are a matter for both Departments and the Government, not for Teagasc.

I am not happy with that answer. I shall put the question once more. There was a clear difference of opinion last night between Teagasc and the Minister on a programme which the country was watching. Does Teagasc accept the nitrates directive as implemented by the Department? Does Teagasc disagree fundamentally with it?

Dr. Cross

There are aspects of the directive on which Teagasc has again been asked to comment and we will do so.

That is not answering the question I am asking. Does Teagasc accept that that this directive is right or wrong?

Dr. Cross

It is not a matter for Teagasc to comment on whether legislation is right or wrong. It is a matter for the Government to introduce legislation.

Dr. Cross is not answering the question.

We can come back to it again.

It is a key question. It is a fundamental question to which farmers want an answer. Where does Teagasc stand on this issue?

Why has Teagasc been asked for revised advice? Why has Teagasc been asked to revisit the issue?

Dr. Cross

In all these areas in farming there are many issues. We are talking about biological systems differences around the country and so on. It is difficult to bring all these into a regulatory framework. We have been involved in this debate in recent years, as have farmers. Given that much of what was good farming practice is being put into legislation, there is bound to be controversy. We provided the best advice we could to support good farming as well as protecting the environment. It is not the role of Teagasc to regulate.

There will be plenty of questions.

I welcome the representatives of Teagasc and the two Departments. With all due respect to the officials present, I wonder whether the joint committee is speaking to the right people because it appears this is a political question. I will explain that in a moment. I want to lead in to one or two questions to the people who are present.

The issue of pollution of fresh water in Ireland is not new. It has been known for a long time that agricultural activity and, in particular, the over-use of fertilisers have been contributing to pollution of fresh water systems. Anybody looking at rivers or lakes with the green scum on them in summer time has the visual evidence of that. Various reports have been produced on water quality. While some will say it is better than most, the fact is that large sums of money are being spent on upgrading water systems and dealing with water pollution. There is no point in ignoring the fact that there is a problem of water pollution, some of which is attributable to run-off from agriculture.

Side by side with that we have had the nitrates directive, which has been in the pipeline for a long period. The issues that have suddenly burst on to the scene in terms of the limits on the spreading of fertiliser and the storage of agricultural waste and so on have been coming down the track. The regulations were made in 1991. Ireland has been before the European Court of Justice in regard to its non-compliance with the nitrates directive. The prospect of fines and the cost to the taxpayer has been in the air for a long period. This committee discussed the issue at least a year ago, when we were told the Brosnan compromise was being worked on and that work was being done to try to present an action plan to the Commission which would be acceptable. We were informed that discussions were taking place between the two Departments, Teagasc, the farm organisations and so on. At the 13th hour, with the regulations made, there is confusion over what levels should apply. Some of the levels being applied are higher than those already agreed and contracted for by the farmers in the area of REPS.

We are being told that Teagasc is having second thoughts on the levels on the phosphates side, as I understand it. It is all very well to go around and find a whipping boy. I do not know what went wrong. Maybe Teagasc is wrong but I get suspicious when I see Ministers trying to find a State agency or public officials to use as whipping boys when something goes wrong. What were Ministers doing? This issue was not under the radar. We were under the cosh from the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, with the prospect of fines. Everybody knew there were sensitivities and concerns on the part of farm organisations and farmers who were affected by it, yet at the 13th hour, with regulations made — part of which are put in suspense and everybody is unhappy with them — Ministers are scratching around trying to find public officials and State agencies to use as whipping boys.

What we have here is a failure on the part of the political leadership of the Departments to deal with this issue in a way which would ensure it did not blow up in everybody's face. Something that has been going on for such a long period and on which such an effort had been invested should not have blown up at this stage.

I want to put a question to the representative from Teagasc. I listened to a radio interview a few days ago with the director of Teagasc in which he appeared reluctant to put into the public domain the advice Teagasc gave to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and, I presume, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, in respect of this directive. Will all the advice which was given to the Ministers be put into the public domain? Specifically, will Teagasc make available to the joint committee, which is one way of putting it into the public domain, the advice given to the Ministers in respect of this directive? I do not understand why that information is not being made available. I heard the argument that it could not be made available because it was information supplied in the context of legislation being prepared — I presume that meant for the making of regulations. I do not accept that. I am asking that the advice be put into the public domain so that we can find out, once and for all, who is right and who is wrong.

Dr. Cross

In the discussions with both Departments in recent years the advice we provided was treated on a confidential basis in the development of the legislation. That was the view taken by Teagasc and, therefore, we did not put that information into the public arena. Recently the Teagasc authority requested that the advice we gave on a range of aspects of the legislation be discussed with the authority. That was done at our last board meeting. The Teagasc representative involved provided the Teagasc authority with the information we had on this regulation.

What is confidential about this? This is about scientific matters, the level of nitrates and fertilisers one puts on land. This is not the Garda Commissioner advising the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on a matter of State security or matters that might be subject to a court case. This is factual material. I do not accept it is confidential.

Dr. Cross

I have no problem with making the information available. I will put the Deputy's request to our director.

I propose that the committee ask that the advice given to the Department be made available in full to the committee.

We will request that immediately.

People should feel let down by the Department of Agriculture and Food. During the years the Department, in co-operation with Teagasc, pushed farmers into using large amounts of fertiliser and high energy to deliver high output farming. We are now seeing a turnaround. We are seeing the influence of the European Union on farm policy. We are seeing a push towards organic farming, in effect, a U-turn. That leaves farmers vulnerable and confused. At the same time, it is important to realise that we need clean water. It is also important to realise the difficulties to which agricultural run-off can lead in our lakes, rivers and streams, as well as the contribution of tourism to the rural economy, which must be protected, nourished and encouraged.

I have two questions for Dr. Cross. Is pollution in our watercourses, lakes, rivers and streams from farming significant? Is Dr. Cross optimistic that a scientific case might be made to support the revision of phosphorus tables under the regulations?

Dr. Cross

Teagasc has no role in monitoring water quality in Ireland. That is the responsibility of the EPA. There is a risk of pollution from any industrial activity. In the case of agriculture, great progress has been made during the years to ensure it is environmentally friendly. Farmers have done tremendous work, supported by grants from the Government, in improving their farmyards and farm systems to ensure good water quality. Great progress has been made in reducing the amount of phosphorus used in Ireland. Farmers bought into the recommendations to take on environmental issues and contributed much to the improvement in water quality, but we cannot stand still. It is a continuous process. Farmers, as well as other stakeholders, are keen that we should have production systems that are environmentally friendly.

With respect to Dr. Cross as a scientist, he is evading the question I put to him.

What is the Deputy's question?

I am asking whether pollution from farming is significant.

Dr. Cross

Farming, as well as several other industries, affects water quality. I have described the contribution of farming. Other sectors such as local authorities will state what they are doing. Farmers are making a very good effort. Teagasc has active research and extension programmes working with farmers to ensure good quality water in Ireland.

Dr. Cross sounds more like a public relations person than a scientific adviser. I asked a simple question and we are not getting much clarity from him on it.

Dr. Cross

I have answered the question. Agriculture, like all industries, is a source of pollution in Ireland.

Do any of the other departmental officials wish to contribute?

Mr. Sadlier

I acknowledge the confusion among the farming community regarding the regulations. The discussions were prolonged and protracted and one cannot produce advice, guidelines and information campaigns until the dust has settled and the regulations have been finalised. Both Departments acknowledge this. We also acknowledge the need on our part to launch appropriate information campaigns to put that right. There will be action in this regard in the near future.

It is acknowledged that there are other sources of water pollution apart from agriculture. The situation in Ireland is no different from that across Europe on all fronts. In Ireland and almost every member state of the European Union agriculture is clearly identified as the biggest, if not the dominant, source of water pollution. That is not unusual. Reflecting this and the nitrates directive, the European Commission is now vigorously involved in a drive to secure much fuller implementation of the nitrates directive in all member states. Even though we must refer to the directive as a 1991 directive, its effect has been significantly changed and strengthened during the years by judgments of the European Court of Justice that have removed much of the vagueness and many of the ambiguities. The most recent and probably the most telling judgment was made in 2002. It was only then that the full import of the directive was evident in all member states. The European Commission is now in the second generation phase of its implementation. We were not a major part of the first generation phase. Almost all other member states had wrapped up their nitrates action programmes years previously. We are now involved in the implementation of a strengthened nitrates directive. To some extent, therefore, the fact that we are making the change now, when the terms of the directive are clearer and stronger, makes it that bit more stark for us.

Regarding phosphorus guidelines, some expressed surprise that the regulations included phosphorus. The good agricultural practice regulations are intended to protect water from pollution from all aspects of farming. They give effect to the nitrates directive and several others. Even the nitrates directive is required by judgment of the European Court of Justice to address nitrates and phosphorus. That is absolutely clear.

The intention on our part to address nitrogen and phosphorus levels was signalled from day one. The intention of the Department to apply limits on fertilisation, based on Teagasc guidelines, was clearly signalled. I have the first full consultation paper issued by the Department in December 2003. It is not buried in big text but there are two or three specific lines on limits on land application of fertilisers which state the land application of fertilisers shall be consistent with good agricultural practice as set out in the Teagasc publication Nutrient and Trace Element Advice for Grassland, Tillage, Vegetable and Fruit Crops, Teagasc 2004, or any published amendment to that document. The Teagasc guidelines have, on foot of research, developed over the years. The regulations are not written in stone. If there is a clear basis for revising the Teagasc recommendations, they should and will be incorporated into the regulations. The consultation paper issued in December 2003 explicitly states that "nitrogen and phosphorous inputs will not exceed the amounts thus calculated".

I thank Mr. Sadlier. I would like to ask Dr. Cross how Teagasc intends to examine the scientific case that supports a possible revision of the tables. What are the nuts and bolts of Teagasc's work in this area? Will it conduct a desktop or a field study? How does it intend to revisit the phosphorous issue?

Dr. Cross

The information used by Teagasc is based on the green book, which gives the nutrient advice. As Mr. Sadlier has said, the book is updated from time to time. The many footnotes in the book take account of variations and differences throughout the country. Professional advisers can use the information in the book to meet their particular needs and circumstances. We are reviewing the information we have received recently and other information on which we can lay our hands to address the question we have been asked by the Minister. We will publish an agreed view on that within a matter of weeks.

Teagasc has essentially decided to base its examination on scientific study rather than on field trials.

Dr. Cross

Some data has emerged from recent field trials. Research is a continuous process. If new information becomes available, we will incorporate it into our recommendations and advice for farmers.

This meeting was specially convened and I must inform everyone that we are required to vacate the room by 1 p.m. A number of members wish to contribute. I call Senator Brennan.

At this committee's meeting of 8 December last, a unanimous decision was taken by members of all political persuasions to ask the Minister to defer his signature of the document until he had listened to the farmers' organisations, which had called into question the scientific advice made available to him by Teagasc. It was decided that a special meeting of the committee should be arranged to discuss the matter in full but the Minister hastily signed the document into law the following Sunday. Having watched last night's "Prime Time", it is clear that this game has moved into extra time. People throughout the country are more confused than ever regarding the advice given to the Minister by Teagasc. The committee sought a copy of Teagasc's recommendations to the Minister two months ago but has not yet received it. Is it unusual that Teagasc recommended to the Minister that maximum limits should be set? Can Teagasc confirm that the Minister was given such advice? We should be given a number of weeks to find a solution that will give farmers some reasonable nutrient management limits within which they can work. That is a reasonable request. It is time for everyone to work together to find a solution to this problem, once and for all.

Dr. Cross

Teagasc's advice is contained in the green book that gives nutrient advice on fertilisers. The green book, which is not a legal instrument, gives advice to farmers. Many of the footnotes in the green book, which are based on the judgment of professional advisers from various parts of the country, are not included in the statutory instrument. When one gives legal effect to agronomic values, it is completely different from merely issuing a book of agronomic advice to farmers. Teagasc considers that the legal maximum should give farmers flexibility in their use of nutrients, depending on the various soil types and farming systems throughout the country. It is from there that some of the confusion is coming. As we reconsider this matter, we have an opportunity to address this aspect of it in more detail.

Is Dr. Cross saying that the green book, rather than what was read out at the Teagasc meeting, was given to the Minister for the report? If it is a public document, why is it not available to the committee today?

Dr. Cross

I was not asked to present it today. The advice that was given on all aspects of the statutory instrument was given through the Teagasc authorities.

Does Dr. Cross think the advice should be available today, given that it is the main issue to be discussed at this meeting?

Dr. Cross

I did not think we would be going through the entire statutory instrument on a line-by-line basis. I will do the best I can to answer any of the committee's questions on Teagasc's involvement in the process.

It has come to light at this meeting, as well as on "Prime Time" last night, that fierce misinformation seems to be doing the rounds regarding what the Minister is saying and what Teagasc is saying. That matter should be clarified as early as possible. We need to work together to find a solution.

Mr. Pat Duggan

I wish to make a small point about the tables in the regulation. The draft regulations were made available for public consultation on 7 October 2005. I am not sure of the exact period but I think five or six weeks were set aside for consultation. Many written submissions were received, one of which was from Teagasc. The issue of how the tables were being used in the regulation, which has been raised by it in recent times, was not raised by Teagasc at that time.

The famous green book, as well as the advice given by Teagasc to the board and the Minister, should be available to the members.

I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to speak. I have attended many meetings and been in many places during my lifetime but the trouble about it is that I have never been as bamboozled as I am now. If Deputies O'Dowd, Cuffe and Gilmore got answers to the questions they asked, I did not hear them. I do not want to insult Dr. Cross in the least but surely he should be able to answer some of the Deputies' questions. As my colleague, Senator Brennan, suggested, Dr. Cross should have ensured that he was fully informed about this matter because it is the subject of a great deal of controversy among farmers. The first question he should have asked was what was on the agenda for this meeting. We are discussing the nitrates directive with officials from Teagasc and the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Agriculture and Food. I was certain that after this meeting members would be able to speak loud and clear to farmers and answer any questions they ask. I do not have one iota of extra information that I could use in response to farmers. To be honest, I am none the wiser than I was when I entered the room.

I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to speak but there is no point in my following the trail of the three Deputies to whom I referred by asking questions about the famous green book and looking for answers. There is a great deal of confusion in this regard, even on the part of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. He cannot understand Teagasc and I cannot understand the nature of the advice. Surely there should be 50 green books in some corner of this room, regardless of from where they might come, so that we could enlighten pig producers and other people.

A pig factory is the only industry in my small territory of south Kerry, near Kilgarvan. The people working in the factory are terrified that they will be blown out of existence. Some other people throughout the country have poultry problems. They do not know where to go or what to do with the slurry because the nitrates directive is causing total and absolute confusion.

I thank the Chairman and the clerk to the committee for facilitating by organising this meeting. The trouble is that I am none the wiser than I was when I came here. I am telling the honest truth. I thank the Chairman for giving me an opportunity to speak. I would like to conclude by making an appeal. In the name of God, let us have the green book as soon as possible. Does the Minister understand what Teagasc is saying and the nature of its advice? I do not have a clue what it is saying.

It would have been helpful if Teagasc had made a formal presentation because we would have been able to obtain more detail on the advice that was given. We can return to that matter.

I do not want to be at cross-purposes with Teagasc or its officials but it appears that this meeting, like so many others, will not make us any the wiser. We are even further back than we were as a result of last night's "Prime Time" programme, which has added to the confusion. We have all met representatives of various strands of the farming lobby. The role of farmers is to farm and the role of parliamentarians is to interpret legislation and explain its effects. However, we are not in a position to do so. The questions that keep cropping up are whether the advice given to the Minister was based on best practice or scientifically based and how it was arrived at. Can the issue not be explained in layman's language? I fully take the points made by Deputy Gilmore that we must conform to EU regulations and legislation but Teagasc's advice has given rise to confusion. There is a feeling abroad, among parliamentarians and the farming lobbies, that the advice from Teagasc was confusing because it was not based on one line of thinking. Even though members have made this point, it is not being clarified by defining Teagasc's position. We must know whether the advice of Teagasc was scientifically based, the standards applied and if it complied with EU thinking. The point I want clarified is whether the advice was based on best practice or scientific evidence.

Dr. Cross

Teagasc's advice was based on science and best practice in Ireland.

Would that be the thinking of all staff in Teagasc, both those in the field and those in the research centres, and was that position arrived at without dissent?

Dr. Cross

We have a committee which represents research, both production and environmental research, and the advisory service. The consensus view of Teagasc was presented. The confusion arises from the regulatory instrument versus scientific advice and the agronomic tables we provide. The scientific advice we gave the Government impacts on the regulations. Teagasc had no role in drafting them or in securing agreement on them in Brussels. We provided the best scientific advice we could in their development.

Is Dr. Cross stating Teagasc's advice was based on scientific knowledge?

Dr. Cross

Scientific knowledge and best practice. Obviously, one cannot research everything in this document. We used the best scientific and best practice advice available in our organisation in providing advice for the Government. Much of this advice is contained in Teagasc publications which are in the public domain.

I will call members first and then non-members. I welcome the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food, Deputy Brady. I think it would be helpful if he asked questions at this stage.

I thank the Chairman for giving me this opportunity to question Teagasc. I understood from him and other members of the committee that Teagasc had been invited to send a strong delegation to appear before it. It appears Teagasc has snubbed the committee by not sending a very strong delegation. We have met officials from the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Agriculture and Food on numerous occasions and I have always found them very helpful. I think Teagasc has snubbed the committee by sending Dr. Cross to appear before it. The Teagasc centre in Grange is in my constituency and I have met very genuine individuals working there who know the problems being encountered in agriculture, particularly with the nitrates directive. I am at a loss to know why some of them were not sent to appear before the committee.

It appears Teagasc has diverged from the advice contained in the Green Book. Did it not foresee the impact of the directive on the pig and poultry sector and large dairy farmers? Is it aware that, should the regulations be implemented — they are temporarily in suspension — the farmers concerned will be in serious trouble? This is an important sector of the economy. Although there are not too many pig farmers in my county, I am aware of the impact the directive is having on pig producers in Cavan and poultry producers in the north east.

When will the amended advice be submitted to the Minister? When does Teagasc propose to go on the road and organise information meetings to advise farmers to counteract the misinformation?

Dr. Cross

Deputy Brady has asked why Teagasc did not send a larger delegation to appear before the committee. I am director of agricultural research and lead the team which was involved in this matter in recent years. My other colleagues are very busy working on preparing the document the Minister requested. We have a very tight deadline and felt it would be the best use of their time to work on the document. That is why they are not here today. It was not an attempt to snub the committee. It was felt that since I chaired the Teagasc team, I would be able to articulate its views.

Teagasc has not moved away from the recommendations contained in the Green Book, which evolves as new information becomes available. It would have to evolve to reflect the introduction of legislation and incorporate new research findings. We are not moving away from it, as Deputy Brady suggested.

We attended committee meetings at which we articulated the view that the phosphorus table would present major problems for the pig industry. We have highlighted our concern and articulated the importance of the industry to Ireland and the importance of grassland on which pig farmers could spread slurry. This is the traditional way of dealing with pig slurry and we have always maintained that it should be possible to continue to do this. We have articulated this view time and again. The current regulations present major problems for pig farmers, which we recognise. We are doing everything we can to address the matter.

On the question of organising information meetings, I agree with the Deputy on the level of misinformation and confusion when one reads the directive for the first time. Teagasc is very anxious to start information meetings as soon as possible In fact, the Minister for Agriculture and Food has asked Teagasc to become involved in providing information for farmers and we are very anxious to do so. However, the IFA has imposed a boycott on Teagasc and farmers will not go to a meeting organised by Teagasc. This presents a major problem because farmers will not turn up. That is a shame because there is an urgent need to provide information.

We will take questions from a number of members together, Deputies Kelleher, Cregan and Ned O'Keeffe.

I welcome the delegation. Dr. Cross alluded to the phosphate limits. Was the same group of scientists who were involved in providing best scientific and best practice advice on the nitrates directive also involved in giving advice on the phosphorus directive?

I was informed by colleagues on my way here that the advice Teagasc made available to the Minister would not be made available publicly. I find this very disturbing. Deputy Brady referred to the matter. I also have major concerns. If there is confusion, the ideal forum in which to address it is this Oireachtas committee. Whether the IFA is boycotting Teagasc, members of the press are covering the proceedings of this committee today and this would have been an ideal opportunity for Teagasc to come and put its cards on the table and explain the matter in detail. It could have presented the evidence and its findings and also the advice it gave to the Minister.

On best practice, there has not been sufficient discussion with those directly involved in farming, the IFA and various other farm representatives, given that the directive will have devastating consequences for intensive commercial pig and poultry farming. The Green Book was cast aside, other information was brought into the domain and decisions were made behind closed doors. Now there is an unwillingness to publish the advice given. That amazes me. It is a grave insult to this committee and everybody interested in this issue. I am disappointed that Teagasc has not been more forthright in publishing the information.

I welcome the representatives from the Departments of Agriculture and Food and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, as well as Dr. Cross from Teagasc.

I reiterate the remarks made by my colleagues. I understood that we would have a comprehensive presentation from Teagasc. I am disappointed that did not happen, as it would have cleared the air, made us more aware of the sequence of events and addressed the confusion. I support the Chairman's call for the information to be made available to this committee at the earliest possible opportunity to allow it to reconvene to debate it.

If best scientific advice was followed and best practice employed, why did Teagasc believe it necessary to review its advice with a view to improving the situation? If that was the case in regard to phosphates, is it not likely it was also the case in regard to nitrates, the limits for which are not being reviewed? Should there not be a review of the position on nitrates as well as phosphates?

The departure from the Green Book has been mentioned. The stark difference between the Teagasc advice to farmers on good farming practice and efficiency heretofore and the maximum rates that now apply has been clearly highlighted by way of statistics from the IFA. Perhaps somebody will explain this to the committee.

I express my concern at the absence of the director of Teagasc from this meeting. Teagasc is one of the main participants in the debate with the Ministers of the two Departments involved. I recognise Dr. Cross's position. However, this is the greatest crisis Irish agriculture has faced. People do not seem to realise the importance of agriculture to the economy since the Famine.

Last night's television programme, in which Mr. Pat Dillon told the truth, was an eye-opener. On my way to the House early this morning I lowered the window of my car in Molesworth Street for an important person in Dublin. I asked him if he had seen the television programme, to which he replied that he had and that the man in question should be sacked. It is sad he was saying a man should be sacked for telling the truth.

We learned from Mr. Sadlier that the phosphates directive came about as a result of a court case in Europe. That part of the story is fair enough. Why has implementation been deferred and how were we able to bring about a deferment? Can the proposal — it is a national issue — be changed? Dr. Cross will be back in a few weeks with an amended proposal. What made him change his mind? Why did he not change it six months ago?

When was the Green Book made available? The first I heard of it was last Thursday, when there was lobbying here but that is another issue. Were plans announced without proper scientific back-up and was Teagasc used in this issue? Have all sections of Teagasc made a contribution? I understand they have not. Many in Teagasc from a strong scientific background were bypassed. I was told yesterday by a senior official in the IFA that our water quality was as good as any in the world and that the only countries with better water quality were Third World countries that had no agricultural or industrial activity. When efforts were being made by Teagasc and successive Governments to expand agriculture in Ireland, the advice was to use 3 cwt of 07.30 per acre for grassland plus nitrogen and 3 cwt of 10.10.20 for grain growing.

I am reluctant to interrupt but there is a vote in the Dáil. I propose we suspend the sitting until after the vote.

Denmark produces 22 million pigs and 5 million tonnes of milk. It is the size of Munster. How is it coping with the nitrates directive? Such a small country must have a major crisis if it is in business to that extent.

Sitting suspended at 12.05 p.m. and resumed at 12.25 p.m.

I understood that Ireland had some of the best quality water in Europe. The only countries with better quality water are Third World countries without industry or agriculture. Denmark, which is the size of Munster, has 22 million pigs and five million tonnes of milk, which is equivalent to the Irish quota. How is Denmark coping with the new situation which has applied since 1992?

We are all aware of the metabolism in the soil of phosphates, potash and nitrogen. When the directive is in place, how will farmers grow grain with low levels of phosphate, given that it is so important for root formation and the development of the crop? It will be totally uneconomic to grow grain in this country if the proposal, as originally put forward, is reintroduced. Another problem is how the level of soil nitrogen will be identified when the land is ploughed. How will we cope with that?

The key issue is that the EPA will be the regulatory authority. No voluntary codes will solve this problem. Farmers work with nature — agriculture is all about nature — and they know what constitutes best practice. Farmers will go to jail. I ask that this matter should be resolved. There must be some way around the problem.

Farmers had full confidence in Teagasc but I do not blame farmers for withdrawing from Teagasc, given the confusion that exists. The story told on television and radio last night has been doing the rounds for some months, although it came to a head last night. We want transparency and honesty, which is more important than anything else in winning back farmer confidence and putting the agricultural industry back on the rails. Obviously, there has been a cover-up. I want to know — Dr. Cross is not the man to answer my question — whether we are trying to play ball with the Departments to get them off the hook, which is what Teagasc has been doing. Games are being played that are not good enough to ensure the survival of Irish agriculture.

Dr. Cross, I am conscious that Deputies Kelleher and Cregan asked questions of a similar nature.

Dr. Cross

With regard to phosphorus, the Deputy implied that Teagasc came up with the values contained in the regulation, which is not the case. The values in the regulation are not Teagasc values. We provided advice with regard to the phosphorus tables but one cannot conclude from this that we signed off on the phosphorus tables. Mr. Duggan implied that Teagasc had signed off on the tables. I make it clear that we received the last document from both Departments the week before that document was signed into law. Teagasc staff met immediately on receiving the document and made a submission to both Departments before it was signed into law. We met both Departments on that.

The Deputies referred to various values. We recommended that legal values should be high enough to allow for the variation in soil types throughout the country, and also to allow for the fact that the pig industry is very important and must be provided for. We stated clearly that it must be provided for in the statutory instrument, which was done before it was signed into law. Much confusion has arisen with regard to the suggestion that Teagasc drew up these tables somehow to damage farming. To clarify, Teagasc did not do that.

A number of Deputies raised questions about the nitrogen table, on which there was much recent discussion, particularly on the higher levels of nitrogen, as they have an influence on the derogation document. Teagasc provided advice with regard to the nitrogen tables but one cannot conclude that these are Teagasc tables to replace the green book. That is not the case. Many of the footnotes in the green book have been removed in the statutory instrument. The legal document is different from a Teagasc advice table.

Farmers throughout the country are concerned about the nitrogen issue, particularly with regard to how they will manage to operate with low levels of nitrogen. Teagasc would be happy to review the levels if the Minister asked us to do so. The Minister has asked us to examine phosphorous and we are working busily on that. A member asked why we did not provide advice in this regard previously — we did provide such advice. However, we will do so again and underpin it with as much scientific advice as possible.

Teagasc has access to international science as well as local science and will provide the best scientific information it can. However, one cannot conclude that the regulator will use all of that advice, because it must fit the requirements of regulation. It is unfair to blame Teagasc advisers for the regulations. We provide the best scientific advice and it is up to the regulators to regulate thereafter. We have given advice on nitrogen and phosphorus limits that will allow for variability and permit farmers involved in the REP scheme to continue farming.

Deputies referred to contact with stakeholders. We consulted stakeholders widely and were always available to meet them whenever they requested a meeting. I refer to the IFA, the ICMSA, ICOS, Macra na Feirme and the dairy co-operatives. We met many of them on several occasions in recent years and are very aware of the issues they raised.

There was much discussion of the science. We believe the science in Teagasc is very good and powerful and that we made available the best possible information. We have no problem with our science. It is a continuous process and we always carry out the best possible scientific studies and make the results available to policy-makers whenever they need them. When the embargo is lifted, we will work with farmers to provide information. That request has been made by the Minister and we want to respond to it as soon as we can. Teagasc will provide whatever information the committee seeks. There is no attempt to be secretive about it. The information we provided for the Government when the legislation was being drafted was made available on a confidential basis, but now that it is drafted I see no reason we cannot make it available to the committee.

I have asked if the plan was taken without proper scientific back-up and I want an answer to that question. Was Teagasc used in the process? I have also asked if all sections of Teagasc made a contribution because many in the organisation from a science background who had a contribution to make were passed over. Dr. Cross had experience of grass management and since 1992 both he and his organisation, which was renowned as one of the finest research centres in the world, had furnished farmers with information alluding to figures of 0.75 for a cow, 10 cwt of nitrogen, etc. Why were farmers not advised that they should start to reduce nitrogen output and change their farming practices? Were the relevant Teagasc staff passed over, or was everyone asked to contribute? In other words, was there a forum in Teagasc at which all the scientists from the different areas discussed this issue? I believe there was a cover-up.

Dr. Cross

There was a forum in Teagasc, at which we — advisers included — met in various centres to discuss the situation. There is no cover-up in Teagasc. We consulted widely with all the advisers and asked them to make any submissions they would like to make. We collated all the information, which was passed on to both Departments.

On seeing last night's television programme, I was astounded. The Minister, Deputy Roche, has the best command of the English language in Dáil Éireann and is never caught for a word but he admitted last night that he was flabbergasted at what had been said. There is a crisis in Teagasc going on the basis of what materialised. My view is that Dr. Dillon told the truth.

Mr. Tom Quinlivan

On a point of clarification, the fertiliser tables in the regulations are based on the Teagasc green book. In some cases the limits exceed those recommended because some of the research, particularly that concerning potatoes and some vegetable crops, was out of date. The nitrogen and phosphorus tables for grassland have been contentious and discussions with the Commission in this regard have been difficult. With the help of Teagasc, various proposals were put to the Commission but they were rejected because the Commission was of the view that they did not represent a balance between crop needs and off-take by crops.

On the most contentious table, namely, that pertaining to phosphorus for grassland, a consultation document was issued on the regulation in early October. At that stage we were of the view that the table was acceptable to the Commission and happy enough that the draft regulations would be the final ones in respect of phosphorus levels in grassland. A further meeting was held with the Commission in early December and the issue of phosphorus balance was raised. Commission officials were of the view that our consultation document recommendations did not represent a balance and they sought a deduction for phosphorus fed in concentrate. That deduction is incorporated into the regulations and means that there is very little scope to apply pig manure, for example, to grassland. It is this deduction that has caused the difficulty with the tables.

As members are aware, the meeting must conclude at 1 p.m. If speakers are brief, we will be able to accommodate everyone.

I echo Deputy Gilmore's sentiments. We must be very careful that ministerial accountability is not removed from the debate. It is obvious that there is inherent confusion over the advice provided by Teagasc to the parties concerned. There was a very clear difference of opinion between a representative of Teagasc, Dr. Cross, and the Minister, Deputy Roche, last night on "Prime Time". I am anxious that funds not be wasted in the Minister's Department in the manner in which the former Minister, Deputy Cullen, wasted €50 million on the e-voting project and then walked away from it. In this regard, consider also the PPARS catastrophe, in which a scapegoat was found in the form of a civil servant.

Is Dr. Cross aware of the article that appeared in the Irish Examiner on 2 February stating the World Economic Forum in Switzerland ranked Ireland tenth out of 133 countries in environmental health? Deputy O’Keeffe mentioned a number of the countries, some of which are in the Third World or developing. One could not logically argue that such countries face the same difficulties we face in terms of water pollution owing to industrial and other sources. How does this colour the thinking of Dr. Cross, considering that the advice given has at least been questionable and that the manner in which it was received by the Minister was very stringent?

Has there been much debate in Teagasc on replacement advice? I presume that, in the context of its deliberations, it discussed the pros and cons of the limits it advocated. In the absence of consensus, what is the 13th-hour advice of Teagasc? We must be very careful not to criminalise farmers in the same way we are criminalising fishermen in other legislation.

I am sorry for missing the earlier part of the discussion but I had to attend the Order of Business in the Seanad. On 6 December 2005 we met officials from the Department and it was agreed unanimously that we should meet the farming organisations and discuss the matter further before any decision would be taken. I understand the Minister signed off on the directive late on a Sunday night thereafter. I raised the matter on the Adjournment in the Seanad on 14 December, on which date I believe the Minister misled the House. He spoke about "having met the pig farmers, having met repeatedly the leaders of the farming organisations and repeatedly discussed the matter in person with the leaders of the two major organisations". He went on to say:

I pay tribute to them. In the face of difficult realities those farm leaders were prepared to make the kinds of decisions we as politicians should be prepared to make. They were prepared to support hard decisions because they knew that is the only way to deal with the imposition which falls on us following the introduction of the nitrates directive.

The Minister told the Seanad that he had "listened carefully to farmers" and "had repeated meetings with various farming groups". He claims that the leader of a farm organisation has acknowledged publicly that he is "the first Minister he was ever able to phone late on a Sunday night". The support of the farming organisations has been overturned. The Minister misled the Seanad in his comments on this issue, although I am not arguing it was deliberate. As a farmer, I know the nitrates directive is totally unacceptable to farmers because it is unworkable. There as been an outcry from the farming community. The members of the committee are aware that approximately 50 farmers are leaving the land each week. That problem will escalate as a result of the directive. Farmers are up in arms about what is happening. I met two farmers last week whose applications for planning permission in a special area of conservation had been rejected because of new regulations set down by the Department. There is chaos because so many farmers are in a dreadful situation.

I would like to ask about another matter. Is the Department relying entirely on the judgment of the European Court of Justice in the case of the European Commission v. France to justify the phosphate limits in Regulation No. 788/2005? There is a difference of 200 in the NRP set out in the current regulations. In any case, they were not accumulative limits which applied to each farmer. Is the NRP figure set out in Tables 12 and 13 for grassland areas? If not, will farmers have to do the calculations? That would be totally unacceptable to the farming community. Surely both tables should be deleted from the regulations. I ask the delegations to give their opinions on the matter.

Many questions have been asked. I am anxious to allow everyone to speak before we conclude.

I thank the Chairman for facilitating Members who are not members of the committee. I would like to ask a number of brief questions.

It has been suggested strongly over a period of time that the level of nitrogen and phosphate applied to grassland in Ireland, commensurate with stocking levels on that land, is greater than the land requires. Do we have evidence to demonstrate that is the case?

My second question relates to the need to find solutions to the problems faced by pig producers. Will REP scheme farmers be allowed to change their nutrient plans to facilitate such producers by using the extra phosphate that their lands can take within the regulations? Is it the case that the vast majority of intensive dairy farmers could tolerate the nitrates directive if there was a derogation up to 250 kg? As Deputy O'Keeffe said, a number of co-operatives have indicated that the current circumstances are much more difficult for them.

We are here to try to find solutions because there is a great deal of confusion about this matter. Regardless of the politics played with different problems from time to time, it is important that we try to find solutions. This country's agriculture industry is important. Many are employed in agriculture-related jobs and many towns depend on that employment. It is important that meetings be held in the short to medium term to explain in detail what is involved and to enable those involved in the agriculture sector to continue their activities successfully.

My final question relates to the dates for the spreading of organic fertiliser. Most are aware that one should spread slurry in dry weather. I am concerned about what will happen if the dates set out coincide with very heavy rainfall. There should be a practical way of assisting farmers who, if they were to spread slurry on such days, would damage their land to ensure organic substances were transferred more quickly to shores and drains.

I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to ask some brief questions. Is the REP scheme, as it has been presented to the European Commission, the benchmark throughout the European Union for good environmental practice in the agriculture sector? If that is the case, why are we making the scheme, as it stands, illegal under the nitrates directive and action plan? A farmer who has participated in the REP scheme for the past ten years stated on "Prime Time" last night that he would have to reduce his nitrogen levels by one third if he were to comply with the new regulations. Do the delegates think that is acceptable?

Will the Departments of Agriculture and Food and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government review the nitrogen tables in conjunction with the phosphorus tables? Is it the case that Teagasc did not sign off on the phosphate tables? Did it point out to the Department of Agriculture and Food or the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that it disagreed with the tables? When did the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government become aware of the difficulties relating to the phosphates tables? Mr. Sadlier told the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food on 30 November last that he did not think the impact of the phosphorus problem would be to cause problems for pig farmers.

Let me ask the Departments of Agriculture and Food and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government a further question. Mr.Quinlivan told the committee that "the fertiliser tables in the regulations are based on the Teagasc Green Book". If that is the case, why can we not use the Green Book rather than basing it on it? We are playing with words. At this late stage, can we not go back to the manual containing the scientific evidence? We should use rather than base it on the Green Book.

Why, over one week after the implementation into law of the nitrates directive, have farmers not yet received briefings from either of the Departments involved on compliance with it? Is it not the case that Teagasc contacted the Department of Agriculture and Food on a number of occasions in January to ask it to arrange public meetings, but the Department did not facilitate the holding of such meetings? When will information be given to farmers? I hope it will be disseminated before this has been signed off and set in stone.

I will ask all three organisations to respond before we conclude the meeting.

Dr. Crosse

Deputy Naughten asked whether Teagasc had signed off on the tables. It did not sign off on them. As Mr. Quinlivan said, the last draft of the document was submitted to Teagasc approximately one week in advance. It gave its views on it; for example, it recommended that the legal values should be different from the agronomic values to reflect the existence of this country's pig industry, the variations in soil type in Ireland and the fact that REPS farmers had to be taken care of. We are happy that we have articulated the needs of all sectors. We have been asked to review the phosphorus table. We would be happy to review the nitrogen table also because the feedback we have been getting from farmers suggests it is just as controversial.

Mr. O’Donovan

Deputies Smith, Naughten and others mentioned the REP scheme, which was regarded as a benchmark for good agricultural practice until the position on nitrates was clarified. What transpired during the discussions on the nitrates directive and regulations was essentially a clarification of the scientific advice from Teagasc. As Mr. Quinlivan stated, the Commission undertook a rigorous examination of that scientific advice.

I have some sympathy for Teagasc's position on this because it is not simply a matter of going to the Commission with a set of recommendations from Teagasc and having them automatically included in the regulations. The Commission has its own scientists, with whom an exhaustive and difficult debate took place in terms of what exactly would appear in the final regulations. Deputy Naughten and others asked why we cannot simply use the green book. It was at the Commission's insistence that legally binding limits were put in the regulations. We discussed with the Commission the advice from Teagasc, as conveyed directly by Dr. Cross, that its recommendations, which Teagasc accepts are agronomically correct in themselves, should not be used as legally binding limits. We put that to the Commission, which rejected it and insisted the regulations must provide for legally binding limits.

The Department of Agriculture welcomes the fact that Teagasc now has an opportunity to review its advice, especially on phosphates.

I apologise for interrupting. Mr. O'Donovan mentioned phosphates but is there also to be a review of nitrates?

Mr. O’Donovan

No. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has invited Teagasc, as suggested by its authority at a recent meeting, to review its advice on phosphates.

Dr. Cross mentioned a number of times that if Teagasc were asked to review the nitrogen element, it would be prepared to do so. Is that correct?

Does Dr. Cross believe a review of the nitrates directive is necessary?

Dr. Cross

Yes, it is a very controversial issue.

We will come back to that matter.

Mr. O’Donovan

It is important, when these issues are resolved — and they must be resolved fairly quickly for reasons which I will briefly outline in a moment — that farmers and everyone else are satisfied they are based on the best scientific evidence. For that reason, it is useful that Teagasc will now have an opportunity to return with a closely reasoned case for revising some of the figures, should it believe that is appropriate.

On the information issue, both Departments and Teagasc agree that the sooner we get more information into the public domain and directly to farmers the better because there is a great deal of confusion and a certain amount of misinformation out there. The Department of Agriculture and Food is taking the initiative tomorrow with a full-page insert in the Irish Farmers’ Journal in the form of questions and answers designed to be readily comprehensible to farmers. We are covering as much ground as we can, given that the nutrient management element of the regulations has been temporarily deferred. The Department is also producing a handbook for farmers which is almost ready to go to print and to be published on its website. That booklet would have been published by now but for the temporary deferral of the portion of the regulations dealing with nutrient management. We will consider the possibility of releasing the rest of the information as quickly as possible, as the regulations contain a great deal of other information about which farmers should be aware.

The Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, stated in the Dáil last night that she intends to arrange a series of information and briefing meetings as soon as possible. Teagasc's role in that regard will be important. Dr. Cross has correctly pointed out that there is a type of semi-formal boycott of Teagasc at the moment. Given the contribution which Teagasc can and must make to the information process, it is in everyone's interest that farmers listen to what it has to say.

Deputy O'Keeffe referred to the derogation. We have a tight timeframe in terms of putting the derogation in place. Progress on the matter has been good so far, in that it was formally presented in December at the nitrates committee meeting in Brussels. There have been bilateral discussions on the matter with the Commission since then. A further presentation must shortly be made because the nitrates committee meets, at most, four times a year and the derogation must be signed by it. It is essential to the more intensive dairy farmer that the derogation be put in place. Unfortunately, as long as there is confusion or ambiguity about our basic legal framework in the nitrates regulations, we cannot guarantee the derogation process will proceed as quickly as it needs to.

We must also put our proposals for the rural development plan for the next seven years to the Commission before the summer. Those proposals will include REPs, compensatory allowances, forestry, on-farm investment, Leader programmes and all other European co-funded measures. We need to obtain agreement on the proposals by year end if we are to offer these measures to farmers from January 2007. We will encounter great difficulties in negotiating this new package of measures if there is further confusion and ambiguity about the nitrates regulations. It is in everyone's interest that this matter be resolved sooner rather than later.

I did not get a reply to my question about Denmark. I presume the Department is in dialogue with its counterparts from other member states.

Mr. Quinlivan

Denmark is in a fortunate position, in that it has a lot of tillage. Phosphorus is a problem nutrient in terms of outlets for manure and tillage crops demand large amounts of phosphorus. Denmark is in the fortunate position of having a significant tillage area on to which pig manure can be spread.

It has seven times the number of pigs Ireland has, yet it is the size of the Munster area.

Mr. Quinlivan

I do not know what is the exact amount of tillage in Denmark but in Ireland it is only 10%. However, even assuming index three, only two thirds of our cereal ground would be needed to take our pig slurry. Even our small tillage area could easily take all our pig slurry.

That is provided there is tillage nearby.

Mr. Quinlivan

Yes, that difficulty does arise. However, we have taken the initiative of proposing, under the revised farm waste management scheme, that grant aid be made available for technology such as decanter centrifuges. A problem arises because pig slurry contains a great deal of water. The average dry matter content of pig slurry is only 3% or 4%.

What about the phosphate level of pig slurry versus grain growing?

I am not sure we have time for that question. I invite Mr. Sadlier to reply on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

Mr. Sadlier

Mr. O'Donovan and others have acknowledged the urgent need to put into the public domain information on this matter in order to remove the confusion that exists. That is being done through the publication of a guidance document and by way of an information campaign.

I will try to remove some of the confusion about the regulations. The regulations were made by the Minister in December and came into force on 1 February 2006. The only aspect of the regulations currently under review is the level of phosphorus fertilisation limits. The regulations are, in all other respects, as made and will be implemented.

There are many aspects to the regulations, including storage period, storage capacity, closed periods and so on. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government received substantial advice from Teagasc on several aspects of the regulations. On fertiliser limits, the main topic today, the main input of Teagasc into the fertiliser guidelines is the fertiliser tables as published in the green book. The regulations are not written on tablets of stone. We know fertiliser standards and guidelines change with research, time and changing practices. The Department's consultation documents acknowledge that fertiliser should be consistent with practice as set out in the Teagasc guidelines or any published amendment to that document. We always envisaged that the standards should be subject to review, as appropriate.

The current controversy and the review of the phosphates regulations arise from the difficulties faced by pig farmers and the impact of the spreading of pig slurry. The larger pig industries have pig-rearing operations but do not have any land on which to manage the product they generate. Therefore, they are dependent on third parties. This is an inherent problem in the pig industry. Reference is often made to the position in the Netherlands and Denmark. In the Netherlands the practice is to transport pig slurry from pig industries to tillage lands. Dairy farmers generally need their own land for the spreading of the livestock manure generated by their own dairy herds but tillage farmers do not have access to their own on-farm waste. That is probably the main structural change that has to be made. What we need to do is to bring together all of the advice or necessary measures between the different sectors of farming to try to deal with the issue.

In the case of pig farmers, if there are lands which have received significant applications of pig slurry during the years, it is virtually certain that they are over-loaded with phosphorus. It is possible that they are grossly overloaded. That presents a problem. Others are in exactly the same boat. Those who produce pig slurry or other waste product that needs to be spread on land have to search to find land which has a low phosphorus level that can accept additional amounts. Those in this category include not only pig farmers but also dairy food industries and breweries. Local authorities are in the same situation as they have to search for and find outlets for sewage sludge.

I emphasise the importance attached to Ireland being able to pursue a derogation in a focused, structured and cohesive way. A huge plank of our approach to implementing the nitrates directive was to have the regulations made on 11 December in order that on the following day, 12 December, Ireland could make a presentation to the European Union nitrates committee for a derogation. We have set the most ambitious target yet. Only two derogations have been achieved for Denmark and the Netherlands and they took years to negotiate. Austria's application is also coming along quickly. We have set a target of achieving a derogation by the middle of this year. We want to pursue the issue vigorously. It is a huge weakening of our position that there is this question mark against the phosphorus standards and, as a consequence, the regulations, which does not help our case. It is extremely important for larger dairy farmers that we achieve a derogation. It is equally important for pig farmers that we achieve it because, uniquely, the derogation provisions in the directive were intended primarily for farmers who generated on their own farms more livestock manure than was allowed, 170 kg. We have sought a derogation to allow farmers to accept waste from third parties.

There is no element of complacency among the Departments involved in dealing with the issue. We are exploring every avenue and novel possibility in every imaginative way we can to address the challenges presented in implementing the regulations.

I want to make some proposals to the committee.

On one question that was not answered, I wish to ask the delegation——

I do not want any detailed questions.

It is a short question related to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

Can we ask the Minister to ask Teagasc to review Table No. 1 and that both Ministers — the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government — attend our next meeting?

I asked a question, in regard to relying entirely on the judgment in the case of the European Union v. France to justify the phosphorus limits in the regulations, which has not been answered.

Mr. Sadlier

The decision in the court case was clear, specific and compelling; that, in case there was any doubt about the matter, the nitrates directive required phosphorus levels to be managed in the same way as nitrogen levels. The regulations do not relate to nitrates only. They are concerned with good agricultural practice and intended to protect waters from pollution from all forms of agriculture, including phosphorus. Therefore, they give effect to the nitrates directive and a number of others. It would be nonsense to do otherwise, bearing in mind that phosphorus has been identified as the biggest source of water pollution in Ireland. Agriculture is its biggest source.

The officials have told us the phosphate tables are being reviewed at the request of Teagasc. If Dr. Cross is telling us that the nitrates tables should also be reviewed, will the officials take this into account?

Will the Deputy repeat his question, please?

The officials have told us that the phosphate tables are being reviewed at the request of Teagasc, which wants to review the advice given to the Minister. Dr. Cross is now saying he felt it would be appropriate to review the nitrates tables also. Will the officials take this into account?

It is the wish of the committee that the Minister should ask Teagasc to review the nitrates element. Is that agreed? Agreed. We will also write to the chairman of Teagasc demanding that all relevant advice on the issue be given to the Minister.

It is the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Where do we stand vis-à-vis the decision of the European Court in terms of threatened action, fines and so on?

Mr. Sadlier

With the making of the regulations, the threat of the European Union proceeding to seek the imposition of fines has substantially receded, although there are a few more formalities to be observed. By and large, we consider that the making of the regulations and their verified implementation in the context of cross-compliance inspections will remove the threat of the imposition of fines in respect of the nitrates directive.

I thank the representatives of all three groups for making themselves available to attend the meeting. We will proceed along the lines agreed by the committee.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.10 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 15 February 2006.