Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Thursday, 24 Feb 2005

Nitrates Directive: Presentations.

I welcome representatives of the Irish Farmers' Association and of groups representing agricultural interests in Cork. Members are reminded that it was agreed at our meeting on 9 February that the committee would seek the views of farming organisations in view of the developments in this area. Today's meeting is the result of that decision.

Before the presentations commence, I draw attention to the fact that members of this committee have absolute privilege but this privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are also reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

We are joined by Mr. John Dillon, Mr. Michael Berkery, Mr. Jim Devlin, Mr. Rory Deasy and Mr. Tom Dunne from the IFA.

Mr. John Dillon

I thank the Chairman and members for inviting us to meet the committee again on the nitrates action programme. Our last meeting with the committee on this critical issue for Irish agriculture was on 11 June 2004, one month before the publication of the second draft action programme in July 2004. This was around the time the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, announced his appointment of Denis Brosnan to act as an independent adviser to the Government on the development of a nitrates action programme for Ireland.

The second draft action programme of July 2004 contained a number of notable differences in the proposed measures to be included. It also formed the basis for Denis Brosnan's work on the action programme during the autumn of last year. One of the most notable changes was the reduction in the closed periods for the land application of fertilisers and a reduction in the minimum storage requirements on farms from those included in the draft programme which had been published by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Agriculture and Food in the previous December 2003.

The July document proposed minimum closed periods and storage requirements, based on the division of the country into three zones, of 12, 15 and 17 weeks. We understand that the July document reflected Teagasc's advice and input to a much greater extent than the previous draft programme. At the end of August 2004, two further documents were produced. One was a draft guidance document for farmers on complying with the requirements of the action programme.

The second was a document on the case prepared, largely by Teagasc, for a derogation for Ireland from the organic nitrates restriction of 170 kg per hectare up to 250 kg per hectare.

In his work Denis Brosnan conducted a thorough examination of the issues surrounding implementation of the nitrates directive in Ireland and developed an action programme as required under the directive. We understand he consulted widely with stakeholders and met all interested parties which sought to meet him. I understand he met county councils, members of the non-farming community and officials in Brussels. We also believe he was briefed on the Commission's views on Ireland's proposals for an action programme.

From my interactions with Mr. Brosnan on this and other issues, I can confirm that he has a thorough understanding of the technical issues involved from both an environmental standpoint and the standpoint of the future competitiveness of agriculture. He presented his report in October and his recommendations were reflected in the action programme submitted to the Commission on 22 October.

I understand the joint committee has considered the action programme in detail at previous meetings. All I wish to say is that in many respects Mr. Brosnan's recommendations would impose greater restrictions on farming than those included in previous drafts of the action programme. For example, he recommends greater minimum storage requirements on farms, with a 16 week requirement across most of the country and 20 weeks in three counties in the northern part of the country. He also recommends greater restrictions on the quantity of organic fertilisers and soiled water that may be applied to land and longer periods between applications. He further recommends a complete ban on the use of certain methods in applying organic fertiliser for a four month period from October to January, inclusive.

The IFA did not support all the recommendations proposed by Mr. Brosnan. However, it supported the process instigated by the former Minister, Deputy Cullen, and continued by the current Minister, Deputy Roche, and the important role played by Mr. Brosnan in this process. While we may not like many of the specific measures included, we support the action programme submitted to the Commission.

Since the Commission's response to the action programme which we understand was received at the start of the year, I have become increasingly concerned that some would like to back away from the programme submitted last October. However, when I met the Minister, Deputy Roche, and the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, to discuss this issue at the end of January, I was heartened to hear the Minister, Deputy Roche's, confirmation that the Government was robustly defending the programme submitted.

The Government's position on this issue is totally consistent with the scientific research which Teagasc has confirmed to me that the Irish nitrates programme is sound. It is critical for environmental protection in Ireland and the future competitiveness and viability of Irish agriculture that we do not yield to unreasonable pressure or threats on the Irish nitrates action programme. It is also vitally important that the issue of a derogation for Ireland from the organic nitrogen limits included in the directive is included in the process with the Commission from the start.

The programme submitted will impose challenging restrictions and environmental controls on farming which will, in turn, require massive investment. The Government must complete its response to Mr. Brosnan's recommendations, particularly with regard to increasing the supports available to farmers who will be required to spend more money to meet the minimum manure storage requirements on farms and the early approval of specifications for earthen bank storage systems to meet the additional storage requirements.

The Irish nitrates action programme is a considered and complete response from Ireland to its obligations under the nitrates directive. It will impose significant costs and restrictions on farming in Ireland in the interests of securing higher standards of environmental protection. It must be robustly supported and defended at all levels within Government. Furthermore, we must move swiftly to deal with the critical issue of securing agreement on a derogation from the organic nitrogen level restrictions included in the directive if we are to allow commercial farming to survive and compete.

I thank the Chairman and members for their attention.

We are also joined by Mr. Sean O'Sullivan, Mr. Seamus O'Mahony and Mr. John O'Donovan representing Cork Co-operative Marts Limited, Carbery Milk Products Limited and Barryroe Co-operative Society Limited. They have shown an interest in this area which they have conveyed to the joint committee.

Mr. Seamus O’Mahony

I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for giving us the opportunity to address this important issue. I am an agricultural adviser at Barryroe Co-operative Society Limited having graduated from UCD with a masters degree in agricultural science and, subsequently, a diploma in environmental science. I am joined by Mr. Sean O'Sullivan and Mr. John O'Donovan who is vice-chairman of Barryroe Co-operative Society Limited as well as a board member of Cork Co-operative Marts. The key issues I will address are organic nitrogen limits, spreading dates, slurry, storage and, to get down to brass tacks, the effect on the local economy.

Carbery creameries, with a base of over 1,800 milk suppliers and a milk pool of 79 million gallons, covers four co-operative areas which I represent today. They contribute more than €175 million to the economy of the local south-west area annually. The three dairy co-ops in north-west Cork — Boherbue, Newmarket and North Cork — which we also represent today have a combined milk pool of 20 million gallons supplied by another 320 farmers.

The competitiveness of our co-ops is directly related to the competitiveness of farmers. The natural economic and environmental advantage in this southern region is their ability to grow and graze grass at reasonable stocking rates for up to 330 days of the year. Some of the terms under the draft action plan will impinge on the natural competitiveness of the area and the agri-industry in general.

The draft action plan, as it stands, fails on a number of levels. It ignores that nitrate levels have been improving in recent years and will continue to do so. It attempts to put in place expensive infrastructure without taking account of farm practices and local farm conditions. Ultimately, it will undermine the competitiveness of the agri-industry from farm gate to processors to exports.

On organic nitrogen limits, it is our view that a 250 kg of organic nitrogen per hectare of organic manure limit is vital for the future survival of the dairy, beef, pig and poultry industries in the area. Paragraph 2(b) of Annex III of the directive allows for approval of amounts of up to 250 kg of organic nitrogen per hectare. The scientific rationale for our view is based on a long growing season — there is plenty of literature to show we have 330 days growth every season; a long grazing season — with new management practices this can be up to 330 days; adequate rainfall with high denitrification capacity; a predominantly grassland countryside; good crop nitrogen uptake; low atmospheric deposition; and good farming practices.

Farmers in the region must be able to exploit the natural advantages of a mild climate and a longer growing season to maintain viable family farms into the future. Furthermore, if the beef, pig and poultry industries are to be maintained, achieving a derogation to this level is of paramount importance.

The periods proposed in respect of both storage capacity and the land spreading of organic manure are 12 and 16 weeks, respectively, in the Brosnan report and the action plan submitted. We firmly recommend that these be upheld for zone A. Through the process of consultation, all parties agreed — painfully — to accept the Brosnan report which was considered fair. We contend that in free draining early grass growing areas such as those in our hinterland, little nitrate leaching occurs where organic manure is spread in good conditions in early January. I concur with Mr. Dillon's statement that support for the putting in place of storage capacity should be forthcoming from the Government.

A further increase in the closed period as proposed in the action plan may defeat its own objectives in reducing pollution and improving water quality. Because of a lack of labour at farm level, contractors spread a sizable percentage of the organic manure generated. Too long a closed period would further increase the risk of pollution as tanks may overflow as available contractors struggle to service their farmer clients. Widening the spreading period would spread the workload, reduce capital expenditure on farmers and contractors and, most importantly, reduce the risk of pollution, which is what we are trying to achieve in the action plan.

The nitrates directive is appropriate in continental Europe where soil temperatures and growth over four to five months of winter conditions are close to zero. In Ireland, however, especially the south, south east and parts of the west, soil temperatures are higher while growth rates cannot be matched elsewhere in Europe.

No account is taken of the effect of implementation of the action plan on the rural economy outside the farm gate. Within just a 30 mile radius of our area, many jobs are endangered. There are four co-ops within the area with 250 workers; Carbery Milk Products Limited has 500 workers; AIBP has 140 workers and processes 65,000 cattle per annum within an 80 mile radius while Cork Marts has 100 workers. Stauntons, Clona, Irish Yoghurts and others will also be affected. Under the nitrates action programme, all of these groups face a bleak future. They provide the main market for local farmers, provide hundreds of jobs and export local produce.

The Department's figures for the numbers of farmers affected by the directive are flawed. They do not take account of the fact that piggeries, poultry units and food processors such as Carbery Milk Products Limited and others must export organic manures to other farms to recycle nutrients to replace purchased fertiliser. Carbery Milk Products Limited needs approximately 10,000 acres of spread-lands to export organic manure and expects this figure to increase to 17,000 acres. Under the proposed action plan, this required acreage must be increased with associated costs. It is possible that Carbery Milk Products Limited will have no outlets in a mainly grassland area with organic nitrogen limits in excess of 210 kg per hectare. There will also be a knock-on effect for tillage farmers supplying grain to service the feed mill industry as well as associated employment in each of the mills.

On the effect of the action plan inside the farm gate, many efficient dairy or beef farmers in the area are stocked at a figure greater than 210 kg per hectare limit. Placing a 170 kg limit on them would effectively cause them to reduce output by at least 20% or incur unnecessary storage and land costs to maintain production. With 79,000 cows producing approximately 79 million gallons of milk, a further 15,000 acres will be needed to sustain milk production in the area but no new land is available. Some 20,000 cattle will be displaced by this process if dairying is to continue.

At a recent meeting we were advised by Dr. James Humphries of Teagasc that milk production could survive at extra cost if dry-stock enterprises were dropped. This implies that neighbouring pig and poultry units should also be left out of the loop to satisfy the organic limit requirements. It is outrageous to think that overnight many farmers will be impeded in their capacity to generate income to maintain any semblance of a livelihood.

I conducted a survey of 40 commercial farmers in the area last year with the ability to use their natural resources. They are not sofa farmers. They make use of early and late grass growth in contrast to continental European farmers. The typical system is dairying and replacements with some engaging in bull beef finishing and the keeping of breeding stock as secondary enterprises. The result of my survey was that the organic nitrogen level on the farms in question was approximately 219 kg per hectare. This does not take account of the fact that, because of the vibrant pig industry in the area, many of the farmers concerned also import pig slurry. If this was taken into account, many would be at the 250 kg per hectare level. The average figure for storage capacity was ten to 11 weeks. Typically, all of the farmers concerned graze their animals when conditions allow. Many of the animals would be kept fully indoors for six weeks and graze early and late. This sustains higher stocking rates.

A commercial farmer with a quota of 80,000 gallons, owning 86 acres and renting 15 would have an organic rate of 222 kg per hectare. Under the new regime, at 170 kg per hectare, he would need an extra 30 acres of land, at a conservative price of €150 per acre, to sustain current stock numbers. Even if he or she made a profit of, for example, €50 an acre on that extra land, it would still involve a lay-out of €3,000 per year. He or she would also, conservatively, have to spend €24,000, after the payment of the grant, on extra storage capacity for a six week period. This amounts to approximately another €3,000 per year over ten years. The overall loss of income involved would be €6,000 per year. If the farmer concerned did not get it right straightaway, his or her single farm payment would also be in the balance. These figures exclude the cost of nutrient management planning and others.

Another issue of concern is the duplication of records. Records must be minimised and simplified. This is possible with modern technology. The CMMS, cattle movement monitoring system, and lACS, integrated administration and control system which deals with area aid matters, should be adequate for competent authority registration purposes. Other farm records being demanded are of no use in the implementation of a successful action plan and will serve only to increase bureaucracy and drive farmers out of business. Farm inspection protocols must be clear and communicated to all farmers. An appeals process should also be available to deal with exceptional circumstances.

On the Government proposal for a derogation, section 3 of the Government consultation document on water quality gives an overview of water quality as backup to the derogation proposal. More up-to-date data showing further improvements in water quality should be presented, for example, that given by Frank O'Flynn to Cork County Council in Blarney last year. It is ironic that in a document making our case for a derogation there are nine pages of data on Irish water quality but only three paragraphs devoted to a favourable comparison with the European Union 25. If we want to make a strong case for a derogation, we should emphasise our climatic and water quality advantages in comparison to the other member states of the European Union rather than point out the glitches in our armour. At every step we should compare our figures with those of our EU counterparts.

Aside from the proposal, it must be argued that any pollution is predominantly point source pollution caused by a minority, be it agricultural, industrial or domestic. In this context, it is unreasonable that the majority should be subjected to such regulation when science can easily prove that it is easily possible to farm at organic levels of up to 330 kg of organic nitrogen per hectare without environmental consequences. On the justification for a derogation, section 6 contains a lot of valuable scientific backup information but does not go far enough in emphasising the unique differential with the rest of Europe.

The action plan has many worthwhile points. We recognise that improvements must be made on-farm to protect our environment. The most serious issue which we would like the joint committee to push for us is the serious justification for a 250 kg of organic nitrogen per hectare limit based on a long growing season in well run grassland or tillage farms. This is the most serious issue facing farmers and agri-business. We have the natural advantages of a mild climate and good farming practice.

As stated in the Brosnan report, the maintenance of the closed period from 15 October to 2 January for zone A is a further issue which should be defended robustly. Any new system should be low cost or free while unnecessary paper trails should be avoided. The current requirements for record-keeping are intrusive and should be revised.

Common sense backed up by science and strong leadership from the Government are needed to bring the nitrates action programme to a successful conclusion. The French can grow grapes — we should be allowed to grow grass.

I welcome the representatives and thank them for their presentations. The meetings we had prior to the programme being agreed were useful because officials from the Department were present. The IFA was also represented. It was a worthwhile exercise.

I am concerned about the short time-frame for sending a response to the Commission. When they appeared before the joint committee, the officials made the point that the action programme, as presented, was soundly based. Judging from Mr. Dillon's comments, despite the fact that he did not agree with everything contained in it, it had the support of the IFA. There was a high level of consultation and the appointment of Mr. Denis Brosnan was effective. Any changes to the package, however, might mean it would not be soundly based. What consultation is now taking place? Will groups such as those before us today have the opportunity to agree with and support the necessary changes?

I also welcome the delegations. The proposed nitrates directive is coming up for discussion at public meetings and meetings of farm organisations. There is a feeling that it will destroy Irish farming, particularly progressive farming. There is no incentive for young people to engage in farming with all the restrictions being proposed. It is important that we defend the Brosnan report, even though it is restrictive.

What discussions have taken place between the Government, farming organisations and producer groups since the report was rejected by the Commission in Brussels? We need a grant aid package to implement the report because it will impose costs on the farming community. Is such a package in place? There was very little in the budget for farmers to comply with the nitrates directive. At the last meeting the IFA gave the estimate of €1 billion required in grant aid.

It is important that we defend the Brosnan report. We need strong leadership on this issue because we have seen countries such as Denmark digging in their heels and getting their way. We must adopt the European constitution in the near future. There will be a grievance among farmers if action is not taken to ensure farmers are not put out of business.

I welcome the delegations. The country is in a serious position. We are caught between a decision made by the European Court of Justice that Ireland is not compliant and the consequences for commercial farming.

Two weeks ago the representatives of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Agriculture and Food, Teagasc and the EPA appeared before the joint committee. In the course of that session the Assistant Secretary General of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government told us that Ireland had until 22 March to notify the Commission of its plan to become compliant and that the Commission had taken the view that there would not be any consideration of a derogation until there was a compliance action programme in place. If that does not happen by 22 March, the Commission will move quickly to institute proceedings in the European Court of Justice, culminating in the imposition of daily fines plus the possibility of a substantial lump sum fine, which will not be welcome news to the taxpayer. The reasoned opinion could be given as early as June 2005, remarkably quickly, suggesting there is rapid movement on the issue.

The officials set out for us the response the Commission had given to the country in which it stated that the derogation referred to up to 250 kg was regarded as self-granted, the implication being that it would not agree to something already stated in explicit terms. In the course of that discussion we were told that the response which the State would send to the Commission would have to be approved by the Government.

That was two weeks ago and the delegations have been in discussions with the Departments since. The picture presented to the joint committee until now by the Departments is that the Commission is taking a hard line on this issue and is not for turning on the strength of the European Court of Justice decision. How confident are the farming organisations that an action programme can be agreed with the Commission that does not expose taxpayers to fines for non-compliance with the nitrates directive if the Commission decides to proceed, as it has indicated, to court? What progress has been made since we spoke to the Departments involved?

I also welcome the delegations. There is cross-party support among the members of the joint committee on the plight of the farming community. The Brosnan submission is considered as fair and the questions about it have been put. My main concern is time. Much has been said about the cost to the taxpayer of fines if the directive is not implemented. That money would be better spent on grant aid to the farming community to facilitate the extra storage. We could bring this compromise back to the Commission.

I would like some clarification on the issue of Ireland having a derogation from the start. Is that seen as a short-term solution, or would the IFA prefer to see it in the final document as a long-term objective?

I too welcome the groups here today and thank them for bringing us up to date and making their views clear. What is their opinion on the earth bank storage system and whether it would be popular when it is open? Might it overflow? Is it a good idea?

I invite the IFA to respond first.

Mr. Michael Berkery

Before Denis Brosnan signed off on his report there was wide consultation ranging from us to the Association of County Managers to the Environmental Protection Agency and across all environmental groups, and farmers. Our president said already that we did not agree with everything in it because we were shoehorned into certain commitments that he would put to Brussels as part of the package.

We believed that was the end of the matter because while he was acting independently and as an honest broker, he was aware, through the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government and contact with Brussels, of the shape of the programme to be submitted. Since then consultation has been limited and the Department has not given us the details of the sticking points. It has given us a broad range of issues but has taken the view that because of the court implications it is not at liberty to disclose the Commission's full position on this. That limits our capacity to respond because every additional requirement costs money.

There are two cost elements for a farmer, one being the capital cost of compliance, such as the investment in the storage requirements etc. Our president is better qualified to speak on the earth bank storage but it is connected to the cost base. If one can provide adequate storage through the earth bank system that Teagasc has perfected it is a relatively inexpensive way to meet the storage requirements. Teagasc will produce a detailed specification on this soon. The reinforced concrete and steel structures are very expensive. Agriculture does not have the income generating capacity to pay for this. The stocking density possibilities, and whether the derogation is for 250 kilos or how far above 170 kilos, will determine the loss. The Carbery country, and the area from which the other gentlemen come, feature intensive stocking, high output farming and farmers there would be faced with substantial destocking. That equates to loss of income and will be a significant cost. The outcome will be predicated on the weight in the derogation.

Deputy Gilmore's point about the national view and interest concerns us because of the fine. I am aware that the assistant secretary of the Department referred to that before this committee. I have the full communication from Brussels and the nitrates directive is only one of at least five areas about which he has received final warnings, such as waste water treatment in Bray, Shanganah, Howth, Letterkenny, Sligo and Tramore. He has a problem with wastewater odours in Dublin Port, Tyna Mines and the Boyne estuary. He is in court on several issues besides the nitrates directive and potentially in court on many other issues. Nevertheless, that does not obviate the need for final agreement in our sector.

In the partnership programme the Government committed to achieving a derogation of 250 kilos. That is the top of the range and is the Dutch derogation.

Mr. Jim Devlin

That came about through a political agreement.

Mr. Berkery

It was a political agreement between the Commissioner and the Dutch Minister for the Environment. The Dutch achieved a legal 250 kilo derogation for at least four years which is the length of the programmes. Our colleague with a scientific background has amplified all the environmental reasons we are better positioned than the Dutch to achieve that.

The Commissioner says that until we clear the action programme we cannot deal with the derogation. That posed some problems for us as well because from the farmer's point of view it does not matter whether that comes in the derogation or the action programme. The net point is that it involves a new raft of compliances and a substantial capital cost to meet those obligations. If the derogation is 250 kilos there might be tighter restrictions; 230 seemed to be a given in the Brosnan report, at just over one livestock unit per acre, and 170 kilos is for the 50,000 farmers in the rural environment protection scheme. That is fine because it is a scheme of choice.

We are very concerned and immediately after receiving the response from Brussels we recapped the situation with the head of research in Teagasc. The team that supported the Brosnan study confirmed that it stood over the scientific input it gave to Teagasc. That was the basis on which Denis Brosnan made the recommendation to Brussels. Mr. Brosnan informed us that he was not going to Brussels with a wish list but a rationally, scientifically supported basis for the programme. He believed that if it had to be defended in Brussels, Teagasc would be available to do so. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, however, does not see the world this way. It believes that it is the only party involved. While Teagasc is the agency with the research database, it has not been involved in defending or advancing the Irish action programme to Brussels.

There has been no acknowledgement that this is a four year programme. Let us see what the environmental response will be to it. A draconian programme can be introduced which the sector cannot afford to carry. There are political implications in how it will impact on people. People will react negatively if undue, unnecessary or unjustifiable requirements are imposed. The 1980s legislation introduced was designed for a different Europe and different countries. As we have good faith in those countries, it is not my role to point to their problems. However, anyone who knows the areas of Europe at which the original directive was aimed, will be aware of the scientific evidence that shows the difficulties these areas have. Ireland is nowhere close to that situation.

Counties Cavan and Leitrim, for example, are certainly anything but prosperous in farming or the national economy. They have suffered a heavy burden of the storage costs and the issue of grant aid does arise. The IFA believes that if the storage standard specification was sorted first, then the grant aid issue could follow. We have not approached this on the basis that throwing money at the problem is the only solution. There have to be other ways because there is a question of long-term sustainability for farming and the regional environment. The IFA wishes to be positively engaged in working out a solution.

Immense effort and hours have been put in by the IFA to find the solution. Mr. Tom Dunne, our specialist, is a farmer from the Mitchelstown area and he, along with others not here, have put immense effort in reaching consensus with Denis Brosnan. We were very disappointed when the programme was not accepted. On the day before the decision was announced that the Commission had a problem with the application, the Taoiseach was at the Farm Centre. He commended the IFA and those involved in working out the proposals sent to Brussels. He was no sooner away from the office than a press release from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was released stating the action programme had been rejected.

Mr. Sean O’Sullivan

Mr. Berkery has adequately responded to all the issues raised by the committee. Deputy Gilmore put his finger on it when he said this will probably be a political decision. That is uppermost in our minds and, we hope, the committee's when putting forward its recommendation to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. There will have to be an economic rationale to the final decision on the action programme. We are representing a particular sector and part of the country with specific needs. The profile has been outlined by my colleague, Mr. O'Mahony. In an EU context, it is difficult to legislate on an environmental issue on a common basis. It is also difficult to enforce a directive that will have the same impact on a farmer in northern Europe as a farmer in west Cork, without taking into account major climatic and economic differences. One hopes these factors will be taken on board by members of the committee and conveyed to the Minister. I thank the committee for providing the opportunity to make this presentation.

Mr. Dillon

Some concerns are simply not getting through to Brussels. The nitrate directive was introduced in 1991. At that time, there were many misunderstandings regarding environmental issues. Since then, farmers have invested heavily in dealing with the issue and there has been a large reduction in the use of artificial fertilisers. Farmers are now very clued into the environment, ensuring it is not damaged. The main source of pollution from farming is from point source for which storage is needed. Earthen tanks, used by Teagasc scientifically at research stations, could be put in place in a short time if the will was there.

Deputy Gilmore asked what we will do as the directive's deadline is three weeks away. The Government will have to look for an extension to the deadline if it cannot be sorted before then. An extension is the least that should be sought to ensure the Brosnan report is agreed. The report is soundly based. A member stated that if one moves away from a sound basis, it could become unsound. The issues have to be dealt with politically by the Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Agriculture and Food.

Mr. Rory Deasy

We, as farmers and their representatives, believe that much investment has been made in tackling this matter and may improvements have been made. The submitted action programme was scientifically based. The Minister must go to Brussels to defend it and, if needs be, bring in the Teagasc scientists, who are not pulling figures from the air. We do not want an injustice done in this matter. We do not want to receive a sentence for pollution that is not being caused. It is incredible to think that we are being asked to introduce slurry storage. If one goes to Rhode, County Offaly, one will see raw sewage being discharged there. I reiterate the Brosnan report was not dreamt up but based on scientific evidence.

I do not understand this idea of farming to arbitrary dates. Common sense should come into play here which does not seem to be happening. It seems to be scientists against this and that person. Common sense must come into it. We have seen very dry spells in February, March and April and have often seen very wet periods in May, June and July when it is not possible to bring machinery onto land. There will be a great deal of bureaucracy and red tape in what is coming from Brussels. We must reject that and bring back the common sense element to this matter, or else we will not survive as an industry. We should move ahead with one voice.

While there will be much bureaucracy and so on if the Brosnan report is implemented, we must defend it and show very strong leadership. We must go united to Brussels on this matter because if we go divided, we will fail and cost this nation and the taxpayers huge sums of money.

Mr. John O’Donovan

It is important that we get the 170 kg derogation increased to 250 kg. I know that the word "intensive" no longer seems a good word but in Cork and west Cork, far more farms and families depend on agriculture because a living can be made due to good grass growth, good land and good climate. It is vitally important that the 250 kg derogation is given and at no great cost. If there is a cost, and a huge annual consultancy fee, the farmer is also responsible for any cost regarding regulation infringement. Therefore, we cannot continue farming. I have two sons, but though they have a good farm they are turning their back on agriculture. That story is being heard everywhere.

This country produces great food and has the ability to do so. It would be terrible if we were to drive existing farmers and young people away from agriculture as a result of regulations and infringements and the way inspectors can walk onto one's farm. A heap of farmyard manure might not be covered with plastic so one has to cart dung out to the field on a windy day, remove the plastic, tip the load of dung and replace the plastic. Honest to goodness, what can one say of the people who made such regulations? Do they know what they are demanding?

We are good at what we do and should be left to do it. The 250 kg derogation should be given. That would maintain the rural economy. We produce food as good as anywhere in the world. It would be a shame if we forced people off the land to the extent that we would then import all our beef from South America and our milk from elsewhere in Europe. It is vitally important that we get the derogation, and at no great cost.

Mr. Tom Dunne

I will address the issue of the costs that would be involved in this action programme as it currently stands. Martin O'Sullivan & Associates undertook a study on our behalf which estimated that the costs of the extra slurry storage alone would be around €1 billion — and that would be if the earthen bank system were allowed. As it stands, that system has not yet been approved. If the earthen bank system is not allowed, all the storage will be in the form of concrete and steel. We all know the pressures on the supply of concrete and particularly steel. Every bit of steel in the world currently seems to be going to China and the cost is rising all the time.

If the earthen system were not to be involved, the costs would be astronomical. That cost would inevitably lead to a social cost for the countryside because people will not make this investment. Farmers must either make a very substantial investment or leave. Unfortunately, as John O'Donovan said, young people are deciding not to enter agriculture. Therefore, the majority will decide to leave. That would be a catastrophe for the countryside because it depends on agriculture, which is the backbone of the countryside and of country populations.

Regarding earthen bank tanks, certain officials have told us that there is no way they will allow that system because they do not want people going round the country with JCBs digging holes. If we hear that, the Deputies will certainly hear it too. One is not talking about a hole in the ground. Engineering specifications are involved. The systems have been tried and tested. Teagasc has this system in place for over 20 years. There is an engineering standard for it, which we have. As it is available from Teagasc, the Deputies can see it for themselves if they wish. We are not talking of something which is a threat to the environment. The earthen bank tank system is the only system which from the scientific point of view is 100% proof against pollution.

We feel very strongly that the system should already have been put in place because the specifications are there for at least a year and the system has been scientifically approved for quite a long time. It makes us a little nervous to think that the Department of Agriculture and Food and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government are not willing to move forward with this, as we wonder about their commitment to the whole industry for the future. Do they believe that the nitrates action programme and/or the derogation which we need for the nitrates directive is as important as it really is? Do they think that we put in such a huge effort for no reason? When we say it is a great worry for us, do they believe us at all?

The matter has come back from Brussels. Having put so much work in, we believed that we had reached a compromise situation and that the Commission would take it on board. We now find that in three weeks' time, the country is being threatened with heavy fines. In many ways these are terror tactics with the Commission coming back at this stage, putting the gun to the head of the Government and saying that fines will be applied unless certain action is taken.

Other countries have reached compromises. The derogation the Dutch achieved despite their environmental status and the status of their water is unbelievable. One can compare that to the situation in Ireland where we have very good and improving water quality and reduced inputs. Our climatic condition and our grass-based system and everything else is in our favour. All of those elements are written in to the nitrates directive and we have them all. From that point of view we find it unbelievable that we should be under this kind of a threat at this late stage in the game.

Mr. O’Mahony

It would be nice if the Minister for Finance, the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government got together. We could make the action plan work. Most farmers farm efficiently and respect the land. They are caretakers for the land they farm. It would be good if, as well as implementing the action plan, the Ministers could get together and be seen to be proactive by being forthcoming with investment, such as in storage, for example, rather than paying for end-of-pipe treatment afterwards, and by investing in waste water treatment requirements. If the Government was seen to be bringing forward a strong programme in conjunction with the action plan, that would show that we are taking the whole issue seriously. It would help the situation.

I was interested in what Mr. Dunne said about the earthen bank tank system. What happens if there is a month or six weeks of heavy rain? Will the whole place fill up? How does one get around that? I know that one cannot spread it. There is rain, and one would have to pump the slurry into it. What is the position? How does one manage that?

I have two points, the first regarding the earthen bank storage system on farms. What level of discussions has taken place between the farming organisations and the Department of Agriculture and Food? It would come under the remit of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, since usually, I am sure, it would be responsible under planning guidelines. As with development charges, very high costs would be imposed here. Is that envisaged by the IFA?

Regarding REPS, more farmers in Ireland participate than in any other country. Has that been brought to the Commissioner's attention? I am well aware that in the midlands a very high number of farmers comply with or are part of REPS. There is compliance there, and practices in farming have improved greatly over the last decade because of it. Perhaps the witnesses might elaborate on REPS.

The witnesses are saying that the Government should stand firm on the Brosnan formula. What is their own sense from contacts and networking in Brussels of whether that will survive? They seem to have slung it out with a bang. Will it run? If the Government stands firm on Brosnan and runs the risk of going back to court and everything else that the Commission is threatening, is there a reasonably good prospect of its ultimate survival?

Mr. Dillon

First, I will comment on the earthen bank tanks and overflow. Everyone would have a good idea of how much water will fall and go into the tank. Whatever way, on average one will have a good idea of how it will fill up over a period. One also knows how much organic manure is produced from the animals. Therefore, when the water and manure are all added together, it is very easy to assess the size of the tank to cover a whole year, six months, two months or whatever from an earthen bank perspective.

The planning charges are a serious issue. It would be crazy to think that one could have such a charge to build an earthen tank. It can be done and is being done by Teagasc in several areas without very high costs, and why should we have to bear any further costs? It is being done very successfully.

Regarding REPS, if the earthen bank tanks had been approved long ago, we would have many more people in REPS and a much better environment from that perspective. In other words, they would be farming according to the rules of REPS, which means under 170 kg of organic nitrates. Some of them are working under it anyway, but they are not in REPS, since they cannot afford the cost of erecting concrete structures, which they have been expected to do hitherto. The earthen bank issue has been discussed with the Department of Agriculture and Food and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government over the seven or eight years since I got involved. I wonder what is wrong with it and whether they are listening at all. Do they need to go back to school? There is a problem of understanding why the issue was not resolved long ago. I will leave the other answers to my colleagues.

Mr. Berkery

I can see from where Deputy Gilmore is coming. Clearly there is compliance and the impact on the farmer, but there is also the east-west dimension to it. Brussels has a great deal of power through the court case. The regulations have been around since 1991, and it is a little late for recriminations. We are not going to go back on that. It was not on this side of the table that the delays occurred. We have engaged actively with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government since it came to the table with reasonably strong proposals. It was the five-year down-time that got us into the court cycle. We want out. It was not of our making. We did not go knocking on the door of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government asking it to implement the nitrates directive. I want to say this categorically: we can supply the evidence. It was not of our making that four years were lost.

Now, we are out of time and the court action has clicked in. Therefore, the weight of the court is coming down the tracks against the Government. As I have said, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has been less than fulsome in declaring the problem areas. For example, we know that one such area is the fact that the action programme did not contain binding rules included. That is a matter of setting up a statutory instrument or a ministerial order — whatever instrument is to be used to implement the regulation. It is not a major deficiency to rectify. It is simply a question of saying that whatever procedure must be gone through in the House or in this committee will be signed off, leaving us with a statutory instrument or a ministerial order to make it law, with inspections, penalties and all the enforcement procedures that go with it. There is no need to procrastinate about that. We should be able to do it immediately.

The issues that concern us or affect us directly include further storage. Let us take the case of people in the south Cork area, the county in general or those counties mentioned in the report on the southern corridor of the country. It is extremely difficult to go to any farmer, environmentalist or even to Teagasc and say that there are people in Brussels who know better or best and that because we have the powers through the directive to make them do something, they will have to comply. Of course, they will justify it predicated on a precautionary principle, but that costs everyone in the farming community a great deal of money. There is, therefore, always some risk. We have said that the cost of storage should be brought onto the table. Extra storage is no luxury or load, and it is useful to have it. It cannot do any harm so long as it does not cost much.

It is very difficult, particularly in the early part of the year, to say that we will add another two or three weeks to the closed period. It simply defies all science, and Teagasc can demonstrate that through grass measurement, the co-operatives and people who have put in place models to verify this. We are not pleading or positioning ourselves for an exemption or something that does not apply or cannot be enforced. We and the industry can verify what we say. Therein lies the dilemma.

It is easy to say that we will tweak it a little here and there. For example, we have heard the argument that Donegal must have more storage because it would be difficult to explain how one could have a different regime in Northern Ireland. That is not a very good scientific basis. However, I can see that an administrator or bureaucrat in Brussels would ask how one could have the Border stopping at Lifford, leaving the area up to Inishowen with different storage from those across in Strabane. That is the kind of attitude that needs to be explained to a Donegal farmer, who has the best water quality in the country.

County Donegal has the highest quality of water in the country and probably one of the highest in Europe outside the alpine and the far northern regions. That type of attitude from a bureaucratic mindset does not fit with what we are trying to achieve and takes the view that we are being reluctant or recalcitrant. It is a major cost, a whole new intrusion into farming, but if the right basis is achieved initially, it will be possible to go forward.

Denis Brosnan has an immense track record of achievement in business. It includes a history of achievement as regards all the regulatory areas he has had to comply with over his career. Perhaps it is somewhat unconventional for officials of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to come to terms with, but why not have Mr. Brosnan on the team? The Dutch have the best people. They used a similar process.

We did not come to this view with the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, as regards introducing Mr. Brosnan. That was not plucked out of the air. We know, for example, that IBEC have had difficulties with the Department as regards trading emissions and so on. It used Professor Ed Walsh as a broker to try to find an accommodation between what the regulators wanted and what industry could live with. Professor Walsh was used in that process in Brussels.

We have nothing to hide or to fear. There is a saying in the Danish language that if one does not know where one is going, any signpost will lead one there. We feel like that, somewhat, in this situation. We sort of have a regulation and so it is a case of let us get it over with and implemented, as it is only the farmers who will have to carry the burden of it. We would like to know where we are going specifically. Why not use Mr. Brosnan and the best people in Teagasc to support the case?

There is no question that this is a difficulty for the Department. Its officials may well be tuned into this meeting. If so, I would like to convey the message to them that they should bring the full team on to the pitch and intensify negotiations over the next couple of weeks. It is not that we are saying No, but rather that it must be right to start with. Within that equation, perhaps the Minister has a role to play as well.

Mr. Dillon

This rejection of the action programme presents a number of difficulties. Mr. O'Donovan has commented about the derogation. The entire issue of the action programme and derogation was a package. It is all linked in together. If one removes pieces from the action programme the derogation will be affected. The whole thing joins together and it is much larger than just looking at an action programme. I have to support the comments made by my colleague, Mr. Berkery as regards getting all the team onto the field. It is the only way forward and to ensure that this is resolved once and for all.

The committee needs to conclude its deliberations now. Mr. Dunne has something to say.

Mr. Dunne

Deputy Moynihan addressed a question to me as regards the issue of the earthen bank tanks. I can see some members of the committee find it difficult to understand. Perhaps I might suggest the committee gets the specifications from Teagasc. It is not for us to give them. However, Teagasc could give the specifications, along with an explanation of the earthen bank tanks. They have been in place for a long time and have been working for 20 years or more. I have had one on my own farm for more than 12 years and it works very well. There is no issue involved, as such. It is an engineering specification and it is a question of having enough space to do the job. The bottom line is that it works.

Mr. Berkery made the point earlier that the IFA did not get the finer details as regards the rejection of the Brosnan report. Did Mr. Brosnan get it? If he did not, that should be all the more reason why he should be brought on to the team at this stage.

Mr. Berkery

I cannot speak for Mr. Brosnan, but we have not been given an itemised Commission response. We have had informal contacts and so on and he was to be an adviser on the Government's submission. That might answer the question. He probably has a role to play, independently, as regards what goes back to Europe. If all the proposals made at today's meeting are taken into consideration, I believe we meet our obligations to support the case made to the committee in making that submission back to Europe.

The committee will be addressing this issue on an ongoing basis. It will not be going away.

I am concerned if Mr. Brosnan was not given the finer details as regards the rejection of his report. After all, he prepared it.

There is a deadline and a couple of suggestions have been made which should be put to the Department, arising from the exchange of views. There is the question of mobilising the full team which would include Mr. Brosnan, the scientific personnel, the Teagasc people, etc. While it may not have been put quite so explicitly, what I am hearing is that the case may not have been adequately batted for. If this is so, then there needs to be a serious presentation of the case before 22 March. If at the end of that presentation there is still a problem, sin scéal eile. It appears to me that the case needs to be fully and adequately explained and argued for. The suggestion made along those lines should be put by the Chairman of the committee to the Department, arising from today's discussions and those we had on 9 February.

The next meeting is on 2 March. I suggest we put this item on the agenda, as to how we want to proceed with our deliberations on this issue. We can consider that between now and then.

I thank the president and members of the IFA and the various agricultural delegates from Cork for their presentations this afternoon. This is an issue we will be addressing on an ongoing basis. It is a matter of great concern to the committee's members and we will be glad to keep in touch with the delegates about this situation.

The joint committee went into private session at 4.29 p.m. and adjourned at 4.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 2 March 2005.