Ireland’s reputation for clean and environmentally friendly food production has gained by comparison with some of our EU neighbours.
The Dutch milk reduction of 3%, after a phosphate reduction plan came into effect in 2017, was the first example of one of the main EU agricultural nations deliberately curbing production due to environmental constraints.
It sent an important message to all EU member states that the EU was deadly serious about enforcing environmental regulations such as the phosphate production ceiling.
It provided some reassurance for Irish farmers that they remain among the EU’s more environmentally friendly farmers.
And the government here is taking steps to maintain that status, with a new set of rules on the way, that will make life more difficult for our most intensive dairy farmers, but all in the interests of maintaining water quality.
Dutch dairy farmers had to cut their dairy cow numbers 7%, but managed to increase the average yield enough to end up with only 3% less milk production.
Now, the pressure is increasing on their neighbour, Germany, to toe the environmental line.
Visitors to farms in some parts of Germany will be surprised to find that irrigating crops adds nitrogen fertiliser to them, because there is so much nitrate in the country’s groundwater. For years, the EU Commission has warned Germany about illegally high levels of nitrate in groundwater.
In yet another warning letter at the end of July, the European Commission called on Germany’s environment ministry to increase its efforts to reduce nitrate in groundwater.
By doing so, Germany would comply with a ruling of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) of June 2018.
If the German government does not propose appropriate measures within eight weeks, the next stage of proceedings might bring another ECJ judgment, and fines as high as €850,000 per day.
EU member states are subject to a nitrate directive which sets thresholds, and must be transposed into their national law.
The ECJ found Germany’s in 2017 revision of their 2006 fertiliser regulation to be insufficient.
By May 2020, a new regulation needs to be tabled.
It will be interesting to see how lenient or strict the European Commission will be in its environmental dealings with Germany, seen by many as the power centre of the EU.
Already, Germany’s farmers’ lobby, have been unhappy with what they see as EU heavy-handedness.
The problem of nitrate pollution in Germany is mainly due to intensive livestock farming.
The environment ministry’s nitrate report of 2016 showed 28% of measurement points exceeded the maximum permissible level.
It’s a multi-generational problem, because groundwater can take decades to regenerate.
Nitrate does not pose a significant threat to adult humans.
However, it threatens water biodiversity. It is the European Commission’s job to monitor compliance with EU law in European member states.
The Commission will send a letter of formal notice, to which the member state addressed needs to reply within two months.
Following that, the Commission sends an opinion, based on which proceedings can be initiated before the ECJ.
There are currently 78 active infringement proceedings against Germany.
Here, farmers say the government’s demand that 12,000 farmers use special slurry equipment by April 2020 doesn’t give farmers time enough.
But Agriculture and Environment Ministers Creed and Murphy, no doubt looking over their shoulders at Brussels, say intensive farming must be complemented with a high level of water quality protection, especially after recent water quality results show that significant additional effort is required if the long-term water quality targets in the EU Water Framework Directive are to be achieved.”