Our farms rate high in EU sustainability

High agriculture standards have boosted Ireland’s scores in the EU’s latest monitoring of progress towards sustainable development.

Our farms rate high in EU sustainability

By Stephen Cadogan

High agriculture standards have boosted Ireland’s scores in the EU’s latest monitoring of progress towards sustainable development.

Ireland scored relatively well for biochemical oxygen demand in rivers, nitrate in groundwater, phosphates in rivers, nitrogen balance on agricultural land, and ammonia emissions from agriculture — all of which depend on care for the environment by farmers.

However, Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions per capita, at 13 tonnes per capita in 2016, compares with an EU average of 8 tonnes. One third of these emissions come from our agriculture.

Biochemical oxygen demand in rivers is about 1mg of oxygen per litre in Ireland, compared to a 2mg EU-average, and over 5mg in Sweden, the highest figure. High values indicate organic pollution. Only the EU’s cleanest rivers have less than 1 mg/L. Moderately polluted rivers have 2-8 mg/L. The figures come from Eurostat’s new Sustainable Development in the European Union collection of statistics.

Ireland had 11 mg of nitrate per litre of groundwater in 2012, compared to an EU average of nearly 20mg, and the worst offenders, Malta, Cyprus, Spain, Luxembourg, and Belgium, all over 30. In 2012, the EU average nitrate in groundwater was at the same level as in 2000, indicating no long-term progress.

Ireland also has low phosphates in rivers, measured in 2014 at about 0.02mg per litre, compared to an EU average of about 0.07mg, and the worst offenders, Belgium, Luxembourg, the UK, Bulgaria, and Slovakia, all over 0.1.No figure was included in the report for the Netherlands, where the EU forced the dairy industry to get rid of about 122,000 cows, due to an ongoing phosphate problem.

Nitrogen balance measures the potential surplus or deficit in agricultural soils. A lack of nitrogen may reduce soil fertility, while an excess may cause water pollution. The EU nitrogen balance on agricultural land has fluctuated from a low of 46 kg per hectare in 2009 to 51 kg in 2015.

From 2010 to 2015, it rose in Ireland from about 30 to about 43kg. But it exceeded 75kg in 2015, in Cyprus, the Netherlands, Malta, Belgium, Luxembourg (all over 125kg), the Czech Republic, the UK, Germany, and Denmark. Nitrogen inputs consist of mineral fertilisers, animal manure, nitrogen fixation by legumes, and deposition from the air. Nitrogen output is in crops harvested or eaten by livestock.

Ammonia emissions from agriculture in 2016 averaged 20 kg per ha of utilised agricultural area in the EU, but were at 25 kg in Ireland.

The highest levels were in Malta and the Netherlands (both over 60), and levels exceeded 30mg in Luxembourg, Cyprus, Slovenia, Germany, and Belgium.

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