Our deteriorating water quality a warning of things to come

Recourse to young calf slaughter facilities must only be used as an absolute last resort, and must be phased out, IFA has told its members.

Our deteriorating water quality a warning of things to come

Recourse to young calf slaughter facilities must only be used as an absolute last resort, and must be phased out, IFA has told its members.

IFA reminded them that consumers want to know that Irish dairy products are produced not just responsibly in regard to health and the environment, but also ethically, from an animal welfare point of view.

Any Irish farmer that thinks they can ride roughshod over such considerations would do well to investigate the current state of affairs in the Netherlands.

Nitrogen from the country’s intensive livestock farms has triggered a national crisis in the Netherlands, the worst — according to Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte — since July 2014, when 298 passengers and crew were killed when a passenger flight from Amsterdam was shot down over Ukraine.

Expansion of Dutch livestock operations is now curtailed because of the nitrogen pollution they produce. But the Dutch high court also suspended permits for construction projects that pollute the atmosphere with nitrogen compounds. That includes new homes, roads, and airport runways. Even reinforcement of dikes that hold back floodwaters had to be put on hold.

The shutdown puts an estimated €14 billion worth of projects in jeopardy, nearly paralysing the country, with the protesting farmers who recently caused the country’s worst-ever traffic jams adding to the chaos.

It can serve as a warning to any Irish farmers flouting the rules. There are rumours that some are cruelly disposing of unwanted dairy calves. Any farmers doing that are probably equally careless about nitrogen rules, and the result of that was revealed this week - overall water quality in Ireland's rivers, lakes and estuaries getting worse, after a period of relative stability and improvement.

For a taste of what may be in store for careless Irish farmers, a lesson can be learned from the Netherlands, where more and more shrinkage of the country’s livestock sector looks inevitable, because of nitrogen pollution.

Dutch agriculture is responsible for nearly half of the nitrogen pollution in the country, however, dense urbanisation also makes the Netherlands a nitrogen hot spot.

Dutch farms contain four times more animals per hectare than the EU average. Their biggest problem is ammonia emissions from livestock sheds. Nitrogen, mostly from farms, exceeds ecological risk thresholds by 50% on average. Plant diversity has decreased, with nitrogen-loving grasses, shrubs, and trees invading. This, in turn, lowers insect and bird diversity.

In 2015, the Netherlands introduced nitrogen permits that allowed construction if, for example, regional governments reduce nitrogen from other sectors.

This wasn’t enough to satisfy environmental groups. They sued the Dutch government in 2016, the cases ended up in the EU’ s Court of Justice, which ruled against the Dutch government, and the Dutch high court has halted all permit applications.

The government has to devise a better system and a long-term plan to reduce nitrogen. Short-term fixes include a daytime motorway speed limit of 100 km per hour, calculated to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from vehicles enough to restart some home building.

The government also wants changes in animal feed, and to buy out some farms near nature reserves.

In the longer term, Dutch farms may be banned from producing more manure than they can use to fertilise nearby fields. Concentrate feed amount upper limits may be set, and pigs and poultry may have to eat more food waste.

If the Netherlands get such measures, EU courts might impose similar decisions on other European nations.

Therefore, Irish farmers should be aware of the threat to their future livelihoods posed by nitrogen in artificial fertiliser or slurry washing off fields and ending up in lakes and coastal areas, causing algal blooms that kill marine life, or harming ecosystems.

Equally, nitrogen is vapourised as ammonia from livestock urine and manure in farmyards.

In the Netherlands, ammonia emissions have decreased by 64% since 1990, due to low-emission animal housing, covering of manure storages, low-emission slurry application, and improved feed formulations.

Dutch farmers recently asked the Government for nearly €3 billion over five years to help pay for more environmentally friendly ways to deal with manure.

Irish farmers are only at the starting point of such requirements.

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