A review of the rules surrounding the use and management of nitrogen and phosphorous on Irish farms is being led by Local Government Minister Simon Coveney and Agriculture Minister Michael Creed.
It provides a real opportunity to reverse decades of declining soil fertility levels and ensure Ireland’s farming sector is well positioned to sustainably grow agri-food exports over the next decade, to almost €20bn, and to create 23,000 jobs in the sector.
Farming and the wider agri-food sector is the backbone of economic activity in rural Ireland, undertaken in every county and parish. It is also Ireland’s largest indigenous sector, providing employment to more than 300,000 people directly and indirectly. Despite wider economic challenges, exports from the agri-food sector have grown by more than 50% since 2009, reaching over €11b in 2016.
This growth has been delivered through increased efficiency and better use of resources. For example, since 1996 cattle numbers in Ireland have reduced by 1 million, greenhouse gasses have declined by 4 million tonnes, and rivers considered to be seriously polluted have declined by 92%.
This good work is underpinned by a high level of collaboration in the sector. Initiatives such as the IFA led Smart Farming programme and the IDIA’s Dairy Sustainability Initiative support strong Government policies, such as the Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS), in which almost 50% of measures are aimed at improving water quality.
Challenges remain, however. The national population has increased by more than 1.1 million over the past two decades and 43 local authority/Irish Water sites are still discharging untreated sewage into rivers and lakes.
This is contributing to a decline in the number of high quality river sites.
Despite these challenges, Ministers Coveney and Creed must use the current nitrates review to build on the progress made so far by the farming community, whose investment of €2bn with support from Government has brought Ireland’s farmyards to the highest environmental standards and is paying dividends.
Priorities in the Nitrates review
Chief priorities in the Nitrates Review are the continuation of both the derogation for the dairy and livestock sector and the transitional arrangements for pig and poultry farmers.
Even though less than 5% of farmers in Ireland avail of the nitrates derogation, they represent a cohort of progressive farmers who will underpin the development of the sector in the coming years, and are making farm management decisions today on the legitimate expectation that Ireland’s derogation will continue.
It is worth noting that these derogation farmers endure increased compliance obligations, administrative burdens and face a greater likelihood of being inspected.
The call by IFA for the continuation of the transitional arrangements for pig and poultry farmers is a direct result of Government’s failure to develop a coherent bio-energy policy, and in particular an anaerobic digestion policy, with the necessary supports.
The options are limited here. To avoid imposing thousands of euros of haulage costs on pig and poultry farmers, the transitional arrangements must be extended — at least until we see the long–awaited renewable heat incentive being introduced.
Improving soil fertility
Fertile soils are the bed-rock of grass and crop growth. However, low farm incomes and heavy regulatory activities have contributed to a reduction in fertiliser use in recent years. This has led to a decline in soil fertility levels, with only a small proportion of soil samples (10% for grassland and 12% for tillage) showing good overall soil fertility.
Currently, two thirds of soils nationally have a sub-optimal pH status, indicating a requirement for lime on most farms. Liming creates the optimum pH environment by neutralising acidity in soils, and making nutrients available to grow crops and reduce the risk of run-off.
A lime investment programme must be introduced as part of this review to support the rebuilding of fertile soils. This must be supported by more open access to Teagasc’s nutrient management planning tools, which should be available to all farmers at no cost initially to maximise adoption of best practice.
This review is taking place at an important time in the development of Ireland’s agri-food sector. Many of the measures proposed by IFA in this review are focused on better resource management, which delivers on the double dividend of reducing costs while protecting the environment by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and the risk to water quality.
In addition, the farming community is well positioned to continue to play its part in Ireland’s recovery. However, vital policy support to deliver sustainable growth is required across, all sections of Government. It’s now the time for Ministers Coveney and Creed to use this review to ensure they play their part.
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