Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue, is set to present Ireland’s case for retaining its current nitrates derogation to the European Union (EU) next week. On Monday evening (September 4), the minister will hold a video call with Virginijus Sinkevicius, the European Commissioner for the Environment. Officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) and the commissioner’s office will also be present during the call.
Ireland’s nitrates derogation allows farmers to farm at higher stocking rates, above 170kg livestock manure nitrogen per hectare (N/ha), up to 250kg nitrogen/ha. Only four EU member states operate a derogation, namely Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the Flanders region of Belgium. Approximately 7,000 Irish farmers benefit from the derogation at varying levels.
When the EU Commission granted Ireland’s nitrates derogation for the period 2022-2025, a requirement was included for Ireland to conduct a two-year review of water quality in 2022. This additional conditionality was imposed due to concerning trends in Irish water quality. The review compared water quality data from 2021 and 2022. The commission stated that if water quality is poor or worsening trends are observed between 2021 and 2022, the maximum livestock manure N/ha limit must be reduced from 250kg N/ha to 220kg N/ha starting from January 2024.
In July, Ireland’s case to maintain the current derogation was weakened when a report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified areas where the derogation would have to be reduced. The EPA highlighted an increase in nutrient concentrations in most water types since 2012/2013. According to the EPA, “Nitrate concentrations were higher in 2022 than in 2021.” Consequently, the impacted areas will see the derogation limit reduced from 250kg of N/ha to 220kg N/ha starting from January 2024. This reduction is expected to have a significant economic impact on farmers in these regions.
Minister Charlie McConalogue has previously expressed his desire for “flexibility” from the EU Commission regarding the nitrates derogation. Officials from DAFM and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage have been in discussions with the commission regarding the EPA report and its implications for the Nitrates Action Programme (NAP). In preparation for the upcoming call, the minister has written to Commissioner Sinkevicius, emphasizing the importance of the derogation in Ireland’s grass-based agricultural system. The letter also included submissions from the Agriculture Water Quality Working Group, which consists of representatives from farm organizations, the agri-food industry, Teagasc, private agricultural consultants, local authorities, An Fóram Uisce, and officials from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, along with DAFM.
It is understood that Commissioner Sinkevicius will indicate whether or not he will consider extending Ireland’s current nitrates derogation after speaking with Minister McConalogue. If the commissioner agrees to consider an extension, a final decision will be made through a vote by EU member states.