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Climate Minister Eamon Ryan. Leah Farrell/
nitrates derogation

Eamon Ryan: Ireland isn't going to 'change tack' on nitrates derogation

His comments follow the Taoiseach’s invitation to EU Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius for a meeting to discuss the issue.

LAST UPDATE | 19 Sep 2023

CLIMATE MINISTER EAMON Ryan has said a punitive approach to improving water quality will not work and that collaboration with farmers is needed.

He said that he does not believe Ireland or the European Union will change their positions on the nitrates derogation despite the Taoiseach inviting European Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius for a meeting to discuss the issue.

Ryan was responding to a question about recent farmer protests over the forthcoming increase in the nitrates limit.

He refused to criticise farmers for their protests and instead pointed to the range of inititatives already in place to help improve water quality.

High concentrations of nitrates in land are damaging to humans and the environment and excessive amounts produced by agriculture is one of the primary causes of water pollution in Europe.

EU member states are required to monitor water quality and implement measures to limit the amount of nitrogen that seeps into the land and water, including in the agriculture sector.

Ireland is one of only three member states where farmers can avail of a derogation that permits them to farm at a higher rate of nitrogen per hectare than what is permitted elsewhere in Europe.

The current derogation is due to expire on 1 January 2026 and the EU has decided to reduce the limit to 220kg per hectare on 1 January 2024 in certain areas as the latest water quality results have not shown sufficient improvement.

The move has sparked pushback from farmers, who have called for the EU to reverse its decision and prompted Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to say he would seek a meeting with the Commission on the matter.

Speaking to reporters in New York today where he is attending the United Nations’ General Assembly, Minister Ryan said we need to think about how we can clean up our water while at the same time continuing to be good at farming and delivering food.

“This is absolutely doable, using both technological solutions and also incentives,” he said.

I don’t see Europe moving or changing on this.

“If anything, they have been deeply frustrated with Ireland over several decades that we haven’t taken the water quality issues seriously enough, but that is changing,” Ryan added.

He said it is his view that neither Ireland or the EU will “change tack” on the water quality issue.

Earlier today, the Minister for Agriculture stated that the European Commission has been “crystal clear” that there is “no prospect” of its decision to reduce Ireland’s nitrates derogation being reversed. 

As the Ploughing Championships got under way in Co Laois this morning, a major topic of conversation among farmers is the recent EU decision to lower the nitrates derogation.

However, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has said that there is no prospect of the Commission changing its position.

“As minister, I’ll always be honest and straight with farmers in relation to any challenges we have in relation to the work we’re doing on their behalf and also in relation to how we prepare to support them in their farming enterprises,” McConalogue said, speaking to RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland programme.

“That derogation is based on the fact that we need to be seeing improvements in water quality,” he said.

The Commission has been crystal clear to me that there’s absolutely no prospect of it being reopened at the moment.

“It’s very clear now that our key objective here is to make sure we all work together to make sure whenever the current derogation comes up for renegotiation at the end of 2025, that we hold on to it because it is essential for so many farmers and important to our farming system.”

Farming campaigners however still believe that they can sway the Commission.

Irish Farmers’s Association Tim Cullinane told Morning Ireland that he met with the EU Commissioner for Agriculture in Brussels yesterday and that “the Commissioner was alarmed and shocked when I explained to him the importance of the derogation to Irish farmers”.

“Our Taoiseach gave us a commitment last Friday that he’s going to relook at this. The commissioner is going to relook at this,” Cullinane said.

“There can always be changes made. I’ve been involved in lobbying on nitrates for the last 20 years and decisions were made before and changed.”

The Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association Pat McCormack claimed the reduction in the derogation would “absolutely decimate the family farm model out there” and called for farmers to be given more time to show that changes already made on farms will increase water quality.

“We are very, very confident that the next set of results will be significantly better,” he said.

With reporting from Jane Matthews and Christina Finn.

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