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VOICES

Opinion If proper funding is provided, farmers can recover from the nitrates derogation blow

Dr Catherine Conlon says the nitrates derogation is an opportunity for farmers to reduce productivity and meet EU Nature Restoration targets if funding issues are addressed.

THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION has decided not to review its decision to cease Ireland’s nitrates derogation that allows farmers who meet more rigorous conditions, to farm at higher stocking rates.

The derogation is due to expire in January 2026 with the limit due to reduce from the current 250kg/ha to 220kg/ha on Jan 1, 2024, in certain areas. Currently, without the derogation, the limit is 170 kg/ha.

This means thousands of dairy farmers will have no option but to reduce their herd sizes over the next four months or acquire or rent additional land to adhere to the rules.

Pat McCormack, president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) said that representatives from the ICMSA had told Agriculture Minister, Charlie McConalogue to go back to the European Commission to get the reduction changed. Tim Cullinan, president of the Irish Farmer’s Association (IFA) agrees. He suggested that Mr McConalogue agreeing to these changes without consultation with farmers has ‘shown total disrespect’ and ‘disregard for all farmers.’

Meanwhile, recent Eurostat figures showed that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the first quarter of 2023 fell in all but six EU countries compared with the same quarter in 2022. In contrast, Ireland remains an unprecedented outlier with emissions increasing by 9.1% next to Latvia at 7.5% followed by Slovakia (1.9%), Denmark (1.7%), Sweden (1.6%) and Finland (0.3%). Overall, the EU economy’s GHG emissions fell by 3%, with the largest reductions in Bulgaria (15.2%), Estonia (14.7%) and Slovenia (9.6%).

Fair compensation

With agriculture responsible for 37% of total GHG emissions in Ireland, realistically Ireland is going to remain an EU outlier until we tackle the challenge of the ongoing issue of the size of the national herd.

The good news is that circumstances have now aligned to allow that to happen. The derogation decision if unchanged would mean a cut in production of 15% for dairy and livestock farmers according to Mr Cullinan. At the same time, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the crux of the matter recently when he suggested that a fund is needed to compensate farmers to meet targets in the proposed EU Nature Restoration Law ‘as it won’t happen otherwise quite frankly.’

Varadkar added that he will push the EU at the next European Council meeting in October, to establish a new fund for farmers to restore nature. He suggested that the fund would likely be worth billions but qualified this by saying that they must ‘listen to the science’ on environmental issues.

The EU Nature Restoration Law that plans to place recovery measures on a fifth of EU’s land and sea by 2030 scraped through by a knife-edge vote in July. The big question that was not addressed at all and is a major concern for farmers is how they will be adequately compensated.

‘I would be absolutely of the view that we need a fund separate and in addition to CAP (Common Agricultural Policy funding) to reward and compensate farmers and landowners for some of the things that have to happen,’ Mr Varadkar said. Green Party Leader Eamon Ryan said that farmers were on the front line of climate action and restoring nature and that to get that right ‘we will need to pay people.’

‘Part of ensuring there is confidence in farming communities that this transition is in their favour is getting certainty on the funding arrangements… But whether that is through the budget or through the European Union or through co-ops and food companies paying more money, there are various options.’

But the devil is in the detail and the amounts and mechanisms of payment are very, very short on detail. Is it any wonder that farmers are digging their heels in? Surely, all of this should have been thrashed out and made crystal clear to farmers before the EU Nature Restoration Law proposals were brought forward.

Looking elsewhere

One country that has paved the way on how to get this exactly right is a tiny, quite poor country in Central America – Costa Rica. From 1986-1990 Avaro Umaña was the environment minister in the government under prime minister Óscar Arias. Until 1986, deforestation had been rampant and forest cover had fallen to 24.4% of the country. Now forests occupy over half (57%) of the country, close to the maximum. While a small amount of illegal timber felling continues, Costa Rica is the only tropical country to have reversed deforestation.

How did they do it?

Umaña set up a new Department of Energy and Environment with responsibility for protected areas. He recognised that the key to progress was to change financial incentives.

Cattle ranching was unproductive as the land supported one cow per hectare but it was fractionally more productive than allowing the forest to stand.

The opportunity cost of foregoing a cow was calculated at $64 per year. This was what was offered for protecting or restoring a hectare of forest. Landowners were offered grants or loans, with the promise that if the forest was still standing after five years, it could serve as the loan’s guarantee.

A key factor behind the success of the scheme was building a sense of national pride which in combination with generous economic incentives, allowed small farmers to take pride in what they were achieving for nature restoration and the global reputation of a small country that could achieve what many other larger wealthier countries have failed to accomplish.

twohikersmaketheirwaythroughthethickjungleof Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica Shutterstock / LOUIS-MICHEL DESERT Shutterstock / LOUIS-MICHEL DESERT / LOUIS-MICHEL DESERT

What was achieved in Costa Rica is an example of what can be achieved with political will. When governments are committed, decisive things happen. That was evident in Ireland with the response to the Covid pandemic. Research published in the Lancet (2022) showed that Ireland recorded one of the lowest excess deaths in the world during the pandemic. The Republic’s excess mortality was estimated at 12.5/100,000, a fraction of the 131.8 recorded in Northern Ireland and 125.8 recorded in England. In Europe, only Iceland and Norway performed better than Ireland for excess mortality, regarded as a measure of the true death toll of the pandemic.

We can be global leaders when the political will is there. Ireland was one of the first countries in the world to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency in 2019. Farmers should have the option to receive equivalent farm subsidies for restoring nature to what they receive for farming, and for that activity to be considered as important as food production. The EU Nature Restoration Law was introduced before appropriate compensation for farmers was made clear. This is now being addressed at the EU as well as the national level.

Now is the time for our political leaders to make this happen.

What is absolutely clear is that unless financial incentives for farmers are unambiguous and competitive, the current demise of the Irish landscape will continue.

Dr Catherine Conlon is a public health doctor in Cork and former director of human health and nutrition, safefood.

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Dr Catherine Conlon
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