“The science and the law must be followed on nitrate pollution from agriculture”

Press Release: The Sustainable Water Network (SWAN), a network of 25 environmental organisations, has welcomed the European Commission’s decision to reduce the limits on organic nitrates use on certain farms in Ireland last week. However, they have warned against the continual lack of government leadership in planning for such changes, and failure to prepare and support farmers in delivering them. Especially since the law and science have clearly flagged, for a considerable amount of time, that the changes would be necessary.

Sinéad O’Brien, SWAN Coordinator, said: “Approximately half of our rivers and lakes are now polluted, and two-thirds of our estuaries1. It’s clear from the science that agriculture is by far the biggest pressure on our waters and the EPA – not known for dramatic language – is referring to ‘alarming declines’ in water quality in our estuaries2. The EPA has reported that nitrate loads have been increasing since 20133, correlating with an increase in the dairy herd4, and that these loads are too high, with no indication that they are decreasing3. The declines in water quality and the increases in nitrate loads are particularly stark in the South and South East where the majority of the derogation farms are5.

Thirty years ago, the Nitrates Directive said derogation would only be allowed where its objectives of reducing and preventing further agricultural nitrate pollution were not compromised6. The Commission was clear eighteen months ago that a reduction in the permitted level of nitrate that could be spread on derogation farms would be reduced in areas where there was ‘worsening trends or a situation of pollution or risk of pollution as regards nitrate concentrations’7.

So the science, the law and the requirements from the European Commission were all very clear and have been for a long time. Yet the response from the Government to date in tackling the issues has been an abject failure. The fact that this seems to be coming as news to many farmers, shows an abysmal lack of leadership on the part of the government and farming organisations, when the writing has been on the wall increasingly over the past decade regarding the need to address the link between dairy intensification and escalating water pollution. Supports for farmers should have been made long ago to transition away from derogation, but instead it was encouraged, and now some are facing real difficulties in order to meet these changes.

Dr. Elaine McGoff, Head of Advocacy for An Taisce and SWAN Vice-chair, said: “While some additional measures are being implemented to decrease agricultural pollution, these are incremental and will not be near enough to meet the drastic changes that are needed to restore our waters, including our most polluted river catchments such as the Barrow and the Slaney, which need a 50% reduction in nitrate8. As a result, the Minister and farming organisations now should be greatly strengthening water protection measures rather than seeking to get a further derogation in 2026, which is far from certain considering the current level of pollution.  Instead, they should be focusing on meeting our legal requirement under the Water Framework Directive, as committed to in the Programme for Government, to have all our waters healthy by 2027. Farmers need the supports for this transition now.

We must remember that the health of our rivers, lakes, estuaries and seas is vital for all of us, including farmers. Look at what is happening in Lough Leane and Lough Neagh with toxic algae threatening animal, wildlife and human health. Ireland can have healthy waters, thriving wildlife and successful working farms, we just need to agree that strong measures are needed to get us there and work now on how to best bring them about.”

  1. EPA (2021) – Water Quality in Ireland (2016 – 2021)

  2. EPA (2022) – Water quality of our rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal areas continues to decline, says EPA

  3. EPA (2023) – Water Quality in 2022 An Indicators Report
  4. CSO – AAA06 – Farm Animals in (cso.ie)

  5. EPA (2023) – Water quality monitoring report on nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations in Irish waters 2022

  6. EC (1991) – Nitrates Directive – Annex III 2 (b)

  7. EC (2022) – Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2022/696

  8. An Taisce (2022) – An Taisce’s submission to the consultation on the Nitrates Action Programme.