Strange things are happening with the nitrates directive. When the Minister for Agriculture announced the extension of the nitrates derogation last March, no mention was made of the conditions attached to it. These conditions, namely the terms of the two year review, will radically change farming in Ireland.

The terms are that by end of June 2023, the Irish authorities must submit a report detailing the trends in nitrate concentrations of groundwater and surface waters and the trophic status of surface water bodies.

In areas where nitrate levels are increasing relative to 2021 and where water is considered eutrophic or ‘could become eutrophic’ with a stable or worsening trend compared to 2021, the derogation will be reduced from 250kg N/ha to 220kg N/ha in 2024.

As previously reported, the Irish Farmers Journal understands that based on the above terms, there is no way that Ireland will not be at 220kg N/ha by 2024.

How did we get here?

Ted Massey heads up the nitrates division within the Department of Agriculture. He has said that the EU Commission originally proposed a limit much lower than 220kg N/ha after the mid-term review and that the Irish authorities successfully negotiated the figure back up to 220kg N/ha.

The Irish Government ran three consultation processes on the new Nitrates Action Programme. The first public consultation opened in November 2020, with the final consultation process closing in January 2022.

This process involved the Government publishing a list of proposed measures and seeking feedback on them. There were over 700 submissions made, with some of the proposed measures getting dropped or altered, e.g soiled water storage.

The strange thing is that at no point during the 14 month consultation period was a reduction in the derogation ever discussed as a possible measure. What is even stranger is that an existing Teagasc report, published in July 2021, showed that reducing the upper stocking rate from 250kg N/ha to 230kg N/ha would have a negligible impact on reducing nitrate losses.

The Irish Farmers Journal understands that a soon to be published report by Teagasc will show a substantial reduction in profitability after the new rules come in.

It’s important to note that banding has a compounding effect on the reduction in stocking rate. So, a 100ac farm with a high-yielding herd could have carried 118 cows in 2020, but can only carry 83 cows in 2024.

In summary, the reduction from 250kg/ha to 220kg/ha was never discussed as part of the consultation process, has no scientific basis as a means of improving water quality and will have dire consequences for farm profit.

New EU legislation affecting farming

New legislation is being drafted by DG Sante (Health and Food Safety) on calf transport, with changes to the current rules expected in late 2024.

The Commission wants to reduce the amount of time young calves are being transported. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) suggests a maximum of eight hours transport before the calf is fed and rested, but the Commission pointed out that this recommendation is non-binding.

The Industrial Emissions Directive could mean that all farms with more than 150 livestock units may need an EPA licence to operate, as is the case with pig and poultry units currently.

If approved in its current form, this will add serious cost and complexity to the typical Irish family dairy farm model.

How the EU works

There are three branches of power in the European Union. These are the European Commission, European Council and the European Parliament. The Commission is responsible for running the EU in terms of making sure existing laws are being enacted and also proposing new laws. The Commission is divided up into 50 Directorate Generals (DG) with specific responsibilities for different areas, much like a government department in Ireland.

Each of these DGs has its own director general, who reports to an EU commissioner assigned to that DG. There are 27 EU commissioners, with one from each member state. Ireland’s commissioner is Mairead McGuinness, who is responsible for financial services and financial stability.

The president of the EU Commission is Ursula von der Leyen and the first vice president is Frans Timmerman. Both hold hugely influential positions within the EU.

Timmerman is the chief architect and implementer of the European Green Deal and gets oversight of all EU policy decisions that impact on the implementation of the EU Green Deal, of which the Farm to Fork strategy is part of. Any proposed new legislation must be approved by all commissioners before it goes to the next stage of the legislative process – the Council and Parliament. Commissioners and the DGs are supposed to work in the best interests of all Europeans, not in any national interests. The European Council is where national interests come into play. This is made up of heads of state or government ministers related to the topic being discussed.

Parliament is made up of 705 MEPs selected from each member state on a proportional representation basis. Much like the Council, the Parliament cannot bring forward any legislation, but it can veto legislation if a majority approval from MEPs is not attained. There are 32,000 permanent civil servants working in the EU Commission across the various DGs.

For Irish farmers, DG Agriculture, DG Environment and DG Health and Food Safety are the most important organisations impacting on farming livelihoods. Along with writing new laws, the civil servants in these organisations are tasked with making sure that existing laws, such as the nitrates directive, are being enforced in member states.

Our delegation met with Veronica Manfredi, the director of the Zero Pollution division within DG Environment, with direct responsibility for water quality and the implementation of the nitrates directive. When asked how the system works regarding getting a derogation renewed, Manfredi said: “Each member state makes a submission to the Commission on the results of their water quality monitoring, the measures they have adopted and the measures they are proposing to adopt in the next Nitrates Action Programme.”

The Commission then makes a draft decision on the application before making a presentation to the wider nitrates committee, which is made up of technical representatives of each member state. Ireland is represented at this committee by officials from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Housing and Local Government.

The draft text of the Commission decision in relation to Ireland was sent to members of the nitrates committee on 3 March. The minutes of the 17 March committee meeting record that the committee voted unanimously to accept the granting of a derogation to Ireland. There were questions from the Netherlands about the benefits of fencing watercourses and Belgium asked about the justification of the evaluation period for the two-year review.

This two-year review, with the likely cut to the derogation, is what is really damaging to Ireland. Questions were asked to Manfredi and her Commission colleagues as to how this condition could be included when it was never part of the consultation process in Ireland and came as a complete shock to Irish farmers. It certainly doesn’t form part of the European way of doing business, which has consultation and consensus at its core.


There are some views from those with experience of European affairs which suggest that the Commission doesn’t make proposals around what measures a member state should introduce, but instead gives its views on proposals from the member states.

There is no doubt that discussions were had between the Commission and Ireland prior to the committee stage. The Irish line is that the Commission made a ‘take it or leave it’ ultimatum around the two-year review and the cut to the derogation.

As European citizens, Irish farmers are rightly frustrated with how this process was handled. Questions need to be asked as to why such a damaging condition was introduced when the science behind it is so weak. As things stand, the two-year review will not be able to show any benefit to water quality accruing from banding or the fertiliser register, because these are only being introduced in 2023, the year of the review. Both of these measures are likely to have a big impact on reducing the nitrogen load.

In a vacuum of information, suspicion flourishes. Some say Ireland is using the nitrates directive as a stick to drive down cow numbers to meet its greenhouse gas emission targets. Whatever the reason for its introduction and whoever proposed it, cutting the derogation won’t help water quality, but it will seriously damage farming in Ireland.