While 2022 brought some of the most significant farm policy changes in Irish farming in decades, 2023 is shaping up to be another busy year for farm policy. It’s no surprise that policies addressing the environmental and climate impact of farming will again be the main focus.

The EU Farm to Fork strategy is largely dictating the direction of travel, with significant policies being negotiated at EU level.

At home, the nitrates directive and sector emissions targets will be key agenda items.

The announcement of the sectoral carbon emissions targets to 2030 in July put an end to what was an unbalanced and unhelpful debate on agriculture’s role in emissions reductions. Nobody wants to reopen that can of worms.

But the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) has sounded a warning to the agriculture sector in its annual report.

It noted that to avoid any necessity for actions to reduce food production, the full suite of proven mitigation measures must be deployed rapidly at the most ambitious scale. It sounds like the CCAC requires evidence of fast action from the farming sector.

It also cautioned that the sectoral targets set don’t fully clarify how the overall 51% emissions reductions by 2030 will be met. They currently only amount to 42%, as the land use sector target is yet to be agreed.

Publication of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions inventory in June 2023 will focus minds and discourse again following the first year of the implementation of sectoral targets.

The EU’s Nature Restoration regulation, published in June 2022, seeks to restore nature and biodiversity with ambitious targets to 2030, 2040 and 2050.

The proposed regulation sets an overarching legally-binding target for ecosystem restoration of at least 20% of EU land and sea by 2030 and all ecosystems by 2050.

It also sets specific targets for multiple ecosystems, habitats and groups of species that should be restored.

Member states are required to develop national restoration plans taking account of national circumstances.

Achieving what are very ambitious targets within the proposed timeframe would be hugely challenging at farm level, necessitating significant action, particularly regarding rewetting.

The question of how this would be funded, by whom, and for how long, is key.

The proposed regulation requires that once targets are achieved they are maintained, which suggests it would be challenging to undo any actions implemented at farm level.

This negotiation within the EU is one to watch in 2023 and is likely to stir significant reaction in both the farm lobby and environmental non-governmental organisations (eNGOs).

Ireland was granted a nitrates derogation in April 2022, which runs until the end of 2025. The nitrates derogation allows farmers to maintain a higher stocking rate of 250kg of organic nitrogen per hectare, subject to stricter environmental conditions.

Ireland will have a midterm review of water quality data in 2023, including nitrate concentrations and trophic status. This will compare data from 2021 and 2022.

The outcome of this review may reduce the limit to 220kg organic manure nitrogen per hectare for farmers in some areas from 2024. This is still above the EU’s maximum (non-derogation) organic nitrogen rate of 170kg/ha.

A reduction in Ireland’s derogation would pose a major challenge to impacted farmers who would need to take one or a combination of the following actions: introduce additional land to maintain stock levels, reduce stock levels or export slurry.

This has the real potential to reduce national milk supply and would increase the cost of production at farm level. It is likely that competition for land will put pressure on other farming sectors, particularly tillage in the southeast – something that auctioneers have already noted.

Beyond the 2023 review, Ireland will quickly be faced with reapplying for a nitrates derogation.

Ireland is one of only four member states that currently have a derogation including Denmark, the Netherlands and the Flanders region of Belgium.

The Netherlands is to phase out its derogation by the end of 2025.

Use of the nitrates derogation is facing greater opposition both nationally and at EU level.

At home, An Taisce is seeking to overturn the nitrates derogation through a judicial review. Farmers will also continue to see key changes to the Nitrates Action Programme be implemented throughout 2023.

The European Commission plans to overhaul animal welfare laws, as part of the Farm to Fork strategy, to broaden its scope and ensure higher levels of animal welfare.

It is expected to bring forward proposals in the second half of 2023.

An independent scientific view, by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), on the welfare of animals in transit is central to this review.

It has recommended that animals in transport require more space, lower temperatures and shorter journeys to avoid welfare consequences. The current legislation is based on scientific opinion dating from 2002.

Of particular interest to Ireland is the EFSA recommendations on calf exports – it says calves should be at least five weeks of age and 50kg when exported.

Space thresholds are recommended and, for unweaned calves, journeys should not exceed eight hours. If adopted, those rules would render much of the calf trade from Ireland unviable. This could result in additional costs at farm level as calves would be held longer.

Expect to hear a lot more on this and other proposed animal welfare measures in the new year.

In June, the European Commission adopted a proposal to cut in half the use and risk of chemical pesticides by 2030.

The aim is to reduce the risk to nature and species and human health from pesticide use.

The regulation proposes an overall target at EU level to halve pesticide use and risk by 2050, the introduction of national legally binding reduction targets for members states, a ban on pesticide use in sensitive areas (eg parks, playgrounds, etc) and in ecologically sensitive areas (eg Natura 2000 areas), acceleration of the use of bio control and mandatory recording of use by farmers and professional users.

The Commission proposes to make integrated pest management (IPM) the norm so that chemical pesticides are only used as a last resort.

Unsurprisingly, member states and MEPs have raised strong concerns about the designation of sensitive areas (which for some, including Ireland, impacts a significant proportion of productive area) and national target setting.

The impact on global food security, particularly in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine has also been raised as a key concern.

The Commission has informally suggested possible solutions and has committed to flexibility which underlines its determination to make progress on this key Farm to Fork objective.

In December, European Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski backed calls for a fresh impact assessment of the proposed legislation in light of the Ukraine war and the potential impact on food security.

This will be a hot debate in 2023 with significant implications for farmers across all member states – ultimately, it has the potential to reduce crop production significantly.

New plant breeding techniques

The European Commission plans to bring forward legislation in 2023 for new plant breeding techniques such as targeted mutagenesis or cisgenesis.

These are genetic engineering techniques that alter the genetic structure of an organism by modifying, removing or introducing DNA to engineer particular traits, for example drought tolerance.

Timing is key, as the Commission is suggesting that this will be a key counterbalance to the sustainable use of pesticides regulation.

A 2018 EU court ruling means that organisms obtained by new plant breeding techniques are categorised as genetically modified organisms and fall under the EU’s GMO directive.

The Commission argues that there is not a sufficient legal framework to deal with these techniques. This is being met with strong opposition from environmental NGOs. However, for farmers and the biotech industry this change can’t come quickly enough. In reality, it may be some way off.

This will be an interesting debate particularly given the ongoing negotiation on sustainable use of pesticides and is key to ensuring production can withstand future climate challenges, in particular.