Declining water quality trends will have to be turned around in order for Ireland to retain the nitrates derogation, Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine Martin Heydon warned farmers at a Fine Gael agriculture meeting in Kilkenny on Thursday night.

Speaking to the Irish Farmers Journal, Minister Heydon defended Ireland’s water quality as “not bad by European standards”, but cautioned that the nitrates are an exemption to a rule, enabling farmers to operate at a much higher intensity, but that “we have a water quality trend that is declining”.

He said that to secure the derogation into the future, this trend had to be turned around and called out the key role farmers have to play in that.

Nitrates, sheep prices, international trade and the opportunities around on-farm energy production were the main issues raised from both the top table and the floor at the Fine Gael agri-rural forum organised for the Carlow-Kilkenny region in Callan.

With dairy a hugely important sector in the county, the nitrates regulations and the introduction of banding was a topic of most concern among those attending.

The minister was questioned from the floor on the unintended consequences of the Government nitrates policy by Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) Kilkenny chair Jim Mulhall, who said that with no impact assessment completed, the changes were causing huge disruption in the land market.

“Farmers are spending huge amounts to stand still. The only opportunity is for the person that owns the acre, not the person who farms the acre. The 220 [kg/ha nitrate reduction proposed] is going to cripple farmers. If it changes next year, we are banjaxed.”

Anaerobic digestion

As the conversation turned to energy generation, Mulhall further cautioned that anaerobic digestion (AD) has the potential to further disrupt the market.

“Make sure that there are no further unintended consequences,” he said.

As well as AD, on-farm solar and wind generation potential were topical on the night.

South East Energy Agency CEO Paddy Phelan spoke about the opportunities for rural energy to supply urban energy demand.

Phelan said that although the potential was vast both for generational renewal on farms and job creation, a model based on the co-operative movement was needed to really support communities to achieve scale.


While acknowledging the impact of CAP reform and convergence in particular on farmers in the region, Minister Heydon pointed to new market development, “getting our dairy, beef and lamb into the best highest value markets” as a way to “get the best return for farmers”.

Further to this, the minister gave an example of the liming scheme as one of the tools the Department is using to assist farmers in terms of income.

“Yes, the single farm payment is a single element of that, but that's not the only part of farmers’ income and while it's really important, farmers want to make an income from their produce.

“This is why we have been really supportive of the Royal A-ware initiative with Glanbia [Tírlan). Trying not to be as dependent on the UK for cheddar cheese exports, looking for that higher value return for farmers.

"Not that the hamster wheel spins quicker and farmers are just busier. It's not just about quantity, it's about those high-quality markets, and to get the most return from those higher value markets.”

Imported meat

Challenged from the floor on the negatives of the global market, which the questioner claimed put New Zealand and Brazilian meat on supermarket shelves, the minister refuted claims of illegal imports and said that Ireland benefits hugely from the 180 countries we export to.

He replied that there are two strands to the conversation, one around food security and the other is energy security.

“I absolutely agree that from a European perspective, food security has not been to the forefront to the extent that it should be, with a greater focus on the environmental side of things. The UN has 18 sustainable goals, one is climate change, but zero hunger by 2030 is another.


“The challenge [to achieve that] with population growth is we need to radically increase the amount of nutrient-dense protein-rich food that is produced. So when we talk about food security, don't mistake that for self-sufficiency.

“There's a reason that Ireland is recognised as the second-most food-secure nation in the world.

"It's not because we produce every piece of food here, but because we take that inedible protein grass and through our pasture system, we provide really nutrient-dense protein-rich food that is incredibly desirable and needed around the world.”