There is a feeling out there that we have reached peak sustainability: that the noise around the sustainability, or otherwise, of Irish dairy reached a crescendo in early November 2021 at the time of the COP 26 summit.

For almost a week, greenhouse gas emissions from Irish agriculture, specifically the expansion of the dairy herd dominated mainstream news stories, current affairs programmes and filled opinion column inches.

The news cycle has since moved on and while the war in Ukraine is now dominating everyone’s attention, there is a feeling that it may yet change the course of policy around food production in Europe.

The EU Farm to Fork and Green Deal programmes could be adjusted in light of the new reality.

Those wishing for a return to some utopian paradise where there are no more environmental restrictions will be disappointed. These thoughts aren’t part of a dream, they’re part of a nightmare. The reasons for environmental restrictions are as relevant today as they were on 23 February – the day before Putin invaded Ukraine.

Nobody, especially not farmers, wants to live on an environmentally degraded farm, community, country or planet. Water quality, air quality, biodiversity and carbon emissions are the four environmental pillars that dairying is rated on.

I’ve assigned the following scores based on the amount of progress made in making improvements in each pillar. A high score indicates good progress is being made. It doesn’t mean that problem is solved.

Water quality: 7/10

Nitrogen concentrations in estuaries, leading to algal blooms is a big issue all along the south and southeast coasts.

The source of this nitrogen is being firmly blamed on agriculture as the rivers that flow into estuaries carry water from every drain and stream in that catchment.

The catchments along the east and south of the country are at particular risk of nitrate leaching because limestone bedrock is very free-draining.

This means that water landing on the surface of a farm will make its way down the soil profile and into the water table relatively quickly.

The water table rises in late autumn and early winter and starts to feed field drains, streams and rivers. Thus, excess nitrogen in the soil at autumn time is at high risk of being leached.

Excess nitrogen is anything that can’t be taken up by grass or other plants. The primary source of excess nitrogen is urine patches because these are very high in nitrogen.

Reducing chemical nitrogen and slurry applications in the autumn, as per the new nitrates derogation rules will help to reduce the excess nitrogen. Feeding lower protein feeds will also help to reduce the nitrate levels in urine.

There is a general lack of awareness on the causes of nitrate leaching on Irish farms. Teagasc, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture have largely failed to communicate the causes of leaching.

Air quality: 7/10

Ammonia emissions are the big issue in terms of air quality. There are two culprits here: applying slurry with a splash plate and spreading normal urea as opposed to protected urea. Both of these practices release a lot of ammonia to the atmosphere.

Dairy farmers have taken on board low-emissions slurry spreading to a huge degree. They would get 10/10 for this if marked individually. In terms of using protected urea instead of normal urea, uptake here has been much lower.

The primary reason for this is that normal urea is generally only used in the spring and autumn when losses are very low anyway.

Biodiversity: 4/10

There are so many easy wins in terms of biodiversity that dairy farmers are missing out on and, as a result, shooting themselves in the foot. Hedgerow management is appalling on most farms. Leaving space for nature is not yet part of the lingo. It really annoys me to see farmers planting wildflower seeds and thinking they’re helping nature when at the same time every other practice on the farm is hurting nature but on a much bigger scale.

In many cases, ignorance is bliss and that’s not the farmer’s fault. You can’t drive a digger on a building site without a safe pass but, yet, anyone can hop on a hedge cutter or saw and literally flail the life out of a hedge. It’s an area crying out for regulation and education.

Carbon emissions: 5/10

There is so much fuzziness surrounding the carbon footprint of Irish dairy I just don’t know where to look, and farmers are the same. Is sequestration a help or a hindrance and should it be included in the emissions calculation?

The science around biogenic methane is still evolving and noise is filling the vacuum created by the lack of science. The one area we do know that can have a positive impact is regarding CAN-based fertiliser. If this was outlawed in the morning, the emissions from dairy would drop by 10%. The problem here is that protected urea is not as widely available and only available in a limited selection of products. I’ve given farmers a score of 5/10 here, but in the absence of clear direction they are not to blame for slow progress.