The nitrates blame game continued at the Moorepark open day this week. The farmers are blaming the Department of Agriculture, the Department is blaming the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while the EPA is blaming the European Commission, suggesting it is only doing what it was asked to do.

Let’s recap; late last week the EPA released new information showing where it suggests stocking rate should be reduced based on the results of a special set of EU water quality measures. This set of water quality results for 2022 was eagerly anticipated and we knew 12 months ago that the Department had agreed to using a flawed comparison model to determine whether we were making progress on water quality.

The Department had agreed with the European Commission to this flawed comparative measure when the derogation was agreed and announced in March 2022. All this despite the science-guiding narrative published in the fifth Nitrates Action Programme last year.

Now that the flawed data tells us a story we don’t like, it seems to come as a surprise to the Department and they suggest they have to go back to the Commission.

The data used to generate the new information was, for a number of different water quality factors, comparing 2021 to 2022. The results show that according to the map, essentially most of the country needs to reduce stocking rate.

Ironically some areas that had been previously identified as high nitrates problem areas were excluded. Speaking at the Moorepark open day, senior Department inspector Ted Massey said they tried to tell the European Commission that the data and model of comparison was flawed, but to no avail.

Edward Burgess, who heads up the agricultural catchments programme, also spoke at the open day. He again suggested the data and the comparison was meaningless and didn’t in any way constitute what he would class as scientifically strong trend data.

On top of this, we know from published Teagasc scientific analysis and recommendations that the proposed stocking rate reduction (from 250kg to 220kg organic nitrogen per hectare) will not improve water quality.

Yet, the same analysis suggests imposing such a restriction could reduce profits by between 16% and 29% on a dairy farm.

When we look at this through a wider lens indirectly, what would happen is that the comparative better purchasing power of dairy farmers will essentially mean they will get more land, at a cost, where it’s available.

Those sectors such as tillage, beef, sheep and forestry will lose out in a price battle for leased and purchased land.

The issue of the proposed stocking rate reduction is so serious that it threatens to pull the rug out from under the entire scientific foundation and basis of the grass-based system of milk production that was displayed at Moorepark.

The farmer campaign to improve water quality further won’t, and shouldn’t, stop until 100% of our rivers are classified as excellent quality

In addition, it threatens the existence and viability of tillage, forestry, sheep and beef farmers throughout Ireland. Some might call this scaremongering and depressing, but it’s the reality of where we are today unless some sense is brought to the fore.

We have flawed measures, built on a flawed comparison, both ignoring science and experience, resulting in farmers expected to do something that could potentially reduce dairy farm income by 30% and put other agri sectors out of existence while doing nothing to improve the environment.

If it wasn’t so serious, some would suggest we are the laughing stock of Europe. Yet, our Department leaders want us to work together to see a way through this – this whole shambles wouldn’t do much to inspire confidence in any aspect of the process. It’s high time the minister and the Department grabbed a hold of this nonsense and set the record straight.

Farmers are investing, changing practice, working with science, and planning for the future. Our Department leaders suggest river water quality trends are stable, while others say they are improving. Since then, a whole new set of restrictions have been initiated that should now be further improving nutrient management.

The farmer campaign to improve water quality further won’t, and shouldn’t, stop until 100% of our rivers are classified as excellent quality. Imposing nonsense restrictions that we know won’t improve water quality should not be the goal.

Jack Kennedy.