Farmers say they are not biggest water polluters


The two main farming organisations say they have been wrongly accused of being the biggest water polluters in the State.

An environmental review, Making Ireland's Development Sustainable, published on Thursday by the Department of the Environment, identified farmers as the principal culprits of Ireland's "most serious environmental pollution problem", the eutrophication (over-enrichment) of rivers and lakes.

It said agriculture was responsible for an estimated 73 per cent of phosphorous inputs into water and 82 per cent of nitrate inputs.

It identified agriculture as "the single biggest contributor" to Ireland's most serious environmental problem but said negative water quality trends were beginning to be reversed.

In a statement yesterday the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers' Association rejected the assertion that over 70 per cent of pollution was caused by farmers.

"The farm problem has been exaggerated while problems from other sectors, such as industry and domestic sewage, has been understated," said ICMSA president Mr Pat O'Rourke. "Farmers are doing more than ever before in relation to pollution-control measures. For example, they have invested over €250 million per annum over the past 15 years in pollution control, there are 35,000 farmers participating in REPS (rural environmental protection schemes), and all farmers now comply with good farm practice regulations," he added.

"Farmers have also taken on board the new Teagasc report on nutrient application, having used their old recommendations in the past, which proved to be wrong," he continued. Going forward, the new environmental directives will mean that more government support will be needed to assist farmers in their implementation."

The chairman of the Irish Farmers' Association's environmental committee, Mr Francis Fanning, said the report provided a balanced assessment of the overall good quality of our environment and the priorities needed to be established to protect and improve it.

"Making Ireland's Development Sustainable identified eutrophication of water as a serious environmental challenge and correctly stated that the underlying causes of excess nutrients were contributed by all sectors of economic activity.

"The nutrient losses to water from agriculture as reported are consistent with findings from most of the developed world. However, in Ireland's case, these figures are based on historical fertilizer use. Furthermore, Irish farmers are taking serious action to tackle nutrient losses from agriculture. Already, improvements are evident in surface water quality and this is clearly acknowledged (in the report)," he said.

Irish farmers, with support from industry, had brought about the establishment of the first national waste collection and recycling scheme with the Waste Farm Plastics Scheme in 1997. Farmers had invested heavily in manure handling and storage, with gross investment of around €2 billion since 1990, or an average of €185 million per year. Farm policy, he said, promoted low-intensity farming. The larger pig and poultry producers were licensed by the Environmental Protection Agency since the mid-1990s under the Integrated Pollution Control licensing system.

Farm production methods here, he said, had closely followed best agricultural practice available through Teagasc. The response from the farming community to changes in this advice was clear.

Consumption of phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers had been dropping dramatically. Phosphorus fertilizer consumption had plummeted from a peak of around 93,000 tonnes in 1973 to just over 40,000 tonnes last year.

Nitrogen fertilizer consumption, largely dictated by weather, is falling: having peaked at 440,000 tonnes in 1999, it has fallen almost 20 per cent to 360,000 tonnes in 2001, he said.