The Nitrates Bomb

Feb 11

The Nitrates Bomb

January 11th 2023

The joke in 2008, in the forestorm of the economic meltdown that resulted in such pain for Ireland went like this: what’s the difference between Iceland and Ireland? One letter and six months. It wasn’t funny then either. Today it could be reframed: what’s the difference between Ireland and Holland? Three or four letters, and maybe a year and a half. It’s not any funnier.

The summer of 2022 saw unprecedented, and in some cases violent, protests by farmers in Holland. The reason was the imposition by the Dutch government of new rules to control the loss of nitrogen. Who’d have thought, that with so much attention on the climate changing influence of carbon compounds (carbon dioxide and methane principally) that the first sign of unrest among European farmers would, in fact, be triggered by a lesser appreciated, but equally insidious, element?

Nitrogen, as nitrous oxide, too is a greenhouse gas, but it’s more than that. As ammonia, as well as through its interplay with ozone, nitrogen is a direct threat to human health. This comes from car exhausts but also spreading and storage of cattle excrement, more commonly known as slurry.

Nitrogen is a key growth-limiting nutrient which is scarce in nature, being most abundant in air as N2, though this was, until relatively recently, inert and beyond the reach of farmers except through the use of soil microbes that are intimately associated with leguminous plants such as clovers and beans, or trees like alder.

The Haber-Bosch process changed all of that and today the disruption to the nitrogen cycle, along with its sister nutrient, phosphorous, is among the planetary boundaries that humanity have already transgressed, on a par with carbon or the loss of biodiversity. Nutrient pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus have fouled waterways including rivers and lakes. The excessive bacterial activity sucks the oxygen out of the water, a phenomenon that can lead to marine dead zones or areas with low oxygen. Nearly two thirds of Ireland’s estuaries are now polluted, a situation that has deteriorated in the last decade.

The result is a drastic decline in the diversity and abundance of species that have evolved with clean water, such as salmon and freshwater pearl mussels and an excessive amount of those species that thrive on low oxygen and high nutrients, algal slime mostly. It increases costs of water treatment for human consumption as well as our enjoyment of our rivers, lakes and beaches.

None of this is new. In 1991, the EU introduced the Nitrates Directive to control the loss of nutrients to water bodies. Along with the Water Framework Directive, which was introduced in 2000, it should have seen ‘good status’ of water bodies by 2015 or, with some exceptions, by 2027 at the very latest.

Today, the European Commission (EC) says that the loss of nitrogen costs €70 billion per annum while 81% of that loss to aquatic systems and 87% of toxic ammonia loss to air is a result of livestock farming. Ireland, naturally, applied for a derogation from the Nitrates Directive, and this has so far been granted by the EC, albeit with conditions. But these have failed.

Ireland’s water quality has deteriorated even as the standard of wastewater treatment from urban centres has improved, and this can be pinned on dairy expansion.

The deterioration of water bodies in the south and east, such as the Rivers Boyne, Slaney, Nore, Barrow and the Munster Blackwater is so extreme that it is now visible to the naked eye. Mats of green gunk drift downstream like corpses after a battle. Beaches in West Cork are piled high with putrid berms of rotting algae. Our waters have been poisoned and yet, the derogation persists.

Visible pollution from algal growth means things are really bad

Ireland is not unique. Similar derogations have been granted to the Flanders region of Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands. A derogation for the Lombardia and Piemonte region of Italy was not renewed in 2019. In Holland, the EC had expressed concerns around nitrates and in 2020 only granted a derogation for two years, instead of the usual four. Their agriculture minister warned that it would not last. Then, a ruling by the Dutch Council of State in 2019 ruled that the Dutch government’s approach was in breach of the law. To bring nitrogen losses under control it is estimated that 11,200 farms will have to close and another 17,600 farmers will have to significantly reduce their livestock. Farmers are to be generously compensated but this has not assuaged the anger.

As well as the protests, the issue has attracted the venom of the Far Right, with commentators seizing on the government move and lauding the farmers for their defence of “our freedom” and the “theft in the name of climate change”. Even funny guy Russel Brand has fallen for it, describing it as “connected to the land grab of Bill Gates”, notions that meld with the “Great Reset” and “Great Replacement” conspiracy theories.

Well-paid dairy farmers are unlikely conscripts to the Far Right cause, whether in Ireland or Holland; they can hardly claim to be part of those ‘left behind’. Still, we’d surely agree that no one wants to see a similar level of drastic action in Ireland and genuine disruption to people’s lives. But is it too late? Are we already locked on this trajectory?

Last year, the Irish government submitted its new Nitrates Action Programme and it was agreed by the EC, albeit it too – like in Holland – is to be reviewed after two years, in 2023. The government says it is tightening the rules including increased inspections of farms and expansion of the ASSAP programme, whereby farmers volunteer to be visited by inspectors and are given advice on how to reduce pollution. This has been derided as grossly inadequate, with only 20 advisors who are only active in a handful of ‘priority areas’.

The use of ‘lower emission slurry spreading’, where the slurry is dribbled onto the soil rather than broadcast sprayed to the heavens, is mandatory on derogation farms, as are proper facilities for storage of slurry during times when grass is not growing. Farmers don’t like this ‘calendar farming’ but then it is also estimated that 40% of dairy farms don’t have adequate slurry storage.

The draft of the River Basin Management Plan (RBMP), which is supposed to achieve good status for our water bodies under the Water Framework Directive, says that a “major behavioural change programme around slurry storage” is needed, and greater compliance with existing rules would certainly be welcome. But there is something much more concerning that can only lead an observer to believe that we are headed, inexorably, for a Dutch-style resolution.

In fact, the RBMP hints at this when it notes that there is a need to “reduce N [nitrogen] losses by up to 50% to water”. Fifty percent. How can we halve the nutrient loss when cutting cow numbers remains a taboo?

Too many cows

After the Nitrates Action Programme was agreed, environmental watchdog An Taisce brought legal action against the state for what it believes is “the inadequacy of the proposed protective measures for water”. Never flavour of the month in sections of rural Ireland, this action has brought new levels of opprobrium upon the NGO. At the Irish Farmers’ Association AGM last month, their president Tim Cullinane, ever grasping, went for the Far Right tropes, bellowing that “when the Greens get their way with more regulations their extremist wing, An Taisce, heads to the courts to try and finish us off. They seem obsessed with shutting down farming…”.

I spoke to Elaine McGoff, natural environment officer for An Taisce, for this blog and she told me she is worried about an outcome in Ireland like what has been seen in Holland. She said there’s “no control” over the loading of nitrogen onto the land here. “The low emission slurry spreading is good for reducing ammonia losses but does nothing for water, in fact it could make things worse”.

Introducing setbacks from rivers, another measure that is frequently promoted, is good for many reasons, including biodiversity and preventing the loss of sediment and phosphorous. But “it doesn’t work for nitrogen” Elaine tells me, because the nutrient simply washes through free-draining soil. She says that “there is no evidence that the measures in the Nitrates Action Programme will deliver the levels of nitrogen reduction needed”.

She points to research by Teagasc showing that over 60% of the nitrogen is delivered through cows urinating in the field. This statistic surprised me. Our image of outdoor grazing cows is the selling point for Irish dairy but, it seems, is a significant pollution problem. “What happens when farmers do all that they’ve been asked to do by the department? But we still don’t see improvements in water quality?” asks Elaine.

When the crunch happens, the department of Agriculture and farmer organisations will, no doubt, move from anger to pleading. They will say that farmers need time to adjust and that livelihoods are at stake. But remember, the Nitrates Directive is already 32 years old. It is not time that’s needed, its honesty.

And maybe it’s too late even for that. The IFA and the other farmer representatives will round on An Taisce for inflicting damage to the lucrative dairy industry, but they might look closer to home in explaining to their members why, or how, they thought they could evade the law indefinitely.

Pádraic Fogarty