Silent killer - spiralling agri pollution threatens rural and urban lives

20th April 2020
Press Release

Major reductions in vehicular traffic arising from the coronavirus crisis have led to welcome improvements in air quality in Ireland and across Europe. This is all the more critical as studies show that people living in high-pollution areas are more susceptible to the impacts of coronavirus [1].

However, the reduction in vehicular pollution has drawn attention to another deadly source of air pollution, arising from ammonia, a toxic gas that is a major by-product of animal-based agriculture that harms ecosystems and combines with other pollutants to form dangerous air pollutant particles.

Apart from being a health hazard to farmers, their families and other rural dwellers, ammonia emissions account for around 50% of the total health impacts of polluted air in urban areas as well [2]. Ammonia is acrid and suffocating; in recent weeks residents in Brussels complained of stinging eyes and headaches as a result of ammonia wafting in from the surrounding farmlands [3].

A motion overwhelmingly adopted by MEPs in the European Parliament last year urged that payments under the EU’s massive Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) ‘should depend on the implementation of mandatory measures for curbing (agricultural) pollution’ [4].

However, in Ireland, ammonia emissions have risen steadily, year on year, in line with government policy to expand dairy and other animal agriculture, supported by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) and enabled by Teagasc, the state’s agricultural research agency.

In 2017 for instance, the EPA recorded a 2% increase in ammonia emissions, and projects these to continue to climb to at least 2030 [5]. Ireland has been exceeding its agreed national EU limits of ammonia emissions since 2016. Animal manures account for upwards of 90% of Ireland’s total ammonia emissions, with chemical fertilisers and road transport accounting for the balance. Overall, Ireland’s agricultural sector accounts for 99% of ammonia emissions, with well over 40 million tonnes of animal manures spread on the land annually as well as over 400,000 tonnes of nitrogen inputs in chemical fertilisers.

The key determinant of the total amount of dangerous airborne ammonia emissions is the total use of nitrogen inputs and the number of farm animals. The major expansion of Ireland’s dairy herd has been accompanied by steady increases, year on year, in total ammonia emissions since 2011. “Ammonia limits have been breached due to the rapid expansion of dairy and beef production in Ireland in recent years”, Stephen Treacy, Senior Manager with the EPA confirmed at the 2018 launch of the Authority’s report on air pollution [6].

Teagasc’s own Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC) [7] includes ‘measures’ that depend on a reduction in animal numbers in order to limit the total amount of nitrogen being produced, and so also limiting greenhouse gas and nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture.

But instead, Teagasc recommends that farmers use more nitrogen [8] and continue to expand dairy numbers [9] – this is in clear and blatant breach of Ireland’s EU obligations to cut levels of these dangerous emissions. Moreover, Teagasc is now pushing a change in nitrogen fertiliser type that increases ammonia emissions and does nothing to cut methane [10].

The Department of Agriculture’s own data (DAFM, slide 7) [11] shows that without measures ammonia emissions are set to spiral upwards all the way to 2035, despite Ireland’s ceiling for emissions being steadily lowered during this period. As An Taisce made clear in an ammonia consultation submission last year [12], the Department's measures as outlined by Teagasc cannot square this pollution-intensive expansion with its legal obligations. Unenforceable codes of practice with no real teeth will not deliver; hard limits on total national nitrogen usage are needed.

Effective regulatory action is possible, but requires political will. Earlier this year, the UK unveiled a sweeping air quality plan that includes plans to cut ammonia emissions from agriculture by 16% by 2030. The move came in the wake of a UK Environment Agency finding that ammonia was the only major air pollutant to increase since 2013, and that emissions from farms would continue to rise without “urgent action”.

Studies have shown that a 50% reduction in toxic agricultural emissions could prevent a quarter of a million deaths from air pollution worldwide [13]. Complete elimination of airborne agricultural pollution would see this rise to nearly 800,000 lives saved annually.

Research published in the science journal ‘Nature’ [14] found that agricultural ammonia emissions had a ‘remarkable’ impact [15]. One in five of all global deaths from air pollution resulted from these emissions, which come mainly from cattle, chickens and pigs and from the over-use of chemical fertilisers [16].

The effect of airborne ammonia is intensified when it reacts with fumes from traffic and industry to form a deadly fine particulate matter known as PM2.5. Extraordinarily, the study found that 48% of all the premature deaths in the city of London were ultimately as a result of agricultural pollution.

Commenting on the ‘Nature’ study, Professor Michael Jerrett of the University of California noted: “agriculture has generally not been seen as a major source of air pollution or premature death, and (the study) suggests that much more attention needs to be paid to agricultural sources, by both scientists and policymakers” [15].

Climatologist, John Sweeney, emeritus professor at NUI Maynooth and member of An Taisce’s climate change committee added: “Ireland has to start taking its legal obligations on tackling air pollution seriously. The pursuit of profits for one sector cannot be at the cost of endangering public health by damaging our air quality, especially now in the midst of the tremendous national effort to tackle coronavirus.”

/ENDS

Contacts: Professor John Sweeney (087-2476516); John Gibbons, PRO (087-2332689)

NOTES

[1] World Economic Forum (April 2020) "The deadly link between COVID-19 and air pollution": https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/the-deadly-link-between-covid-19-and-air-pollution/

[2] European Environmental Bureau (March 2019) "Time to cap agricultural pollution say MEPs": https://meta.eeb.org/2019/03/14/time-to-cap-agricultural-pollution-say-meps/

[3] European Environmental Bureau (April 2020) "The Big Stink: Europe's lockdown uncovers a surprising source of air pollution": https://meta.eeb.org/2020/04/02/the-big-stink-europes-lockdown-uncovers-a-surprising-source-of-air-pollution/

[4] European Parliament motion, 13 March 2019, A Europe that protects: Clean air for all: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-8-2019-0186_EN.pdf?redirect

[5] EPA (2017) "Ireland's air pollutant emissions 2017 (1990-2030)": https://www.epa.ie/pubs/reports/air/airemissions/irelandsairpollutantemissions2017/

[6] EPA press release (March 2018) "Emissions of three important air pollutants increased in 2016 – Ireland’s emissions going in the wrong direction for people to benefit from cleaner air": https://www.epa.ie/newsandevents/news/pressreleases2018/name,63848,en.html

[7] Teagasc Greenhouse Gas Working Group (March 2019) "An Analysis of Abatement Potential of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Irish Agriculture 2021-2030": teagasc.ie/media/website/publications/2018/An-Analysis-of-Abatement-Potential-of-Greenhouse-Gas-Emissions-in-Irish-Agriculture-2021-2030.pdf

[8] Teagasc (January 2019) Presentation to ASA Dairy Masterclass: "Soil Conditions & Nutrient Balances: effects of dairy grassland productivity": https://www.asaireland.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/David-Wall-Soil-Conditions-and-Nutrient-Balances-compressed.pdf

[9] Independent.ie (28 June 2019) "Thinking of switching to dairy farming? Here's the first step": https://www.independent.ie/storyplus/thinking-of-switching-to-dairy-farming-heres-the-first-step-38262286.html

[10] Teagasc "Protected urea": teagasc.ie/media/website/environment/climate-change/Andy-Boland--Patrick-Forrestal---Protected-urea-board-resized.pdf

[11] Dept. of Agriculture, Food and the Marine "Reducing GHG emissions in Irish Agriculture": https://www.teagasc.ie/media/website/publications/2020/Reducing-GHG-emissions-in-Irish-Agriculture.pdf

[12] An Taisce submission on the Code of Good Agricultural Practice for Reducing Ammonia Emissions from Agriculture (2019): https://www.antaisce.org/publications/an-taisce-submission-on-code-of-good-agricultural-practice-for-reducing-ammonia

[13] Pozzer, et. al. (2017) "Impact of agricultural emission reductions on fine-particulate matter and public health," Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 17: https://www.atmos-chem-phys.net/17/12813/2017/

[14] Lelieveld, et. al. (2015) "The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale," Nature, 525: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature15371

[15] The Guardian (16 Sept 2015) "More people die from air pollution than Malaria and HIV/Aids, new study shows": https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/sep/16/more-people-die-from-air-pollution-than-malaria-and-hivaids-new-study-shows

[16] Ahmed et. al. (2017) "Excessive use of nitrogenous fertilizers: an unawareness causing serious threats to environment and human health," Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 24: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11356-017-0589-7