Ireland is failing to limit escalating levels of dangerous ammonia air pollution due to continuing dairy intensification and excessive use of nitrogen from fertiliser and feeds. Due to government inaction on this issue, An Taisce has lodged a legal infringement complaint to the European Commission on the continued and increasing breach of the National Emissions Ceiling Directive (2016/2284/EU) on ammonia air pollution.

In a report released last week (1), the European Commission has assessed Ireland (2) as being at high risk of non-compliance with agreed air pollution reduction commitments before and after 2030 (3). Ireland’s policies and measures to address ammonia pollution are deemed inadequate to meet the required limits.

An Taisce has warned that immediate and effective action is needed to reduce ammonia emissions as other nations are now doing with due urgency (4).

Contrary to new agriculture minister Barry Cowen’s assertion last week on RTÉ (5), Ireland’s agriculture’s environmental credentials are in fact highly questionable (6), and this EU report confirms they are worsening. Ammonia emissions have increased by 14% in Ireland since 2011 and have exceeded our agreed national limit under the National Emissions Ceiling Directive since 2016, with no prospect in sight of meeting the lower limits from 2020 onward. Emissions of the potent greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide have also risen since 2011, by 15% and 18% respectively. Agricultural nitrate levels in rivers and estuaries are rising.

The Dutch Parliament has last week voted for action to reduce agricultural ammonia levels in the Netherlands. In Ireland at the same time, An Bord Pleanala granted permission to a Dutch Cheese company, Royal A Ware, to locate a new manufacturing plant in conjunction with Glanbia at Slieverue Co. Kilkenny (7). The Board’s decision did not adequately address ammonia or other impacts of the proposed plant's milk supply feed source.

Ammonia (NH3) is a highly reactive nitrogen pollutant with harmful effects on delicate ecosystems and on human health through the creation of particle and ozone air pollution. Agriculture is responsible for over 99% of ammonia emissions, primarily due to cattle urine and slurry. Currently there are over 1.5 million dairy cows in Ireland, an increase of 450,000 since 2011, and over 5.8 million other cattle (8). Rather than the claimed efficiency gains, the key driver for production and the coupled pollution increases (9) is a 38% rise in nitrogen fertiliser.

Wholly contrary to Ireland’s climate, biodiversity and air and water pollution commitments, further increases in dairy cow numbers are planned (10). Agri-industry organisations and Teagasc, the agriculture advisory body, have failed to make it clear to the public, the media and farmers, that any rise in dairy numbers pursued by policy must logically be balanced by reductions in beef cattle numbers to stay within overall ammonia emissions limits.

Speaking for An Taisce, Dr. Elaine McGoff, Natural Environment Officer, said:

“As An Taisce and many others have been warning for years, headlong dairy expansion comes with rising societal costs in terms of climate, air and water pollution that is damaging to our future, our health and our ecosystems. It is also hurting Ireland’s international reputation on climate action. While this may not have been clearly understood by politicians a decade ago, in 2020 and with the urgent need to achieve, there can no longer be any such excuse.”

As a result of lobbying led by the agri-food industry, the EU milk quota was ended and official Irish agri-food strategies since 2010 have been dominated by industry lobbyists at the expense of public health (11). Large food processors and landowners have profited most from this agricultural expansion, which has increased the pressure on small farmers and on ecosystems.

Teagasc has proposed multiple “measures” which they suggest will result in the required ammonia emissions reduction. However these lack credibility in science, implementation and outcomes, as An Taisce has repeatedly pointed out to Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture on climate (12,13) and on ammonia (14,15) without any substantive reply to date.

In 2008, Teagasc clearly understood that the pathway to decreasing emissions to meet ammonia ceiling limits is the “result of declining ruminant livestock populations and declining fertiliser N use” (16). It is disappointing that Teagasc no longer appears to understand something it grasped 12 years ago. The weak ammonia reduction measures proposed by Teagasc and its failure to acknowledge the need for herd number caps to meet pollution limits is a serious failure in its responsibility to deliver evidence-based guidance. The Department’s code of practice is unenforceable, it will only deliver benefits if hard limits on agricultural chemical input usage are enforced.

Meanwhile, damaging emissions from intensive agriculture continue to rise. An Taisce urges Minister Cowen to acknowledge the reality that Irish agriculture has been set on a damaging path since 2010, at costs to farm welfare, biodiversity, human health and climate.

Elaine McGoff said:

“In our view, society as well as nature’s longer-term well-being are bearing the true cost of agri-food corporate short-termism. One sector’s economic preference 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.”

The implementation of the revised Common Agricultural Policy has recently been delayed by two years, affording Ireland time now to reconsider the direction of the 2030 Agri-Food Strategy. This strategy’s guiding document is currently being rushed to completion, without taking sufficient account of the recent EU Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies, which form part of the EU Green Deal. These EU-wide strategies signpost a new pathway to lower agri-chemical dependence, ensure better diets, increase food security and look to a better future for farmers and rural Ireland. These Farm to Fork goals must guide any future Irish agri-food strategy.

We urge the new Government to stop the current agri-strategy process and start anew. To date, a narrow focus on intensification is increasing risks for farmers and the environment. A new vision with far wider societal support and greater acceptance of expert input from scientists and environmental organisations is needed to change the direction of Irish agricultural strategy to align with Farm to Fork and ecological recovery.

As this new EU report pointing to Ireland’s failure on ammonia emissions shows, changing direction in Irish agriculture cannot happen soon enough.


Contact: Dr. Elaine McGoff, An Taisce Natural Environment Officer: [email protected], 085 715 3796


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