How the EU wants Ireland to use the CAP to shift to sustainable agriculture
Ireland has a very particular profile when it comes to the climate change target in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Uniquely, we have the highest level of permanent grassland in the EU, which at 91% is almost three times the EU average of 31%.
In addition, we have very extensive bogs, covering over 20% of Ireland.
This means that Irish soil is a huge store of carbon.
Yet, according to the EU, we face very serious challenges related to climate change, closely linked to agriculture.
Our net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture have increased since 2011, reaching 35.3% of total national emissions by 2018.
The EU recognizes that this may be partly explained by Ireland’s lack of heavy industry.
Nonetheless, it is clear that the expansion of cattle, especially dairy cattle (also a threat to the environmental protection objective of the CAP) is pushing emissions, alongside the increase in the use of synthetic fertilizers.
From 2013 to 2018, the EU estimates that methane from ruminants increased by 9.6%, emissions from manure management increased by 7.5% and emissions from soil management increased by 6.2% (linked to the expansion of areas benefiting from a nitrates exemption, with consequences also for the environmental protection objective of the CAP).
The EU has called on Ireland to incorporate responses to these challenges in its plan for the next CAP, from 2023, which will play a very important role in the transition to sustainability.
The EU also sees problems with our peatlands, which have been drained on a large scale over the years, for peat extraction, agriculture and afforestation, to the point where 80% are degraded.
80% of degraded peatlands
Although trees can no longer be planted on peatlands, in 2017 active drainage and peat extraction was still underway on 56,000 ha.
It is estimated that drained peat soils release about 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare per year.
And forest and woodlands to absorb carbon are only weakly present in Ireland, according to the EU.
Our forest cover is only 11% (the EU average is 40%).
We plan to increase the forest to 18% by 2046, but plantings are well behind the 8,000 ha required per year.
In addition, our grasslands, although they are a carbon sink, also have high carbon emissions, so there are overall positive net emissions from land use, land use change. land and forestry, according to the EU.
The lack of forests is part of Ireland’s modest renewable energy production from the land.
Only 2.6% of our renewable energy production came from agriculture in 2018 (the EU on average 12%) and 19% from forestry (the EU on average 41%).
Biogas and biomethane in Ireland are still in the early stages of development, and our forests are unlikely to keep pace any longer with the combined needs of wood panels and wood-based energy.
In contrast, Ireland’s energy use in agriculture and forestry (42 kg of oil equivalent per hectare in 2018) is modest by EU standards.
The EU fears Irish agriculture is vulnerable to climate change due to specialization, but most farmers here are not interested in diversification, despite forecasts of increased autumn and winter rains (due to climate change) leading to further leaching of nutrients, soil erosion and pollution of agricultural land. with fresh water.
Hotter and drier summers are also expected, threatening yields and forage availability.
In response to these various issues, Ireland’s national energy and climate plans set out various courses of action.
The EU sees concerns with regard to water, soil and air in Ireland, mainly due to the substantial increase in the herd.
This trend has left 33% of Irish cattle, owned by 10% of farmers, occupying 14% of agricultural land.
The EU considers that industry participation is essential to find solutions to this trend, as these farmers are less dependent on the CAP for their income support.
In this regard, the Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Program provides 30 free advisers to farmers through a combination of state and dairy industry funding.
The EU says such initiatives should be encouraged.
Water, soil and air problems also stem from the increasing use of synthetic fertilizers, whose sales increased 10% year-over-year in 2017 and 2018, before falling 10%. % in 2019, Teagasc leading efforts to reduce fertilizer use.
Ireland has legally binding limits for nitrogen and phosphorus as part of its nitrate action program, and 21% of soils are at the agronomic optimum for phosphorus, potassium and lime, it There is therefore considerable potential for efficiency gains in the use of fertilizers.
However, ammonia emissions from agriculture are a significant problem, climbing since 2011, exceeding EU legal limits for the first time in 2016 and leaving Ireland at high risk of not meeting EU commitments. the EU in reducing ammonia emissions.
Meanwhile, the quality of Irish rivers is declining, with poor surface water bodies reaching 18% in 2013-2018 compared to 15% in 2007-2009.
The Irish Environmental Protection Agency says water quality is deteriorating after a period of stability and relative improvement.
On the other hand, in 2013-2018. 92% of groundwater bodies (in 98% of the country by area) were in good chemical and quantitative status).
The main water problem in Ireland is nutrient pollution, with a third of rivers and a quarter of estuaries failing to meet nutrient-based environmental quality standards.
Although Ireland’s potential nitrogen surplus on agricultural land, at 41 kg / ha / year in 2017, is lower than the EU average (47 kg), it has been increasing since 2011 (after declining from 1995 to 2011.
The potential phosphorus surplus was 20 kg / ha / year in 2015, well above the EU average of 1 kg (and increasing since 2008), although this may reflect efforts to address past exhaustion.
Overall, nutrient releases to water have reportedly increased since 2013 due to increased cattle numbers, increased fertilizer use and nitrate waivers.
The 2018 exemption report confirmed that since 2013 water quality has declined, especially in the south and southeast, where nitrogen emissions are of particular concern, while phosphorus concentrations are too high in various parts of Ireland.
Heavy rains and regular storms often exceed measures to protect and improve water quality.
In contrast, the soil situation is generally positive in Ireland, with an organic carbon content of 127 g / kg (compared to 47 g in the EU), of which 67 and 82 g on Irish arable land (the highest in the ‘EU).
There is also no significant pressure from soil erosion by water or soil sealing.
The peatlands are however threatened.
The EU says Ireland has potential advantages as regards the CAP objective of preserving landscapes and biodiversity.
For example, the highest share of agricultural land in the EU in permanent grassland, a strong presence of peatlands and a well-established network of hedges support biodiversity.
Nonetheless, there are reasons for concern. The farmland bird index was 107 in 2016 (up from 100 in 2000). But the European Environment Agency’s Countryside Bird Survey shows that bird populations on Irish farmlands fell 8% between 2005 and 2014, and scrub / peatland species fell 8.7%. (but only 0.2% in the case of forest species).
The Natura 2000 areas of the EU Habitats Directive cover only 3.6% of Ireland’s agricultural area, compared to 11% for the EU as a whole.
Natura 2000 grassland habitats of EU interest affected by agriculture and reported under the Habitats Directive do not have a favorable conservation status and have not improved from 2013 to 2018.
For 17%, the status is “unfavorable, insufficient”; it is “unfavorable, bad” for the remaining 83% (compared to 43% of these grassland habitats across the EU).
All three heather habitats have an ‘unfavorable, bad’ status (particularly important because 20% of the EU’s wetlands are in Ireland).
For heathland and grassland habitats, there has been a decline in bird populations.
For example, the breeding population of lapwing has experienced a long-term decline of 56%. The prairie butterfly species are critically endangered.
The EU says the monitoring of flora and fauna outside Natura 2000 areas needs to be improved, but in any case similar problems with biodiversity of agricultural land habitats are observed more generally.
As in many countries, there has been a long-term decline in pollinators: 30% of bee species are now considered endangered in Ireland.
The main pressures on grasslands and heathlands include the intensification of land use (but abandonment in some areas) as well as improper mowing and damaging burning of vegetation.
The EU claims that Ireland’s native forests are in some ways in poor condition: small and fragmented, devoid of all ecological functions. Native forests represent only 27% of the total forested area.
The establishment of native forests is supported by a national program.
About 0.9% of Ireland’s usable agricultural area is occupied by hedges and other ‘linear landscape features’ (a 2018 estimate, slightly higher than the EU average of 0.6%) . But Ireland has less fallow land (0.1%, compared to 4.1% in the EU)
Finally, the use of organic farming is low in Ireland, at 2.6% in 2018, compared to 0.9% in 2008. Our organic farms are almost entirely made up of permanent meadows,