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Coveney takes on Europe – it may bite back

Europe is in no mood to indulge further Irish flouting of environmental directives on agriculture, fisheries, SEA, greenhouse gases, animal waste and water quality –  Tony Lowes 


Assurances from Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney,  that the process of approval by the European Commission of his ambitious plans for the “agrifood journey we want to create” are proceeding “as normal” perpetuate his campaign of misinformation.

The campaign began in February of this year when he informed the Dáil that he had applied to the European Commission to bring in changes to the Disadvantaged Area Scheme that would ensure that only ‘productive farmers’ would receive payments in future. He did this by doubling the required stocking rate for sheep to qualify for payments  – retroactively, cutting out more than 10,000 farmers in the Western Counties.

In fact, Coveney did not make his application to vary Ireland’s agreed 2007–2012 CAP commitments until April, ensuring that the Commission’s reply would not come in time to jeopardise the June deadline for 2012 grant applications. In late June the Commission replied with a 10-page letter Coveney won’t release requiring further information –  in euro-speak a refusal – leaving the 10,000 farmers caught in the cross-fire.

Coveney’s over-reaching plan to double agricultural production by 2020 – called Food Harvest 2020 [FH2020] – called for a Strategic Environmental Assessment [SEA] of its own proposals. Coveney has refused this recommendation, claiming that FH2020 is not government policy that would in law require an SEA – but rather an ‘industry led initiative’ – and in the process further advancing Ireland’s reputation in Brussels for playing the cute hoor.

Unfortunately, unbeknownst to the heedless Irish media the Commission recently quietly  collapsed its SEA case against Ireland which centred on the national failure properly to assess the National Development Plan. The Directive is poorly written and Ireland is not the only state to dance around its requirements.

However, Minister Coveney will not find it so easy to avoid the Habitats Regulations, which were specifically strengthened last year to require assessment of plans that might have a significant effect on protected areas – 13% of Ireland’s land. Ireland already has a European judgment registered against it – for overgrazing in disparate areas, from sensitive upland mountains to sand dunes

In fact FH2020’s recommendations will run up an impressive list of offences. Ireland is legally required to deliver a 20% reduction in non-industrial greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (relative to 2005 levels). Agriculture already accounts for the largest share of the national total at 33% – and Coveney’s proposal will result in a 12% increase from the dairy sector alone.

And the manure! Ireland’s farm animal waste production is already what would be expected of a population of 68 million people and requires derogations from the Nitrates Regulations because of the run-off from slurry-spreading into surface waters. Where are they going to put another 25 million people’s worth? With artificial fertilisers, you can at least cut your supply with a phone call to your retailer. If you increase your herd at a national level, the stuff keeps on coming. And coming.

And it’s not just water quality. Ireland now has the highest rate of cryptosporidiosis and e coli infections in Europe. Much of this is transmitted through animal waste. And there are indirect effects: increases in beef for export will require an expansion of slaughtering facilities, for example, which are associated with high levels of water and energy consumption.

On sea, Coveney’s plans for the biggest salmon-farm in Europe in the omphalos of Galway Bay is not being met with the welcome he anticipated. Aran Islanders have been through this before with attempts at salmon farming in the 1980s. They are well aware that what few jobs there will be in an increasingly-mechanised production process are dirty, dangerous, and badly-paid.

FH2020’s consultation document says that aquaculture has been excluded from the consultation process because it has already been assessed. But the Department confirmed to Village that the only assessment was in 2008, when the proposed expansion in salmon farming was 78%, mostly derived from increasing production in existing sites. In contrast, Coveney is planning a 300% increase in production in entirely new locations.

As is the case with farming on land, a big issue is the increased nutrients – from fish excrement (and food waste). The Galway Bay farm will discharge the nutrient equivalent of more than twice the sewage of the population of Galway city itself. And of course there is the sea-lice issue, where the build-up of lice in salmon farms infects wild populations.  In the case of the Connemara sea-trout fisheries, it wiped out a whole sporting industry in the 1990s.

Now coastal residents will be faced with three mega-fish farms ‘off shore’ – ie in coastal bays like Galway Bay. When the Volvo yacht race returns to Galway in the future, they can expect to have to slalom between the cages to complete the race. Unless, of course, those pesky folk in Brussels get to hear of it.