A formal call for evidence on air pollution by Northern Ireland’s Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) is “extremely concerning”, according to the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU).

DAERA announced on Friday (July 21) that it had launched a call for evidence on its Future Operational Protocol to assess the impacts of air pollutants, such as ammonia, on the natural environment.

The call will be open for eight weeks until September 15.

According to DAERA, the call is part of an effort to address “the growing problem” of ammonia emissions from agricultural activities and the effect on sensitive habitats and biodiversity across Northern Ireland.

The department said that current policy is to deliver a solution which achieves “both a protected and improved environment and a sustainable agriculture sector”.

The call for evidence follows on from a recent consultation on a draft ammonia strategy.

The Future Operational Protocol is used by DAERA to provide advice to planning authorities and other competent authorities on the potential impacts of air pollution from plans and projects on designated sites and protected habitats.

A DAERA spokesperson said: “This call for evidence presents available scientific evidence, taking account of legal requirements, and drawing upon expertise from subject area specialists. However, we recognise that we may not have access to all evidence of relevance.

“Therefore, stakeholders are invited to submit additional evidence that will contribute to the development and delivery of a scientifically robust, evidence-informed, operational protocol.”

However, the UFU, while saying that the call for evidence is “long overdue”, expressed worries over the proposals for planning assessments included in the call, saying these are “extremely concerning for the future of the Northern Ireland agri-food industry”.

The farm organisation said the proposals have “the potential to prevent sustainable on-farm development”.

UFU president David Brown commented: “Ammonia is a very complex issue and our farmers are very much aware of this. However, at first glance, the proposed policy is very concerning for agriculture.”

“The suggested ammonia assessments will have implications for all sectors and farms of all sizes that wish to develop and will ripple into the wider agri-food sector and beyond.

“[Northern Irish] farmers must be allowed to develop and modernise sustainably so they can reduce emissions and improve animal health and welfare while producing high-quality food for a growing population,” Brown added.

He continued: “If the ammonia planning protocol does not support them to do this, their farms will become inefficient, and it will be impossible for their businesses to remain competitive.

The UFU president said that agri-businesses, the rural economy, communities, and consumers will be “severely affected” by this. He called for a “balanced way forward” that allows farmers to develop and deliver ammonia reductions.

“While we are encouraged that DAERA has recognised that farms modernising and replacing existing structures without expansion should be treated differently within the planning protocol, the proposals still remain extremely challenging on this aspect.”

Brown said that the UFU will be seeking “expert advice” on all areas of the call for evidence document.

“We will also take time to review and discuss it within our UFU structure to support us in providing a robust response. This is vital to ensure that family farms have a viable and prosperous future,” he added.