Glanbia cheese plant highlights problems facing food industry
Food company welcomes High Court decision upholding planning permission
A Glanbia plant in Idaho, US
Heritage agency An Taisce had appealed the planning agency’s initial decision on environmental impact grounds, claiming the new facility and the increased agricultural activity needed to support it would increase carbon emissions and damage water quality.
Pending an appeal, the plant, a joint venture between Glanbia and Dutch company Royal A-Ware, will produce cheeses such as gouda and emmental for continental European markets. It will be operational by 2024 and take in 450-500 million litres of milk annually, a sizeable chunk of Ireland’s milk pool of almost eight billion litres.
The plant is a touchstone for a number of challenges and issues facing the food industry here.
At its core, it’s a Brexit hedge. More than half of the cheese produced in the Republic is exported to the UK, and the UK market makes up about 3 per cent of Glanbia’s revenues.
Even though the EU and the UK have cobbled together a no-tariffs trade deal, access to the UK market has become more complex. Barriers in the form of new health protocols, extra paperwork and higher haulage costs have been cited.
And Glanbia, like many food companies, believes diversification is the best way to manage this problem.
But even if Brexit didn’t exist, milk production here has surged since the lifting of the EU milk quotas in 2015.
With many traditional export markets saturated, dairy firms are compelled to diversify if they want to maintain this new level of production. Glanbia references Royal A-ware’s ready access to continental European markets in its press releases about the Belview plant. So diversification was necessary even without Brexit.
Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is the fact that this post-quota surge in production and the associated expansion of the dairy herd, as An Taisce argued in the High Court, is completely at odds with the Government’s stated aim of curbing carbon emissions.
According to figures from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agriculture was responsible for more than 35 per cent of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 and dairy production is a significant contributor.
For a decade, the Government has been trying to fudge the issue by talking the talk on climate while supporting a major ramp-up in food production. At some point, something has to give – we can’t pursue both these agendas.