Cheese has become an unlikely faultline in Ireland’s climate debate.
An Taisce's objection to Glanbia's proposed cheese plant at Belview in Co Kilkenny centres on the likely environmental impact of producing an extra 450 million litres of milk a year needed to feed the plant.
The group argues that the increased production will damage water quality and increase carbon emissions – already problem areas for the State.
On the surface, the row seems like a straight shoot-out between environmentalists and industry, something we’re likely to see more and more of as activists pursue their aims in court. However, there’s a different play going on behind the scenes.
The €150 million plant is a joint venture between Glanbia Ireland and Dutch company Royal A-ware and plans to make primarily Dutch cheeses – edam and gouda – for the Dutch, German and Belgium markets. Which begs the question: why is Royal A-ware coming to Ireland to make cheese for the European market?
It’s not obvious that it needs Glanbia’s financial muscle: it generated more than €1.5 billion in revenue in 2019. Might the reason be the controversy surrounding its own dairy industry?
Like Ireland , the Netherlands is a heavyweight dairy exporter, the fifth largest in the world. But a massive ramping up of production since the lifting of EU milk quotas in 2015 has had a disastrous impact on the environment, with excess phosphates from animal waste triggering a major decline in water quality.
Under pressure from the EU, the Dutch government has been forced to cull part of its dairy herd while imposing strict phosphate quotas on dairy farmers – a source of great controversy in the Netherlands.
Glanbia describes the proposed plant at Belview as a “vital diversification measure” in the wake of Brexit but it seems Royal A-ware is the one diversifying away from its own increasingly fractious industry.
The Dutch company isn't the only European dairy group using Ireland as a workaround to bypass domestic controls on agricultural production. Norway's largest co-op, Tine, has teamed up with Dairygold to produce jarlsberg cheese – a Norwegian speciality – at Dairygold's Mogeely plant in east Cork.
The partnership was announced in 2016, a year after the Norwegian government phased out subsidies to dairy exporters on the grounds that they were distorting the market.
The €120 million facility – which is on par in terms of scale with Glanbia's proposed plant – encountered several objections from environmental groups, relating to the lack of sufficient waste water treatment at the plant and Dairygold's building of an 11-kilometre pipeline to discharge waste into Cork Harbour. The Environmental Protection Agency granted Dairygold a discharge licence for the facility last year.
These two big cheese plants seem to suggest Ireland is soaking up an overspill of dairy production in the wake of the lifting of quotas.
And the Dutch experience stands out as a warning to Ireland as we appear to be headed down the same track. Former EU agriculture and rural development commissioner Phil Hogan said as much at a dairy conference in Dublin in 2018. "We have to be honest about the potential pitfalls that lie ahead," Hogan said, noting the appealing image of dairy cows eating grass in wide open fields is a very successful selling point for Irish products.
But he warned if that reputation for quality and sustainability is compromised in any way, the negative market impact could be significant.
The Urgenda Climate Case against the Dutch government – upheld in the country’s supreme court in 2019 – was the first in the world in which activists established that their government had a legal duty to prevent dangerous climate change. It is now seen as a template for climate litigation.
Ireland is playing a dangerous game on food, selling itself abroad, as Hogan says, as a pristine pasture of grass-based farming, unspoilt by heavy industry, home to all that’s green and environmentally-friendly, when the truth is more nuanced.
Trends in water quality, emissions and biodiversity are all going the wrong way – a situation that has been aggravated by the ramping up in production since the ending of EU milk quotas. The Republic’s dairy herd is almost 30 per cent larger than it was before the ending of milk quotas while the island’s milk pool – currently at around 10.4 billion litres – will soon be double.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than a third of Irish rivers and a quarter of lakes are failing to meet environmental quality standards due to high levels of polluting nitrates and phosphates, a large share of which come from agriculture.
New Zealand, Ireland's mirror image in terms of dairy in the southern hemisphere, has been through the same dairy production boom and environmental bust. It was never subject to quotas.
Government and industry here have been fudging the issue for years, promising plans and aims on climate while announcing ever-bigger food production targets. The Government’s Climate Action Bill, which will assign legally binding carbon budgets to agriculture and other sectors, promises to be a line in the sand.
It will leave the Government open to future legal challenges and will almost certainly be met with resistance from industry, but protecting the State’s environment and its image internationally as a quality food producer may need to take precedence.