The relationship between farmers and environmentalists is broken

Irish agriculture has failed to properly demonstrate the commitment of the sector to acknowledging and addressing the environmental challenges that lie ahead

The ongoing objections by An Taisce to the Glanbia Ireland cheese plant in Kilkenny exposes the extent to which the relationship between farmers and environmentalists is broken. By working together both parties could deliver so much in relation to reducing the environmental footprint of food production, not just in Ireland but globally.

The old cliché that there is much more to unite than divide rings true. In particular, common ground can be found in highlighting the flawed approach by the EU to trading away environmental standards in international trade deals. A case in point is the trade deal with the South American Mercosur trading bloc and the potential for it to further fuel destruction of the Amazon rainforest. But unfortunately extremists on either side of the debate have polarised the argument, at the expense of progress and in some cases, to the detriment of the environment.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the forestry sector. Increasing the rate of afforestation has been identified as a key element in Ireland’s climate change mitigation strategy. However serial objectors to felling licences have effectively shut the sector down. It is ironic that these objections are being lodged on environmental grounds. The impact of the objections has been to add to the collapse in the rate of afforestation in the country. It has also forced sawmills to become increasingly reliant on imported stocks - which in turn expose the sector to the introduction of new parasites. During the period 2017 to date, annual afforestation amounted to 17,990ha compared with the 38,750ha programme agreed between the Department and stakeholders.

There is the potential for a similar outcome in the case of ongoing objections to the Glanbia cheese plant. An Taisce’s objections are largely based on the downstream environmental impact of producing the 450 million litres of milk that will be required each year to feed the new plant. From the outside, it appears a valid concern. But the reality is Ireland already has the capacity in place to process an extra four billion litres of milk on an annual basis. However, to utilise this capacity would require an even volume of milk to be produced each month.


Where the challenge arises is that Irish farmers operate a grass-based and environmentally efficient model which produces a seasonal milk production profile - with volumes peaking in the spring and early summer months in line with grass growth. This sees over 120% more milk produced in the month of May compared to November. If the Glanbia plant is not commissioned, the outcome will not be to reduce milk production in Ireland. Instead, the effect will be to force farmers to move down the route of an all year round milk production system. This will allow a growing milk pool to be processed through the existing infrastructure more evenly throughout the year. But the impact on the environment and economic sustainability of dairy farming will be negative. Teagasc figures indicate that moving milk production away from a seasonal grass-based system to a more intensive indoor system reliant on concentrates will increase the environmental footprint by 15-20% while reducing economic sustainability.

Unfortunately, in the rush to attack, these nuances are being lost in the debate. It would be easy to lay sole blame for the current stand-off at the doorstep of An Taisce, but it would be wrong to do so. The position of farmers in the environmental debate reflects the extent to which Irish agriculture has failed to properly demonstrate the commitment of the sector to acknowledging and addressing the environmental challenges that lie ahead. Cool heads are now needed.

The Glanbia outcome will be determined by a judge - not whoever wins the battle on social media or the national airwaves. Vitriol will only lead to further entrenchment. Leaders on both sides must now come to the fore and create a platform for respectful dialogue: one that acknowledges the complexity of the issue, where there is a commitment to listen and, most importantly, recognises that the best outcome for the environment will be delivered through fostering co-operation rather than division on both sides.

Justin McCarthy is editor and CEO of The Irish Farmers Journal