Analysis: We have a long way to go in creating a truly sustainable dairying industry

Many of the Irish dairy co-ops have a sustainability programs for their suppliers. But do we know what the true meaning of the word sustainability is?
Many of the Irish dairy co-ops have a sustainability programs for their suppliers. But do we know what the true meaning of the word sustainability is?
Brendan and Pauline O'Driscoll,with family, Niall, Ian, Sam & Amy, Shreelane, Leap, Co Cork pictured with Peter Fleming, Carbery Group Chairman and Jason Hawkins, CEO Carbery Group. The O'Neills were the Drinagh Co-op Winners in the Carbery 2018 Quality Milk Awards. Photo: George Maguire
Joe Kelleher

Joe Kelleher

"I don't use the word sustainable anymore because it means nothing because the word has been so over used" was the comment from a young Hungarian organic vegetable grower at the EUFRAS (European Forum for Agricultural and Rural Advisory Services) conference held in Hungary last week.

She is definitely correct about the over-use of the word.

Every commentary that is made in the media about the expansion in the Irish dairy sector almost inevitably includes the word sustainability.

The majority of companies operating in the food and drink service in Ireland will also have the word sustainability included in their mission statements.

Many of the Irish dairy co-ops have a sustainability programs for their suppliers. But do we know what the true meaning of the word sustainability is?

If you Google the definition of sustainability, you get many varying answers but the most common answer seem to go along the lines of "the ability to continue at a particular level for a period of time" (Cambridge dictionary).

If you dig further behind the definitions most articles refer in some shape or form to the three Ps; People, Planet and Profit.

In essence, it comes down to this: can we continue doing what we are doing without impacting on the people involved in the process, without damaging the planet, and do it in an economically viable manner?

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For many years, the Irish dairy industry has focused strongly on the last P -profit.

All private companies involved in the Irish dairy sector are there to make a profit and all dairy farmers are there to make profit, with some more focused on it than others.

So if milk prices stay in the mid to late 30s (cents per litre) then you can argue profit is relatively sustainable.

The people part of the sustainability definition has being getting much attention of late.

Last week Minister Creed launched 'The People in Dairy Action Plan' ,while Teagasc published 'The People in Dairy Project'.

Both demonstrate a commitment from both parties to tackling labour shortages and other issues in the sector.

One figure that stood out in the Teagasc report is that the number of herds with more than 100 cows increased from 1,080 in 2005 to 4,262 in 2016.

With this figure likely to rise further, it is vital that a huge focus is put on this area.

One comment in the same booklet summarises for me what sustainability with regard to people means: "A change in the culture of work on Irish dairy farms to ensure that adequate rest is allocated for every person working on the farm. Farming will be seen as a career with an attractive work-life balance that can be incorporated enjoyably with family life".

With the profit receiving focus for many years, and a big emphasis now being put on the people part, it is the final P, Planet, that is going to have to be the key focus for the Irish dairy industry for the next decade.

With Ireland recently finishing second last on table ranking of countries actions to tackle climate change, and Minister Creed accepting that we are not going to meet our 2020 carbon emission target,it is quite clear that we need to focus more attention on the final part of the sustainability jigsaw.

Another publication out recently was the 'Future Scenarios for Irish Agriculture: Implications for Greenhouse Gas and Ammonia Emissions' paper from Teagasc researchers Trevor Donnellan, Kevin Hanrahan and Gary Lanigan.

Their analysis highlights that should expansion in the Irish agriculture continue at current rates, then one or all of the following will be required to ensure we meet our 2030 targets;

  • A wide-scale deployment of available mitigation actions
  • A reduction in the emissions targets for the agricultural sector
  • A re-examination of the growth targets for the sector Dilemma

If we take a worst case scenario, and assume that option 2 above doesn't happen, then the Irish dairy industry has two choices: implement every possible mitigation action (such as increasing EBI, Nitrogen use efficiency, fertiliser formulation and slurry management measures) on a wide-scale basis or else curb our expansion plans.

The final lines in this document are probably the most important.

"The analysis also highlights the continuing dilemma between policy driven and industry motivated ambitions to increase agricultural activity levels and commitments to reduce emissions. The resolution of this dilemma is perhaps the most important challenge currently facing the Irish agri-food sector".

The Irish dairy industry is currently profitable. We are investing a lot of resources in ensuring we have enough people to work in the sector and encouraging farmers to focus on having a healthy work/life balance. But with regard to the planet, we have a long way to go.

Perhaps the Hungarian vegetable grower is right. Perhaps many of us are guilty of over-using the word sustainable. We have many challenges to overcome to prove that the Irish dairy industry is indeed sustainable.

Joe Kelleher is a Teagasc advisor based in Newcastle West, Co Limerick.

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