Farm Ireland

Friday 22 March 2019

Fears boom in milk industry will damage water quality

The samples of the water were taken by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on February 9
The samples of the water were taken by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on February 9

Paul Melia and  Kim Bielenberg

INCREASING milk production by 50pc will impact on water quality due to pollution, environmentalists have warned.

And some processing facilities may not be licensed to increase output because local waters are unable to absorb the additional discharge that would be required.

Among the key environmental concerns arising from increased output include the use of nitrogen fertiliser, which is already posing an environmental problem in the south of the country.

This is the same region which is earmarked for much of the expansion as milk quotas come to an end.

Environmentalists claim the boom in the number of dairy cows will lead to poorer water quality as a result of overuse of fertiliser.

"If we are expanding dairying, we are going to have to intensify grass production," John Gibbons from An Taisce said.

"Farmers are going to lash on more nitrogen and that will inevitably end up in our waterways. There will also be a huge increase in slurry output."


The HSE has also warned that the risk of water-borne zoonotic illness, or diseases that can be passed from animals, had potentially been "underestimated".

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It said there had been "little reference" to the potential impact of drinking water contamination on human health.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has previously warned that Ireland faces enormous challenges to bring water bodies to "good status" and to prevent further deterioration of quality.

Agriculture will have a "large influence" on Ireland's success in meeting water quality targets, it says in an environmental analysis for Food Harvest 2020.

"Expanding production capacity may be a challenge for the agri-food processing companies operating existing licensed sites over which the agency has a role in licensing and enforcement," the analysis says.

"The location of some existing processing sites could reach a limit where the assimilative capacity of receiving water is at or near capacity.

"Intensification and expansion will increase the use of fertilising nutrients.

"It is therefore essential that the loss of nutrients to water is minimised."

Much of the increase in nitrogen generation will be in Limerick, Cork, Tipperary and Waterford, it adds.


There is already a "significant problem" and expansion of the national dairy herd could "compound this issue".

Agriculture research agency Teagasc agrees that significant challenges exist, but Head of Environmental Knowledge Transfer Pat Murphy said that changes in farming practice were helping to reduce the environmental impact.

"We can do a fair bit (to alleviate the problem)," he said.

"The concern that is out there at farm level is if we're increasing output, it's not so much that you'll get expansion, but intensification which will put pressures on the system.

"There will be an increased level of nutrients, but there is a change in farming practice.

"The question is can you stop nitrates and phosphorous getting into the sources."

The Agricultural Catchments Programme was monitoring water quality around 300 farms and across six catchments, he said.

And the Department of Agriculture said that while dairy farmers tended to have higher fertilisation requirements, controls were in place.

A spokesman added that nitrates levels in Irish water had been reduced over recent years.

Irish Independent