“We’ve crossed a threshold: has industrial farming contributed to Ireland’s water crisis?” appeared on The Guardian website on Monday. Written by Ella McSweeney, the “industrial farming” referred to is dairy farming.
Consider this paragraph: “Farmers were told to expand their herd size, and sow their fields with a monoculture of rye grass as a low-cost feed for their cows. (Ryegrass won’t grow sufficiently without substantial amounts of fertiliser, and farmers were set on a course where they couldn’t grow grass without it.)”
That is deeply patronising to dairy farmers, portraying them as unwitting suckers, with ryegrass like some kind of crack cocaine, addicting them to granular fertiliser at the behest of Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture.
The BRIDE project, “an EU-funded project”, is referred to as an example of a better way. The Department of Agriculture co-funds that scheme with Brussels, and both the Department and Teagasc are partners in the scheme – but that isn’t mentioned in the article.
Dairy farmer Donal Sheehan, the BRIDE project’s driver, is quoted as saying: “We need to limit fertiliser use.” He’s right. That’s why nitrogen and phosphorus use is strictly limited by the Nitrates Directive, part of the Water Framework Programme. The derogation rules now require clover inclusion in grass, compulsory environmental training, and low-emission slurry spreading.
To produce food, there is a trade-off in that you have to use resources, most of which are finite, scarce and expensive. Land and water are perhaps the most important of those. Maximising resource efficiency while minimising the environmental impact of that usage is the challenge of our time in our sector.
We must acknowledge our failings, and we aren’t always good at that, who is? But it is simply unfair to ignore the scale of effort to recognise and meet that challenge.
The article makes no reference to the MACC curve, with us since 2012, while we were planning for post-quota dairy expansion. The catchments programme, which has been taking a deep dive into the relationship between farming and soil and water quality across the country for a decade now is unmentioned.
The ASSAP programme, engaging with thousands of farmers in river catchments, sees Teagasc, co-ops and local authorities working hands-on, field by field, with farmers to provide better outcomes.
The Guardian is in the top 10 news portals on the planet, with over 13 million daily visitors. This article has global reach. On the eve of Brexit, its portrayal of Irish dairy farming is deeply damaging. If it were fair, dairy farming would have to just accept that. But it only purports to tells one side of the story, and that, in our opinion, is deeply troubling.