The heads of the three largest dairy processors in NI have said their businesses and farmer suppliers must become more focused on the environment.

“The train has left the station. Arguments about the environment and sustainability are over. It’s about doing something about it now and getting plans to reduce carbon footprints and improve water quality,” said Michael Hanley of Lakeland Dairies.

Paul Vernon, chief executive of Glanbia Cheese, said processors in other countries are already putting a strong focus on the environment which is proving beneficial in international markets.

He gave the example of European dairy giant Arla, where a bonus scheme worth 4c/l is being paid to its suppliers for meeting 19 different criteria on sustainability. “Our competitors are already at it,” Vernon said.

Dale Farm chief executive Nick Whelan said his customers were becoming more focused on environmental issues due to demand from consumers and targets that are set out in law.

He said the board of Dale Farm has visited Denmark to see what steps the dairy industry is taking there to improve sustainability across the supply chain.

“It’s really awakening to see what’s happening and to see what they are doing differently year-on-year on-farm and in their businesses to address this. It’s almost a look into the future of where sustainability will be,” Whelan said.

The three chief executives shared a platform at an event in Antrim on Tuesday which was organised by the NI Dairy Council.

Although the discussion was solely focused on sustainability, all three dairy bosses acknowledged that their businesses and farm suppliers must be financially sound to deliver the environmental outcomes required.

“From an economic point of view, a lot of this is about getting more from less. There are some negatives in it for farmers and businesses, but there are a lot of positives as well,” said Hanley.

Interestingly, Whelan suggested there was scope for further expansion within the NI dairy sector, a topic that is rarely mentioned during discussions on the environment.

“I still haven’t given up on the fact that we should grow as an industry, that’s probably a very unpopular thing to say,” the Dale Farm chief said.

“If you look at our industry over the last 30 years, frankly whether you’re a farmer or you’re in business, if you’re not growing, you’re slowly dying. That’s the way business is,” he said.

Whelan argued that growth makes businesses more able to manage both inflation and international competition.

“We have to earn the right to grow, not by finding new customers, but by finding ways of producing our products that have less environmental impact,” he added.