The need for balance and fully informed views is key to the ongoing debate around Irish dairy sustainability, according to the senior policy executive of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) Dairy Committee Aine O’Connell.

“Despite what others would like the general public to believe, Irish dairy production is environmentally sustainable,” the IFA dairy executive asserted.

In an interview with Agriland, O’Connell voiced her views on the ongoing debate around the sustainability of the Irish dairy sector, the sector response and the divisive narrative that has emerged in recent weeks.

On Twitter you recently voiced a frustration about “science” being cherry-picked to suit certain agendas. What are your views on the impact this is having on the general public?

O’Connell: “Because the science is being cherry-picked we see many people advocating for a reduction in herd size with very little understanding of the dairy industry.

For example, late last year we had a third level lecturer post a video on Twitter claiming a farmer was spreading fertiliser during the closed period when in fact he was spreading lime – a beneficial thing to do for the environment and soil health.

“This is very damaging as titles and positions carry weight so statements made by these individuals need to be balanced and fully informed.

“We need to demonstrate to the general public that the way we produce milk in this country is the most efficient system in the world. We also need to let them know that we are willing to do more but that incomes need to improve in order to enable us to do more.

Is there a need for a more unified response from the Irish dairy sector and Irish agriculture in general to what some would deem to be unfair criticism on the environmental front?

O’Connell: “In general, I think the response from our industry is unified. However, I think our messaging can get lost in all the noise. The power of advertising and the budgets that multinationals can set aside for marketing is overwhelming.

“Unfortunately the court of public opinion can be swayed by whoever has the biggest advertising budget. Despite what others would like the general public to believe, Irish dairy production is environmentally sustainable.

“But the farming community depends on independent reporting to demonstrate this.

“The inflammatory statements we have seen being hurled at our industry on TV and radio programmes without being challenged is particularly damaging for the sector.

There has been quite a divisive narrative in recent times which has been laid even more bare by the An Taisce row over the Belview plant. How best do you think this can be changed and a more balanced approach taken?

O’Connell: “I think it’s important to recognise that dairy farming in Ireland is still a family-based model.

“The average dairy herd size is just over 80 cows – while the average herd size in New Zealand is 435 cows and in the US it is 273 cows.

“The temperate climate we live in allows us to produce milk from grass. This enables us to produce milk with a carbon footprint less than half of that of the global average for milk production.

“The question is can anyone point to a more environmentally friendly place for milk production anywhere else in the world? I don’t think so.

“Global dairy demand will increase. It makes sense to produce milk here – but we must respect the environment and farmers are willing to do more.

“Indeed, farmers have to work with the environment every day – our livelihoods depend on it.

While many like to describe farming almost like a vocation, to the surprise of many, farmers actually need to make money.

“We have mortgages and household bills to pay for like every other household in the country. This has to be the starting point for all meaningful engagement.

“It was disappointing to see the Environmental Pillar pull out of the Agri-Food Strategy group and then produce their own vision for the sector.

“Working in an echo chamber will not deliver anything for the environment.”