The former CEO of one of the country’s leading dairy processors has said that water quality is one of the most important issues for the agriculture sector to address.

Jim Woulfe, the former CEO of Dairygold, described the issue as a “raw nerve for ordinary citizens”, and one that Irish farming would have to get to grips with.

Woulfe was speaking at a Fianna Fáil agricultural policy conference in Tyrrellspass, Co. Westmeath on Saturday (December 3).

“It’s a raw nerve to ordinary citizens. They turn on the news and they hear EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] on water quality.

He said that water quality is “one of the barometers that’s understood by all”.

“Water quality has deteriorated and we have to reverse that very quickly”, Woulfe commented.

He told the Fianna Fáil conference: “It is unacceptable that water quality isn’t up to the required standard, that it has deteriorated, particularly in the south and southeast. That’s one of the first issues that must be tackled.”

The former Dairygold chief also defended the inclusion of voluntary reduction schemes in the recent reports from the both the Food Vision Dairy Group and the Food Vision Beef and Sheep Group.

“What needs to be done in the context of the sustainability and climate challenge is we have got to look at, and bite the bullet on, voluntary exit schemes,” Woulfe said.

He added: “Through my experience from a dairy point of view, there has always been a natural exit from production.”

He explained that there was 72,000 milk producers in Ireland in 1983, compared to around 18,000 after the abolition of milk quotas in 2015.

“So there was a huge amount of movement out of dairying in that time. And we had milk quota buy-outs, organised by the state, and we had milk quota restructuring schemes. There was no fuss. There was reward for people to transition to other enterprises.”

Woulfe referenced protests that have taken place in the Netherlands recently against policies to reduce the number of farms there.

“You know the whole aggression and angst that there is right now, I think we can avoid that, we can get into what I consider an incentivised approach towards change,” he commented.

Woulfe added: “There’s no doubt that 2% to 3% of dairy farmers exit business every year. That, with an incentive, could go higher.”

“Now controls, and all that, are things that need to be put in place by officials, but I honestly believe we can’t skirt the problems any longer. We’ve got to face that in order to deal with the climate change agenda.

“The agricultural industry remains one of the most important, successful industries. A viable income for 170,000 people across the country is 7% of the workforce. It’s really significant,” Woulfe remarked.

However, he commented: “It’s really imperative that we deal with the fly in the ointment: the sustainability challenge.”

“We’re moving in the right direction. We must gather pace on it. We must now move into a real action phase,” the former Dairygold CEO added.