In partnership with the National Dairy Council
The image of Ireland as a land of lush green hills is known the world over but that green grass of ours is also a linchpin of one of our most respected industries: dairy.
Ireland’s reputation for excellent dairy produce sees us exporting €4billon worth of product annually and the spend within our own economy is a massive €3.8bn per annum. It’s no wonder then that National Dairy Council (NDC) CEO Zoë Kavanagh describes Irish dairy as an “economic powerhouse” that underpins wealth and job creation outside Ireland’s larger cities and urban centres. The industry supports 60,000 jobs particularly in rural and regional economies across the country and as Zoë explains, it is constantly evolving. “Since the abolition of quotas, which took effect in 2015, the value of a litre of milk has increased from 47c to 58c. The co-ops and businesses have done a really good job at handling the extra volume and turning it into a higher-value offering,” she says. “That has translated into new developments like infant formula and a range of nutritional products.”
A household staple
The Irish appetite for dairy is well established and many of us have grown up with Irish dairy products in our fridges and on our kitchen tables. Within the Department of Health food pyramid, there is a shelf dedicated to dairy products in recognition that they fulfil a key role within population health, providing important nutrition across the life stages. Citing NDC research carried out last year Zoë notes, “At the moment, we have 90 per cent of Irish households consuming dairy at least weekly and 70 per cent claiming they’re consuming dairy every single day”. In particular, households with children are much more likely to be weekly-plus consumers of dairy.
However, while many Irish people trust and consume dairy in recent years the industry has come up against some new challenges. In particular, younger consumers have begun questioning the role of dairy in their diets for a number of reasons. Being informed about your choices as a consumer is never a bad thing and Kavanagh says the NDC has taken steps to understand concerns and provide clear facts for consumers.
“That young, questioning consumer has a lot of questions around dairy, particularly in the area of climate impact so we have organised most of our energy to ensure the nutrition credentials are understood. From an animal welfare point of view, our role is to enlighten people that the Irish system is a grass-based, family-farmed and outdoor-grazing system. From a climate change point of view, we try to reinforce the benefit of having a grass-based system, educating people on how efficient we are, and reassuring them that we have an action plan to become even more efficient.”
The environmental effect
According to Zoë, the Irish dairy industry has the most efficient production system in Europe, due to its grass-based and family farming systems along with low levels of emissions. “We have a less intensive farming system [than other countries], with an average milk yield of about 5,500L per cow, and grass providing 2.5 times more consumable protein than grain," Zoë explains. "Building on that we have abundant rain, which means our grasslands are naturally irrigated – 99 per cent of the water we’re using is rainfall. And sustainability experts are working with farmers to improve water quality, looking at preventing surface run-off, safe water management and control of nutrient loss.”
As we look to the future, work around looking at soil management is underway - to reduce carbon emissions and fertiliser usage to improve our environmental status with regard to nutrients, while farmers themselves are doing a lot on-farm in terms of energy. “Over the time that milk production has doubled, emissions per litre of milk have declined by 15 per cent," Zoë says. “I think now that the bulk of our expansion has been delivered it’s about each farming enterprise understanding their global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, understanding their carbon footprint, and doing things to reduce it"
Zoë believes carbon capture and the methane cycle are two key issues that require further consideration. “Our grasslands and our hedgerows are carbon sinks, and we haven’t attributed a value to the carbon capture of our grasslands. So we’re solely focused at the moment on reducing emissions, which is appropriate, but we do need to recognise that our grasslands here in Ireland are carbon-capture opportunities and we haven’t attributed a value to those. More importantly, the methane cycle is different from a fossil fuel cycle. So, in the methane cycle, it’s short-lived, it’s 10 years whereas with the fossil fuel cycle you’re into a 200-year cycle.” It is clear there is much potential in these underexplored areas.
With Covid-19 bringing such uncertainty for Ireland and other countries, there is reassurance in the fact that high-quality Irish food remains available. The NDC Guarantee mark which was introduced in 2009 ensures that consumers in the Republic of Ireland know that if they see it on packaging, the product is both farmed and processed locally. Initiatives like this go a long way to bridging a gap between producer and the public.
Now the NDC has also launched an advertising campaign to tell the story of the Irish dairy industry, the people that work in it and the assurance of quality its products continue to have. “This is an important time to celebrate excellence in dairy farming," Kavanagh explains. “During challenging times people need to have trust in what they know. Irish dairy is recognised as a vital part of people’s diet and general health across the life stages and is indispensable to Ireland’s social and economic well-being now more than ever. At The National Dairy Council we hope to inspire a level of trust among consumers around Irish dairy - not just for ourselves but for the countries we export to also.”
For more information, go to NDC.ie