VICTORIA WHITE: Increases in dairy herd and milk output are a formula for disaster

THE fundamentals are sound. When we wave goodbye to milk quotas, we can increase our dairy herd by a quarter and still feed them on the same amount of grass, writes Victoria White

Glanbia Ingredients Ireland CEO, Jim Bergin, An Taoiseach Enda Kenny, TD, and EU Commissioner for Agriculture, Phil Hogan, Picture: Jason Clarke

The rivers and lakes will stay clean, the grass will stay green, no cow will go hungry and, despite all those extra poos and farts, our methane emissions will flatline, as Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, declared on RTE’s Primetime.

This will all be achieved by a magic called ‘efficiency’. Each cow will produce more milk and fewer greenhouse gases, so more cows will still mean the same emissions.

OK, methane is a greenhouse gas. It is 28 times more powerful as a heat-trapping gas, per molecule, than CO2. The Environmental Protection Agency says methane emissions from each dairy cow increased from 101kg a year, in 1990, to 113kg a year, in 2012, “in line with increased milk yield”.

But they don’t know our cows, do they? Our cows are such ‘goodie four hooves’ that an entirely different accounting system needs to be used: our emissions need to be counted ‘per cow’ not ‘per herd’, so it doesn’t matter how many cows we have. Teagasc has contended that “absolute emissions is a metric which is inappropriate for the agricultural sector.”

It was on this basis that the EU softened their targets on emissions reductions from Irish agriculture, in October last year. Ireland put in a clause that ranked ‘food security’ equally with climate change in the consideration of agriculture.

The argument is that we can produce food that is among the least carbon-intensive in the world, and if we don’t produce it someone with a bigger carbon footprint will.

Thank God for Ireland! What hope would there be for the planet, if Ireland didn’t do the necessary and produce 10% to 15% of the world’s infant formula milk? Breastfeed? Wrong answer. Let’s repeat the question loudly for the hard of hearing. ‘What would the world do if Ireland didn’t produce 10% to 15% of its infant formula milk’? Use formula from other countries!

To help Chinese mammies choose Irish formula, Green Love, a brand produced by the Kerry Group, in Charleville, specially for Chinese babies, has recently been launched.

Lucky Chinese babies will be fed pure Irish formula, just like the babies who were being bottle-fed in the arms of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, European Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan and Glanbia’s Jim Bergin for a publicity shot last week that nearly cost me my breakfast.

But bottle-feeding in China and bottle-feeding here are different. For all Bergin’s boasting on RTÉ about the goggles and the masks and the changes of clothes in the new Belview formula factory, in Kilkenny, Glanbia does not control what goes on in Chinese kitchens. Formula milk is never sterile, and new WHO guidelines for preparing it require boiled water cooled to the right temperature, sterile bottles and teats, and a sterile forceps to handle the equipment.

Feeding their babies infant formula can cost a poor Chinese family up to 26% of their weekly income.

These babies’ health will be worse than that of their breast-fed peers, and they will require more medical treatment, which some families can ill-afford. The WHO says failure to exclusively breast-feed for six months accounts for 10% to 15% of infant deaths in developing countries.

It may be true that without Irish formula Chinese parents would use formula from somewhere else. It may be true that the fault lies with the Chinese authorities, who have failed to police restrictions on the marketing of breast-milk substitutes, unlike India, which bans all such advertising and has steady breast-feeding rates.

It’s undeniable that formula produced by companies that have factories in Ireland has been unethically marketed in China — in 2013, for instance, a former employee of Dumex, which is owned by Danone, went public on Chinese TV with documents that allegedly showed the company making monthly payments of thousands of dollars to certain hospitals to use their brand. But these breaches are unique neither to China nor to companies with Irish bases.

Clearly, the biggest scandals relating to this issue in China have been due to corrupted formula: for example, the melamine poisoning scandal in 2008, which killed six babies and sickened thousands more; and the “big head syndrome” in 2004, by which babies were deformed and 60 died of malnutrition.

Our dairy industry has gained (however unwillingly) from these deaths, because Irish-produced formula is probably as safe as formula can be.

But don’t try to tell me that teaching China to abandon breast-feeding in favour of cow’s milk has anything to do with ‘food security’. The only real food security for Chinese babies is in the boobs of Chinese mammies. I am plagued by a nightmare about an economic or social collapse, in which mothers look at their babies crying with hunger and do not know how to give them the breast.

Real ‘food security’ would calculate the natural capital required to make enough food to feed a global population of 9bn and that would require us to eat less meat and dairy.

It would also mean wresting control of the food industry from global corporations, which fix the system to pay dairy farmers as little as two cents for every litre of milk they produce with their blood, sweat and tears. This makes a mockery of the idea that, in Ireland, we have come a long way because we own our own land.

These corporations and, to a lesser extent, the 6,000 biggest dairy farmers who produce 60% of the product and who will further consolidate their hold on the industry post-quotas, will be the big winners after deregulation.

The rest of us will be left to contemplate exhausted land and stinking rivers and lakes, just as New Zealand does now, and the over-stocked land will be unable to feed the national herd whenever the climate misbehaves, as it failed the current herd just two winters ago. The rest of us will dutifully pay the fines to the EU for the breaches in our emissions targets, or agree to compromise our living standards by trying to make all our emissions cuts in other parts of the economy.

What is happening in the wake of the abandonment of milk quotas is much the same as happened after the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, deregulated the global banking system.

National governments should have regulated their banks aggressively, but most didn’t and we were among the worst offenders.

Simon Coveney’s crowing that we will be “the fastest-growing dairy producer on the planet for the next five years, and probably for the next 10 years” sounds like former taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s crowing about the strength of the property market.

Except Coveney’s crowing is scarier, because if we wreck our land, and the climate that sustains it, there is no fund that can bail us out.

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