13 May 2021
The ongoing case around a multi-million euro cheese factory development in Kilkenny has been in the headlines throughout the week.
We’ve seen TDs calling for the defunding of An Taisce and we even heard the Taoiseach call on the organisation to cease its appeal.
So how did we get here, what are some of the environmental implications and what happens next?
As always, we’ve got you covered.
So what exactly is the deal with this cheese plant?
Back in November 2019, Kilkenny County Council greenlighted planning permission for a development of a cheese factory in Belview that was set to be run by Glanbia and Royal A-ware, a Dutch-based company that specialises in cheese and dairy products.
Glanbia would provide the milk while Royal A-ware would process it and both companies are hoping it can be in operation by the end of 2022.
The factory proposed by Glanbia and Royal A-ware would need about 450 million litres of milk per year, which according to An Taisce would account for over 5 per cent of the total amount of milk Ireland produces per year.
Just a month after Kilkenny County Council gave their seal of approval, An Taisce, a non-governmental organisation that works on education, heritage and advocacy, filed an appeal to An Bord Pleanála against that permission being granted on environmental impact assessment grounds.
They lodged it on the basis of Ireland’s existing commitments to a number of EU Directives and to the international Paris Climate Accords which aims to keep the world below 1.5 C of anthropogenic warming.
Let’s take a pause here and look at the total Irish emissions picture.
To date, agriculture accounts for well over a third of total emissions. That makes us an outlier in the European Union, given that the bloc average for the sector is 10 per cent.
And it appears agriculture’s contribution is growing.
According to the latest available data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), emissions grew by 0.4 per cent between 2019 and 2020.
For context, that same report projected that overall emissions in the country would decline by 6 per cent within that same time frame.
The report’s authors attributed the growth primarily to an increase in fuel and nitrogen fertiliser use, but there’s also the issue of our growing cattle population.
Between June 2019 and June 2020, the national herd grew by 1.5 per cent and the total amount of dairy cows increased by 4.2 per cent.
2019 EPA projections found that the dairy herd size would increase for the ninth year in a row by 2.8 per cent with a 5.3 per cent increase in total national milk production.
If we look at the growth of dairy cow numbers from 2014 to 2019, we can see they grew by almost a quarter and that milk production rose by 41 per cent in those same five years.
The EPA has previously cited the Food Wise 2025 strategy and the removal of dairy quotas as key factors driving the industry’s growth.
And the problems agriculture faces are not just confined to climate.
The agricultural sector is responsible for over 99 per cent of ammonia emissions in Ireland, which is a toxic gas that has considerable health implications if inhaled.
Ireland’s biodiversity has also suffered greatly, and just a year ago the EU Court of Auditors reported on the failure of agri-environmental schemes both here at home and around the EU at biodiversity restoration.
Water quality has declined substantially over the past few years, and agriculture is the leading cause of this. To date, half of our water bodies are now deemed to be in an unhealthy state.
So, in light of all this information on the direction of our agricultural sector, An Taisce are arguing that the plant, if developed, would seriously hinder the dairy sector’s capacity to meet EU and international commitments.
Right. So they lodged the appeal – then what happened?
On 20 April, the High Court upheld the planning permission decision given by An Bord Pleanála.
At the time, Dr. Elaine McGoff, the Natural Environment Officer with An Taisce, stressed that An Taisce did not take the case “against farmers.”
“It was a case taken for our environment and the future viability of Irish farming which is currently endangered by planning decisions that are not compliant with our environmental legal obligations,” she said.
And then, just last week, An Taisce announced they would seek to appeal the High Court decision.
They believe the High Court judgment raises “points of law of exceptional importance which should be appealed in the public interest”, which speak to fundamental legal obligations for environmental assessment in planning matters.
In the meantime, some rural independent TDs have called for An Taisce’s funding to be reconsidered. The Taoiseach called on the NGO to cease its appeal, saying the project was of “immense economic importance to the region and to the expansion of the dairy industry”.
Shortly afterwards, Green Party Minister Roderic O’Gorman urged politicians to let the process “play out” and not interfere, according to the Journal.ie.
An Taisce have called the Taoiseach’s statement “highly unusual” and stressed that in their opinion these are judicial matters and should be resolved by means of a judicial process.
Other political figures have come out in support of An Taisce since the Taoiseach’s comments, including People Before Profit and the Just Transition Greens.
Paul Murphy of People Before Profit warned that the construction of the plant would use up a significant portion of Ireland’s carbon budget and was at odds with the recently published Climate Bill.
Alastair McKinstry, a Green Party Councillor for Connemara South and member of the Just Transition Greens voiced his support for An Taisce and stressed that, “promoting more dairy as this plant does will lead farmers into debt to support a business that has a poor future, given what we need to do to meet our Paris commitments.”
So what happens now?
We’ll all wait to hear what the High Court decision is on the appeal, but there’s also the chance this could go to the Supreme Court if the appeal is rejected and if An Taisce can persuade the Court that the matter is of significant public interest.
We’ll be keeping our eyes and ears peeled for that ruling and we’ll keep you up to date as developments come through.