Pollution from farming increases massively from a planned surge dairy farming plan.

Guardian ‘Ireland is experiencing a water pollution crisis. A lack of investment in managing sewage is part of the story: half of urban wastewater treatment plants don’t meet minimum EU standards, while raw sewage from 77,000 people across Ireland flows into the environment every day. Nutrient runoff from sitka spruce plantations also has a negative impact.

Rivers are increasingly polluted with phosphorus and nitrogen, and scientists say this tracks the rise in cow numbers and fertiliser use, especially in the more intensively farmed areas of south and south-east Ireland. Late last year, data released by the Environmental Protection Agency showed that the number of pristine rivers has fallen from 575 in the 1980s to an all-time low of just 20 today.

The Blackwater catchment encapsulates the problem. Right in the heart of dairy country, this is a region that has experienced a surge in milk production, because of the Irish government’s policy of intensification since the abolition of EU milk quotas. Global dairy companies have made immense profits from this expansion, but some scientists are increasingly alarmed at the rapid impact it is having on water quality.

“I have huge sympathy and admiration for farmers, especially those with smallholdings, who are trying the best they can. But a government-supported policy of intensification is not the way to protect and restore water quality,” says Ken Irvine, professor of aquatic ecosystems in the Delft Institute in the Netherlands, who has spent decades studying water quality in Ireland. “As long as we say: ‘compared with other countries we are somehow better,’ we’re not solving the environmental problems, and frankly it misses the point.”

Ireland was flat broke when the government’s huge export-led intensification plan – Food Harvest 2020 – was launched. A series of banking scandals and lax regulation had crippled the economy. On the same rainy day in July 2010 that Ireland’s credit rating was downgraded by Moody’s, the government announced that it had found a way out for the battered economy: Ireland would become a global player in food production. Powerful figures from the agricultural industry were asked to draw up an expansion plan, and millions of euros of public money would fund it.

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