Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 18 December 2012
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy: Discussion
I welcome Ms Anja Murray, Mr. Alex Copland, Mr. Andrew St. Ledger and Mr. Cillian Lohan from The Environmental Pillar, who asked to appear before the committee to make a presentation on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. Before we begin I must go through the matter of privilege.
It is a formality. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that where possible they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members have already been reminded of their privilege responsibilities.
Ms Anja Murray:
I thank the committee for inviting us to address today's meeting. The Environmental Pillar is a coalition of 26 national environmental non-governmental organisations. We work on a range of issues. We are particularly interested in the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, because it has a huge impact and huge potential in terms of the natural environment and conservation. It is important to state that all of the organisations represented by The Environmental Pillar are altruistic. As not-for-profit non-governmental organisations, we do not represent any particular vested interests.
I will start by speaking about the basis and the context for the greening of CAP. The need for Ireland to meet market opportunities is most relevant. Agriculture will play a key role in economic recovery and future prosperity in Ireland. Many of the measures that can be funded under CAP are necessary if we are to meet the demand from across the EU and further afield for sustainably produced agricultural products. This real opportunity for Ireland is being pursued by industry leaders. The heads of organisations like Bord Bia and Glanbia have spoken about the need to make sustainability a national mission in Ireland. We need to do more to make sure CAP incentivises and supports sustainable farming practices.
The greening of CAP can help us to deliver public goods with public money. Citizens and taxpayers across the EU have been kicking up a fuss and asking how the spending of 45% of the EU budget on agricultural payments can be justified. The second pillar of CAP, which I will discuss in more detail later in this presentation, is the key public good justification for the allocation of CAP funding. The greening of the first pillar is another really important aspect of these reforms. If we do not green it as we have promised under this reform, we will put the future of CAP funding at risk. The European Court of Auditors has identified that relatively few wider public gains have been achieved. CAP needs to play its role in reversing the trend of declining biodiversity observed in agricultural landscapes across Europe, including in Ireland.
The state of the environment is another reason for the greening of CAP. The natural environment in Ireland is facing enormous challenges. Farmland bird populations are declining more quickly than any other group of bird species. We are facing huge water quality challenges. Birds are indicators of the health of countryside. Losses often equate to losses in ecosystems services which are a valuable asset to Ireland. This tells us that we need to do more to maintain the balance of nature across Irish farmland. We have multiple ways of meeting that objective, including the EU 2020 biodiversity targets and international commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity. CAP can provide win-win opportunities to address those challenges and help farming to support nature. This depends on effective co-operation with farmers, who are the curators of the vast majority of Ireland’s rural landscape.
The Environmental Pillar is adamant that overall levels of CAP funding and support need to be maintained. We are quite insistent that there should be meaningful delivery of public goods and that harmful farming practices should not be subsidised. Payments under the second pillar of CAP - rural development - are targeted to deliver specific objectives. Therefore, they have greater potential to deliver public goods in return for payments. We have seen in the last week that the second pillar of CAP is facing disproportionately severe cuts. A cut of 13% has been proposed for the second pillar of CAP, whereas the proposed cut for the first pillar of CAP is just 9.7%. In addition, the introduction of reverse modulation from the second pillar to the first pillar has been proposed. This could lead to a cut of up to 25% in the funding of the second pillar of CAP, in effect.
All of this is being negotiated at the moment. This is really important across Europe. The second pillar is seen as the key mechanism for us to deliver on the public good objectives of CAP. If we allow it to be disproportionately cut, we will delegitimise the entire payment. More and more questions are being asked about the overall proportion of the EU budget spent on CAP. Some of the information we have on this issue comes from Eurobarometer studies.
Can I ask Ms Murray to qualify her reference to "the EU budget"? I think she means the overall multi-annual financial framework, rather than the annual budget of the EU. Is it not the case that CAP represents approximately 3% of the total EU spend, as opposed to the multi-annual financial framework?
Ms Anja Murray:
Funding for the second pillar of CAP must not be cut. If it is, the entire CAP will fail to deliver on promised green reform and will not be supported in the future.
I will now speak about rural development and agri-environment schemes are the green backbone of CAP. Agri-environment schemes play a crucial role in supporting farmers to introduce environmentally friendly practices and have a proven delivery for the environment. We are asking for 50% of rural development funding to be ring-fenced for agri-environment and climate schemes. I refer to schemes like the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, and the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, which were previously known as agri-environment schemes. If such schemes are well designed and implemented, they can deliver targeted support to address well-known conservation problems and provide long-term assistance and much-needed income to rural communities. This issue was covered on the "Drivetime" radio programme yesterday. When people who were protesting outside the Taoiseach's constituency office were interviewed, they spoke about cuts in funding for rural development and REPS and called for such agri-environment supports to be reinstated. That would be consistent with our call for the funding of agri–environment schemes to be ring-fenced.
I would like to speak about the use of rural development funding to support Natura 2000, special areas of conservation and special protection areas. Many of Ireland’s most unique habitats and much of its wildlife is found in Natura 2000 sites. Many of these sites need specific management to achieve favourable conservation status. Appropriate farming practices must be supported. Apart from the environmental value, farming in these areas has cultural and language associations which are also hugely important. Natura 2000 can have significant benefits for local communities, including farmers and broader society, in terms of public goods such as water quality, biodiversity, tourism and education potential. Ireland needs to seek higher co-financing for environmental measures under the second pillar of CAP. At the moment, higher co-financing is allowed for measures like knowledge transfer and producer groups. If it were to be allowed under Natura 2000, we would be more likely to be able to seize the opportunity to ensure those who are farming in Natura 2000 areas receive payments. It would enable Ireland to respond better to the challenges facing marginal agriculture and associated natural habitats.
High nature value farming also needs to be supported by means of payments through both payments of CAP. High nature value farming systems have a rich cultural heritage and tend to generate lower income from the market than other farming systems while delivering higher public good benefits. There is huge pressure on high nature value farming systems in Ireland. These tend to be the extensive grazing systems. There is a great deal of land abandonment, especially in the west, mostly in what we would classify as high nature value farming systems.
Given that they have lower income and provide higher public good benefits, they must be supported through the Common Agricultural Policy.
There is also significant potential to support forestry and agroforestry. Strong supports are available to foster alternative sustainable approaches to forest management. Agroforestry is land management that combines trees and crops or livestock using agricultural and forestry knowledge to create more diverse, productive, profitable, healthy and sustainable land use systems. It can help to meet the climate change, biodiversity and economic objectives of land management, while providing fuel wood, shelter for animals and other benefits for the farmer.
I will now address first pillar payments. As I noted, the 30% greening payment provides legitimacy for the first pillar budget. Most first pillar spending is untargeted. The indicated approach for the division of first pillar funds between countries - the external convergence - suits Ireland reasonably well. Ireland must not only support the principle of greening but also ensure that greening measures deliver credible benefits which can stand up to scrutiny and deliver real improvements to environmental quality. This returns us to my comment concerning the legitimacy of Ireland marketing its farm exports and produce based on sustainability. If there is no substance in these criteria, we will be highly vulnerable when making such claims.
The distribution of Common Agricultural Policy funds to individual farmers in Ireland remains an area of debate. With respect to the flat rate payment for internal convergence, studies have shown that the majority of farmers in Ireland would benefit from this approach. Not only would most farmers gain but this approach gives equal treatment to intensive, extensive and low intensity farming. Under the current distribution of first pillar payments, many extensive farms are, at best, operating marginally in terms of economic return and the farm families and communities associated with them are at great risk of leaving farming altogether. This is the process of land abandonment I described. It is also the case that this shift does not need to be front-loaded as we have until 2019 to move towards flat rate payments.
Extensive farming systems, which would be better supported by flat rate payments, often deliver goods that are not rewarded by markets. Public goods such as landscapes and a high quality natural environment that is rich in biodiversity underpin rural communities and economies in areas of the country that often struggle to attract outside investment. Extensive farming systems in Ireland are generally not able to match the yields of intensive farming and need to be supported to maintain farming activities.
Another area that should be supported is training advisory services. Many of the measures that would be implemented under the rural development programme require skill and knowledge of wildlife needs. There is currently no absolute requirement for training advisory. The mid-term evaluation of Ireland's Rural Development Programme 2007 to 2013 recommends that there should be a more focused structure to support delivery of proactive environmentally friendly farm practices, including provision of guidance and best practice. Good advisory leads to good compliance, which is cost effective. This is important for short-term and long-term jobs. There is a crucial role for providing ongoing advice if we want to be effective in the targeted schemes under second pillar. A focused and tailored training advisory system must be incorporated into the rural development programme to maximise the extent to which participating farmers are meeting objectives. A ring-fenced fund is required to support this.
On the issue of consultation, it is becoming increasingly urgent for all of us to address the issue of biodiversity loss and climate change. Environmental objectives are increasingly being incorporated into the Common Agricultural Policy. It is imperative that the agricultural sector and political and administrative process works in partnership with the environmental sector to ensure meaningful co-operation. It has taken ten months for The Environmental Pillar to come before the joint committee. While we are delighted to be here, we need to advance this partnership approach to develop these measures, especially in the preparation and monitoring of the national strategy plan and preparation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the rural development programmes.
The Environmental Pillar and its constituent organisations are calling for CAP reform to bring real public benefits. It is these public good benefits that will assure future spending on the Common Agricultural Policy by European taxpayers. We must do more to reward those who deliver the environmental benefits that society values so highly.
To summarise the key issues, 50% of expenditure on rural development should be allocated to target agri-environment schemes and measures. These have a proven delivery to address known issues and we need to ensure they are strongly supported in the next round of the Common Agricultural Policy. Ireland should also investigate opportunities for modulation of first pillar funds into second pillar because they support the widely beneficial actions that are delivered through second pillar. We also need to ensure we support farming in Natura 2000 and support high nature value farming. These areas need targeted support because farmers engaged in these areas face special challenges and must be incentivised if they are to meet them successfully. The Common Agricultural Policy must ensure sufficient funding and resources are allocated to delivering this support. Ireland should also seek higher co-financing for environmental measures under the second pillar to support marginal farming and associated natural habitats. I assume members will have some questions.
Ms Anja Murray:
Mr. Cillian Lohan is the chief executive officer of the Irish Natural Forestry Foundation based in County Cork. He is also an Environmental Pillar representative and sits on The Environmental Pillar steering group. I have approximately ten years experience in land use policy, studying the implementation of European environmental law in Ireland and bringing this into different sectoral policies. I am also an Environmental Pillar representative on the forestry liaison group and I am active on a European level with BirdLife Europe and some of the coalition organisations. Dr. Alex Copland is a leading expert on farmland birds and agri-environment policy, areas in which he has been working for more than 12 years at national and European Union level. He is a member of the rural development programme monitoring committee, the national rural network co-ordinating committee, the BirdLife Europe agriculture task force and the European Commission advisory group on rural development, agriculture and the environment. Mr. Andrew St. Ledger is a pillar representative on the CAP consultative committee and rural development programme monitoring committee. He is active with CELT, the Centre for Environmental Learning and Training, and a member of the environmental steering committee. Dr. Copland and I also work for BirdWatch Ireland and, as such, we represent a couple of different environmental non-governmental organisations.
It would be useful if Ms Murray were to provide the committee secretariat with the names and contact numbers of all the members of The Environmental Pillar. The pillar was established as part of the partnership process of recent years.
I propose to address a number of issues. While we all accept that maintaining the countryside is fundamental to what this country and the European Union should be about, difficulties arise with regard to how one achieves this objective. I welcome the statement that there are many aims to the Common Agricultural Policy. Food production is one of the most important aims of CAP because none of us could survive without food. All farmers must play a role in maintaining the environment and in some areas this role is a larger part of their job than the production of food. This depends on whether they are in Natura 2000 sites and so forth. Irrespective of whether a farmer is in a Natura 2000 site, where he is subject to severe restrictions in production, or the Golden Vale, where one finds the best land in the country, public interest aims are being paid for out of the Common Agricultural Policy. To put the matter crudely, without wide environmental objectives, citizens, especially urban citizens, would stop paying their cash into the Common Agricultural Policy and the money flow would stop.
Farmers on good land are dependent on the farmers on the Natura 2000 land and all the other environmentally sensitive land to deliver the environmental goods if they want the money to continue to flow. There is a direct relationship with the Natura 2000 fund and the total fund and how well, within intensive farming and extensive farming, we maintain and protect the environment, which differs from area to area. The key statement is that the CAP needs to provides incentives and specific support for positive management of farmed habitats in Natura 2000 in Ireland. If we want farmers to continue farming marginal land, it has to pay them to do so.
That brings us to the tricky issue of ecological balance. Michael Gibbons, an archaeologist in Connemara, who is probably known to the witnesses, took us on a hill walk near Leenane during a hillwalking festival and pointed out that there is no unfarmed land in Ireland. In other words, it is the way it is because of human intervention. There is no wild land. High on hills, behind Leenane, he pointed out where the original settlement was, which was higher than the present one. What we have and what we tend to preserve is not God-made but was fashioned by millennia of people living and farming there and creating it. That gives us the challenge of the ecological balance. I will be interested to hear the views of the witnesses on the debate which is taking place in the context of the commonages. I am thinking of areas that have been subject to the efficacy of what I term prescription farming.
Prescription farming is where a Government agency, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine come and put a prescription on what one can do. Most times they do not consult the people who know the dynamic of the area, that is, the local farmers who understand the damage they have done, through the ewe premium, of over stocking but also understand the perfect balance they used to maintain until they were enticed into not so good farming practices. My experience of prescription farming has been that it lurches from one extreme to the other, where we have had massive destocking in Connemara and now farmers are being ordered to put the sheep back on the hills. However, somebody forgot a problem in the equation which is that if sheep are put back on the hill rather than breeding sheep back on the hill, the sheep will run back to home and will not stay on the hill. Therefore, one cannot suddenly increase the number of sheep on a mountain pasture. We would argue that the prescription approach, often done by ecologists, who are fine ecologists but have little knowledge of hill sheep farming, has failed and has caused damage in its own right which it tried to alleviate.
With Michael O'Toole who was a soil scientist and worked for Teagasc and was also a hill sheep farmer, we spent half a day trying to argue with the NPWS that it would destock Connemara excessively. It did destock the area excessively and now it is appealing to the farmers to restock but they cannot do it. I would be interested to hear the witnesses' view whether the prescription approach is the right approach or whether we would be better off adopting the approach taken by the Burren project under Dr. Brendan Dunford which involves a participative approach where the knowledge of farmers is seen as useful. It is not instructing farmers but is a partnership between different skill sets and seeing the farmer as an equal partner with an equal skill set in the operation. The other point I would argue is that where farmers are involved - we took this approach with Comhairle na Tuaithe - they are doing what is being done not because somebody told them but because they agree with what is being done, having had an input and the arguments they put up having been listened to from an ecological point of view. I would be interested to hear witnesses' view on that issue.
The witnesses have mentioned REPS. Unintended consequences are the bane of every politician's life and should be the bane of all our lives. One does something that looks very simple and looks very good, but one gets a totally different result. REPS was great for tidy farming. It cleaned up the countryside, put up good fences, got rid of the mattresses gates and so on. It was very good for what I would call tidy farming but I am not sure if it was good for ecological farming because one of the things REPS rewarded was monoculture farming. In other words, in many cases to get the money and maximise one's take from REPS, simplifying one's farm system from, say, cattle to sheep, for example, or just to sheep or cattle and not getting involved in any kind of curadóireacht, tillage, or anything else was the easy way to comply with the REPS specification, which was very prescription driven. One got one's money and by simplifying one's system one managed one's take.
The witnesses represent BirdWatch Ireland as well as The Environmental Pillar. A point was made to me some years ago by somebody who knew the countryside that if one went back 60 years ago in non-tillage rural Ireland, and I remember this when I came to Connemara, that everybody was setting potatoes and sowing a field of oats. The elimination of ploughing and turning huge swathes of the soil in the country into any type of tillage or curadóireacht has had a huge effect on songbirds. I would be interested to know if the witnesses believe that the change in farming style from mixed farming to what is the practice in large parts of the country where there is cattle and sheep farming has had an effect on a point they highlight in their paper, namely, bird diversity and so on and whether we need to examine that.
In the previous round of CAP negotiations I had proposed that under REPS, if people were willing to set a kitchen garden or whatever, they would get €1,000 or a some specific payment for doing that. I would be interested in hearing the witnesses' view on whether the current monoculturalism of most farming in Ireland has a negative or positive ecological effect.
That leads on to the next contradiction in the witnesses' paper, and while I apologise for that, these issues are very important. I share their view in terms of the second pillar and it is fair to say that while we are all debating the first pillar, the second pillar is hugely vulnerable both in the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and, as the witnesses pointed out, in the distribution of second pillar funds among the different countries once they through the MFF. That will pose a huge challenge in terms of maintaining even a good proportion of the farm incomes that farmers in more marginal land areas and more ecologically sensitive areas have had. That will lead to the question of land abandonment becoming widespread.
There is also a second challenge on which I would like the witnesses' thoughts. As the greening stakes are upped in the first pillar through good farming practice and then the greening element is brought in, the justification for giving a significant REPS payment, and all the REPS measures are costed, reduces to the point that if there is a high enough greening threshold in the first pillar, it will be difficult to give any significant REPS payment.
To put that in context, the REPS payment used to be €14,000 and it came down to €11,000. The AEOS payment is more like €4,000. With all of the challenges to the second pillar, I believe a REPS payment of €4,000 is more likely at this stage than a payment of €11,000, €12,000 or €14,000. What are the witnesses' views on that? The higher the greening stakes are raised the better. However, the cash needs to go with that. Front-loading the funding back into the second pillar might mean there is cash available, but it cannot it be given out because the extra payments cannot be justified. No doubt Senator Comiskey was involved in the negotiations.
To give an example, there was a very good REPS payment for farmers in hilly areas who destocked sheep. Built into that scheme was a 35% destocking of valuable Leitrim sheep, which were a lot more valuable than the Connemara sheep. However, the Connemara farmers benefited from the very good deal that was done at the time. Most of the farmers never realised, however, that written into the agreement was the fact that, through REPS, a certain number of sheep would have to come off the hills throughout the country. On average, a hill sheep was worth a certain amount of money and this was beneficial to Connemara at the time because Donegal, Leitrim and Kerry sheep would be a lot better than the poor old sheep we have in Mayo and Connemara. The costing for the hill sheep was written into the agreement.
The more the destocking fits into the first pillar, the less justification there can be for such a measure in a new REP scheme. Therefore, there is a slight contradiction when we come to the core issue of the greening in the first pillar. We cannot then say that despite that, there should be a huge REP scheme. When it comes to REPS, Europe is fairly hard-headed and it will demand that the REPS money is justified by the taking of some extra environmental action.
I have a couple of questions focusing on forestry. Under the current CAP, what sort of funding has Ireland received to support forestry and diversification through forestry? In terms of the new CAP and the second pillar, is there any evidence that Ireland is gearing up to avail of what may be improved measures? If not, what should we be doing now to ensure we can maximise income and support for farmers who want to diversify into forestry?
I thank the witnesses for their presentation. We all agree we need to protect and support the second pillar and whatever money comes into Ireland from the European Union.
The representatives of The Environmental Pillar present say they want to support the environmental burden on farmers or land populations. West of the Shannon we had the corncrake scheme, which was working to try to get the corncrake back, but that scheme has not been a success. How are we to promote all farmland birds if we could not make a success of that scheme?
I must disagree with the representatives with regard to the slide on page 3 of their presentation which relates to the move to flat rate payments. That is at odds with the views of the majority of farm organisations and with farmers. It seems The Environmental Pillar is trying to promote more extensive farming. There is a moral issue here with regard to the views of the Government and those of the previous Government on Food Harvest 2020 and increasing production. That would not be achieved under flat rate payments. The moral issue is that within 20 years we expect to have an extra 6 billion people in the world and we will need to produce 50% more food. How will we achieve this if what is proposed goes ahead?
A comment was made on water quality. The Government and the previous Government have introduced schemes and legislation, such as the Water Services (Amendment) Act 2012, which deals with septic tanks. Farm improvement and farm modernisation schemes have helped to make the agriculture sector one of the best protectors of water. It is well known that the biggest polluters of our ground water and our water in general are local authorities. The agri-sector has done its part in improving what was a problem here.
I mentioned the issue of the growth in world population and how sufficient food will be provided for these people. What are the views of The Environmental Pillar with regard to the use of land for the production of food versus energy? Perhaps that is a debate for another day, but it is a question we must face because of the expected growth in population in the next 20 years and because of the need for energy, whether bio-diverse or from fossil fuels. A balance must be struck with regard to the use of lands, such as rainforests, for food or energy crops. Where should that balance be struck?
I thank the witnesses for their very interesting presentation. I expect this debate will continue until we agree the budget. It is important we set and agree a budget that is as near as possible to what we have in both the first and second pillars. I understand The Environmental Pillar focuses more on the second pillar. The witnesses have said that the funding for 50% of the measures in the second pillar returns to the farmers. I agree. What percentage of the second pillar goes to farmers currently and how much goes to communities for community projects? Do the witnesses feel more should go to the farmer?
I agree with many of the points made by Deputy Ó Cuív. We worked together in the past through Comhairle na Tuaithe and on destocking. We are now at a stage where we must try to get sheep back on the hills. This will take some time because they must be bred there. We had a problem in Louth when we had foot and mouth disease there and the sheep were taken off the land. Many of the farmers involved then have got older - as has happened in the west - and are no longer able to go back farming on the hills. The commonage debate is opening up again and, in that context, yesterday morning I received a phone call from a farmer in Mayo who took sheep from the hills when destocking was being promoted and invested in sheds and lowland green land. Now he is being asked to put sheep back on the hills but he is a lot older now. There are not many younger people who would be willing to do that without some incentive or help from a good scheme, like the REP scheme.
The REP scheme was a very good scheme, but the AEOS does not offer enough. If we had a scheme somewhere in between the two, that would encourage our younger farmers. Now that there is not as much work available in construction, such a scheme might encourage them. This issue will arise again in the debate on the commonages. We must try to encourage younger people to get involved. There is no point in depending on the farming population as the average age is increasing. We need to encourage younger people to start farming, whether with their parents on a hill farm or with older bachelor farmers. We must come up with a scheme that will allow this.
I am aware The Environmental Pillar has a great interest in the bird population; so do we. I visited Boleybrack grouse project recently with the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan. That interesting project is introducing the wild grouse there. Perhaps funding could be provided for such projects under the second pillar to encourage the use of the hills. The suckler welfare scheme is suspended currently and any payments left to be made will be very small. That scheme encouraged birds to come around feeders because there was always some meal lost around the feeder.
When the farmer returned to fill it up, he always found some pheasants or other birds hanging around. It was not intended to work in that way but it was working indirectly. There is much food for thought. The coming months will be interesting for all of us. I hope we will finish up with good schemes in future that will encourage people to farm the hills in the west as well as reaching our 2020 targets, as Senator O'Neill noted, and that we will have the right balance in future.
Ms Anja Murray:
I thank Deputy Ó Cuív for all the feedback. We agree on most issues and points. He referred to unsustainablility at system level and the relationship with funding. That is an important point with regard to maintaining the overall Common Agricultural Policy budget and how important it is to justify that budget. Another issue relates to food security and food production. Food is a traditional tradeable commodity which the market rewards whereas the other issues of water quality or the health of the natural environment are not tradeable commodities. The logic is that the CAP budget and public money should go to support the non-tradeable commodities. It is important that we show we are delivering on the non-tradeable commodities if we are to justify the spending on CAP. This is the message coming back strongly again and again from European taxpayers.
We agree with many of the criticisms of the efficacy of prescription farming and the points about not consulting people locally. There have been considerable problems. We are looking to replace the prescription-based approach with an objective-led approach as per the Commission's proposals. No one is suggesting that we will achieve the objectives we have set out or that we hope will be set out under the proposals unless there is a partnership approach. I referred to training and advisory issues. It is important that sufficient environmental expertise goes into designing how we achieve these objectives and into the partnership approach referred to in the paper. That is altogether crucial. I heard a senior person from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine say at a Teagasc conference, and someone from the Commission echoed the point, that we have set several objectives for the CAP and if we do not achieve those objectives, it will be an altogether different story when it comes to securing the funding allocation come 2020. Achieving the objectives laid out requires participation from farming communities and local farmers who know the land as well as from those with environmental expertise.
None of this will take place if we do not have a second pillar budget. If the dreadful scenario - which is a real possibility - of a cut of up to 25% in the second pillar budget materialises, none of this will happen and we will not have the budget for any of this. We will have no budget for partnership approaches or developing decent objective-led measures. This is why we really need to defend that budget. It is already a tiny proportion of the overall budget in the second pillar and it is being cut disproportionately. That is really unacceptable.
It was suggested that the rural environment protection scheme was not so good. There were significant problems with the delivery of REPS. When we refer to agri-environment schemes under the second pillar and putting 50% of funding towards agri-environment schemes, we have in mind the best case examples we have seen from other member states. These are objective-led schemes that are especially targeted for specific objectives and locations. Dr. Copland will discuss these in more detail presently.
Reference was made to the contradiction in the paper about marginal farming, land abandonment, upping the ask in the first pillar and greening, and that there would be less need for REPS or the second pillar. Greening is largely about ensuring that the supports go to farming in a way that is not environmentally damaging. The second pillar is over and above that threshold for objective-led delivery of specific objectives. There is no problem in justifying the extra payment. There will be no issue. There are so many issues throughout Europe and in Ireland which we know we need to address. At the moment the budget is simply not available to address them. We know there will not be a problem in the design and implementation of these schemes and there will be no problem in justifying that to the Commission either. Dr. Copland has a good deal of experience in designing, implementing and monitoring various rural development measures. He may wish to discuss the agri-environment and objective-led schemes and the justifications.
Mr. Alex Copland:
I will reply to some of Deputy Ó Cuív's remarks. I was introduced as a member of various committees and it sounded as if I never actually do any work. I was reared on a hill sheep farm in Scotland. That is my background so I am aware of some of the issues of destocking, commonage and the lack of a hefted sheep stock. We faced this on our farms following the foot and mouth outbreak ten years ago. There were no sheep left that knew their way around to go back on the hills. It is a major issue and something of which our family have had first-hand experience. It is a serious problem. There have been well-acknowledged issues about the destocking of commonages and the fact that there is now a requirement to re-stock areas.
There is an issue with farming where there is a broad blanket application of these prescriptions. This is not the way to go about delivering for the environment. It can work in certain instances but it has been shown in the commonages that such a broad brush approach is simply not sensitive enough to deal with these specific issues. It should be considered at least on a commonage by commonage basis and possibly even at a finer scale. I agree with the concerns raised in that regard.
Reference was made to how REPS encourages simplified farming. I was interested to hear that. There is a significant issue in the west. We know many of our farm bird populations have declined because of a loss of small-scale tillage and the fact that there is grass all the way from Donegal to Kerry, whereas before there would have been an occasional acre of oats or potatoes. For example, in the Aran Islands there is still some rye and there are many small birds associated with the little plots of tillage and other small crops, and they are remarkably important. I have examined bird populations in Ireland, in particular the maps of the distribution. Recently we completed a bird atlas and one can see that many of these small seed-eating birds have vanished from the west. They are still in the south, the east and through the midlands where there is still some tillage. However, the impact has been remarkable and in only 20 years one can see significant changes, never mind the 60 year timespan to which Deputy Ó Cuív referred.
Reference was made to the environmental baseline and the agri-environment. When there is an increased baseline through cross-compliance, good agricultural environmental conditions and the greening in the first pillar, there will have to be an increase within the second pillar to justify the level of payment. However, I do not see there being an issue of the fact that there is nothing a farmer can do to get that money through the second pillar.
Far more can be done. There was a criticism of REPS to the effect that it was good for tidy farming but that it did not deliver too much. I dispute that. Certainly, it struggled to deliver for bio-diversity but I maintain it delivered substantially for water quality and it probably delivered for soils, simply because there were fewer pesticides and chemicals going onto the land. As a result, water quality is bound to have improved. The problem is that the monitoring, evaluation and the examination of the impact of the measures was poor. Had there been good environmental monitoring of some parts of REPS, we would have seen substantial benefits to the environment. The problem is that we will never know and it is a shame. It would have been great to have presented the success of REPS in terms of delivering good water quality and in terms of benefiting the landscape.
The Deputy referred to REPS being tidy and getting rid of the mattresses from gates, but it did far more. It maintained hedgerows and a green and pleasant-looking countryside, which is important for people visiting Ireland for tourism. The maintenance and character of the Irish landscape is important and REPS delivered in that sense, but these things are remarkably difficult to measure. Unfortunately, we know it struggled to deliver when it came to bio-diversity, and that was a shame. Nevertheless, in terms of designing agri-environment in future, there is much we can do and many ways we can improve the agri-environment schemes in place at the moment and deliver with them. Many farmers, from the most intensive farmer in the Golden Vale to the most extensive farmer in the west, can deliver for the environment. Whatever the level they happen to be geared towards, they can make a contribution to the environment. That is why second pillar funding is remarkably important, not only for the extensive farmers in the west but for all farmers, because they can all deliver something.
Ms Anja Murray:
Deputy Pringle referred to farm forestry and how Ireland has used second pillar funding. Ireland stopped funding its forestry programme through the rural development programme. It has been exclusively funded with Exchequer funding over recent years. The Environmental Pillar has strong views in this regard. We have many views on the fact that afforestation in Ireland should be funded through the RDP, that Exchequer funding should not be used. We have a number of concerns about some aspects of afforestation and forestry. We would like to see more opportunities for different kinds of forestry such as agroforestry or continuous cover forest system, with more flexibility in those grant systems. The forestry being carried out using the system of clear fell and replant monoculture systems are not necessarily good for the environment. We want the programme to be funded under RDP and we want to see it being more flexible in its approach.
Mr. Andrew St. Ledger:
I thank the committee for inviting us to the meeting. I am a small farmer from east Clare. I have a small amount of land with an agroforestry project on the land as well as some species-rich grassland. The agroforestry measures were contained in the last RDP under the heading of access two, which was the first establishment of agroforestry systems. We did not avail of it. Agroforestry systems may come in under access one of the RDP in the next round of CAP. They were contained in the draft regulation. Agroforestry systems can possibly provide solutions to the greening aspects and can help with some of the issues raised regarding mixing land use for fuel. In the agroforestry system it is possible to have fuel and food production side by side. The agroforestry systems use a mixed native woodland species. They have deeper, more beneficial rooting systems than monoculture conifers. Those rooting systems can help with the run-off buffering for rivers and streams, and the filtering of water which cleans rivers and streams. The leaf litter can provide nitrogen for the soil, thus helping farmers to reduce output on fertilisers. There are multiple benefits from agroforestry systems. I ask the committee to consider the many benefits.
Ms Anja Murray:
We have received a couple of different answers to this query. It has been stated that we already have the allocated second pillar funding, that the maximum has been drawn down and that the remainder may as well come from the Exchequer. That was the main response. We have had a couple of slightly different answers over recent years. We would like to see it coming under the RDP for a number of reasons.
Mr. Andrew St. Ledger:
It ticks so many boxes. We have such low forest cover at 10%. We need to increase this to an average of 30%. We are struggling at present to get to that 30%. The Exchequer has been funding forestry since 2007. The afforestation targets have not been met. Agroforestry and its more beneficial forestry practices could potentially increase our forest cover and species.
Mr. Alex Copland:
I worked on the corncrake study for three years when I first came to Ireland. The measure in the Shannon Callows has failed. The reason it has failed is because Ireland has flooded ten times in the last 12 years. This summer the callows were under a couple of metres of water. Not just the corncrakes but everything has done badly there simply because of the summer flooding. The farmers there are actually doing more than necessary to try to preserve the corncrakes. It is a really unfortunate circumstance that the corncrake population has gone from the Shannon Callows. There are also corncrake programmes in Donegal and Mayo and Connemara. In the west, principally in Mayo and Connemara, there were 14 corncrakes when I came to Ireland and now there are more than 60. The scheme in the west has done very well. In Donegal the population has maintained at around 100 for many years. The corncrake scheme in Donegal is holding on to the numbers while the scheme in the west has done a lot of work to benefit the corncrake population. We also have a very good baseline knowledge about many of the species which need to be conserved. We know why they are declining. In the UK and throughout Europe many measures have been put in place to help such bird populations. Targeted measures are the most successful.
Ms Anja Murray:
The issue of food security was raised along with the moral obligation not to support increased extensive farming. We do not wish to increase extensive farming but rather to ensure that those farmers operating extensive farming systems are supported to maintain those farming systems because they deliver benefits for rural communities and for biodiversity. Many ecosystems depend on the maintenance of extensive farming. We do not want to see land abandonment in extensive farming systems, because this is becoming a significant problem.
On the question about increasing productivity, there is enough food in the world to feed everybody. The problem is to do with people's ability to access those food resources. Ireland or Europe increasing the production of food is not going to address the problems of people who do not have enough food. Another issue is the productive base for sustaining productivity in the future. This is dependent on the quality of the natural environment such as soil fertility, pollinators and such issues. These factors are not rewarded by the market; they have to be rewarded by incentives. We need to incentivise to ensure that the productive base for agricultural productivity is maintained. This is much more of an issue for food security than merely increasing production. The problem now is about access to food resources and much less about not having enough food. There are significant issues with food waste. Increasing productivity in Europe will not address those problems.
Senator O'Neill noted that local authorities are big contributors to ground water pollution. There has been a significant problem with water quality in Ireland over the past 50 years. The Common Agricultural Policy has driven intensification of productivity with the consequent decline in water quality in Ireland. Local authority municipal sewage treatment-----
Ms Anja Murray:
----forestry and many other sectors have also been to blame. The water framework directive management plans for catchment areas states that each sector contributing to the problem needs to ensure that they cease contributing to the problem. It is a very logical step to have CAP measures helping the agriculture sector to make sure that those problems do not persist. It is the same for all the different sectors. It might be a bigger problem in terms of ground water reserves but in terms of surface water problems, agriculture has contributed. The CAP can do a lot to help to incentivise an improvement in water quality which is in line with other objectives in any case.
We agree that energy production is a significant issue. We do not have an Environmental Pillar position on that. There is competition for land resources for the production of food or the production of energy.
Senator Comiskey asked about a budget agreement and about REPS and AEOS. There is great potential to deliver. We need targeted schemes rather than a broad-based scheme.
We are looking at working with the IFA and other stakeholders to develop something very specifically for the uplands. This will form part of our set of targeted schemes to suit different landscape types and farming systems.
Reference was made to the benefit of having a simpler system. That is very difficult to achieve, however, when we have a broad range of different schemes addressing different issues. A person working in Europe with lot of expertise in this area once said to me that the system is like an iPhone. The internal workings are complicated but one does not have to be a genius to use it. When it comes to the various schemes, what is happening behind the scenes might be complex, but the operating system and user interface that is presented to the farmer should be relatively simple.
Regarding funding under the second pillar for the Boleybrack Mountain project, the bottom line is that if the proposed cuts of up to 25% are actually implemented, none of those types of initiatives will be possible. We would very much appreciate some support from the committee on this issue in whatever form members consider appropriate. The debate in this regard is ongoing, with major decisions due to be taken in the coming months. The disproportionate cuts to second pillar funding jeopardise the entire future of the CAP and should be reversed.
Mr. Cillian Lohan:
The perception that persists in some quarters that environmental issues are necessarily in conflict with farming issues, food production and progress in agricultural methods is outdated. It is not necessarily a choice between the environment and feeding the world. If anything, the long-term viability of the farming sector is dependent, as Deputy Ó Cuív observed, on the maintenance of a healthy environment. It is in this context that we are seeking a reversal of the cuts in second pillar funding. We will have no agricultural system unless we have clean land with healthy, biodiverse soil. That is the system which underpins everything. When we talk about sustainability and green issues, this is the context in which we are making our case.
I thank the delegates for their contributions. Before adjourning the meeting, I will take the opportunity to make some general remarks. First, I am not sure it makes sense to describe a presentation as both concise and comprehensive, but it does seem a fitting description of the engagement we have had today between committee members and delegates. I expect the latter are relieved to discover there is a great deal in common in terms of what they and the committee are trying to achieve. Several members of the committee, and numerous Members of the Oireachtas, are active farmers. I participated in the REP scheme and had some land designated as being invested in nature, with natural eco-tillage and as a linnet, habitat. We worked with the local gun club to preserve bird species, with some success. The habitat was located on marginal land on my own property. As people who have grown up for generations on the land, we understand the need to have a healthy environment in order to produce quality food. Without a clean environment, there will be no economic future for our families.
The Commissioner has justified the maintenance of the CAP budget on three key principles, namely, to produce as much food as possible within the EU, to do so sustainably and to protect and preserve rural communities. When the Irish MEPs attended a previous meeting of this committee, they referred to the greening and other measures as a public good for which people should be rewarded. In other words, that language and mindset is already in the mix at European Parliament level and is being promoted at Commission level. If we get a buy-in to that concept, then there is a realisation that there must be some acknowledgement. European taxpayers have more of a discretionary spend than their counterparts in many other parts of the world. The delegates might disagree with us on this, but the point about producing more food from within the EU is not that we would seek to deny a Third World country in so doing. There are provisions in various agreements and protocols to protect against that. It is not about denying a Third World country access to the EU market but rather ensuring we do not pull from the food supply in that Third World country, wherever it is on the planet.
We are all united in our concern that second pillar funding is only now being discussed and that the discussion is in the context of a proposed significant cut. I am not as concerned about the modulation issue because it is optional. It should, however, be the same for every country. There is provision for modulation in both directions within the principle of the provision. It is not as significant an issue as we might have feared. The major concern is that the budget is being undermined to such an extent.
In the previous Dáil I was rapporteur to the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security which produced a document on land use changes. The document set out a formula for calculating carbon sequestration for forestry within the broader context of our greenhouse emissions obligations, whereby credit would be given for post-1990 plantations of forestry. I have a small such plantation myself. The formula was devised in conjunction with members of the industry and Coillte. The delegates mentioned agroforestry. It is my view that we need to look at a total land use policy, incorporating food, forestry, energy, biodiversity and recreation. The CAP will play a part in all of this, and there are aspects of the greening measure and of the second pillar which can contribute to it.
It may have been a surprise to discover today that we are agreed on the importance of preserving the CAP budget and, moreover, that we would justify it on many of the same grounds as those cited by The Environmental Pillar. It has taken ten months to complete our discussion on the CAP, but we have also dealt with other issues in the meantime. In fact, matters relating to communications and natural resources were within the committee's remit for a period, offering us such diversions as the hearings on the controversial episode of "Prime Time Investigates" and discussions regarding North-South interconnectors.
Indeed. In addition, we produced a report on oil and gas, the contents of which secured all-party agreement. The delegates might find it an interesting read.
It is good to know that we are in agreement on more issues than we might have expected. I assure the delegates that there was no deliberate attempt to delay their presentation or anything of that sort. We have thus far engaged mainly with the farming organisations, the Department and the MEPs. We are hoping to produce another document on the matter which will, of course, take account of the contributions today. The delegates might be interested to know that I received notice today that the IFA will hold a sustainability and carbon information day in January called Growing the Agrifood Sector Sustainably. Everybody is tuned into the importance of these issues.
I thank the delegates once again for their contributions. I hope they found the meeting as useful as I did. Members seem likewise to have found it very useful judging by the degree of their engagement. The meeting is now concluded. We will meet again on Thursday in private session to discuss the report.