Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 31 January 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Challenges within the Organic Farming Sector: Discussion
Before we begin, I remind members, witnesses and people in the Public Gallery to turn off their mobile telephones for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting services.
I welcome the witnesses here to discuss the challenges in the organic farming sector. I welcome the Organic Farmers Representative Body represented by Mr. Padraic Finnegan, chairman, Mr. Padraic Connelly, secretary, and committee members, Mr. Michael Lambert and Mr. Enda Monaghan. I thank them for their attendance today to highlight the problems in the organic food sector.
I draw the witnesses' attention to the fact that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the Chairman 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 and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I ask Mr. Finnegan to make an opening statement and when he concludes, members will ask questions.
Mr. Padraic Finnegan:
I thank the Chairman and members for once again giving us the opportunity to highlight the problems within the organic farming scheme as it stands. We came before this committee on 8 October 2015 to highlight major problems within the organic farming scheme and we were very happy with the recommendations of the committee but to date little or none of those recommendations have been implemented. I understand members have copies of the presentation.
There are major problems with organic farming scheme payments being made on time. We sought to have all money paid out within the calendar year and the joint committee recommended that the Department should ensure no payments were delayed. For various reasons a lot of payments are still delayed and we are at a loss as to why that needs to be the case. To clearly define the role of certification bodies, we recommended that Bord Bia take on this role rather than the present arrangement where farmers must pay outrageous fees to private certification bodies. The joint committee recommended that the Department should investigate whether it would be more efficient to have one streamlined body granting organic status, preferably Bord Bia, and that the registration fees for same would be reduced. To date, this recommendation has not been implemented.
With regard to the impact of double funding on smaller hectare organic farmers, we sought to have the scheme front-loaded to lessen the impact on the smaller farmer. The joint committee has recognised that smaller farmers are not benefitting adequately from the organic farming scheme while larger farmers are benefitting disproportionately. The joint committee recommended that the first 20 ha be front-loaded at €315 per hectare in view of the fact that smaller farmers cannot avail of both the green, low carbon, agri-environment scheme, GLAS, and the organic scheme. To date this recommendation has not been implemented.
We sought to have risk-based inspection put in place rather than the present arrangement where certification bodies inspect organic farms every year. The joint committee recommended that the Department employ a risk-based inspection regime when inspecting premises involved in organic farming. To date, this recommendation has not been implemented.Farmers who have a Bord Bia inspection and organic inspection should have both carried out simultaneously.The joint committee recommended that the Department should attempt to reduce the duplication of inspections by making Bord Bia the certification body. This recommendation has not yet been implemented.
Those are my opening comments. Mr. Connelly will also make a contribution.
Mr. Padraic Connelly:
We recommend that the first 20 ha be front-loaded at a rate of €315 per hectare. The reason for this is to give us parity with conventional farmers in the GLAS programme, as outlined in our financial comparison between a conventional and organic farmer. For example, a conventional farmer in GLAS with a low-input hay meadow has a rate of €3,140 on 10 ha over five years. On the organic farming scheme, the rate is just €700. The wild bird cover is €2,700 for 3 ha but in the organic scheme it is €510. The total of the schemes for a conventional farmer in GLAS is €5,840 versus €2,210 for the organic farmer.
There should be a tillage payment of €450 per hectare up to 5 ha in order to reduce dependence on imported feeds during the winter months. There should be one licence to cover the term of the organic farming scheme. Annual licensing is cumbersome and extremely expensive. Anything between 9% and 25% of the organic payment must be paid to the certification bodies. For example, a farmer with 12 ha pays €2,200 to certification bodies while a farmer with 30 ha pays €3,000 to a certification body and a farmer with 50 ha must pay €3,100 to the body. The certification bodies not only collect fees from farmers but also from factories, co-ops, marts, shops, butchers, branding, etc. They are also funded by the Department. The scheme in its current form is completely biased in favour of bigger farmers to the detriment of smaller operators and it must be reviewed as a matter of urgency.
Certification should be carried out by Bord Bia, as recommended by the joint committee. We encourage a risk-based assessment once a farmer has been fully converted for the organic scheme. We welcome the penalty system suggested by the Oireachtas committee. Payment of all organic farming scheme moneys should be delivered in the same calendar year. With regard to the terms and conditions of the organic farming scheme being changed on an annual basis by certification bodies, we suggest that an independent office should be available to organic farmers to verify the necessity of some conditions, which, frankly, we find ridiculous. For example, there is a new rule on bedding in slatted accommodation. We disagree with the new ruling and we want to have this independently assessed. We find that on occasions we are participating in a somewhat different scheme from that to which we signed up.
Agriculture is one of the few sectors - if not the only one- that does not have access to the Labour Court. The fact that an independent forum such as the Labour Court is not available to the agricultural sector is putting farmers in a position where they can be subjected to unfair treatment by the Department and other organisations.
I thank the witnesses for their presentation, which gains from being brief, succinct and to the point. It is a good example for other witnesses who might appear before us. We note the submissions and I was one of three or four members here when the delegation made their very comprehensive submission in October 2015. That formed the core of our report. Deputy Deering was Vice Chairman of that committee and the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, was the Chairman. We prepared a substantial report and were acutely aware of the significant bias towards large farmers, as the witnesses have pointed out. The opposite should clearly be the case in order to attract people to the scheme. It goes against the idea of the economies of scale.
There is significant potential for growth in the organic farming sector in Ireland and that formed the basis of the discussion at our previous meeting. At that time, the organic farming scheme was about to be introduced. Has there been any progress in respect of the aims and objectives of the revised organic farming scheme? Is it still the case that farmers are subjected to a plethora of oversight mechanisms, for certification and other purposes by numerous bodies? Sometimes we find those bodies do not run in parallel but rather contrary to one another. Has there been an increase in the number of organic farmers in the past year or so or, in particular, has there been any progress to entice young farmers into the organic farming scheme? Are we still stuck at a figure of 1% regarding output from organic farming?
How do the witnesses see that developing? Food Wise 2025 sets out a target of 5% whereas other countries, such as Denmark and Austria, have targets of 10% or 15%. Let us cut out the silly ambitions. We can be ambitious but let us be realistic. Can we reach 5% in the next seven or eight years? Other countries are at 15% but they have had a head start. Let us deal with the reality rather than the theory.
Do the witnesses accept that one of the problems in gaining a foothold in the market relates to the price for consumers? For example, a product might cost €1.50 but the organic version is priced at €1.95 or €2.25. It is difficult to make a breakthrough in the absence of extensive and comprehensive marketing and this is where the Bord Bia certification could be of most assistance. Perhaps we could have further examples from the witnesses to give an idea of the nitpicking rules and regulations that effectively put off farmers, or which farmers find of such a bureaucratic nature that they act as a disincentive.
Are organic farmers subject to the independent appeals system that operates in the Agriculture Appeals Office so they can assert their rights when they feel put out or annoyed by a particular result? Can they work through the Agriculture Appeals Office or do they feel it is too cumbersome or that the process takes too long? There are certainly a number of issues.
An excellent report was prepared by the previous committee, of which some of us were members, but it appears to have only reached the waste bin of the Department and got no further. That is a major disappointment. It is as much a rebuff to the members of that outgoing committee as it is to the farmers who expected that some progress would be made. We have to redouble our efforts. We must try to involve the new Minister and ensure he takes this seriously and gets on with implementing a significant portion of the recommendations. To be fair, the witnesses only outlined approximately one third of the recommendations, which is the right thing to do. As they know, they might have 20 recommendations but it is best to get in with three or four key recommendations. I have no doubt the Chairman and the committee will be anxious to ensure that progress is made on behalf of organic farmers.
I thank the witnesses for the presentation, which was very much to the point. There needs to be standardisation of the criteria for qualifying as an organic farmer. The quality assurance scheme operated by Bord Bia is an excellent opportunity for farmers, given Bord Bia is visiting a significant number of farms every 18 months. The opportunity to get that scheme intertwined with the organic regime must be taken. It could be an add-on to the quality assurance inspection for farmers who want to opt in to the scheme. There are farmers undertaking beef inspections and dairy inspections. If they also wanted to opt for organic inspections, this could be done on the same day. The criteria for qualifying as an organic farmer need to be standardised. Various organisations are looking for different standards. As a result, the position must be standardised if we want to make progress. Bord Bia must become a lot more proactive. The quality assurance scheme is the vehicle we can use to streamline the inspection regime so the inspection can be done on the same day as the quality assurance inspections. It is clearly linked to the last recommendations made by the committee. This is something we need to drive home in order to ensure it is delivered upon. It is only common sense. It would lower the cost of inspections and the wider cost of the regime, and would have serious benefits.
I was surprised to hear about the clash between GLAS and organic farming payments. Organic farmers are farming in the spirit of GLAS, so when I hear that farming organically is inhibiting farmers from getting payments that are available under the scheme, the common sense of that escapes me. Perhaps GLAS has to be adapted to suit organic farmers. To have a farmer on a low input system getting a greater payment than an organic farmer does not make sense and there is no logic to that kind of regime. Organic farming and GLAS need to become more intertwined.
On the issue of the consumption of organic products, what kind of premium is being returned from the marketplace? Deputy Penrose hinted at consumer resistance. Across the various products, including dairy, sheep, beef, lamb, turkey, eggs, farmhouse cheeses and a whole variety of organic products, is there consistency in the level of premium that can be returned or are some sectors able to absorb a premium far better than others? On the dairy side, this country has a very small proportion of organic output whereas there is a far higher proportion in other sectors. Has research been done into the consumer response and how much of a mark-up the consumer will take? What kind of mark-up do producers of organic food need to have in order to make it commercially viable when compared with mainstream farming? How many farmers are involved in it and is there potential to grow the sector? As has been hinted, other countries are far in front of us as regards organic produce. Have we a handle on what is needed from the marketplace to make it viable?
I welcome the witnesses and thank them for their presentations. In regard to the previous committee's report, which made many very good suggestions, it is disappointing there has not been action on the part of the Department to follow through on those. Arising from this meeting, it will be important that we seek an update in regard to each of those points, as well as an action plan from the Department regarding how it might move forward.
I would like to follow up on a few points, although they may already have been covered. With regard to the various market sectors, can the witnesses provide feedback on the success or otherwise of the various products and how much of the food that is being produced organically is being sold as organic produce? Across beef, sheep, dairy, pigs and the various other sectors, are some areas working better than others?
On the point about how GLAS plays out with regard to payments vis-à-visorganic farming, it defies logic that it is working that way and it acts as a total disincentive. For those farmers who are farming organically, can the witnesses give feedback in terms of what is driving those in the sector at present?
It seems to be a particularly frustrating enterprise in the sense that people put the effort into growing it and trying to develop and expand the sector, yet in terms of the premium available, it does not seem to be coming back. Much of the product is not sold as organic. What are the positives or is it an uphill struggle? What is the mood like among the delegate' colleagues in the organic sector?
Austria has been mentioned a couple of times and was mentioned in the report of the committee as being the best in Europe, with a figure of 15% for organic production. Will the delegates give us an insight into why the system is working so well there and what Austria is doing so differently that has made it work?
Mr. Michael Lambert:
Deputy Willie Penrose asked about young farmers. Absolutely nothing is done to encourage them into the agricultural colleges. Approximately 2% of farmers are in the scheme and that has been the figure since 2009. We have statistics for the years from 2009 to 2016 that show it is a revolving door. Farmers enter, stay for five years and leave again. They do not stay the pace. There are so many rules and regulations that they cannot make ends meet.
Organic beef, sheepmeat and pigmeat is not being promoted here. Anything that is promoted is for export. A recent survey showed that 78% of sheep produced entered the conventional market; 22% of production is organic, all for export. An Bord Bia is promoting lamb in Ireland under the Origin Green label. It includes both conventional and organic products.
In response to the questions about appeals, I do not know where we can go, apart from the places we have gone to.
We were asked why we stayed in the sector. Animal health is a big issue. Animals on organic farms are much healthier and we do not need as many veterinary inputs. There are lower costs because we do not need fertilisers and sprays. It goes back to the old style of farming before all of the new fertilisers and new technology came into play.
One reason for Austria's success is that within the organic system in Europe we operate on two levels. In Austria there is a lesser level of regulation than her. Ours is very stringent which makes it very difficult to get farmers to enter the scheme. That is why there is such a revolving door. In Austria there is a big dairy system. We cannot get one off the ground here. It has been tried. There is a drive by the Department and certification bodies to get more grain growers in. They have been trying for some time, but it has not worked.
Mr. Padraic Finnegan:
The major problem with the scheme as set up in Ireland is that the cost is too high. By no means, do the premiums paid reflect the massive workload involved in organic farming. It takes a long time to grow a crop and there is waste because rushes and weeds cannot be sprayed. There is a lot of waste, even in the use of feed. I farm 30 ha of marginal land in east Galway and pay €3,000 for an organic licence for this term. There is no logic to paying that amount of money for a licence to operate an organic farm.
Mr. Padraic Finnegan:
The rate of non-compliance under the scheme is not high. Organic farmers tend to be well behaved. Compared with other schemes, we do not know why we are inspected so often or why we have to pay that much for certification. It all mounts up and we barely break even under the scheme as it is structured. That is why the issue of certification urgently needs to be addressed. Double funding has hammered the small organic operator. Previously he or she could also have joined the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, but since the introduction of the double funding rule for farms of less than 20 ha, he or she cannot participate in both schemes. He or she must pick one or the other. I farm 30 ha and I am participating in both. I have to take out 10 ha to participate in the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, on which I receive no organic payment, yet I have to pay the certification bodies on the lot. I am paid on the 20 ha included in the organic scheme and the 10 ha in GLAS, yet the certification bodies are paid on the entire 30 ha, although I receive no payment. It is not structured for farmers.
Mr. Enda Monaghan:
We said there was something wrong and went to the Department, knowing that the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, was being brought in to ask that it put in place a very good organic scheme or have two schemes that could work together. We wanted to frontload the payment on the first 20 ha, then the next 20 ha and so on down the line to help the small farmer. The Department moved from a figure of 55 ha to 60 ha and the payment moved from €106 to €170, which we welcomed. We wanted the payment on the first 20 ha to be €340, on the next 20 ha to be €225 and on the following 20 ha to be €100. It would not have been very different, but it would have helped. We were told it had gone for the bigger size to bring in the bigger tillage farmers. Approximately 90% of the meal we use is imported to feed our stock. That is why we wanted everyone to receive a small payment to sow his or her own crop instead of giving the money to the bigger farmer, but the Department did not heed us. We came here 18 months ago after the new scheme had just been brought in. Under the old scheme the average size of herd was 20 and the average number of hectares for tillage was 11.
Under the new scheme, the average herd increased to 25 and the size of the average tillage farm had decreased to 8 ha. Straight away, one could see that the change was making matters worse. There were more cattle and sheep to feed and less tillage. It obviously had not worked. Now the money has run out but the Department has stated that the scheme is very successful scheme. There are approximately 1,600 or 1,700 farmers on the scheme, which is welcome. It is the case, however, that there are lots of cattle and lots of sheep but no feed. Now the Department is saying that if it gets more money for the scheme, it is going to target it towards tillage or dairy farming. Every farmer in the scheme was looking for a payment to sew his own tillage, whether it was in respect of corn, turnips, kale or whatever.
Can we get to 5% in respect of organic production? I cannot see a reason why not. Even 10%, if the schemes were put in place. I have said previously that most of the production along the west coast from Kerry to Donegal is essentially organic. It is not certified that way, however, because the scheme does not suit. It is down to money. The budget for organic farming is in the region of €10 million. The budget for the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, is €290 million per year. There is a big cohort looking for the GLAS money. If some of that money was diverted to organic production, the price relating to all the cattle and sheep that would go into organic would increase immediately. Even though it would be the same volume, the export value would be a lot more. I cannot see why we cannot increase to 5% or 10%.
Austria and other countries in Europe were mentioned. They would not have the same high standards as Ireland. In some countries, it is possible to buy standard cattle from a conventional farmer. For example, one could buy a one month old calf from such a farmer. If one kept that calf for three months, one would have it for three quarters of its life. That animal would be automatically designated as organic. An Irish farmer cannot feed a calf milk replacer because there are no organic milk replacers available here. There are road shows and the Department and the certification bodies run promotional campaigns by which farmers will taken in. For the first two years, matters might not be too bad because farmers who become involved are not paid a premium because it takes two years to qualify as organic. Eventually, after another three years, they get out of it. In effect, there is a revolving door.
Mr. Padraic Connelly:
Double funding was mentioned. On Thursday, 26 March 2014 we, as a group, went to the EU and met the head of the organics unit at the Commission. There were three other members of staff present that day as well. It was put to us that double funding cannot be paid out because of considerations relating to taxpayers in Europe. They said that governments can work around it in order to benefit everyone in another way. This means that there would be no need for double funding. For example, the scheme could be front-loaded, for instance. In a way, organics is already front-loaded because there is a payment for the first 60 ha and there is also a further payment thereafter of €30 for any other hectares. We are asking that this front-loading be reduced in respect of the first 20 ha and that there then be another payment. This is already there, so we are just asking that it be put down to the lower end in order to help people who are being affected by double funding. That is all I am asking.
Mr. Enda Monaghan:
I am a sheep farmer and I can state that the mark-up is 15% on top of the quoted price. The quoted price for conventional lamb is in the region of €4.50 per kilogramme. I get 15% on top of that, which would bring it to €5.17. If he or she is quoted €4.50 on the day, the conventional farmer would probably get €4.60 or €4.65, plus ten cents for quality assurance. That is built into our 15%. The biggest problem I face is that I live in the west of Ireland. There is one factory in Ireland where lambs are slaughtered at it is located in Camolin, County Wexford. I put my lambs in a trailer and I bring them to Tullamore, which is a two-hour journey. They are taken from there on a truck. It is a cost-process and I would be better off if I sold the animals in Tuam. I am an organic farmer, however, and I sell them into the organic market. We need a factory to process lambs in the west of Ireland
. Most of the organic lambs are not sold into the organic market because of the feed. At this time of the year, they need feed. A survey was carried out which showed that 70% of lambs are sold in August, September or October. The factories want them all year round. They were saying that if we could guarantee them a year-round supply, they would chase more markets for us. I am told that my lamb is being sold in the finest restaurants in Paris and throughout Europe. We also discovered that the worst cuts of the lamb are being put into baby food. There is a big German baby food company called HiPP Organic that is using our lamb and beef for protein in baby food. In Europe, the contamination levels relating to their own beef and lamb are so high that they can mix our lamb and beef with it in order to reduce the heavy-metal contamination level, etc. It is a premium market but we do not get a premium for the product. All the good cuts of lamb can go to restaurants and shops, and all the bad cuts are made into a paste. We have seen the process. The paste is then frozen and sent to Germany. The baby food is a higher standard than organic. It is all tested in Germany and if it is not right, it is sent back.
Mr. Enda Monaghan:
I would say it is between 70 cent and €1 per kilogramme. It depends on whether one is part of a group that is strong enough to negotiate. I was involved with a group and we met a factory that brushed us aside. We said that was fine and that we would not supply any organic beef to it but, rather, that we would sell it to the conventional market. After two weeks, the factory came back to us because it had identified its market but could not get any beef to sell into it. As a result, we did a good deal.
It is a pity that the cost to the local butcher is too great. If get less than €1 per kilogramme from a lamb, the most I will make is €20 but the average would be more likely to be €12 or €15. Every time the lamb is handled thereafter, the price seems to double. I do not know why lamb is so expensive for the housewife, particularly if we are only getting 15% more. Local butchers have to pay a licence fee and they do not want to bother doing that. If the Government were serious about promoting organic produce, it would be helping butchers and retailers to get that licence for nothing.
The licence is a barrier in front of us.
Another thing that is often said is that the polluter pays. We are not polluting but we are still paying. There is something wrong there. We are producing the cleanest food in Europe. When we were dealing with the factory they told us that the Germans could not figure out how there were so many zeros when they test the food. I saw a report that came from Sweden. Conventional food had a toxicity of 0.15%, and organic had 0.0003%. It is 1,000 times less toxic. We are the same here. Our beef and lamb and food in general is of a higher class than central Europe because we do not have the pollution from industrial chimneys over the years, but our organic is simply superior. We are not getting paid though, and barriers are put in front of those with licences. The Government should be dealing directly with the certification bodies and paying them. It should not be up to us. They should be going to the butchers and giving them a grant to promote organic.
I come from Leitrim and we have quite a number of organic farmers. Many of them have done very well, but I am very aware that there are people who have done it for a few years, found it difficult, and moved out of it again. It seems that the supports which have been put around organic farming are not working to make it sustainable in the long term. That is the issue that we have to try and get to the core of.
There seems to be a market for the product in spite of the gazumping of it from both ends. At one end the producer is finding it difficult to survive as the supports have not been good enough, and at the other end the housewife who buys it, the consumer, is really being done for it. There is something wrong there. It is something that should be looked at, and I think it is particularly evident in the organic sector. It is happening in a lot of sectors of farming, as we have spoken about, but it is particularly evident in the organic sector.
A couple of the issues that were mentioned with regard to the recommendations from the previous committee are immediately obvious to me. The front-loading of payments for the first 20 hectares can be addressed without an awful lot of cost and it would make a big difference. The certification bodies seem to be acting as a block and seem to be one of the problems. They should not be, and there is no reason for that. Again, that is something which will cost nothing, but is something that we should be able to deal with either through the Department or through the Minister. There should be some way to change the rules to make it easy and to remove that block.
The appeals process and the independence of the Department in the process were mentioned as applying across the board and not just to organics. I think every farmer would have that particular gripe. They feel that if the Department has found them wrong and there is an appeal, the Department personnel are not going to let themselves down and the farmers will be found wrong again. That is something that many farmers find difficult. It is particularly the case for organic farmers.
Access to entitlements and reserve are big issues for new entrants to every sector of farming. The fact that there is no national reserve for them at the moment is a big issue, but especially in the organic sector. I have come across a number of younger farmers who want to go organic and who are very interested and enthusiastic about it. They are on marginal land. It would suit them and work for them from the point of view of being able to get a better price for their produce. To go intensive is going to be difficult because they do not have the land to intensify and it is not good enough. The issue is that when they study it, and this goes back to the point that was made at the beginning, it just does not work. The level of support is not there. We keep coming back to this issue which Deputy Cahill among others mentioned, that most consumers say that organic is a lovely idea but they cannot afford it. It is seen as something that is for people in Dublin 4 who want to go green and who can afford to buy this expensive stuff, but for ordinary housewives and ordinary people it is just out of their price range. That should not be the case.
If the issues of front-loading and certification were addressed and something done about the gazumping of the market, it would open up the sector and more people would be able to get into organic farming. One of the things that is stopping the sector from growing is the fact that the product is so expensive for the end consumer. We should definitely be looking in that direction. I still think it is not for every farmer, but it certainly is an option for many farmers on the more marginal land, for example, in the west.
It would be interesting to find out more about the two levels of certification. In Austria they have two levels of certification, and the example of the calf was given, that provided that it has organic feed for three months after it is a month old it can be certified organic when it reaches four months. The code we use here is so strict, it is something we could look at as well. We could work with the farmers to come up with recommendations and put pressure on to try to get the original recommendations implemented, but there are other things that should be looked at as well.
I welcome the delegation and thank the members for their report. It is a bit unfortunate that it seems to be a similar submission to one they made previously. It appears to have fallen on deaf ears, and as a new Member here I find that very disappointing from the committee's point of view. It needs to be raised with the Department that there was a comprehensive submission report put in to the Department and it seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Most of what I wanted to say has been mentioned already. That is the danger of not getting in early at these meetings. There seems to be a litany of problems. Margin will always be an issue, in agriculture and non-agriculture. Even if things are going well the margin will not be good enough. Margin aside, if one of the issues raised already which prohibits the uptake of organic farming or is a big inhibiting factor for those who are established organic could be prioritised, what would that one issue be?
To go back to the issue of processors and the exorbitant increase on the value of the product from the farm gate to the fork, what relationship is there with the processors? Beef and lamb have been mentioned. Could there be further promotion of organic, finished, value-added produce, which would in turn help the processes? Is the organic finished product being promoted enough? If there was some system or form of adequate promotion of the finished value-added product, could that in turn help the cause down the line?
I thank the delegation for coming here today and for coming back before this committee. Listening to the presentation and the comments of my colleagues, I am reminded that the core issue here in terms of agriculture is that until we have an honest conversation about the cost of food and a fair price for those who produce it, we are just giving way to the supermarkets. So much of what comes in terms of single farm payments and European payments and matched by Government funding is subsidy to supermarkets. Farmers across every single sector of food are not getting anywhere near the price that they should get for their produce in terms of the input that goes in. There is a conversation for consumers. People talk about organic food and how it is healthier and better for the environment, but will they pay a reasonable price for it?
We must have serious conversations and there is much hypocrisy that we must address, particularly in terms of Government policy.
Another issue drives me mad in this place. This is an excellent report, with hard work done by the previous committee. There were hearings but we are a year down the road and the witnesses are reporting today that very little has been implemented. The group is trying to make a living in this area and this is supposed to be the way to go as it is better for the environment and for our health. It is just all talk, really, without the back-up of policy and resources to make it happen. That is why I applaud the Chairman for bringing the group before us today and ensuring we revisit the recommendations. I understand we will have departmental officials here next week but I do not know if we will get the opportunity to raise the matter. Perhaps it is a separate issue, I do not know.
I am sure we will correspond with the Department. We have a job in this committee and in every committee in these Houses. If these Houses are to have any respect whatever, when we publish reports and make recommendations we should regularly bring in departmental officials and the Minister and hold them to account. If they cannot implement recommendations, they should tell us on the record why that is so. We have a responsibility in that respect. I applaud the Chairman for fulfilling our responsibility but every committee in here needs to do it. This place is full of reports gathering dust on shelves. The work has been done but the recommendations have not been implemented. I hope we can start to break that practice in this committee.
The delegation has picked a number of key recommendations it wishes to see implemented. It was recommended that Bord Bia would be the preferred body. Is there any indication why that recommendation has not been engaged with, as it makes eminent sense? Farmers are protesting today about green, low-carbon, agri-environment scheme, GLAS, and agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, payments, which have been delayed since October. What is the Department's explanation for that? Why will it not front-load the payment, as recommended, and as my colleague noted, there would not be a huge cost? What explanation has been given by the Department and does the delegation believe it respects these recommendations? Is it doing its own thing?
I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to speak and I welcome the delegation. The nub of the issue relates to farmers with under 20 ha. The European Union made a ruling that what it terms double payment cannot be made for the same piece of ground. The Department clearly made its decision on that. The problem is that a farmer who was in the organic scheme when GLAS was initiated could get €5,000 in a GLAS payment. In the case of an organic farmer with 15 ha, 16 ha or 17 ha, it was more attractive to go into GLAS than to stay in the organic scheme because there was approximately €3,000 of a difference. We give out about the prices arising from doing nutrient management plans with GLAS and all that but €1,000 or €1,100 would get a farmer through the lot. Meanwhile the certification costs for a small farmer to stay in the organic scheme are totally out of order.
In fairness, I have met this and other organic farmer groups previously. I spoke with them even before the Government talks. I remember speaking with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and it was included in the programme for Government that we would seek to amend the rural development plan to allow a greater payment per hectare for the first 10 ha for organic producers. It would bring a balance to the process and there would not be a flight of farmers. There are farmers with 60 ha but there are more smaller farmers with 10 ha, 15 ha or 20 ha around Ireland and especially the west than there are fellows with 60 ha or 70 ha. It was agreed within the programme for Government negotiations that there was a problem and if we are to stay in organic farming, it must be addressed. That is the total issue. Bord Bia was the delegation's preferred choice rather than having a crowd of bodies doing what is necessary. If Bord Bia personnel were doing quality assurance on a farm, they could do everything else and the farmers would be finished with it rather than having 40 different fellows coming out.
I am considering the appeals process at present. A new basic payments scheme appeals committee has been set up but no notice of it was given. I only heard about it in the past week. It appears one cannot go to the courts with a decision from that committee. I do not know if it makes the old appeals office redundant. A statutory instrument is supposed to be brought in every year - this was done in 2015 - setting out the schemes the appeals office covered. As far as I can see, none was published last year. The witnesses mentioned the Labour Court. Currently there are guys involved in appeals about the agri-environment option scheme who have gone a year or two payment periods without receiving anything. What is going on around the country in that regard is disgraceful.
We have talked about this process before, particularly in the lamb sector. Let us call a spade a spade. With the distance they go and without much promotion, farmers in the organic sector still have to sell cattle in the same mart as the farmer down the road. Unless we get more serious, the smaller farmers will leave. Ultimately, it is money that counts for a farmer. If a farmer can get €5,000 in GLAS but €1,800 in the organic scheme, with its associated fees, the farmer will go for the scheme that will produce most money. Generally, the bigger operators get into the organic scheme and fall out after one round. We have many smaller farmers who are committed to the organic scheme because they believe in it. They have been in the scheme for years and want to stay in it. Unfortunately, with the current system, if a farmer has under 20 ha - approximately 17 ha or 18 ha is the cut-off - it is like we are telling them to get out of it.
Mr. Padraic Finnegan:
That may change due to the double funding issue as all the smaller operators will be shoved out unless front-loading is introduced. It is absolutely a big man's scheme now in the way it is structured. It is there for the big man and not the small person. It is what we call the revolving door and Deputy Fitzmaurice commented on it. A number of operators joined organic farming, did one term and left. That is the biggest issue to be discussed today. It proves people are prepared to do it. There are many certification bodies, including Teagasc, who will say the scheme is good and everything will be rosy if a farmer joins it. Five years down the road, the farmer will discover it is the toughest thing he or she has done. The majority of them are leaving the scheme.
Mr. Padraic Finnegan:
It is a five-year scheme so a farmer cannot leave after a year. Another batch are groomed and come to the scheme but they leave after five years. The statistics prove that is what happens. If the scheme was right, people would join and we would have as good an organic set-up as anywhere as our country is ideal for it. As some people present have stated, the scheme as it is structured is an absolute disgrace. There should be an urgent review with a bit of common sense injected into it. We are the most inspected and watched scheme.
There is any number of people to watch us, to hound us and to damn us into the ground, but there is nobody at all to help us. Even if, on that point, we want to go somewhere, if we want to take any case anywhere or if a person has a problem, there is very little for those working in agriculture in this country. We have seen how in the past year gardaí can now use the Labour Court, and rightly so. I would say that agriculture this minute is probably one of the few-----
Mr. Padraic Finnegan:
It would be but it affects us. Agriculture is one of the very few sectors that does not have that option to seek to have a recommendation made. There is the agriculture appeals office but that will not deal with the scheme. If a person does not get paid or something, he or she can go in with that, but he or she cannot go in saying that the scheme is unfair and wanting changes to be made to it. I checked that and a person cannot do that. I also tried the agriculture ombudsman. Neither of those two can actually deal with the structure of a scheme, but if an applicant is not paid or something like that they will deal with that. There is a major thing and I see no reason, considering that the Labour Court can deal with everything from migrant workers to gardaí, that agriculture cannot be included in its remit.
Mr. Michael Lambert:
Promotion is a big problem. There is no promotion of any organic produce, with the way the scheme is operating. There is a mart in Drumshanbo in County Leitrim. If one goes there, the backbone of that mart is all the smaller farmers. That is the backbone of any mart. If those are not kept in it, that base is going to fall. That is why we want to see the smaller farmer kept there to keep that trade going.
A question was asked about what we would like to see straightened out immediately. One of the immediate things would be payments. We get all types of excuses on that, including IT problems, and it is absolutely silly. A ten year old is able to sort out any IT problems now. I would be astonished to think that IT issues are an issue in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine or any other Department.
Mr. Enda Monaghan:
I was one of the guys that was protesting outside today. I have not got GLAS payments and I did not receive payments for organic farming. We met people from the Department last November who said that if a person got the single farm payment, he or she would get the organic farming payment. The middle of December came and a few of my colleagues had received nothing. They rang and they said that there seems to be a problem. I have a direct line to one of the guys and I rang him and he said that it looked like there was an IT problem. That was what he told me for my own payment. He said that in the new year, it should be okay. I waited for two weeks in the new year, and when I got on to him again, he said to give him my herd number. It was the same guy that I was talking to on previous occasions. He then told me that I was overpaid last year. It was the first that I heard about it. He said that my 2016 payment was ready to go, all the boxes were ticked but the computer could not talk to the other computer. I asked if I could send in a cheque for what they overpaid me. He said no. I still have not got paid today.
Mr. Enda Monaghan:
I suppose I can see other farmers going in and going out after four or five years, and it seems to be grand for the first couple years. Certification cost is a big thing. It is probably a bit of an unknown if a person is brought up as a conventional farmer and is used to putting out fertiliser. He or she is going against the grain by not doing that. It is a small bit of the unknown as well. Maybe a bit more education would help.
Is organic promoted enough? It is not promoted in Ireland. I was on to people in the Agricultural Awareness Trust and they said that the market is Europe. They do not want to talk about Ireland. They said that the big market is in Europe, and it is worth €22 billion. We only have between €100 million and €115 million here in the organic sector. The big market is in Europe. I still say that we are so small that if our own local butcher had no impediment or barrier put in front of him, he would be buying one lamb from me every week and it would be the same thing with every other lad around the country. It would be more than enough and our own Irish people could buy it. At the moment, they do not want to help the Irish wholesaler or butcher. If they did that and then if we grew, they could not talk.
Mr. Enda Monaghan:
I am familiar with lamb but only 30% of lamb is grown organically. That is a shame. I would say that beef is probably a bit better. It could be 40% or 50%. Only 28 dairy farmers are organic. Individually, they can do good deals with the co-operatives if the co-operative wants them, but once they have one lad in, if he is big enough, there is no room for another guy in it.
Mr. Padraic Finnegan:
With the way it is now, it is all organic feed. In the case of cull cows or things like that, they will never go into the organic food chain. They are only ever going to go into the very lowest end of the conventional food chain, yet they all have to be fed organic feed at a very high rate.
There was an issue there with concreting over slats. It was common, especially in the springtime with cows calving and that kind of thing, for people to straw-bed slats. There is now this ingenious notion that slats cannot straw-bedded for health and safety reasons, because - Deputy Fitzmaurice knows more about it - one cannot drive a tractor in to clean them out. Most people would not be bringing a tractor in on them at all to clean them out. This is the ruling now. A farmer is not allowed to straw-bed. He or she has to concrete the slat, and I do not know what happens after that.
An awful lot of rules and regulations are coming in. The scheme is constantly changing, with no dialogue with farmers or anyone else. A lot of it makes very little sense, but it is making the scheme tougher to operate.
Is the rule not that there has to be 50% of ground in concrete and 50% not? If there is a lie back area behind a slatted shed and at the same size as the slatted shed, would that not cover the requirement?
Mr. Padraic Finnegan:
It would be ideal, but if there is a wet spring and that kind of thing, cows cannot be sent out. In the past, it would have been possible to straw-bed slats. A lot of the slats are actually certified for tractors to drive on them, but one probably would not drive on them anyway. That is another thing. The rules are constantly tightening and it is certainly turning people away from it.
Mr. Michael Lambert:
There is no problem at all with health and safety on a conventional farm with bedding slats with straw. If a person turns to organic farming, it is a health and safety issue. Why is it a health and safety issue with organic farming but not with conventional farming?
There is one thing that I would like the Department to be asked. We fill out our documentation, like all other farmers, in May. A lot of the stuff that would be sent in would be the same every year and there would be no changes, yet by the end of the year and the time comes for payments, all these problems crop up. There are five, six or seven months of the year in which these problems could be addressed. Inspections, spot checks and so on are necessary. There have been situations that I know have happened, on the organic scheme or other schemes, where we have been told that we would be paid in November, and yet they would stage an inspection in December and we would not be paid. If there was a problem with that inspection, it would hold up everything.
We cannot understand why one is not paid because a penalty can be clawed back in the next two or three years. Nine times out of ten there is no penalty. I do not know why the Department uses this system. Why are payments not streamlined? The Department has enough experience of the system to solve problems as they occur yet this problem arises every year.
Mr. Enda Monaghan:
The Department has informed us that the front-loading is caused by budgetary issues. The Department has also said that if it gets more money it will direct the funds to tillage or dairy farmers. My answer to that is that if the tillage person wanted to join the scheme before now he would have done so. The scheme is wrong. The Department may put money aside to target tillage farmers but he will still not join the scheme. The scheme provides €170 per hectare or €70 per acre, which is worth less than a tonne of barley. The crop will be reduced by half so no tillage farmer will opt to join. The Department gives €900 for wild bird cover for three hectares. We have suggested that the Department pays half that sum for four or five hectares so one could grow one's own feed. One of the porridge companies wants oats and wants to target tillage farmers. Such a move would leave us without feed. That is why we have suggested that the Department front-load a payment for tillage whether it is an outdoor winter crop, oats or barley. It would mean we could supply cattle and sheep the whole year around and meat factories could seek a suitable market.
Mr. Padraic Finnegan:
My comment on payments is similar to what Mr. Lambert has said. The other day a man told me that his farm was inspected on 16 December and everything was fine. The fact that he was given an inspection so late in the year has meant he did not receive a payment over Christmas. I talked to him yesterday evening and he told me that he still has not been paid. Something must be done about this matter.
Mr. Padraic Finnegan:
Yes. He awaits an organic payment. He is one of the people who joined the scheme late enough. We are concerned about the fact that the inspection took place so late in the year. If it has to be done then it has to be done. Everything was right yet that man, at the end of January, has still not been paid for last year due to the very fact he had an inspection in the middle of December. Late inspections should not happen.
Mr. Enda Monaghan:
I wish to refer, without going into detail, to the human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture study carried out in December 2016 by the European Parliament. Members can download it for themselves. I have copies of a shortened version with me that I can circulate to members after the meeting.
I thank the delegation for attending here today and articulating their concerns.
As has been pointed out by all of the members it is disappointing that a year and a half has elapsed yet the recommendations made by the previous committee, which put a lot of work into the project, have not progressed. From this committee's point of view we will chase up the issues straight away and contact the Department. Next week the Department will be in here and we will highlight the payment issues that have been raised here today. We will try to find out where the report is, as soon as possible. Is that all right?
The delegation has summarised the issues that they want us to raise with the Department. Their first priority is for payments to be made in the same calendar year. A starting point for us would be to get information on that issue.
Again, I thank the delegation for coming here today to highlight their issues. I also thank the members for attending.
When corresponding with the Department I suggest that we ask it to give a point by point response to the report. I would like the Department to give a specific response to each one of the points that the committee put forward previously.
Many of the suggestions made by the delegation today are cost neutral, which means they have no financial implications. Bord Bia is a promotional body and is in charge of quality assurance. Bord Bia should be brought into the equation to streamline the inspection regime for the organic sector. A huge number of farms have quality assurance. I strongly believe that organic inspections must be streamlined to include quality assurance and standards must also be streamlined. Such a move would solve many of the issues raised, including payment issues. Many of the difficulties raised by the delegation would be streamlined if inspections were carried out every year and a half to gain or retain organic status. Bord Bia needs to be involved in the organic sector. There has been a hands-off approach up to now but that must change.