Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 16 February 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Impact of Peat Shortages on the Horticulture Industry: Discussion
I welcome to the meeting Mr. John Neenan, chairman of Growing Media Ireland; Mr. Paul Brophy, chairman of the IFA national horticulture committee; Mr. Patrick Gleeson and Mr. Kieran Dunne of Kildare Growers Group; and Mr. Mel O'Rourke and Mr. Frank Corbally of the CMP. All are appearing remotely and are very welcome to the meeting. We have already received their opening statements and they have been circulated to members. We are limited in our time due to Covid-19 safety restrictions so the committee has agreed that those statements be taken as read, allowing the full session to be used for questions and answers.
Before we begin, I must outline an important note on parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to 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. Participants at the committee meeting from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that the constitutional protections afforded to those participating within the parliamentary precincts do not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether or the extent to which their participation is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature.
Before I invite questions from members, I wish to tell the representatives that they are most welcome here. As a committee we are worried about the horticulture industry, its competitiveness and where it is going to source its raw materials going forward. While we recognise climate change is a fact of life, we want to give the representatives the opportunity to make the case for their industries and to ensure we get a common-sense solution to the transition we face. I was talking to the Minister before I came here and he will be present at our second session later. I wish to hear the representatives' views about what they need from us as politicians so their industries can continue to survive and to prosper economically. The importation of substitutes or alternative products from other countries to fill the shelves that the organisations present currently supply makes absolutely no sense. I was quoted lately as calling it ludicrous and I do not object to that statement being quoted.
I now invite questions from the members. I leave it to the witnesses to see who is best qualified to answer each particular question. If witnesses want to answer they should put up their hand to indicate. Deputy Carthy is first on my list.
On a point of order, if the witnesses do not read out their opening statements, then they do not form part of the record of the committee. We should afford witnesses the opportunity to put their statements on the record.
We have a private meeting tomorrow where we can discuss changing the format going forward. As the Deputy knows, we did it as we only have one two-hour slot per week. We can discuss it tomorrow but the point is taken.
I call Deputy Carthy.
I thank the representatives for being here. I echo the Chairman's sentiments about the potentially extremely dangerous situation we are in. I have a number of questions for our guests. First, will they outline the immediate difficulties accessing horticultural peat? The challenges they are facing in the here and now due to the shortages we have been hearing about are being faced by a number of sectors. This includes issues as benign, almost, as bedding for animals as well as the particular issues that pertain to the horticultural sector. On 7 September, the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, announced he was establishing a working group on the use of peat moss in the horticultural sector. Many would have seen that as a good opportunity to play out all the issues which the representatives will no doubt raise. Crucially, however, he stated the terms of reference of the working group would have a predetermined outcome, namely, the graduated elimination of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry over an agreed period of years. It is extremely concerning that this is a working group with a predetermined outcome that could have devastating implications.
The sector I am most familiar with is mushroom growing. It forms the bedrock of the local economy in my home county of Monaghan and is crucially important in many other rural areas where there is little other economic activity. There are currently approximately 1.35 million ha of peatlands in this State. Could our guests give an indication of what proportion of that is required for horticultural use?
We hear quite a bit about the potential use of alternatives. Our guests represent a number of sectors. I will limit this question to the representatives of the mushroom sector in the first instance in case members have questions about other areas. What alternatives are in place for the mushroom sector and are any of them viable?
My final question is on the outworking of this. I agree with the Chairman that climate action is incredibly important and we need to take it seriously. However, climate action should not be confused with hypocrisy. If we have a situation whereby the elimination of horticultural peat use in Ireland simply leads to either an exporting of the mushroom industry, for example, or the importation of horticultural peat from other parts of the world, then that is not climate action but hypocrisy. If there is an elimination of horticultural peat, what happens to the mushroom growing sector?
I thank the Chairman for his indulgence in allowing me in early.
Mr. Mel O'Rourke:
I thank the Chairman. To answer Deputy Carthy's question, the horticulture use for edible horticulture in Ireland is probably 1% of what was harvested in 2019. Mushrooms make up the vast majority of the edible horticulture side. We use deep-dug peat, which is a unique product. I do not believe any alternatives are readily available. Research has been carried out as far apart as Australia and South Africa to identify alternatives but to no avail. In fact, in South Africa an alternative was proposed from sugar beet or sugar bagasse. When it was introduced to the industry there it was a failure. At the moment, further research is taking place at Wageningen University in the Netherlands but that will provide a long-term situation and will not resolve the immediate problem for the mushroom industry.
Members will probably be aware that the mushroom industry is one of our most successful horticultural businesses. At the moment we supply approximately 33% of the total mushroom market in the UK. Irish-owned companies producing in the UK supply another 25% to 30%. In total Irish-controlled mushroom producers supply approximately 60% of the market share in UK supermarket chains. That is a unique situation for any Irish food producer. We do not have an alternative. We are very small in terms of land use. We are a very low-volume industry because only a 5 cm layer of casing is put on a mushroom bed with 20 cm of compost underneath, but it is the vital part for the mushrooms to fruit.
I thank all the witnesses for coming in. I declare somewhat of an interest. I have worked professionally in the horticultural industry for 40 years. I did some work in Teagasc many moons ago on mushroom production in Kinsealy. I have visited many of the mushroom plants in the country over the past two years. Clearly there is this issue of an alternative. I agree with Deputy Carthy that the time for hypocrisy is over. We have a successful and valuable mushroom production industry. It is hard to believe we can pick mushrooms in Ireland on a Wednesday and have them on supermarket shelves in London on Friday and Saturday. It is an amazing success story.
The reality is there is no alternative. I would like to hear about the industry's engagement with Teagasc. I hope the committee will discuss this later. We should ask the Minister to request further research from Teagasc. All the alternatives proposed do not produce the same yields. I say this for the laypeople outside this committee who may be listening in. Mushrooms are not vegetables or fruits; they are fungi. They require heat, moisture and a particular level of light. There are many conditions for growing mushrooms. It is important that we protect the horticultural industry. The programme for Government proposes enhancing the industry.
I ask the witnesses to share with us the engagements they have had with Teagasc. I ask them to outline the impacts on soft fruit production, forestry and nursery stock. I am fully supportive of peat. We need to take our environment seriously. I would be interested to hear the witnesses' views on a just transition. I am talking about something that will take a few years. Where are the witnesses currently sourcing their peat? We are hearing that peat is coming in from Poland and Latvia. Polish and Dutch growers will take up our market share if we lose it. We need to fight hard for the horticultural industry.
We need to look for alternative growing media. We know that vermiculite, peat and compost are used for the casings for mushrooms. I am in solidarity with the growers. I understand this business and the difficulties it is encountering. I ask the witnesses to outline their relationship with Teagasc research and the investment they are putting into that.
Mr. Paddy Gleeson:
Let me put this into perspective. The horticultural industry only used 1.7% of the total peat harvested by Bord na Móna. I worked as a nursery stock specialist in Teagasc for 40 years and have considerable knowledge of the industry. I will give some up-to-date information on Teagasc's views on what is happening. The nursery stock currently uses 0.5% of the peat that is harvested, which is relatively a very small amount.
I will give a brief outline of what has happened in the nursery industry. I started working in the industry in the early 1970s. Prior to that, in the previous decade, all nursery hardy plants were grown in the open ground. Selling was confined to the dormant season from the end of November up to early March. Growing plants in containers totally revolutionised the growing of hardy plants. It was mainly due to the importance of stagnant peat as a bulk constituent of growing medium. As a result of decades of research by both private and public parties, of variety of peat growing media has been developed for different horticultural enterprises.
The Senator asked about the alternatives. Let us consider the value of peat. Peat has physical properties. Without getting too technical, it has air space and water hole retention properties. It has chemical properties with a low pH and low nutrient status, ideal for mixing various composts, and has biological properties. It is free from pests and disease, and from weeds and weed seeds. The growth of the nursery industry is directly related to the availability of Irish peat. I do not like quoting too many figures, but I will just give one figure. In the midlands within a radius of 25 miles of Tullamore, there are 25 nurseries employing approximately 250 workers generating a total output in excess of €15 million. It is very important in the midlands.
The Senator asked about Teagasc. As I said, I worked in Teagasc as a nursery stock specialist. I quote from Teagasc's submission to the recent review of peat in horticulture and the key industry issues, which stated:
There are currently no other abundant materials that have suitable properties at an affordable cost. Selecting any other material currently requires a grower to compromise in terms of crop risk where aspects of crop husbandry, yield and quality are potentially impacted and currently under-researched.
The Senator asked about the alternatives. The alternative is basically coir coming from 10,000 km away in Sri Lanka and India. It is suitable for some products at a reduced input, but it is certainly not suitable for all crops. It has significant transport implications and is certainly increasing in cost considerably. We have very little pine bark available in Ireland. Wood fibre, which is coming into the equation at the moment, is sustainable. It is now competing with biofuels and it is certainly increasing in cost. Green waste is something that has been researched. The Senator may know a colleague of mine in Kinsealy, Michael Maher, who did considerable work on green waste. It presents many challenges due to its low air status, its low stability and the possibility of impurities. While green waste is being researched, it is certainly not an answer for inclusion in compost.
Over the decades, growers have developed significant technical understanding of peat performance and its response in Irish growing conditions. It would take many years to develop the competence and understanding of managing growing media with new physical and chemical properties.
Currently, we are seeing the addition of up to 30% alternatives, such as wood fibre in peat, but it is a long-term research programme to find a suitable compost mix.
In conclusion, it is by and large a rural-based industry and my colleague Mr. Kieran Dunne will give the committee the cost implications of the impact of shutting down such a rural-based industry. People give great consideration to biosecurity. We will be importing significant quantities of plants because if we are not producing here we certainly will have to import from elsewhere. There could be significant biosecurity issues for the environment etc. There is also, of course, the additional carbon footprint of transporting peat, mainly from the Baltic states, and possibly from Russia in the future. Internationally, irrespective of the mode of transport, there is no benefit to the world in doing this.
My final comment on the nurseries industry is that many of those involved have told me that they have come through storms, a downturn and the onset of Covid-19. They are still productive but many of them are asking how much more can they can take and it is certain that none of this is of their making.
I thank the Chairman and the speakers for all of the information that they provided to us before the meeting. I commend the Chairman, who has led from the front on this issue and I hope that our witnesses will find a great deal of support as a sector from this committee. We are steadfast in our determination to find a pathway and future for this sector. In many respects the sector has been wrongly vilified. The public at large misunderstands what the sector does and confuses it with Bord na Móna. It is important that the sector makes and gets heard its point that it is just looking at 1.5% of the peatlands in the country. Everybody who has done research on this sector realise that it is a successful, sensitive and progressive sector. In the midlands, specifically, we are conscious that more than 6,000 people are directly employed across this sector and a further 11,000 indirectly. This is a sector of great importance for every community in the midlands and many of these businesses are family enterprises. We have already seen the heart of the region wrenched out with the demise of Bord na Móna and the ESB. I was struck by a comment from the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in a headline that leaked out from agriland.ie, in which she stated that it is absolute nonsense to have a reliance on imported peat. Her follow-on argument is that we have to look at alternatives. Our colleague, Deputy Carthy, alluded to that. This sector has worked with Teagasc over a number of decades at this stage and we must be realistic and put on record that the viability of an alternative use to peat coming on stream soon is highly unlikely.
We are very proud of this sector, which supplies 30% of the mushrooms into the UK market and has evolved over time. In research terms, this is one of the most progressive sectors, where one can look at Kerry Group and what Teagasc has achieved. There is no immediate and viable alternative to peat available at the moment and the sector is certainly not getting a just transition. It is unfortunate and very difficult for all of these businesses to be thrust into the public eye and to have to come here, almost cap in hand, to plead for their future. I am particularly conscious of Growing Media Ireland, which represents many of the businesses I am familiar with in counties Longford and Westmeath.
It is unfortunate that we did not get to read the opening statements but specifically with regard to producers, can the witnesses give the committee their three asks as to what they want us as a committee and as Government parties to do, as a follow-on from today, to help safeguard and give the sector the viable future it deserves?
Mr. John Neenan:
I will take that question. I will start by answering Deputy Carthy’s earlier question which asked what was the size of our industry. The area of land for horticultural peat production in Ireland is 1,700 ha, which is 0.12% of total Irish peatlands under production. This is a very tiny area. The carbon emissions from the area that produces horticultural peat is now less than 0.15% of total Irish emissions. We are talking about a very tiny area of peatlands and the emissions are very small and are in fact less than that because we have not yet finalised the research on how much carbon is taken up by the plants that are growing.
Returning to Deputy Flaherty’s question, the ask is that we want the legislation to be amended urgently in order that we can get back harvesting in 2021 and have sufficient peat to meet Irish demands. Currently, there probably is sufficient peat to meet Irish demands until September of this year. After that it will be completely comprised of imports. We offered a solution to the previous and present Governments that was prepared by our solicitors and legal advisers, McCann FitzGerald, who are saying that the solution is not complicated. It complies with European and Irish law and this solution says that we can under Irish law remove peat again from the planning process and beef up the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, which would allow us to go back to harvesting. That can be done by way of secondary legislation and statutory instruments. It was not the case that the previous legislation that came in in January 2019 was of the wrong type but it did not give sufficient powers to the EPA. Our solution, which we have given to the Government and copies of which are available for anybody to read, would overcome this and we could be back harvesting this year. This would overcome the problems that we have in the rural parts of Ireland, which are suffering greatly. There are jobs there already which we need to keep, rather than trying to create new jobs.
The second thing we are looking for is a just transition. We do not want to be thrown off the cliff at this stage and that is what has happened. A just transition is what has been referred to on this issue on all occasions.
We are not just producing peat and nothing else. Three of our members in Growing Media Ireland have five wood fibre plants between them producing wood fibre for both the professional and hobby market. This does not just concern peat as we are spending millions of euro in research and development on a continuous basis.
I thank the Chairman and apologise, as I had difficulty unmuting my microphone. I welcome the witnesses and thank them for their submissions, which are all quite self-explanatory. In view of the fact that we are meeting the Department immediately after this meeting, I have one brief question which I would ask as many of the representatives as possible to elaborate upon. This is a follow-up on Deputy Flaherty’s question, namely, what would our witnesses like us to bring to the Department? What are their proposals here with a view to tackling climate change and maintaining productivity? We have all seen the hardship that the mushroom industry went through when Brexit was first mooted. The mushroom industry was the first casualty. It overcame and rode out that storm and is one of the most productive of the food industries which exports into the UK.
In order to keep these markets going, can I have some brief answers on whether peat is being imported at the moment? We are hearing about peat coming into the country or is it the case that peat may have to come into the country? For the purposes of this discussion, if that were to happen or if it is happening, are there any quality issues in this regard? We are all aware of the ludicrousness of the situation but can such imports do the same job? Are we cutting off our nose to spite our face here?
With a view to the committee's upcoming engagement with the Department, I would like more feedback from the witnesses on what committee members can hit the Department with on their behalf and the alternatives they propose. Bearing climate change in mind, all present know the solution to this problem is the straightforward, simple, common-sense approach of carrying on as we are. The carbon footprint of imports alone is ludicrous. I would like to hear a little more from the witnesses with a view to the committee meeting the Department in the next session.
Mr. Kieran Dunne:
The first loads of compost came from Scotland into north Dublin this week. We work very closely with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Teagasc and Bord Bia on exports, growing local plants and creating import substitution. I have worked with them for the past 20 years. The quality of Irish peat is totally different from that which we could buy from the Baltic states, Scotland or any other country. It is within the remit of all of us, including every Department, to look after the industry, including big growers and smaller growers. The growers in the south and west of the country will be significantly disadvantaged as they may have to pay more than double the current price for compost. The smaller growers that use a small amount of compost will not have their orders recognised by the larger companies, so it will be impossible for them to even purchase peat. If they do manage to purchase it, they may have to pay four times the price. There are significant difficulties within the industry. As Mr. Gleeson stated, it is not a problem of our making.
The other major difficulty is that if the major players go out of the market, we will not have quality mixing plants for the horticulture professional industry. That goes back to what happened with sugar factories. If it is gone, we will have a major problem. We will not be able to claw it back. They are major issues for our industry. The big guys will survive but the smaller guys in rural communities will have serious difficulty surviving. We used 0.5% of the overall peat harvest in 2019. It is a minuscule amount. To service the amenity sector within Ireland will only require between 100 ha and 110 ha of peat.
Mr. Paul Brophy:
The point was made that it is absolute nonsense to have to depend on imported peat. It would be even more nonsensical for the vegetable industry to close and Ireland to become dependent on other countries for our food. Food security is embedded into the programme for Government. Through the national development plan for horticulture, public funds have been invested in our businesses under grant schemes. If those businesses subsequently close because of this ludicrous legislation, that money will have been wasted. It is in all horticulture that the money has been invested.
On the issue of food, green waste is not suitable for propagating vegetable transplants or any other food product because there are heavy metals picked up in it which would be introduced into the food chain with very harmful effects. In our business growing vegetable transplants, we use a very specialist product. Every large-scale grower has developed a recipe that is product specific and site specific in terms of pH balance and nutrition. Switching suppliers is not a simple fix. It has taken us approximately four years to hone our on-site recipe for our business.
I thank the witnesses. I concur with the previous speakers in commending the Chairman, who has been extremely vocal on this issue in the Dáil and elsewhere. I have read the reports prepared by the witnesses. I am shocked by the seemingly decimating impacts of the changes relating to peat extraction on the Irish horticulture industry. It is evident that many jobs will be lost and small and medium growers in horticulture will be made uncompetitive. All present agree with the aim of moving from burning large amounts of peat for electricity generation, but it seems that no thought was given to a transition period for Irish tree, shrub, flower or other plant growers.
Nurseries in the south, including west Cork, the west and the north of Ireland and small, sustainable green enterprises seem to be the most vulnerable. I have been told by many growers that before research is carried out or any other solutions get investigated, the immediate loss of peat without a transition period will put them out of business in less than two years. These are small, family-run operations that were supported by Irish peat. I am disturbed and worried by what seems to be nothing short of a fiasco. We need legislation to define peat extraction for horticulture.
It seems to me that the green solution in this country is to withdraw products from shelves. That has been happening quite a lot for the past seven or eight months. It is not a solution. One has to have something ready at hand so as to avoid putting people into a crisis such as this.
My questions are more for Mr. Gleeson and the Kildare Growers Group. Obviously, if the other witnesses wish to reply, they are welcome to do so. Why can plants not be grown in containers using soil or a mix of products including green waste instead of peat? Can the Kildare Growers Group or the Irish nursery industry survive or be in any way competitive if they have to import peat from Baltic states or elsewhere? What is the realistic timeframe for the industry to transition to low-peat or peat-free production from a commercial production point of view? Reports produced by Teagasc indicate it will take a minimum of five to ten years to so do.
Mr. Paddy Gleeson:
I probably alluded to some of those questions earlier. On the issue of soil, soil is not suitable for growing plants in containers. The main reasons for that are that soil compacts in a container and there is no air space. In addition, it is not uniform. Soil can vary, as the Deputy probably knows, in terms of nutrient and pH levels. One of the major reasons is that soil is extremely heavy in a container and, as such, one would have significant transporting costs. Research carried out by Teagasc indicates that none of the other materials to which I alluded, such as pine bark, wood fibre and green waste, are successful as an entire product as a growing medium. None of them would work as a growing medium.
I would like to see a course being pursued that is similar to what is happening in the UK. The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, DEFRA, has given a lead-in period of nine to ten years, up to 2030, for research to be carried out on various additives. All present realise the importance of climate and the environment. In the meantime, research needs to be carried out before a move is made automatically. It is not possible to move straight away and bring peat from the Baltic states and elsewhere, as the Deputy stated. As Mr. Dunne stated, the first peat has arrived from Scotland at substantially higher cost than our local product. We need a lead-in period. That is very important, as are the legislation issues that were highlighted. We certainly need up to ten years as a lead-in period before we can grow plants successfully in containers. It is a significant issue for professional horticulture. Growing for amenity is different because one can have contaminants in some products but they are spread or ameliorated into the soil and the soil is more capable of coping with that. However, when one puts a contaminant or anything that is way off the norm into a container, the product or plant will certainly suffer.
As a person from the west, I saw the effect of closing down bogs in north Mayo and the devastation it left in villages and towns. In this country we have some products that the rest of the world does not have but in this case some people wish to take that product away. Legislation needs to be brought on this issue, particularly for home growers.
As was stated, there are many people employed in this industry. It is a difficult industry in which to survive. There have been various problems over the years with disease and other issues.
The point was made in the context of carbon and climate change that it is fine for people to be advocating for climate change. This is a small country. Many of those present live in rural Ireland. It is not like there are many people or jobs in rural Ireland. It is all right for people living in cities in Ireland or elsewhere in Europe to be making decisions that will affect isolated areas such as the west of Ireland and the midlands which do not have the kind of jobs that everywhere else has. Small communities are dying all over the country and they need these kinds of jobs and the kind of industries we have. If those industries could be in Dublin, they would not be in rural Ireland. That is why we need to support this industry.
People often have very short memories. With regard to food safety, it is not many years ago that imports of meal caused disease in this country. That is what I am worried about in the context of importing these kinds of goods into the country. We do not know from where they are coming. There is no safety aspect to it. They do not have the same compliance that we have here in Ireland.
Most of the peat is controlled by the State anyway. Some 90% of bogs are owned by the State. There should be no reason that we are not able to take enough out to support this industry and the jobs it provides. Anything excess could be exported or sold. If one looks at what America, China and all those countries are doing to the world, it is clear that, as a small country, we overrate ourselves with regard to climate change. That is part of our problem.
Mr. Kieran Dunne:
Yes. I will just make a few more points in reply to Deputy Michael Collins. As was stated, we are very proud of our industry. We work very closely together. What we bring to rural communities are real jobs in rural areas. We bring commitment and honest leadership and we supply our towns and counties. We are very proud of that. What we are looking for is fair play. We have more than 40 years' experience as an amenity nursery stock sector. We now have the second generation and we do not wish for the committee to forget that. If we have young people, whether trainees through Teagasc or the colleges or those who have come to the industry through their families, driving our industry forward, we have a very good export trade within the meaning of the sector. I and others in the industry are appalled at the lack of progress with regard to the review committee that was to be set up in November. What is happening is passing the buck and kicking the can down the road. There has been a lack of action on the most serious situation in the 40 years of our industry.
I welcome the witnesses. They will not hear many members of the committee telling them that they are wrong. That would not solve anything. There is a simple solution. We have a problem. Sites that are less than 30 ha do not need planning while those that are more than 30 ha do need planning. The witnesses referred to solicitors. What proposal are they putting forward? As the previous speaker stated, the working group will not reach a conclusion until the end of May. If there is good weather from 17 March or the first week of April onwards, as was the case last year, those in the industry will be milling peat. The time to do so is when the weather is good, not when it is raining. The working group will not make a decision until the end of May, which is a disaster.
Several speakers have spoken about Ireland doing this or doing that. A green agenda is being driven at the moment and unless Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Deputies stand up to it, as well as Independents and Sinn Féin Deputies, the witnesses will be attending committee meetings and speaking about this issue for the rest of their lives. Nothing will be solved. A High Court case is pending. Tree huggers have brought Bord na Móna to court in respect of the 30 ha issue in the context of peat. Under the habitats directive, one needs an environmental impact assessment, EIA, an appropriate assessment and all the ding-dongs that go with that which have been signed in by our now President. What are the witnesses proposing to resolve this issue? The rule under European legislation in respect of sites in excess of 30 ha is catching every producer in the industry. That is the bottom line. Whether the committee lifts the witnesses in the air or tells them they are the greatest thing since the sliced pan, there is European legislation that has been adopted by Ireland and that is the problem. What are the witnesses saying needs to be done to be compliant with the habitats directive? By Jesus, I know more about the habitats directive than anyone else in this place. That issue has to be resolved. I am being straight and blunt.
In fairness to the previous Minister, legislation was brought in to cater for the industry. However, it was rattled out of court. An environmental lobby group brought it to court and took it on and kicked it out. There was not even a fight put up. That court ruling stands. What legislation or what way are the witnesses saying their solicitors propose to resolve the EIAs, appropriate assessments, screening out and all of that to get them out of the hole in which they are in with regard to sites in excess of 30 ha? If we get this wrong, there will be another court case.
What level of increase would there be in the price of plants, vegetables or whatever as a result of having to import peat? All present know that importing it would be madness.
My understanding is that the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is willing to try to bring in legislation but we have a Minister heading that Department - I am saying this straight out; many people know it but not many will say it - who says he will block it. How do we get over that hurdle? I believe we need the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste to get involved on this issue because, as the witnesses stated, it is 1.5% of the country. Let us put together a plan. If there is an alternative further down the road that is able to be competitive, keep jobs in Ireland and grow plants, as well being suitable in terms of the technical stuff to which the witnesses referred, then that is fine and we will go down that road. However, one cannot just turn off the light switch and go around the room in the dark. That is what we are doing at the moment. Bord na Móna is out of the game. I have spoken to its representatives on several occasions. Tom Donnellan does not even want to know about turf or peat at the moment.
The other side of it is that I was before this committee in 2010, not as a member but as a witness, to give evidence regarding turf cutting. We had to take on the State and go out and cut our turf to get justice for ourselves. It is a sad thing that ordinary people had to do that. What legal avenue do the witnesses know of that can be followed? What way can the legislation be written such that it will comply with Articles 6(1) to 6(4), inclusive, of the habitats directive?
Mr. John Neenan:
The current legal situation is that one has to apply for leave to apply for substitute consent. That is the background. If and when one gets that, one then has to apply for substitute consent. If one gets that, one must apply for planning permission. Our view is that that process will take four to five years. That is why we are saying the industry will be closed by then. Our legal advisers have stated that under European and Irish law, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage can exempt peat from the planning process. That would allow us to go to the EPA for a licence. The Acts governing the EPA will have to be beefed up to take in the points raised in the court judgment. It will have to prohibit the EPA from granting a licence unless there are exceptional circumstances. It will require the EPA to consider whether to direct temporary cessation of activity pending a decision on the application for a licence. The EPA will have to consider the historical and future effects of the activity before granting a licence and require the holder of an existing integrated pollution control, IPC, licence which was granted before the EPA to have the power to complete an EIA.
That was in respect of Bord na Móna, however, and is not relevant now.
Those proposals, if implemented, would remove uncertainty and the risk of industrial closure while safeguarding all the jobs. We would be responsibly harvesting peat under the control of the EPA. We have given that on a number of occasions.
I will be straight. Is Mr. Neenan including an EIA to comply with the habitats directive or is he including the screening out of locations where it is 15 km away from a designated site? How confident is he? As a turf cutter, I do not have confidence in the EPA because when I see some of the stuff it comes out with, I would be afraid of my life to give it to it.
Mr. John Neenan:
Yes, obviously there is an air of nervousness about that and about the outcome. We feel that the law has to be complied with but as it stands, it is impossible. We feel that this is the only legal avenue open to get harvesting in 2021 and have sufficient supplies for all the industries we are talking about. As the Deputy said, it will be very difficult to do it. Otherwise, we face the closure of imports from September, if the Irish horticultural industry and the mushroom industry are to survive.
The Deputy asked about the increase in the cost of material. In the case of coir for example, transport costs have increased by 300%, while the cost for the material to be delivered is more than 50% higher than it was this time last year, if it can be got. One of the problems with alternatives is the reliability of supply. In Sri Lanka and India last autumn, factories were closed over Covid and then they had the longest monsoon season in years, so harvesting was not able to take place. There is a massive shortage of coir at the moment and it will probably be the end of March or April before it can be got.
I know quite a bit about this because my training was in horticulture in Kildalton College many years ago. What consultation have the witnesses had with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and the peat industry through Bord na Móna? I know how important peat is for soft fruit, vegetables, mushrooms and so on. I do not agree about the alternatives but have the witnesses examined how much the increase in price will cost people within the industry such as them? One witness stated that the smaller guy will definitely be gone and there is no doubt about that because he will be unable to afford the price increase.
A number of members asked what are the two most important questions that we should ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and his Department. We all know what our guests want, but what are the two most important questions that they want us to ask?
I thank the witnesses for attending and welcome them. I wish to record my disappointment that they did not have a chance to read their statements into the record. I read them thoroughly and wish that other members did too. They contain some very important information and we have done a disservice to the witnesses by not allowing them to read their statements into the record. I will take up the issue with the Chairman later.
I want to correct the record in regard to the reason these circumstances have arisen. I sympathise with everybody who finds themselves in this difficult situation. It is a crisis. A legal case in 2019 ultimately led to Bord na Móna ceasing its harvesting of peat for horticultural use and that is why we are where we are. It is up to the Government now to resolve the situation, although it is difficult and complex. Deputy Ring often makes the point that climate change is for others to solve. It is not for others to solve; it is for Ireland to lead, and we are leading and doing very well at leading on climate change. We also have to lead on this issue and to resolve this situation, which is really important to Ireland, to rural Ireland and to those involved in horticulture. I think we can do both.
It was suggested that this is some kind of agenda by the Green Party to stop the harvesting of peat but that is not the case. We are fully supportive of the industry and we will work with our guests and with all stakeholders. The heritage unit of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, led by my colleague Deputy Noonan, is setting up a working group to resolve this issue in short order.
Mr. Kieran Dunne:
Deputy Kehoe's question related to our engagement with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We have always had a fantastic relationship with the Department and we work closely on all aspects, including this issue. In addition to working with the Department, we have worked with Teagasc, as I said earlier. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is aware of our issues, as is the Taoiseach. We have gone to the very top.
The price of professional horticultural compost will double, from between €37 and €40 per metre to between €70 and €80, and that is in the greater Dublin and Leinster area. In Cork, that could be €120 per metre, while in Deputy Ring's constituency, it could certainly exceed €100 per metre. We have a superb relationship with all the Departments. This is an anomaly, not of our making, that needs to get sorted.
On the issue of the working committee, I reiterate that it has been extremely slow and people have been hiding and waiting for the review committee to produce its results and findings. To us, that is not acceptable or good enough and it needs to get sorted.
I too welcome the witnesses. The horticultural sector has been a major contributor to the economy, to the value of €437 million, which is not to be sneezed at. We need to do all we can, as a committee and as Deputies, to help the sector. The terminal decline through increased costs that will be involved - the last speaker said the price could double - will drive out the smaller people and it will favour only competitors from other countries to the detriment of our own.
In the review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry, was adequate attention given to the impact that ending the use of peat moss would have on the industry? Have the witnesses been contacted by the new working group? It has not even elected a chairperson, which is crazy when people are working to such tight deadlines. Before this meeting, we were told that the alternatives to peat moss can form only part of the overall volume of growing media. How long would it take to develop a suitable alternative that is independent of peat moss, or will we be importing moss peat for the foreseeable future?
Are we back to the usual scenario of engagement after a decision has been made or, as I said before, closing the stable door after the horse has bolted?
I realise we are short on time. The industry has been through crisis after crisis over the last few years, whether that of sterling back in the day or Brexit, and this is another major crisis for the industry. I refer to the biosecurity element, which is a huge issue. Matters such as ash dieback have been dealt with at this committee previously and we all know where that originated. What are the biosecurity concerns as regards bringing product from other countries into the Irish dynamic? Going forward, it will be harsh on rural Ireland if we have an industry that cannot survive for the lack of raw product. What are the timelines? Are we looking at unsustainability issues coming our way in the next few months? How long before this industry becomes squeezed out because of the lack of affordable product?
Mr. Frank Corbally:
I will make one or two points. On imports of peat, food and nursery stock, none of those would have an environmental benefit for Ireland. If we do not have availability of Irish peat, our greenhouse gases and CO2 emissions will rise so we will be in a worse position. Many people have asked about alternatives and previous speakers have explained the problems with those. They are used as much as possible but they are not viable for all industries. One thing to remember is that the alternatives have their own greenhouse gases and their own CO2 cost. They are not magicked out of the air. It is important to remember that, even after all the science and research that we need is done, a certain amount of peat use may be the best environmental answer and may be the most environmentally friendly use of a material we have available to us.
Regarding when this must be done, this is a very urgent position. Mr. Dunne noted that there are already imports of peat coming into Ireland. It is affecting viability and sustainability now so this needs to be dealt with urgently. Mr. Neenan has outlined the legal options so we need to get working on those quickly. Deputy Fitzmaurice made the point that this has been foisted on us by the EU. Practically every other EU state that has viable bogs, such as Britain, Northern Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, the Baltic states, which all are or were in the EU, has appropriate licensing and extraction in a sustainable manner. They have proper licensing and proper rehabilitation of peatlands. The EU is not the problem. Our own legislation is the problem.
Two non-members have been in attendance for the full meeting. I have to give preference to members asking questions but I will let the two non-members make a short statement. We will then have to suspend the meeting because we are due to meet Department officials. I call Senator O'Loughlin.
I appreciate the opportunity to make a comment. The meeting has been very interesting and engaging listening. I thank the Chairman for tabling this topic because it is hugely important to people. Some 6,600 jobs rely directly on this sector and 11,000 rely on it indirectly. I have some knowledge of mushrooms because my family were in mushroom farming many years ago. I was in college at the time and how much money I got going back to college on a Sunday night depended on the price of sterling at the time. I am very conscious of that. Mr. Gleeson and Mr. Dunne brought the crisis horticultural growers were facing to my attention a few months before Christmas. I have spoken about it in the Seanad, and spoken to a number of Ministers and to Deputy Cahill in his position as Chairman of this committee.
There are a number of anomalies here. Growers can bring peat in from Lithuania, Holland and Poland and the carbon footprint is increased hugely. There is huge hypocrisy here, apart from the cost, which Mr. Dunne noted is at least double the usual cost and could go up to quadruple that. Specific equipment is also needed for mixing. There was talk of food security but biosecurity, which Senator Lombard just mentioned, is also important. Regarding what is needed going forward, surely there can be a derogation in terms of horticultural peat. This is a green industry. It is not like we are burning peat, making briquettes or using it the way Bord na Móna was. I appreciate that Mr. Neenan has spoken about legislation that is needed and Mr. Dunne and Mr. Gleeson also referred to legislation on bogs under certain sizes. There has to be a way forward. Countries within Europe that are dealing with the same European legislation can put their own domestic legislation in place to deal with this issue. It has to be a priority. The committee is going to have a meeting with officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine now. I get the sense from that Department and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage that there is a willingness to try to deal with this, in the absence of viable alternatives at this point. It is absolutely crucial to do so.
I appreciate the Chairman giving me the opportunity to speak. I fully support what the witnesses have said and thank them for their points and presentations. A statutory instrument must be brought in to deal with this matter. People have a right to earn a living and rural Ireland is being discriminated against once again and being seriously impacted upon. Our economy is suffering dreadfully. I have never seen a case where workers lose their jobs during a global pandemic while the Government has stood idly by and let it happen. I have never seen that happen before and I do not think it would happen in any other EU country. We need to get our act together. All Government parties must support the need for a statutory instrument. Many people in the horticulture sector and contractors who have invested hundreds of thousands of euro in specialised machinery have all been left high and dry. It just does not make sense to punish our own people. EU directives have often been interpreted a certain way by this Government and we do ourselves no favours by doing that. Sometimes it is all down to interpretation of a directive. We need to fight for our own people and a statutory instrument is the only way forward. I fully support that and have called for it previously. I reiterate my concerns about this issue. Some jobs have been lost during the pandemic. That could not have been prevented and Brexit is a prime example of that happening as well, but this is something that can be prevented by goodwill and political action. I call on all parties, including the Green Party, which has expressed shock about the current situation, to support this. It needs to step up to the plate and its Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, needs to stand up as well. He does not seem to understand rural Ireland but he needs to understand that thousands of jobs are on the line.
We are behind time. On behalf of the committee I thank all the witnesses for this most comprehensive engagement. We will now suspend for a few minutes to allow the departmental officials to join the call.
I welcome members back to the meeting to continue our discussion of the impact of peat shortages on the horticultural industry. I welcome Mr. Brian Lucas, principal officer in the peatland issues and land designation section of the National Parks and Wildlife Service in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. We have received Mr. Lucas's opening statement. Deputy Leddin has said that it is a short statement and he has asked that it be read into the record.
Before we begin, I must read an important notice on privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence regarding 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 are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Participants in a committee meeting from a location outside of the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that the constitutional protections afforded to those participating within the parliamentary precincts does not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether or the extent to which the participation is covered by the absolute privilege of a statutory nature.
As Deputy Leddin has requested that Mr. Lucas be allowed to read his opening statement into the record, I will allow this, and we will proceed then to questions and answers immediately afterwards. I call now Mr Lucas to speak, please.
Mr. Brian Lucas:
I first wish to thank the committee for inviting me and, as requested, I will read out my statement.
Action 5, set out in the National Peatlands Strategy 2015, provides for a review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. To undertake this review, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht established a working group comprised of representatives from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht which chaired the working group, the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Communications, Climate Action and Environment and the EPA.
The working group produced an issues paper on the review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. This paper was published on 9 October 2019 and submissions were invited on the paper by 31 January 2020. Some 34 submissions were received from industry stakeholders, environmental non-governmental organisations and the general public and all of these are available to view online. A report on the review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural Industry was prepared by the inter-agency working group on the basis of the submissions received. The review report was published by Deputy Malcolm Noonan, Minister of State with responsibility for heritage and electoral reform, on 7 September 2020.
The review report concludes that there are significant positives and negatives arising from ending the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. There are complexities in terms of the environmental benefits of ending horticultural peat extraction set against the economic consequences for the industry, food security, the lack of as effective an alternative to peat, and the economic and cultural impact on the local communities that would be affected.
The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan accepted a recommendation in the review report that a working group be established, to include representatives from relevant Departments and State agencies, environmental NGOs, and industry stakeholders under an independent chairperson to examine the issues which were identified during the review. In particular, these are as follows: the reduction and ultimately the elimination of the use of peat moss in the amateur gardening sector in order to leave what remains in use for the industry sector to buy time to develop alternatives, enabling food security and to provide industry surety; the graduation of the elimination of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry over an agreed period of years with an agreed end date; the financing and support of those workers whose skills cannot be accommodated in proposed alternative industries; providing investment in further research into the development, education and use of alternatives to peat moss, such as bark, wood fibre, coir, biosolids, bracken and green compost, perlite, vermiculite, rockwool, and horticultural clay and in new methods of farming such as paludiculture and sphagnum farming; the upskilling of the existing workforce to regenerate the existing bogs for use in paludiculture, eco-tourism, carbon farming, and tree farming, as appropriate, to optimise environmental outcomes; the quantifying of the value of the existing viable peat lands as carbon sinks to then determine a carbon market to incentivise owners and operators of peat lands to preserve, rewet or restore their assets; and educating the public to the benefits of what would be proposed to include the climate and environmental benefits, and the economic, social, cultural and public health benefits.
The role of the independent chairperson will be to chair meetings of the working group and to issue recommendations to the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, arising from its deliberations. The Minister of State hopes to be in a position to appoint the chairperson of the working group shortly. When the chairperson has been appointed, invitations to nominate representatives to the working group will issue from the Department.
I also would like to add, Chairman, that since I prepared and sent my opening statement to the committee, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has, in fact, appointed a chairperson to the working group which is something we can also discuss during the meeting. I thank the committee for inviting the Department to make this presentation and I am willing to try to answer any questions members may have.
As we begin, I wish to state to Mr. Lucas that we have had the stakeholders presenting before us for over the past hour and they are very worried about the economic viability of their industry going forward, the lack of peat, and the impact that will have on their industry.
Deputy Fitzmaurice made the point that if we get the spring that we got last year, it is in the months of April and May that peat will have to be cut. With the working group there is a serious urgency on getting a resolution as to where we find ourselves. I will open the meeting to questions from the floor and Deputy Collins was the first member to indicate.
I thank the Chairman and I appreciate the opening statement from the witness. I and perhaps other members were shocked when we heard what has been said but we probably already knew about this from the decimating impacts of the changes to peat extraction on the Irish horticulture industry. This is a complete fiasco and absolute disaster. We need legislation to define peat extraction for horticulture. I intend to keep my questions limited in the hope that my colleague, Deputy Nolan, can speak after me and I will perhaps confine myself to one question. I have been very lucky in getting great advice from a neighbour of mine, a local horticulturalist called Joseph Croke, from Trevor Swanton, Skibbereen nurseries and from other nurseries throughout Ireland and west Cork, in particular. We are in a situation where we have heard that we are importing peat moss from Scotland and perhaps even the Baltic states. That is a crazy situation to be in. Has any research or investigation been done by universities on the amount of peat lands that could not be rewetted or returned to high biodiversity and that could be used to provide peat to the horticultural industry to reduce the significant carbon footprint of transporting peat from as far away as the Baltic states, or further afield, and what will be done with such bogs?
Mr. Brian Lucas:
As to the use of peat and peat bogs, there is always the argument that once one drops the drains, one stops the emissions, which is good from an environmental perspective. In some cases, if one can get the sphagnum moss back, these bogs will in fact become carbon sinks. An example of that, and the Deputy may have heard of this, is that Bord the Móna has decided to rehabilitate its bogs that have been used for the generation of peat for electricity, with a view to stopping the emissions and to bring these bogs back, possibly, as carbon sinks. There is always-----
Mr. Brian Lucas:
I was asked if it would be possible not to cut peat in bogs because there would be no environmental benefits in blocking the drains. I listened into most of the previous session and many of the points the witnesses made were identified in the issues paper that I referred to and in the review report. What we need to do is to get everybody around the table now in the working group to see what solutions we can come up with. The biggest short-term solution has been identified by Deputies and Senators and by the industry representatives which is what can be done for this season.
It says the annual carbon emissions from horticulture peat are 186,000 tonnes over a 100-week period, which equates to only 0.12% of the total peatland under protection. Has the Department examined the level of decarbonisation resulting from the closure of peatlands that were harvested for horticultural purposes against the carbon footprint involved in importing foreign peat as an alternative? What is the balance of that?
Mr. Brian Lucas:
Imported peat versus peat extraction here is one of the issues that were identified in the key issues paper so, from my Department's perspective, it is an issue we identified. It is not the job of my Department to do a detailed analysis of that. As one of the committee's previous witnesses has already pointed out, the legislation is in place. That legislation regulates horticulture peat extraction and large-scale peat extraction generally. It is fair to say that one of the committee's witnesses previously pointed out the problems with the legislation for the horticultural industry, but this legislation is not new. There was, again in the previous session, an attempt on the part of two Ministers at the time to move away from these regulations and bring in statutory instruments. Those statutory instruments were thrown out by the High Court. We are therefore back to the legislation that has been there all along and we need to see what can be done now, in both the short term and the medium term. The short-term problem is to see whether we can move away from the dual consent system and bring in some other legislation that gets over the immediate problem that, as I think some of the committee's witnesses have said, there will be no peat for horticulture by the summer or by September or October of this year, roughly. That is the immediate problem. We need to get people into the working group to climb up into that solution. As I have said before, however, and will say again, the responsibility for that legislation does not come within the remit of my Department if we are to move to some kind of system involving the EPA because that agency comes under the remit of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.
I live in Kilbeggan, in the midlands. I come up the M6 and the M4. In recent months, it has been very noticeable to me that I meet all the loads of logs coming in from Scotland, and now I have been informed, in the earlier part of this meeting, that from here on in, I will meet loads of peat. While it is not Mr. Lucas's fault personally, can he not see the irony of this? I read the Department's submission and read about the first review and the number of Departments that were included in undertaking the review. Then I turn the page and read that the outcome of that initial review was to set up another working group or review group. Can Mr. Lucas not see from all this why people would be disillusioned and how probably the biggest problem we have here when it comes to climate change and making progress is bringing the community with us? I am referring to the general community, the agricultural community, the horticultural sector and the people who have vested interests. From what I see here, there are so many Departments involved that nobody really knows what is going on. What we are witnessing is delusional. As I said, on the road in the morning I meet loads of timber, and now I will meet loads of peat coming from Scotland. We all admit there are climate problems but climate is a global thing, so why is it allowable and seemingly acceptable by Departments that we import peat from another country, harvested in another country, with a much bigger carbon footprint? I know that in his answer Mr. Lucas will probably say this is not within the Department's remit, but that in essence highlights the point I am making. When will all these Departments bang their heads together, come up with a common-sense approach and start sending out a message which the people can accept and which will bring them along with us? We are losing the people and the different sectors at every juncture and crossroads because of mismanagement and miscommunication.
Mr. Brian Lucas:
In October 2019, the working group produced an issues paper. It looked at the background to peatlands, the importance of horticulture to the economy, peat moss versus the alternatives and the challenges in moving from peat moss use. Then it set out some key consultation questions. As I said, 34 submissions were received, and out of that was produced the review report published by the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, last year. Again, the issues identified in both the issues paper and the review report were taken up in the previous session by Deputies, Senators and the committee witnesses. One of the things that became clear from the submissions received was that there was a general view that a working group should be set up to see how we could move forward. As I said, we will have the relevant Departments, the non-governmental organisations and industry stakeholders under an independent chair, all in the same virtual meeting, to see whether we can come up with a solution to both the immediate problem and the medium to long-term problem. In all the documents to which I have referred - and I was involved with the previous working groups - there are no easy answers. There are pluses and minuses, and no one is denying that, so we need to see what we can come up with and what solutions we can come up with now. Then all the relevant Government Departments - I think the committee knows which ones will be involved - as well as the NGOs and the industry stakeholders can be brought together. Let us see what solutions we can arrive at. As I said, there is legislation in place already. The basis of that is EU law. We have to see, as witnesses said in the previous session, whether there is an alternative to that solution such that we can get in quickly in order at least to get us over this season and into the next season.
Most of the questions I had wanted to ask have been asked already, but I will ask Mr. Lucas just one question. What dialogue did the Department have with the nursery people, that is, the mushroom, vegetable and fruit people? They are in dire straits with what is coming down the tracks and facing them. They do not see the alternative that is being spoken about because I do not believe that the research into it has been carried out, and they would agree with that. This has a devastating effect on the horticultural industry, and I think very little thought has been put into it.
Mr. Brian Lucas:
As I said, we produced a key issues paper for public consultation. It was available for public consultation between October 2019 and January 2020, and submissions were received from industry stakeholders as well as the general public and non-governmental organisations. All those submissions are available to view online.
As for the working group, as I said, some of the issues that have been identified during the review are medium to long-term issues and will require medium to long-term solutions such as alternatives to the use of peat in horticulture and the mushroom industry. This does not mean that any proposed changes to the legislation could not have been discussed in parallel with the setting up of the working group. Now that we have the working group, let us get everyone together. We know what needs to be done immediately. That has been made clear and was made clear by Deputies, Senators and the previous witnesses. Let us see whether we can come up with a solution to this problem. I have talked about the legislation. As I said, it is an area I do not want to go into very much but the committee can see what I have said already. There will not be easy solutions in the legislation. Previous witnesses have brought forward some ideas that can be discussed in the working group, and then the relevant Department can see whether those are feasible or can be introduced and be legally sound.
I wish to raise just one issue. I have heard a number of suggestions here to the effect that "that is not in my brief" or "that is in someone else's brief". Senator Paul Daly makes a really strong and cogent case. We need a multi-agency approach to tackling this problem.
Perhaps we have not touched sufficiently on the economic impact assessment. I refer to the economic impact this is having on the horticultural industry. I ask Mr. Lucas about his knowledge of that. What was the most recent economic impact assessment? It is critical to all of this. We need to look at the economic aspects, as well as the sustainability and environmental aspects. Is he aware of when an economic impact assessment was made on these proposals and the reduction in the use of milled peat? What was the last economic assessment he, or any member of his group, had sight of? The multi-agency approach needs to deal with this issue.
Mr. Brian Lucas:
As I said, the key issues paper, which is available to read online, considered and gave details on the importance of horticulture to the Irish economy. It was also taken up in the review report.
My remit, and that of my Department, is to try to facilitate a solution. My main remit, as Deputy Fitzmaurice and others are aware, is designated raised bogs. These are not designated raised bogs. My main remit is not horticultural peat but I wish to try to be part of a solution to this problem. I can be part of the solution by getting everyone together to come up with a solution to the short-term and longer-term problem.
A multi-agency approach was mentioned but we will have a multi-agency approach. We are bringing together representatives from the key Departments, industry and non-governmental organisations, under an independent chair with vast experience in both the academic and practical sides of the horticultural industry. The best approach to take is to bring those players together and get them to try to come up with solutions quickly.
I am not trying to escape anything. My remit is to try to come up with a solution for an area of work that is not my main work. However, I can see the problems. I have seen the problems since I became involved in producing the issues paper and the previous working group from late 2018. I am aware of the problems. I have seen them. As I would like to be part of the solution, let us get the working group going.
However, certain things are not within my remit. I am prepared to admit that but it is fair to say that those under whose remit the issues are will be involved in the working group.
I thank Mr. Lucas for joining us but anyone listening will note he has referred to the working group in almost every answer as where the solution will be found.
Mr. Lucas has talked about the working group operating under what appear to be speedy circumstances. It does not reflect my experience of Government-appointed groups in terms of either interim or full reports. The Minister of State published the review report on 7 September. He had it to hand before that. Today, we are told he has appointed an independent chair, five months later. Why did it take five months? I do not know this gentleman, Dr. Prasad, and will not cast views one way or another. Can Mr. Lucas outline the criteria under which the independent chairperson was selected? There will be a period before all the members are appointed. My understanding is that expressions of interest will be sought and members will be appointed.
I have a fear that the working group is a facade to enable the Government to hide behind the working group in terms of its outward decisions. One can see it already in Mr. Lucas's responses. A Green Party Minister will say he followed through on preventing the use of horticultural peat and other Government Ministers will say it was a working group.
Mr. Lucas's opening statement states there are significant positives and negatives arising from the ending of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. We have seen nothing from the Department or his opening statement acknowledging the negatives of the proposed course of action.
The fundamental problem with the working group, as has been set out, is that it has a predetermined outcome. It states that one of its terms of reference will be to facilitate the elimination of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. It is not an environmental objective; it is a political objective. In today's edition of The Irish Times, Mr. Harry McGee quoted a Green Party Deputy as saying "we cannot have a situation where we are extracting peat and causing greenhouse gas emissions". It shows the naivety and ignorance on this issue because this is not a matter of extracting peat or not. It is about whether we extract it in Ireland or somewhere else.
My questions relate to the mushroom industry. Does Mr. Lucas accept that at present, there is no viable alternative to horticultural peat for that sector? Does Mr. Lucas agree that if we move with the stated aims for the working group, which is his answer to all questions, namely, to see the elimination of the use of peat moss, the outworking for the peat industry is the export of the Irish mushroom industry or the import of horticultural peat? Does Mr. Lucas accept that defies environmental logic?
Does Mr. Lucas accept the requirements under horticultural peat extraction that 2,000 ha of 1.35 million ha of peatland in the country is enough to satisfy horticultural peat needs? Does Mr. Lucas's Department have any proposals in place to prevent the export of horticultural peat when we are having this conversation? To me, it defies absolute logic.
Mr. Brian Lucas:
On the appointment of the chair, after the review report was published in September last year, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, agreed to go ahead with the appointment. An advertisement was placed in the national newspapers seeking expressions of interest. It ran for two approximately two months, until the end of November. The expressions of interest were then assessed by a departmental panel and a recommendation was made to the Minister of State on the basis of the assessment carried out by the panel.
I do not agree this working group is a facade. It has come about through a long process through the issues paper and review report. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, decided to establish the working group, under an independent chair, arising from a number of submissions on the review report. I do not see any reason the working group should not commence its work very quickly.
I also do not agree there is a predetermined outcome. In my opening statement, I indicated the working group was to examine the seven issues identified during the review. They are a framework for the group to act but I do not believe there is a predetermined outcome. There will be different views and different people will have different priorities. Let us see if we can come up with a solution to the short-term problems and the medium- and long-term issues.
I cannot say whether there is a viable alternative for the mushroom industry. The committee heard the industry witness in the last session who is more expert than am I. It would not be fair of me to make a comment on that. The same goes for horticultural peat exports, which would come under the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It would not be fair or appropriate of me to say whether it should be stopped.
However, this working group is not a facade. I am not a politician and I am there.
I have been asked to do a job and I am prepared to do it to the best of my ability. I do not think it is a facade and I do not think it has a predetermined outcome. Let us get people in the room and let us see if we can come up with a solution.
I am delighted to see Mr. Lucas before the committee. He has given us a very good overview. I am delighted to see momentum building behind the working group and to see the chair being appointed. We heard specific requests from the producers and operators in this sector when they came to us. Hopefully some of those will be achieved through the working group. The most immediate request is that they get production for this year up and running. It is good to hear Mr. Lucas state that a key ask of the review group is to achieve this.
Obviously, this issue is very important for the committee. As it and the crisis in the forestry industry are probably the two most important issues facing the committee at present, we will be watching it carefully. Industry representatives appeared before us and outlined details of their legal advice and recommendations from McCann FitzGerald, which have been given to the Department. In anticipation of the commencement of the working group, can legal opinion be sought on that, either externally or from within the Department? Can it be expedited to be ready for the working group to review? Clearly, there is a legislative requirement and industry representatives have pointed out that a workaround to this crisis has been found in every other European country. I appreciate we are bound by EU legislation but workarounds have been found right across Europe. The onus is on us to act fast to save this industry, which has an employment worth of €500 million annually. I wish Mr. Lucas well in his deliberations.
Mr. Brian Lucas:
I am not sure if there is a question there. As for legal opinion, from what I picked up from previous witnesses, the legislation is moving towards a system under the EPA . That comes under the remit of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. From my own experience of how Departments work, in general, when legislation is brought forward legal opinion is sought from the Attorney General’s office and then the drafting of the legislation is done by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. I do not see any reason the opinions mentioned by witnesses earlier cannot be forwarded to the working group. If legislative changes are to be brought forward, I see no reason they could not be considered. Generally, when Departments seek legal opinion, it comes from the Attorney General’s office. Most Departments, including our own, also have an inhouse legal adviser on secondment from the Attorney General’s office who gives legal opinion.
I thank Mr. Lucas for appearing before the committee today, for his contribution and for answering our questions. I commend him on his excellent answers to date. I also commend him, the Department and the Minister of State on stepping in to facilitate this cross-departmental and interagency group which is going to seek to resolve this situation in the short and long term. It is an important issue.
I am delighted to hear Dr. Prasad has been appointed chair of the group. Deputy Carthy may not know about him. Dr. Prasad has more than 40 years' experience in this area. He was the chief scientist for Bord na Móna. He worked for more than 15 years with the New Zealand department of agriculture. He has more than 40 years of expertise in total. We are very fortunate to have a man of his calibre leading this working group and guiding the process.
I take issue with Deputy Carthy’s statement, which betrays his and his party’s abject knowledge of the environment. Even the industry witnesses we heard from today provided statements, if he cared to read them, which said we need to transition away from the use of peat. I think even Deputy Fitzmaurice would agree with that. I absolutely reject Deputy Carthy’s position. He implied this is some kind of green agenda or ideology. I want to put on record we are fully supportive of the industry and we believe the working group that has been put together, which is led by Dr. Prasad, is the right way to go about things. I am actually embarrassed a Member of the Oireachtas would show such abject misunderstanding of this issue. This is what we hear from Sinn Féin all along. I will leave it at that.
I will be brief with just two questions. I welcome Mr. Lucas here today. He is a person I have dealt with for many years. Deputy Fitzmaurice knows more about bogs than I do but we have had many meetings over the years particularly about issues in rural Ireland.
Who will be deciding on the working group and will it be balanced? I have no doubt it will bring in all the appropriate Departments. What worries me is not Mr. Lucas’s fault but is totally the Government’s fault. It relates to the formation of the Government and the way it broke up the Departments, which results in no one having responsibility for this issue. As a person who was in government for a long time, I know what happens when nobody has responsibility for nothing. The result is nothing happens.
I must say that Mr. Lucas always listened and tried to come up with solutions. I give him ten out of ten for trying to come up with solutions. I am confident this working group will work but there must be balance on the group. It cannot be made up only of environmentalists. In spite of what Deputy Leddin might think, I am as much in favour of the environment as he is. If he wants to, he can come to the place I have in relation to the environment. The problem with Deputy Leddin and a few of these people is that it always seems to affect rural Ireland more than it affects any other place. It affects our jobs and the way we live. It is fine for people who do not live in rural Ireland, who do not understand rural Ireland and who lecture us about rural Ireland.
I will take no lecture from the Green Party or anyone else about rural Ireland. This is having a serious effect on jobs in our industry. Mr. Lucas is aware of my views over the years and while I would stop him and his Department from making decisions about rural Ireland, who is there to do it now?
Mr. Brian Lucas:
There has to be balance in the working group, as I have said already in my opening statement. Obviously, the key Departments need to be there. There needs to be industry representation, as well as representation from the non-governmental organisation sector. I believe there will be balance in the working group. We are coming towards the end but what my Department, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and I are trying to do is to facilitate a solution to this issue. I hope I can play my part in that, as can the Department and the Minister of State.
As for the review prepared by the interagency working group, was this not a complete acceptance that nothing like the level of realistic alternatives is available at present, despite all the hype from the likes of Bord na Móna, when it talks about alternatives being developed and all the rest of it? The review also referred to graduating the elimination of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry over an agreed period of years with an agreed end date. This is exactly like the just transition process and one can look at what happened there. There is absolute chaos. I come from one of the worst affected counties, Offaly, where there is chaos with many jobs needlessly lost. There is a recklessness involved in the whole process. How can the horticultural sector have any confidence in such a proposal, given what is happening with the just transition process?
The review also mentioned the possibility of finance and support for workers whose skills cannot be accommodated in proposed alternative industries. How can we believe that when one looks at the peat contractors? Their work could not be accommodated and yet the Government explicitly ruled out anything like compensation or a financial support package, about which I asked on a number of occasions.
In terms of EU directives, clearly Mr. Lucas does not want to state whether he believes a statutory instrument is necessary. It is necessary to protect thousands of jobs. Does he accept that sometimes, EU directives are interpreted by Ireland in a way they do not need to be?
Ireland wants to be the good boy and girl of Europe and goes further than it needs to with many measures and directives, which are sometimes interpreted harshly to the detriment of workers and rural Ireland. What are Mr. Lucas's views on that? I have seen time and time again, particularly in agriculture, that the interpretation Ireland makes goes further than it needs.
Mr. Brian Lucas:
I hope I got all the questions. I will reiterate a point made by Deputy Leddin. During the review, the industry also accepted there was a need for provision from the use of peat. As I said in answer to Deputy Carthy, what is set out in the review report are the issues identified during the review. It is not a predetermined outcome. It is a framework for the work that needs to take place.
Regarding just transition, my Department and Ministers played a big role. We have started to restore the designated raised bogs, the special areas of conservation and the natural heritage areas. We have a big programme in place since 2020. Bord na Móna is project managing that programme and is doing both the physical works on site and providing the professional services. Allied to that, we have a smaller scheme involving local contractors who are involved in peat restoration work. We have played our part in just transition and we will continue to do so.
Deputy Fitzmaurice can correct me if I am wrong, but I do not think the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association ever put forward a proposal for financial compensation to the Department. I am open to correction on that.
I will clarify that. The association always stated that, as contractors, we wanted to continue cutting turf and we have never looked for money because turf cutting is our game and will remain our game, regardless of what any eco-warriors think.
Mr. Brian Lucas:
That is what I said. The Deputy has clarified the point I made.
Regarding interpretation of EU law, it is a road I am reluctant to go down. All I would say is there is a peatland infringement case against Ireland and a separate infringement case on this particular subject matter. As I said earlier, the European Commission does not mind whether we do it by statutory instrument or by primary legislation as long as we implement the directives. That is all I will say on that.
Was how large a carbon footprint horticultural peat will make and how much it will reduce when we start importing examined? The working group needs to be speeded up because we heard about May.
Deputy Carthy gave his opinion, which we are all entitled to do at this committee in addition to raising questions with the Department. It is an awful pity that Deputy Leddin started to make a personal attack on any member of this committee. He should be checked on it.
The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has had this foisted upon it. I have had many battles with Departments down through the years, but I will say one thing about Mr. Lucas and I will be very clear about it. I have found him helpful to work with. For the sake of the peat industry, rural Ireland and the workers around this country, until something better and more efficient comes along in ten or 15 years, which will grow plants and do everything else, people will be willing to change but until we get to that point, we cannot just knock off the light. I ask Mr. Lucas, and I know he cannot do it on his own, to first get a solution for this year and then people can go out. To be brutally honest, people are not going to wait all year for a committee to decide whether they can come or go when the weather is fine. They will go out on the bogs, it as simple as that.
I have to close. I thank Mr. Lucas for engaging with the committee on this issue. I will give a summary. This is a major issue for the horticulture and nursery sectors. I welcome some of the comments from Mr. Lucas about the establishment of a working group. I also welcome that he recognises the time pressure for a solution for the horticulture sector. If we get a spring like we had last year, early April will be the prime time for cutting peat and, therefore, time is of the essence. The economic viability of these home-grown industries is dependent on a common sense solution. Listening to Mr. Lucas, I am hopeful that a common sense solution will be found very quickly.
I know some committee members want to get in again but Covid restrictions mean I am six or seven minutes over time. I have to close the discussion with Mr. Lucas. The next meeting is a private virtual one tomorrow at 4.30 p.m. where we will finalise the report for the forestry sector. Is that agreed? Agreed.