Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Security: Statements

 

3:25 pm

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)

I am delighted to be joined by my colleagues, the Ministers of State, Senator Hackett and Deputy Heydon, over the course of this debate. I look forward to what I expect will be a constructive and engaging debate this afternoon.

We are living, working and farming through a hugely historic and turbulent period for our great agricultural sector. Even before the illegal invasion of Ukraine and the impact that has had on our sector, our farmers, fishers and food producers have been proactively embracing a new reality of food production. This is a reality in which we are mandated to feed a growing global population with safe, sustainable and healthy food with an even greater emphasis of doing so in harmony with nature. At primary producer level, this is a challenge that farmers have grasped with both hands and on which they are leading out. In fact, I firmly believe that our food sector has been to the forefront of playing a leadership role in climate-proofing our economy. This underlines that our sector is one that has always been innovating, pioneering and facing down any and all challenges as they arise.

I will begin by reflecting on the impact of the war in Ukraine. On behalf of the Government, once again, I utterly condemn the illegal invasion by Russia of Ukraine. We are also mindful of the terrible toll being inflicted on Ukrainian citizens. At a time when we have our stock to grass, lambs and calves are with their mothers in the fields and the buzz of silage season is soon to be upon us, we see our farming counterparts in Ukraine dealing with the realities of war. What were cornfields are now, in many instances, battlefields. While we must be cognisant of the awful reality facing the people of Ukraine, our focus is also on attempting to protect our farm families in Ireland from the worst effects of the impacts of the war. Supply chains have been disrupted and inputs have been extremely volatile.

As a Government and as a people, we remain resolute in our solidarity and support for Ukraine. We reiterate the call on Russia to cease all hostilities immediately and withdraw from Ukraine unconditionally. I welcome the strong solidarity shown by Ireland and our people and by the European Union with Ukraine in the face of its illegal invasion. We will work with EU partners to consider and implement appropriate responses. This includes ensuring that food security is maintained for EU citizens and the Ukrainian people and in the wider global context.

While Ireland has recently come out first in the world on the Economist Impact global food security index, and the European Union is largely self-sufficient for food with a massive agrifood trade surplus, it is important that we do not become complacent about food security. We also need to keep in mind those who are living in countries that are many times less fortunate than ours. Ireland is providing some €20 million in humanitarian assistance to the UN and the Red Cross to deliver life-saving humanitarian assistance in Ukraine and neighbouring countries. My Department also provides flexible funding of €25 million per year to the UN World Food Programme, supporting that organisation to provide a flexible, timely response to humanitarian crises.

Millions of people have now fled Ukraine to seek refuge in the EU. We have operated an open-door policy to support any Ukrainians fleeing to here and this will continue to be the case. In my Department, and through the State agencies that report to me, we have played a leadership role. More than 50 Ukrainians have been welcomed by Teagasc at Ballyhaise College in County Cavan and a further 35 have been welcomed in Clonakilty Agricultural College in County Cork. I thank both colleges for their efforts.

Looking more specifically at both my own and this Government's response to this crisis, as I said earlier, our clear focus is on insulating our farm families as much as possible from the trade shock suffered as a result of the war and on supporting them in being able to continue to produce the food that is so important domestically and internationally at this time. Since the invasion of Ukraine, I have taken a proactive approach to dealing with the massive challenges facing our agrifood and fish sectors. Obviously, farming is not alone in dealing with these challenges but our great sector is particularly exposed as a result of the invasion, and we are working hard to support farm families through this situation.

I have operated a twin-track approach to the crisis with advisory measures and targeted financial supports for farm families. In early March, shortly after the invasion occurred, I met the main farm organisations and Teagasc to discuss the impact on Irish agriculture and supply chains. I also met members of the Irish Grain and Feed Association and representatives of the fertiliser industry. I established the National Fodder and Food Security Committee and tasked it with the preparation of a response to the emerging crisis in feed, fodder, fertiliser and other inputs and with developing contingency plans and advice to assist farmers in managing their farm enterprises.

I will continue to engage closely with the sector as we work together on this significant challenge.

Within my Department, I have also established a rapid response team, chaired by the Secretary General, to monitor the impacts on agri-food supply chains actively and to contribute to the whole-of-government response to the crisis. Over the past two months, I have announced targeted measures worth in the region of €90 million to support the agriculture sector directly, including a €20 million package in two separate parts for the pig sector. These two separate supports will see €90,000 paid to farmers. There will also be €12 million for the growing of new tillage crops as well as multispecies swards and red clover, both of which will help reduce our dependency on chemical fertiliser. Furthermore, there will be €3 million for the horticulture sector, a very important domestic market we need to protect. I was glad to work with the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, in delivering this. These measures will help Irish farmers at a time of escalating costs and build resilience against the expected impact of the events in Ukraine. I thank my Cabinet colleagues, and in particular the Taoiseach and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, for helping to deliver these important supports. They are real and tangible examples of the Government's commitment to the agri and farming sectors.

As Deputies will be aware, Ireland imports significant volumes of animal feedstuffs, including feed from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Russia and Ukraine are significant sources of global cereal exports, so the price and the availability of cereals globally have been significantly impacted. As of today, there appear to be sufficient supplies of animal feed and Irish importers are actively competing in the global market to ensure the supply will continue uninterrupted. Fodder availability on farms for next winter depends on several factors, particularly the level of grass growth and silage production this year, but there appears to be a decent bank of silage on farms carried over from the winter.

Nevertheless, it is crucial we do not stand still and expect this to be the case over the coming winter and into the spring. To that end, I am developing a measure to assist cattle and sheep farmers in producing fodder for next winter and I will shortly release further details on a scheme that will pay farmers up to €1,000 to save hay and silage. It will be paid at a rate of €100 on the first 10 ha, up to €1,000 per farm. My key message to farmers concerns the absolute importance of growing grass this year, saving fodder and hay and making use of the growing season that is ahead of us to do that, and I have committed strongly to them that they will be supported in the form of up to €1,000. I am conscious the war in Ukraine has seen issues with both the affordability and the availability of fertiliser and that this could result in challenges for next winter, which is why I have moved to introduce the scheme. While most cattle and sheep are now out on grass, I am conscious the winter season is just finishing for some. We must think prudently when it comes to silage and grain to ensure we will have more than enough to cover the level of stock on an individual farm. In essence, what farmers plan to breed they must also plan to feed.

Even before the war in Ukraine, I was conscious of the rising price of fertiliser and of the overall need to reduce our dependency on chemical fertiliser. Accordingly, last October, I tasked Teagasc with developing a roadmap to aid our transition away from using artificial fertilisers. I subsequently launched the Teagasc soils, nutrients and fertiliser campaign, a credible plan farmers are already using that will be good both for the environment and for farmers' pockets and bottom lines. As we know, Russia accounts for 22% of our fertiliser, so we have to plan in the short and long terms in light of that. Fertiliser merchants have indicated they are confident they will be able to meet the demand for fertiliser, although there are a number of challenges in sourcing product at the moment. There may be issues with the availability of certain products at times and importers are active in securing alternative supply lines where necessary. All farmers are encouraged to review their requirements in order that they can secure fertiliser supply if that is not already in place, and it is important all farms put in place a nutrient management plan to set their farms to grow the grass required for the winter and spring ahead. Advisers will assist farmers with this plan. A Teagasc survey found most tillage and dairy farmers have secured their fertiliser requirements for the moment, while dry stock farmers, many of whom plan on spreading less fertiliser on grazing ground, are finding it more difficult to secure their fertiliser requirements. Almost half of all dry stock farmers who were surveyed two to three weeks ago had yet to spread a chemical fertiliser, a concern that has led me to bring forward the €1,000 scheme to incentivise farmers to save hay and silage.

I am also aware of the issues relating to horticulture and have engaged, along with the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, with the sector. Energy is a significant input for many horticultural enterprises, given crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers and mushrooms are grown indoors in glasshouses and protected greenhouse structures. I am glad to have been able to bring forward a €3 million support package for the sector, working closely with the Minister of State, which will assist high-wire and mushroom growers as well as field-vegetable and apple farmers. Further details on this support package will be made known shortly.

Overall, our sector is one that relies on fuel of various types, from road, agricultural and marine diesel to natural gas. The year 2020 saw fuel prices at their lowest in a decade, while 2021 and this year have seen fuel prices increase to their highest in a decade. This is adding a significant additional cost to farmers, processors, road hauliers and the fishing industry. For many farmers, energy costs have increased by between 80% and 100% in the past year. While we cannot cover all aspects of the input price increases, we have to take a proactive and rapid step to insulate farm families as best as possible, and that is certainly the approach we have been taking. I again mention the pig sector and the challenging circumstances it continues to face, which both the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, and I are monitoring closely. Bringing forward that package to the tune of a maximum of €90,000 per farm has been crucial in supporting the sector at this time, and I recognise the work of that Minister of State in sharing the round table on the sector over recent months and working with stakeholders. We will continue to work to support the sector and to finalise the scheme, which we will launch shortly.

The seafood sector has been impacted especially hard by the crisis. The price of marine fuel remains a matter of concern for our fishing fleet and the broader seafood sector. This is the most recent crisis to hit our seafood sector in recent years and those crises are having a cumulative impact. The Government is acutely aware of the impact rising prices are having on businesses throughout the country, but while the European Commission has provided additional flexibility regarding the use of funds under the EU fisheries fund in the context of the fuel crisis, additional funds have not been made available by the EU. The impacts of Brexit and the trade and co-operation agreement also continue to be a significant concern for our seafood sector and coastal communities. That is why in recent days, I launched the tie-up scheme, providing for two tie-up opportunities of three months' duration each. This will mean boats will have an opportunity to tie up for one month in three and will be paid over the course of that month on an equivalent basis to what their income would have been over that time. As a result, the remaining two thirds of boats that are fishing in a given month will have a 50% higher quota to fish. Moreover, it will help improve the margins for the boats that fish in those months, while the other one third of boats will be able to avail of the tie-up scheme at the same time. The scheme will run in two three-month tranches and will be a strong support for fishermen at what is a challenging time for them.

Earlier today, I was glad to be able to announce a €45 million investment in our seafood processing sector. This, too, is a crucial part of our sector, responsible for more than 4,000 jobs nationally. While I continue to fight at every opportunity at European level to improve our situation with regard to the national quota, it is crucial we maximise the value of the fish we are catching and the quota we have, and that the value of every fish that is landed will be maximised both for fishers and coastal communities and for employment. The €45 million sum is an unprecedented investment in our processing sector that is targeted at adding value to the fish we catch in order that we will maximise the value of the fish that is landed and extract the maximum value and income. Of course, alongside that, as has been the case throughout my tenure as Minister, I will fight tooth and nail at European level, not least in the context of the Common Fisheries Policy review, to seek every way to improve our opportunities regarding our overall national quota.

Since the publication of the report of the seafood task force, Navigating Change, my Department has been working across the board to examine urgently its recommendations. We have also brought forward a number of schemes over recent months. The seafood sector is undoubtedly facing one of the most significant challenges in decades, coming immediately after the challenges posed by the pandemic and Brexit. I will continue to work very closely with the sector to support it.

As I said at the beginning, our great agriculture sector is facing some of its most significant challenges, as is our marine sector. Many of these are challenges we have not seen before. In times like these, it is crucial that we take a proactive approach and that we take steps to limit any potential disruption to our feed and supply chains. I know that farmers, fishers and the agrifood sector will rise to these challenges and meet them head on. By working collectively and collaboratively, we can ensure that the sector is insulated against the worst of what may come from supply chain disruption but the coming weeks and months will undoubtedly be challenging. I want the House to know that I stand in full support of our farmers and fishers, their families and their businesses throughout this period of historic upheaval. The road ahead will be challenging but we will get through it because it is in our DNA to persevere and flourish in times of adversity. There are businesses and consumers across the globe who rely on our amazing produce as a source of safe, sustainable and healthy food. These are our calling cards and what makes our agrifood and fisheries sector the world-class industries they are today.

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