Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Security: Statements

 

3:45 pm

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)

I am sharing time with Deputy Mac Lochlainn. I will take eight and a half minutes. I thank the Minister for his opening statement and for being here alongside the Minister of State. I welcome the fact that we are having this debate. To give credit where it is due, I commend Deputy Mattie McGrath for persistently calling for this debate, which is very timely. I apologise that I will have to leave before the debate is over.

The Minister has a tough job at a very difficult time in Irish agriculture. In fairness, he gets some things right as issues arise, although he also gets some things wrong. However, what is consistently lacking in all of his deliberations, including in the speech he has just given, is a vision for Irish farming, Irish food and Irish agriculture. That is concerning. We need to have an ambitious vision. We need to recognise the challenges the sector is facing and put in place measures to address those challenges and to provide for that unique and very important aspect of Irish farming, the family farm model. We know that it is a model worth preserving. It is good for rural communities. In fact, many towns and villages would be nothing were it not for the network of family farms. They are the nearest thing those towns and villages have to an industry. They are also good for the economy. The family farm network was our saviour during the financial crash because family farmers do not operate at the whim of shareholders, stock markets or international investors. They do not up and leave whenever supply chains get disrupted. They are here for the long haul. I also argue that our family farm network is good for food security and for the quality of our produce. There are approximately 135,000 farms in this State. We have to work together to protect them and to ensure they employ best practices and will be here into the future.

The truth is that certain hallmarks have become embedded in agricultural policy not just domestically but at EU level that put this model under threat. Farmers have been encouraged, incentivised and, in some cases, forced to intensify and specialise. We see the challenges that presents. As farmers intensify and specialise, they also become more vulnerable. Certain sectors may sometimes have good years but they are often incredibly vulnerable to international shocks, as we have seen in the current situation where input costs are out of control and prices are dictated by processors and retailers. Farmers are increasingly being asked to do more with less support.

The Minister did not say much about the next Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, which will be a crucial aspect of how we move forward. We welcome some parts of his strategic plan. Some of the gross inequalities that have formed part of the fabric of successive Common Agricultural Policies have been addressed. We have seen some movement on upper payment limits, front-loading and convergence but it has been far too slow and these changes are coming at a time when the CAP budget is reducing, which is a fact the Minister has consistently refused to accept.

We have had a number of discussions on the strategic plan, although they were very limited. The Minister refused our request to bring the plan before the Houses of the Oireachtas for debate. The European Commission saw the CAP strategic plan before any farmer or any Opposition Member or member of the Minister's own party in this House did. That is not the way to do business. When we are talking about a CAP strategic plan that could have implications for Irish farming for generations, there should be a collective effort on the part of the Irish Parliament so that we have all bought into it. The European Commission sent the Minister back what can only be described as a scathing communication. We still do not know whether the Minister is going to come back to this House to engage with us and to address some of the issues.

The truth is that Irish farmers will not survive unless they get fair prices for their produce. The Minister referenced significant and unsustainable increases in input costs and some of the supports that have been made available, supports I would describe as minimal and, all too often, too little too late. He referenced the crisis reserve but has yet to give a commitment that his Government will co-finance that crisis reserve to the maximum permitted, 200%. I hope he will take the opportunity to do so today. We still do not know whether Irish farmers will see a benefit from the Brexit adjustment reserve fund or whether important sectors, such as the pig sector and others, will be able to survive into the future.

The truth is that, if we want the model of Irish farming to be one of premiumisation and for it to be sustainable and in line with our climate obligations and all of the stated objectives of Members of this House, a premium price must be paid for that premium product. It is absolutely ludicrous that the best model of beef production in the world, that of the Irish suckler beef herd, continues to operate at a loss. One of the things that needs to happen in that regard is that an enforcement authority needs to be introduced that can monitor the processors and retailers that have strangled the sector for far too long and hold them to account. I have often said here and elsewhere that there is money to be made in Irish beef. That is the big secret of Irish agriculture. The problem is that the people who are making that money are not the people who are doing the work, our primary producers. The Minister has promised an office for transparency and fairness rather than the meat regulator we would like to see. I again appeal to him to work with us to ensure that authority becomes a corporate enforcement authority that has full access to the accounts of processors and retailers in respect of the food they sell so that our farmers can finally have a level playing field.

The Minister's targets in respect of organics are one of the areas where the needs of the environment and those of Irish farming can coincide but those targets are absolutely pathetic, even compared to those of other EU states. Rather than leading the charge in developing our organic sector, we are following at the rear in every sense of the word. We know that, quite naturally, farmers will only move to organics if they see it as a secure move to make. The way to make it a secure move is to guarantee that they will get a premium price for their new premium product. That means the Government must be committed to ensuring that Irish organic products are marketed in a coherent and long-standing way. Through the procurement policies of every Government Department, we have to ensure that every cent of taxpayers' money that is spent on the procurement of food prioritises locally-produced home-grown organic food.

In respect of climate action, there are dozens of ways in which our farmers want to play their part and rather than supports, this Government is putting in place barriers in regard to low emissions slurry spreading, solar energy, anaerobic digestion and organics, as I have mentioned. In every one of those areas, the Government is always far too slow to act but always far too quick to implement the provisions that penalise farmers in much the same way as workers and families. It is time for a sea change. It is time to have a vision for a family farm network that will last not just a year, not just the lifetime of a Government, but for successive generations.

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