Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Security: Statements


4:05 pm

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)

First, I echo what Deputy Sherlock said, notwithstanding issues that Cork and Kilkenny have had on the pitch in recent weeks. It is very sad for a rural dweller to watch wild ash trees all over my part of the country dying in hedgerows, not to mention the plantations the Deputy referred to and the failure to introduce an adequate scheme.

This is a timely discussion on a subject that is rarely discussed in any detail in this House or, indeed, in most national platforms outside it. That is particularly unusual in the context of our country's history and our capacity for food production. Last weekend, I was delighted to attend a Fine Gael conference on agriculture and food which really brought home, primarily through the huge attendance and the engagement of people, the significant role agriculture plays in the rural economy and will continue to play into the future. Since 2009, exports of food and food products have grown by 73% to a value of €13.7 billion annually. With in excess of 163,000 people employed directly, agriculture is the only aspect of our economy that reaches into every nook and cranny of the country. It is unique in that regard.

I agree with the Minister's comments about Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the scandalous human rights abuses that are taking place even as we speak. There are also the effects it is having on every country in the world in terms of flour production and general grain production, and in agriculture in this country and elsewhere in terms of fertiliser costs, agri-diesel costs and animal feed costs. I welcome the Government's decision on grant support for silage and tillage production. If he gets the opportunity in his concluding comments, I ask the Minister to answer a question that was asked of me at the Glenmore Fine Gael annual general meeting last Friday night by a sheep farmer, Mr. Jim Grennan, who comes from many generations involved in sheep farming. He asked why kale and turnips, which are tillage products that many sheep producers across the country would use for feeding sheep, are not included in the tillage scheme the Minister announced.

I also welcome the Government's decision to intervene and save the pigmeat sector, a sector that has not had some of the protections and supports other sectors of agriculture have had over my lifetime. That is in stark contrast to other decisions by other Governments, such as to let the sugar beet sector collapse more than a decade ago.

Notwithstanding that I am part of the Government, I want to pose to the Minister the central contradiction that is at the core of the views expressed by many people who outright oppose rural Ireland and the protection of family farms and the agriculture sector. Some of those sadly reside in the Government. As the world's population continues to grow exponentially, who is going to feed it? Will it be the few countries, and Ireland is chief among them, who produce food to the highest standards of environmental protection, sustainability and animal welfare or will it be countries whose systems are unsustainable? I have never heard any spokesperson from An Taisce or, indeed, the far left, not to mention most members of the Green Party, with the exception perhaps of the Minister of State, answer such questions. I ask the Minister to stand against the continuous chorus from commentators and others in our national media calling for less production of meat and dairy and to ask them who is going to supply these products into the future if the most sustainable country in the world at producing them is going to cut back on production in those key sectors? I ask him also to pose this question. Where do the alternatives come from?

I am tired of listening to people, principally from An Taisce, on the national airwaves talk about reducing dairy production when they know that demand for dairy products continues to grow and that our system of dairy production is among the most environmentally friendly and sustainable anywhere on the planet. We are limited by our existing climate and soil type.

I am struck by the number of times we hear spokespersons for these organisations on the national airwaves talking about changing from our reliance on meat to products that are grown in the ground. I do not know what percentage of land in Ireland is arable, but in vast parts of the country the only thing we can grow is grass. We grow grass very well in Ireland.

In my lifetime, I have seen extraordinary changes in agriculture. I come from a farm. I am the youngest son, so I got the road. I have two brothers who are engaged as farmers running family farms. I see the investment and time they and their families have put in over the past 40 years to change practices and to make them much more animal-friendly, environmentally-friendly and sustainable. There is a huge capacity and willingness from farm families across the country to change and to improve those practices even further.

I do not envy the Minister his job. What we are continuously faced with is a chorus of commentators who offer no solutions other than to ban things and to cut back on production, who lecture about issues they know very little about and propose the ruin of a way of life. What is agriculture about in my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny other than a means for people to live, support their family and educate them?

I am a firm believer in the old quote that is often attributed to Edmund Burke, even though I do not think he ever said it, that nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little. That is my view on climate change too. We do have an obligation to act. I firmly believe that the agricultural sector in Ireland is prepared to do that. We must ask how we can make the agricultural sector more efficient and more sustainable. A number of months ago we, in Fine Gael, visited a Teagasc facility in Grange where they are looking at additives to animal feed that would dramatically reduce the emissions from the cattle and dairy herds right across the country.

We must also address water quality. In recent years we have seen specific problem areas in the country where water quality standards have fallen. We know from targeted investment by the Government and by family farmers in the past 20 years that it is a problem we can address. Family farms are more than willing to do that.

I got a dig there, so I will finish up. My final point is that there are hard political choices. I will support the Minister in every way I can to ensure the rural economy and the rural way of life are protected. I believe the Minister understands that we have to firmly resist – he has to lead in this regard – the modern Irish scourge of closing down sectors of the economy or systems we already have that work well, before we develop an alternative or we look at adjusting our current practices to make them more sustainable. Peat is a classic example of that. I wish the Minister well in his task. I welcome this debate.


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