Thursday, 12 May 2022
Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Security: Statements
Holly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
The pandemic should have been a wake-up call to improve our food systems. It highlighted the importance of farmers and producers and our overdependence on imports. Policies from successive Governments and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have eroded crop and livestock diversity and left us vulnerable to disruptions in global supply chains. We have become largely dependent on imported crops that we can grow here. Ireland is a net importer of potatoes, cabbage and many other vegetables. This situation is not only a food security risk, it is poor environmental practice. Importing food from Britain, Spain, the Netherlands and China is ridiculous when we can grow these crops here.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted our shortfalls in grain production in terms of food and feed-grade grain and our utter dependence on imported, manufactured fertiliser. These weaknesses have long existed in our system; recent crises have merely underscored them. Irish farmers can produce high-quality products. Consumers want to buy locally produced food. We need a radical policy shift to diversify the range of produce that will help to support farmers, especially small family farms, and ensure a more sustainable and secure food system.
Many farmers that have been forced to go into dairy production just to get by are being subsumed by large-scale industrial farms. Sheep farming has become increasingly unviable. Wool prices are so low that it is more economical to dump it. That is at a time when we should be insulating buildings with this natural and locally sourced product. The lack of measures to support widespread organic farming means it will remain a niche sector. Unless there is a major course correction, the small family farm will be a thing of the past in a generation. Central to this trend is the ridiculously low and unworkable prices farmers and producers get. Meat factories and larger retailers have a stranglehold on the industry, which this and previous Governments have refused to acknowledge and tackle. We continue to have a system that benefits a few key players and gouges the pockets of ordinary farmers.
We need a food regulator, an independent office with statutory powers to oversee and intervene in the sector. Instead, the programme for Government proposed a food ombudsman, a lesser form of oversight, and now that has been watered down further with the creation of an office for fairness and transparency. The Minister's press release describes how this new office will conduct analysis and make reports and will act as an advocate for farmers and fishers. This is not the language of enforcement. This is not the regulator that producers require.
Similar structural issues exist in the fishing industry where the system benefits the larger players at the expense of the inshore sector. I keep having to raise the inequity in the distribution of the mackerel quota, with only 2% going to inshore fishers. There are very real concerns that like last year, the tiny mackerel portion assigned to the inshore sector will be quickly reached. It is entirely within the Minister's power to address this glaring imbalance. The last time we spoke about this the Minister committed to reviewing it. I wonder if he has an update on it.
I am particularly concerned for fishers in island communities and those who fish off small piers across west Cork and the Atlantic seaboard. The relative economic value of line-caught mackerel sold locally is more beneficial to those communities than bulk landings by large pelagic vessels. When will they get their fair share? This is their livelihood. Families and communities need change now. They need this Government to properly support the inshore sector and to put it on a secure footing.
Related to this is the lack of investment in small piers and harbours. While I welcome the recently announced €35 million for marine infrastructure, it is less than half the €80 million identified in the seafood task force report.
Also, this funding is from the EU Brexit adjustment reserve rather than from a strategic or ongoing departmental investment. Coastal and island communities need a guarantee that small piers and harbours will be maintained and developed continually to the necessary level. Related to this is the slow-moving foreshore licensing system. Vital work to piers and slipways are being held up because of both the cost and time needed to acquire foreshore licence. This process needs to be reformed to enable the development of our marine infrastructure to support coastal and island communities.
The area of energy microgeneration needs to be progressed. There is a considerable capacity on farms to harness solar energy to power not only the farm, but to sell energy back to the national grid. This is a win-win for individual farmers and for addressing Ireland’s climate targets. There are thousands of farm buildings across Ireland that could contribute to our renewable energy production as well as being helped to address rapidly rising energy costs. I recognise the work the Minister has done in this area but this has to be prioritised further. Families are facing a cost-of-living crisis now. This is especially pronounced on farms.
The climate crisis compels action as soon as possible. Farmers can play very key role in this. The announced 60% grant aid for solar installation under the targeted agriculture modernisation schemes, TAMS, will greatly help with the high installation costs. However, because this is a reimbursement model, it would exclude so many family farms. For this scheme to be a success, it needs to provide funding upfront to help small farmers participate. The Minister will also be aware there are issues with being able then to connect to the grid to sell back, including the issues of costs and bureaucracy. We need to make this process as easy and user-friendly as possible.
The Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications must also progress the clean export guarantee tariff to support micro and small-scale generators. This is an area where there is very strong consensus and can make significant difference to farms and national climate action. I encourage the Minister to prioritise making this a reality for family farms.
I will address one of the questions that Deputy Phelan asked about who is going to feed the world and how we are going to produce more. It would be good to put it on the record that we do produce enough food in the world to feed the growing population. This is a matter of the quantity of food that goes to waste. One third of the world is starving, more than one third of the food we produce worldwide goes in the bin, and more than one third of the world’s population is suffering from obesity-related illnesses. The problem is the politics and the distribution of food. Ireland does not need to increase its emissions in food production to feed the growing population. That is just the reality.