Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Security: Statements


4:25 pm

Photo of Brian LeddinBrian Leddin (Limerick City, Green Party)

I endorse Deputy Cairns’s comments on food security. It should go without saying that climate change has significant implications for global food security, especially in developing countries. For many, floods, drought and disease will cause crops to fail this year. People will go hungry. These extreme weathers are increasing in intensity directly as a result of our warming world. The World Meteorological Organization report, released last week, foresees a tragic future. We are up against our ecological limits. We know there is a 50:50 chance that we will breach that critical 1.5° C of global warming in the next five years. This will cause climate chaos for millions of people.

Here in Ireland, we need to focus our efforts on supporting farmers to continue to grow healthy, nutritious food to feed our people. I am afraid we are not doing that. A healthy environment sustains a healthy agricultural system. In Ireland, our agricultural practices have intensified to such an extent that we are pushing our environment to the brink in many ways. Our rivers flow laden with nitrogen pollution. Insects and pollinator populations are under significant threat. Wild birds like the curlew and the corncrake, which were once ubiquitous across our land and which had populations in the tens of thousands, are now only barely hanging on. Populations last year reached a critically low level of 150 breeding pairs throughout the whole country. On top of all of this, our climate is changing.

The Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, strategic plan is being negotiated at the moment with the European Commission. It will bring €9.8 billion over five years to Ireland to support Irish agriculture and rural development, or €2 billion a year. Reading the draft CAP strategic plan, I see a huge missed opportunity. We could be using this money to support farmers to future-proof their farms, to switch from high emissions farming and to build resilience into the farming sector so that our farmers can continue to produce healthy, nutritious food that is not at the expense of our natural world.

The European Commission agrees. In its response to the draft plan it noted on the dairy sector:

...the Commission has doubts whether what is proposed goes far enough. In this context, it particularly has in mind ... substantial implications for agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, for quality of air, water and soil, and for biodiversity.

In relation to the proposed eco-schemes in Pillar 1, the Commission comments:

the options involved might add only very modest environmental value in comparison to basic good practice in Ireland, with the result that the scheme as a whole brings about too little change.

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the agriculture sector is a big emitter. Under the climate law, we have set a budget for emissions and each sector must contribute. Those sectoral budgets are also being negotiated at the moment between Departments. For agriculture the cut in emissions will range between 22% and 30%, equating to an absolute reduction of between 5 and 7 megatonnes of CO2equivalent per annum, based on the 2018 baseline, by the end of the decade. The €2 billion a year that the CAP strategic plan will give to the agricultural sector is expected to facilitate a reduction of only up to 1.2 megatonnes of carbon by 2027. That leaves us having to reduce emissions in agriculture to a far greater degree from 2027 through to 2030.

We are way off with this plan. Where are the rest of the emissions reductions going to come from if they are not to be supported through the CAP strategic plan? We are missing a huge opportunity here to have joined-up thinking and joined-up climate action across this State. We are missing an opportunity to prepare our farmers for the future.

The Minister recently announced a €55 million silage package. This is the third such package the State will provide to farmers in response to a fodder crisis. It is disheartening that the previous two packages have not been used to build resilience into our system to prevent against future crises. These crises will not go away if we maintain the current system, which is heavily dependent on imports. I am speaking of importing fodder, importing feed for animals and importing chemical fertiliser, all of which are subject to international price volatility. This is what we are seeing at the moment and we are not prepared.

We talk a lot about just transition in the energy sector, but we need to start talking about just transition in agriculture. We should be using any and all investment in agriculture to ensure our farmers are encouraged to grow the fruit, the vegetables and the grains we humans need to eat. We need to start thinking about how we are going to compensate farmers for allowing space for nature. Natural spaces on farms are currently not valued. Farmers are encouraged and paid to remove trees and hedgerows and to drain wetlands and bogs. We need to be doing the opposite. Rewilding land, restoring peatlands and wetlands, and creating spaces for nature to thrive are in all of our interests.

The eco-schemes proposed in the CAP strategic plan, as noted also by the Commission, are nowhere close to enough. I will give some examples. A farmer needs to sign up to two eco-schemes. Eco-scheme 4 is for the planting of native trees and hedges. A farmer will qualify by planting three - that is three and not 300 - native trees per ha, or 1 m - not 100 m or 1 km but just 1 m - of hedgerow per ha. Farmers can sign up to eco-scheme 1, which is for space for nature. The EU biodiversity strategy and Food Vision 2030 set a goal of achieving 10% of high diversity space for nature on farmland. The Irish voluntary eco-scheme asks farmers to commit to leaving 7% of the land for biodiversity, habitats or landscape features - just 7%. Research from Teagasc tells us that most farms already have between 5% and 7% of their land as unproductive. For many, therefore, this will be a no-change scenario.

When it comes to water quality, the most recent EPA report on water quality concludes that, "The most significant pressure causing a decline in our water quality is increased concentrations of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen entering our waterways." The main source of water pollution in this country is from nitrogen run-off from farms. One way we can get around this, as well as around the over-reliance on chemical nitrogen fertiliser, is the planting of multispecies swards. The voluntary eco-scheme encourages 6% of grassland to be sown in this way - just 6%. These numbers are so marginal.

We are overhauling the energy sector, the transport sector and other sectors. The change that has been undertaken in the agriculture sector is a far cry from the change that is happening in those other sectors and from what is needed. We are not using the CAP strategic plan to reduce emissions. We are using it to maintain the status quo. We should be using it for future-proofing our agricultural system, to protect the long-term viability of our farms and the livelihoods of farmers, and to restore our critically damaged environment.

I certainly do not agree with everything Deputy Phelan said, but I agree we have to support our farmers and rural Ireland. We can do this without compromising on the environment and climate. We can and must do better.


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