Thursday, 12 May 2022
Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Security: Statements
James O'Connor (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this engagement with the Minister and Ministers of State from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine. I welcome the work that has been undertaken in the Department. As a Deputy for the constituency of Cork East and somebody who lives on a dairy farm, I would like to highlight a number of issues with the three of them today. It is greatly welcomed that the Minister and both Ministers of State are here in the Chamber.
I wholeheartedly agree with the point made by the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, about the attitude towards agriculture and towards farmers. I regularly hear that farmers feel they are under attack and that must stop. This conflict has shown all of us the importance of the production of agricultural produce in our own country. The fact that we are world leaders in food security is something we need wholeheartedly to protect.
I welcome the comments made by the Minister of State in that regard.
A particular point of concern that will arise in the next number of months is that we will see enormous pressure across Europe when it comes to energy supply and fuel supplies for the production of energy. Here in Ireland, we have a large body of work to do to ensure that there is security of supply for agriculture. Gas procurement is a considerable concern for major dairy processors in the Republic of Ireland. It is in the interests of all parts of the dairy sector that the issue be given the utmost consideration by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in communication with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Energy, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I flag here and now that will be a major problem in 2023 and we need to do what we can to guarantee the supply of gas for factories that are processing milk in this country. That is a concerning issue, according to the information that is available to me.
I will make another point that I have made repeatedly. I would like a photovoltaic, PV, system to be put in place for security of energy supply to dairy farms in Ireland. That is something that could be rapidly advanced in the summer months. PV is different to other styles of solar energy in that the exposure to daylight, rather than heat, is the important component. Exposure to sunlight is obviously important for all solar energy but PV works differently from other systems and is suitable to Ireland. That is one area in which I think we need to do a lot of work in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We need on-site generation of energy with back-up battery supplies.
The electricity bills for Irish dairy farms that milk, for example, 120 to 150 cows could range from €6,000 to €10,000. I worked in the sector and directly with farmers during the period when I worked on energy in the summers. The costs involved are staggering. There could be a lot of positive work done in that area that could have a long-term impact to help reduce costs for farmers if the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine would work with the Department of Environment, Climate and Energy. I ask the Minister to go away and consider that matter.
Another matter of concern is the supply of labour. Farm relief is a major issue. I am being inundated with calls in my constituency office about the chronic shortage of labour for agriculture in Ireland. Many farmers are reporting extraordinary difficulty in getting work permits processed. That is something the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has to hammer home to the Tánaiste and the Department with responsibility for work permits in this country. Agriculture is different from some other sectors. That is something we have to take away and do something about. I am repeatedly told that farmers are waiting in excess of three and four months for a reply. When there is a mistake in an application, they are often told to reapply and go back into the waiting system. That is causing a lot of stress and strain. There is a shortage of available labour at the moment because the economy is doing very well, with only 4.5% unemployment, and that is an area in respect of which we need to do a considerable body of work.
I reiterate my request that the Minister comes to visit the Cork East constituency. I know he is very busy. We were lucky to have him in the region in the past. I certainly want to get him back to the area as soon as we can to engage directly with the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association and the IFA. Both organisations are doing absolutely fantastic work in representing their members. The work that has been undertaken there has been helpful for me, as a Deputy, and I would like the Minister to meet and engage with them directly.
Turning to fisheries, I thank the Minister for the work he did in respect of Ballycotton. It has not gone unnoticed. I welcome the €1.5 million in funding that I had been seeking for the past year and a half. It is fantastic to see that funding has been put in place. It is greatly welcome.
We need to look ahead to the coming 12 months. Unfortunately, the position with regard to energy supply is serious. The impact that could have for agriculture is a level of devastation, quite frankly, that we have not yet thought about properly. The G7 countries' agriculture ministers are meeting for the first time. That gives one an idea of what is going on internationally. We in Ireland need to prepare for a situation that may never happen but that quite possibly could happen.