Thursday, 12 May 2022
Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Security: Statements
Michael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
In the short time available to me I wish to address a number of issues. First, the Minister is quoted as having announced that there will not be a ban on below-cost selling in the upcoming Bill. That, I have to say, comes as a huge disappointment to me. It is illustrative of the disconnect between what the Department is claiming to want to achieve and what it is actually doing. I do appreciate that there could potentially be competition issues around a ban on below-cost selling but it is not necessarily so. The Spanish Government, as I am sure the Minister is aware from attending agriculture meetings at EU level, legislated to ban below-cost selling in the agricultural sector. That was successful, as far as I am aware. I am not aware of any infringement proceedings being taken by the EU against the Spanish, so it is possible to do so.
Many people have been talking about the environment and about the importance of protecting the environment, including the Minister of State, Senator Hackett. I would agree with her on that but one of the worst things we can do is force farmers to produce below the cost of production because inevitably, in a desperate attempt to stay afloat, they are going to use more intensive agriculture methods and then something has to give. What gives, of course, is the farmers’ livelihoods, possibly their health, including their mental health and also the environment. It is possible to objectively determine the cost of production. Teagasc has a fairly good handle on this. While I am not saying that Teagasc has a monopoly of knowledge on this matter, it is one State agency that could be tasked with doing this.
Speaking of State agencies brings me on to my next issue, which is the Protected Geographical Indicator, PGI, that was being advanced to great fanfare by Bord Bia but which seems to be stuck now. Again, there is a feeling that this is going to benefit farmers but I am afraid it is not because it is going to be just one more tool to say that the whole national herd, effectively, is going to qualify for the PGI because it is so loosely drafted. The producer’s group is Bord Bia. If one looks at the definition in the European regulation, it is required to be a producer or a representative of producers but Bord Bia is neither. It is certainly not a group that represents beef producers. It is a broad entity.
We all know what Bord Bia is, which is a broad marketing board for all food produce. It is not a collective of beef producers or a representative body for beef producers. It is far broader than that. Even at that very basic level, then, I would question the lawfulness of it. Notwithstanding that, it is tied up now because of the objection from the United Kingdom. I can see why people think it will bring a benefit but in reality all it will do is stop that which the PGI is designed to protect, which is small groups coming together to say that they have a unique product like Burren lamb, Connemara lamb, Burren beef and so forth and to be able to market that. If everybody, including Larry Goodman, Dawn Meats, Kepak and all of the big players, will be able to go out and say that all of their beef has this PGI on it, which is effectively what the Department is hoping to do, then it makes it impossible for the smaller producer groups to actually do that. It takes away any competitive advantage that they could obtain.
The last thing I want to discuss is the incentives the Government has brought in around tillage. The Minister could not foresee the war in Ukraine and I am not expecting that he should have been able to do so. It is not unreasonable, however, to suggest that the war will be ongoing next year and the difficulties that exist this year will be there next year too. In Clare there is not a huge amount of tillage typically. In Donegal, there is more tillage but people cannot just change from beef or dairy to tillage overnight. The land is not there and the means and knowledge, particularly, is not there. I would like the Minister to confirm that this will be a scheme into the indefinite future or for at least as long as the current situation in Ukraine and Russia persists so that farmers can plan for the future and avail of this into the future.