Thursday, 19 January 2023
Agricultural and Food Supply Chain Bill 2022: Second Stage
Martin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
It is quite a number of years since the Minister and I were on the agriculture committee together. This was an issue then and we once made a visit to north county Dublin with the IFA in regard to it. One of the primary demands made was for a food regulator. We all recognise the production of food in this and many countries is a highly profitable enterprise, but the market model does not work for the primary producer. The primary producer is always squeezed, and, having made the greatest effort, put in all the work and taken all the risk, he or she gets the least from it. Everyone else in the middle seems to get most of the profit. That has been long recognised.
I welcome what is proposed here. The Minister said this was a legislative change that could make a huge difference. It has the potential to be that and we need to ensure we can deliver that. Adam Smith, one of the heroes of capitalism, in his book The Wealth of Nationsfamously said two or more merchants never come together for the most casual conversation but it quickly turns to how they can fix the market in their favour. He was making a strong argument for the strong hand of regulation and for Government to come in, regulate the market and ensure there is a fair and balanced playing field for everyone. We need to ensure this does that.
Up to now, there has been much talk about what could happen. We have a long history in this country of large corporate interests being able to dominate the markets, particularly in our beef sector, but also in dairy and other sectors. The beef sector is probably the biggest one where we have had these problems in the past. The efforts of many farm organisations to shine a spotlight on this over the years have been worthy but have not produced results. This is an opportunity, hopefully, to produce them. While I recognise the Minister has taken on some of the recommendations of the committee, I hope he will work with the committee and everyone inside and outside the Chamber, including the farm bodies who have serious issues in regard to ensuring this regulator will have the teeth required to make a difference. That is the big problem.
I understand the Minister is meeting with Coillte today, if he has not already done so. One of the primary things farmers need to produce food is land. Now we see corporate interests are reaching in there to take hold of that and create an uneven playing field where many farmers, particularly in marginal land, would not be able to compete and it would be bought out from under them. That is a serious problem that much of the farming community is seeing as one of the signals of this Government’s intentions. It is an alarming situation if the Government is going down the road of allowing major corporate interests to interfere in the land market to the detriment of the farm community.
The advantage Ireland has globally as an international food producer is not often recognised. We have family farms, free-roaming animals and farm-to-fork traceability. We have all the components consumers want yet we do not produce the level of quality marketing required to get the best price for the farmer. That needs to change. We need the strong hand of the regulator to ensure the small farmer and the farm family that the consumer wants to work with and buy their produce from get a fair price, enabling them to be not just viable, but prosperous. When the farmer is prosperous, rural Ireland is vibrant. That is what we need to see happen.