Dáil debates

Thursday, 19 January 2023

Agricultural and Food Supply Chain Bill 2022: Second Stage


2:05 pm

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I did not think I would get in so early in the debate.

I welcome the Minister’s initiative in this area. A supply chain that is fair to primary producers is essential. This has dogged the sector for a long period with the sense of unfairness, rapid changes and an imbalance of power out there. The Minister is taking the necessary powers and setting up an agency with teeth, which is welcome and will be welcomed across the farming community. However, a robust supply chain requires much more than this element. While I understand the Minister is looking at different pieces of the supply chain separately, we should be taking a broader view of what a robust supply chain will mean for the future.

Among the issues I thought the Minister would have regard to in the Bill is what is often called circular economy practices, in other words looking at the damage done anywhere along the supply chain. That should be taken into account in any regulatory powers in the future. We should look to a time when price premiums will be paid to farmers for sustainable production. That should be considered in this Bill. Traceability of production will be an important element in the relationship between suppliers and primary producers. I expected more reference to and understanding of the importance of that.

Optimal use of food surpluses is a key element in the supply chain. If we want to be robust we need to see the 1.1 million tonnes of food waste we put into landfill used more productively. That does not count the food waste that occurs before the farm gate.

All of these are important elements of a long-term robust supply chain. The profitability of the family farm depends on all these elements being in place so Ireland can, along with our Origin Green ambitions, be shown to be sustainable throughout the supply chain. Unfortunately, as the Minister knows, that is not the case at the moment. We are not rewarding carbon farming. The Minister needs to address how we can reward primary producers for making the sort of changes we all know have to happen around land use, fertiliser use and so on. I know it is on the Minister’s radar to see such changes but we do not yet have payment for carbon farming activities. We should and I believe will in the future see earnings coming not only from the food cheque but also from environmental service management in its widest sense.

We should address waste minimisation at every point along the chain. Levels of waste, running at 30% to 40% worldwide and not dramatically lower here, are a blot on how we manage an important resource. We need to think how that can be done. On optimum use, we have seen fantastic innovation by organisations like FoodCloud in developing that.

Another area where the food sector needs to improve is in its excessive dependence on non-recyclable plastic. Two thirds of plastic comes from the food sector.

In looking at the food supply chain, while this piece of the jigsaw that the Minister is looking at is important, so are many others. We need to see a broad-based approach. I know the Minister has committed, along with other sectors, to have a circular economy strategy developed. We are awaiting the annex of the climate plan to see exactly what that will mean in the food sector. If we want to secure the future profitability of the family farm, not just in five years’ time but in ten, 15, 20, 30, 40 and 50 years’ time, we have to address much more robustly the sorts of changes that have to happen to ensure that profitability in the long term. I strongly urge the Minister to do this. If we lose our reputation for being a highly sustainable producer and if we do not become early movers in some of these changes that need to be made all along the supply chain, we will miss the boat.

I feel badly for farmers for how they tend to be singled out in the debate about climate change as though they are like data centres. We typically hear of farmers being fingered as if they are responsible for this. We need to take a different view of sectors. All of us along the supply chain, including shoppers looking for food products with zero packaging, or whatever it is we are looking for, have a shared responsibility. There could be much more momentum for change if we start to develop a circular strategy for the food sector from the farm right through to the retailer. I urge the Minister to embrace this with two hands. It will mean changes in the types of policies he promotes, and he will be paying for different things that happen on the farm. He will be disincentivising different things right along the food chain. It will be a changed environment, but I strongly believe that if Ireland moves early, we will be doing an immense service to the long-term future of the family farm in Ireland. It is an objective that I feel remains a high priority even among nominally urban representatives like myself. I come from a farming background, as the Minister probably knows. I understand that change is needed to build momentum not just in the farming community but right along the supply chain. Processors need to reward the sort of quality farming that will be a mark of Ireland if we want to have a long-term high reputation.


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