Dáil debates

Thursday, 19 January 2023

Agricultural and Food Supply Chain Bill 2022: Second Stage (Resumed)


3:15 pm

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent) | Oireachtas source

The main purpose of the Bill is to establish a new independent statutory authority to be known as the agrifood regulator - the office for fairness and transparency in the agrifood supply chain. The objective of the new office will be to promote the principles of fairness and transparency in the agriculture and marine food supply chain.

According to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the office will principally do this in the following ways. It will perform a price and market analysis and reporting function. The regulator will bring greater transparency to the agriculture and food supply chain by carrying out analysis and regularly publishing reports on price and market data, enhancing understanding and enforcement of agrifood unfair trading law, including being designated as the national enforcement authority for the unfair trading practices directive, EU Directive No. 2019/633. The regulator will have the powers to investigate suspected breaches, promote alternative dispute resolution procedures between suppliers and buyers, bring proceedings for offences under the Bill and refer cases to the Director of Public Prosecutions where it believes an indictable offence has been committed. The Bill provides for the imposition of fines of up a maximum of €10 million or 10% of aggregate turnover, whichever is the greater, for indictable offences concerning non-compliance. The Bill also provide for the promotion of public awareness on agrifood, unfair trading law and related matters, including through public information campaigns.

The agrifood sector is a significant part of the economy through its exports and employment. In 2021, there were €15.2 billion total agrifood sector exports and it is estimated that the sector accounted for more than 6% of Ireland's modified gross national income in 2020. This office must ensure that a fair share of the consumer euro goes to the farmer and the fisherman. In the context of regulating unfair trading practice, if it does not ensure a viable price for farmers for their work and investment, more farmers in the horticulture, potatoes, pig and poultry sectors will go out of business.

Large retailers are using their dominant position to drive down prices to farmers to unviable levels, often below the cost of production, and this has to stop. Can the Minister provide the House with a guarantee that the Bill will end that practice? Meat factories have consistently been cutting prices while farmers are struggling with rising input costs. Confirmation of this is provided in the agricultural price index released by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, which shows how much input costs for farmers have increased in the past year. It is profoundly disturbing to see the meat processors doing their utmost to push down the prices while farmers are grappling with costs of production that are completely out of control. For example, the CSO agricultural price indices show the cost of feedstuffs increased by 34.2% in the 12 months to July last year. The input price index for fertiliser is up by 133.8% and energy prices are 51.3% higher than 12 months ago according to CSO figures. Increases can also be seen in output price in some industries. The price of milk rose by 51.1% in the year and the cattle price increased 16% annually.

Right now, primary producers, particularly those in the low-income sheep, suckler and beef sectors, are facing a perfect storm, with costs continuing to rise while factories appear even more determined to pay producers as little as possible. It is a mistake to believe that farmers can shoulder these additional costs and stay in business. It is time for meat processors to show solidarity with their suppliers. It is also time for retailers and consumers and the Government to get to grips with the reality that food cannot be produced out of thin air. We remain sceptical as to whether this new regulatory authority will have sufficient powers to take on the vested interests in the beef cartel in Ireland. The Minister might be able to clarify whether it will be able to do so, but other questions remain open for answers.

There is no doubt this is a very difficult time for farmers and fishermen. The livelihoods of inshore fishermen are in serious danger and that is why the Rural Independent Group is putting forward a motion next week to at least raise awareness of the crisis facing inshore fishermen at this time. Larger fishermen are now being forced to decommission in huge numbers, so the supply of Irish fish from Irish waters is under massive threat. Extra quotas have eluded us through the years, which is astonishing. Even the bluefin tuna quota, although it has not been applied for this year, has eluded us through the years due to total inactivity by the Department, which has been failing in its duty to fight on behalf of fishermen in this case.

There are fishermen whose lives are in danger. I contacted the Taoiseach regarding the near ramming of an Irish fishing vessel off the south-west coast just before Christmas. He failed to come back to me on the matter, and the previous one did no better . The boat was continually surrounded by a foreign vessel for a number of days. This was all reported to the relevant authorities but nobody did anything about it. I hope the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine will be able to deal with this going forward because we have to find answers. Who is protecting Irish fishing vessels on our seas?

There is also a massive threat to food supply. We heard the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, stating yesterday that there will be a cut in the national herd. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have continuously told us that will never happen. I do not know whether they are in conflict with one other or talking to one other or if there is just a little bit of a nod and a wink going on. To me, it is a nod and a wink because Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have decided to call it a fancy name. They will not call it a cut but it will mean that one cannot grow further. Progressive farmers are going to be in dire trouble. This is obviously the green tail wagging the dog. The only winners in all this will be the Brazilians. We will have plenty of Brazilian beef on shelves in Ireland but we will not be able to produce our own product.

The next thing is that there will be little or no funding for TAMS. I know farmers. I was talking to two in west Cork recently. Their circumstances, which are slightly different, are interesting. One has a growing farm in which he wanted to invest. He asked me what was going to happen and I said that, to be honest, the Greens are wagging the tail of Fianna Fáil and that Fine Gael has gone off the pitch. He has approval from the bank but pulled the plug on investing in his farm. He said that if I could not guarantee that he would be able to progress after investing in his farm and have more cattle, he would not do so. The other farmer was asked to spread slurry differently and has to buy equipment, but he does not have the funding for it. He owes money for works he has done on the farm and is now in a dire situation. These people will not be able to produce food in the future in our country.


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