Dáil debates

Thursday, 19 January 2023

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


3:55 pm

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

I thank everyone for the many comprehensive and well thought-out contributions from across the floor. This has been a good start to the legislative journey through the Dáil and Seanad. I will take on board the various contributions Deputies made.

The Bill has been a while in gestation. I acknowledge the pioneering role of my colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív, as the previous Fianna Fáil spokesperson on agriculture, in driving this issue and putting it on the agenda of the then agriculture committee. I mention the work that was put in by all on that committee in putting its report together. When I took over from Deputy Ó Cuív as Fianna Fáil spokesperson on agriculture in 2016, I made sure this was a key priority and was delighted to work with the three parties in government to make sure it was part of the programme for Government commitments. In the past two years, I have brought this issue through the consultation process, working with stakeholders and farming representatives and, subsequently, the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine on pre-legislative scrutiny. I recognise the work that was done by all of the committee's members, including the Chair, Deputy Cahill. Many of them spoke today in great detail on the proposals in this legislation and they brought their various understandings, perspectives, backgrounds and knowledge to the table. The committee put a comprehensive pre-legislative scrutiny report to me, which made a significant contribution to the process that preceded my presenting this Bill to the House. Of the 20 proposals and recommendations made by the committee, I have accepted 18, either fully or along the lines of what was proposed.

I will engage further before proceeding to Committee Stage. I have given the various proposals a lot of thought and I know all parties worked together at the committee to come to a clear consensus on how the legislation could be enhanced. I have taken those on board because the objective is to ensure the regulator's office does the job we are setting it up to do and that it works effectively.

Undoubtedly, there is a gap in the overall infrastructure of the agrifood supply chain and in the sector. This office will fill that gap and meet that need. There needs to be the capacity to have transparency across the food supply chain. We need an independent arbiter operating on a statutory basis with the heft and credibility to be able to assess and dissect an issue, get the key information and explain it without fear or favour in a way that brings transparency to what is happening.

I engaged with Deputy Tóibín earlier because he was making out that it is simply a matter of setting the price and not selling the product for any less than that price. He implied that it is as straightforward and as simple as that and if we just had the will to set a price, it would all be grand. Of course, we are very fortunate that we are a great food producing country, but 90% of what we produce and leaves our farms goes abroad and is sold in markets from Senegal to Singapore to China. It is the markets abroad and the prices that we get abroad which very much determine the price. We are working off international prices. We are trying to get the best possible value for the great product we have, maximising its value and marketing it and continuing to improve and enhance it. Of course, its sustainability, as well as its nutrition and safety, are central to that. In comparison with any part of the world, we are leading in food production and in terms of the quality of what we do. That enables us to maximise our capacity and the price we get. In 90% of cases, the end price is set outside the country. We need transparency on how that price we get outside the country translates throughout the different layers of the supply chain, particularly coming back to the layers within our own country and bringing transparency to that.

Deputy Ó Cuív compared regulation to the use of CCTV cameras. The fact that there are eyes on the sector, it is being watched, we are alert to it and we are making every effort possible to bring transparency will be very effective, I hope, in ensuring farmers get the best deal and a fair crack of the whip in terms of the income they get for the hard work they do. There is no doubt about the early hours, long weekends and late nights that go in at farm level, and the amount of time that is put in from when the lamb or calf is born and the cow starts to milk to the point where that produce leaves the farm. Massive work goes in there. While important work undoubtedly goes in after that too, less time is spent on it. Too often, when there is a squeeze on the system it is the primary producers, such as farmers, fishers and horticulturists, that have to absorb all the pain because the margins can be maintained at other levels of the supply chain as they have capacity to manage it. Farmers ultimately get squeezed. The year we have just had, coming out of unprecedented changes in cost inputs and inflation and emerging from the illegal invasion of Ukraine, has spoken to and very much brought to the fore the need to have responsive supply chains. We need a supply chain that moves with the reality of life and that reflects and understands the challenges for the primary producer and does not leave them carrying the can in terms of the cost and losing money, while others can adjust to maintain their margins. The key objective here is putting in place a statutory office that will be an actor in that space and will ensure it as healthy as it possibly can be. It must be an advocate, a pusher and an enabler to ensure that farmers get a fair deal and that family and primary producer incomes are very much at the centre of all of our thoughts.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and Members for their engagement today. I thank my team, Angela Robinson and Sinéad McPhillips. We have a journey to go on over the next short few weeks to bring this legislation to a conclusion. I look forward to engaging further to ensure we have an office that will work very effectively. As I said, the recruitment process for the CEO has been significantly advanced. We are continuing with the work we are doing. I also want to recognise the work the staff in the unfair trading practices office have done in the interim period on the enforcement and oversight of unfair trading practices and will continue to do until such time as we have a new statutory office in place.


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