Dáil debates

Thursday, 22 November 2007

3:00 pm

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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Question 10: To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the planned initiatives to promote organic food production and farmers' markets; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [30085/07]

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Dublin North, Green Party)
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The programme for Government has set a target of increasing the amount of utilisable agricultural land area under organic production from its current rate of less than 1% to 5% by 2012. Even though this is a challenging target I believe it is attainable.

My Department offers substantial incentives to promote the growth of the sector. The new organic farming scheme, introduced under the rural development programme for the period from 2007 to 2013, is aimed at encouraging producers to respond to the market demand for organic food. Rates of payment under the scheme are some 17% higher than comparable payments under the previous rural environment protection scheme, REPS 3. One significant change this time around is that we are allowing organic producers to obtain organic support payments without having to join REPS. This should encourage small-scale horticultural producers to convert to organic production, and also conventional tillage producers to convert part or even all of their holdings. As a further incentive to encourage non-REPS farmers solely involved in tillage production to convert to organic farming, there is an additional payment of €240 per hectare available in the in-conversion period, up to a maximum of 40 hectares, provided they grow green cover crops.

As well as payments to farmers, my Department also offers significant development grants both to farmers and to processors under the schemes of grant aid for the development of the organic sector. The current schemes were launched last June and they provide grant aid for investments by farmers and processors in equipment and facilities. The schemes provide grant aid of 40% of the cost up to a maximum grant of €60,000 in the case of on-farm investments and €500,000 for investments off-farm.

I am pleased to note that Teagasc has appointed an additional three specialist organic advisers to strengthen its advisory role. This development, allied to the expanding demonstration farm programme, should further facilitate producers considering the organic option.

Expansion at production level cannot happen in isolation. It needs a market to support it. The most recent initiative in this regard is the three-year organic marketing plan 2006-09, produced by Bord Bia in consultation with the organic market development group. The objective of the plan is to develop the organic sector in Ireland for existing suppliers and new entrants.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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In the context of the EU CAP health check, will any measures be undertaken to assist organic farmers in Ireland?

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Dublin North, Green Party)
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It is probably too early to say exactly what measures in the health check can be brought to bear in addition to what I have just outlined. The marketing of organic food is currently the area in which we have to drive improvements because the incentives, if one is taking to the organic certification bodies, are quite solid and are appreciated. It comes down to ensuring that gaps are filled when it comes to shortcomings in marketing. For example, Flahavans are looking for organic cereal producers in Ireland to meet their need. There are areas that have to be developed. In the course of my travels, referred to earlier, in Italy, Austria and Germany——

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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My God——

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Dublin North, Green Party)
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——it was clear that the catering sectors in schools, hospitals and the nursing homes in those countries have developed direct market opportunities for organic producers. For example, in Rome 150,000 organic school meals are provided every day. That is a huge marketing opportunity which we need to develop here.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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Does the Minister of State accept that farmers

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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This has the capacity to undermine the credibility of local farmers' markets.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Dublin North, Green Party)
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That is a very serious point that has been raised by the Deputy. When I came into the Department I asked about this matter and I was told that a dedicated official was going around the country to examine, inspect and ensure that what was being sold as certified organic, actually legally, was certified organic. I felt that person was being run off his or her feet.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Give them a bicycle.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Dublin North, Green Party)
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Thankfully, I was able to ensure that the person was matched by another person to increase the capacity for inspection. I will reconsider the matter to ascertain how the work is progressing. At present we are evaluating whether it is possible to do all this with the two people involved. There has been an increase in the powers of those two individuals as the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, introduced the statutory instrument which provides increased powers to inspectors to confiscate produce and ensure it is inspected. Those powers were not previously in place, which allowed certain lax practices to take hold.

I would of course agree that not all farmers' markets are organic. Any that falsely claim to be organic are in breach of the law. It is important that consumers, if they are buying products which are said to be organic, ask for the certification which they are entitled to see to reassure themselves.