Dáil debates

Friday, 24 April 2015

11:15 am

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine entitled ‘Report on Land Use – maximising its potential’ which was laid before Dáil Éireann on 20th November, 2014.
I am grateful for the opportunity to outline the context, background and conclusion of the report of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I welcome the fact the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Tom Hayes, is in the Chamber to make his observations on the report.

The joint committee was determined that a range of stakeholders from Ireland be heard at this early stage of discussions on land use so that outcomes can more effectively be influenced. One expert at our hearings noted that changing land use is a slow process not only in Ireland but internationally and early engagement is required in the process because it is difficult to manage. We are looking at a time horizon of between 2020 and 2050. The European Commission is preparing a land use directive aimed at dealing with the challenges all of us will face in the future. The committee would like Ireland to be in a position to inform this process from the outset rather than respond to it from a defensive position in several years' time.

Over a series of hearings held last year, the committee examined how best to balance four key demands on our land, namely, increasing food production under Food Harvest 2020, offsetting carbon, providing clean water and protecting habitats for biodiversity. We benefitted from hearing the perspectives of prominent experts in Coillte, Teagasc, Directorates General of the European Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, UCD's school of agriculture, food and science and Bord na Móna. Their contributions played a key role in formulating the report and I thank them for their participation.

I am particularly grateful for the assistance of the offices of the Directorates General in Europe, with which we engaged by means of a conference meeting in the committee rooms. We found this engagement very useful and it is something that works well.

The cross-party report found that reaching our Food Harvest 2020 targets while staying within the environmental limits will be a major challenge. However, with requisite Government commitment and support from the farming community, the committee is confident the shorter-term challenges can be met. The committee acknowledged the importance of sustainable agriculture and land use, including afforestation, and the use of agricultural soil to create carbon sinks as key considerations in ensuring coherence between the EU's food security and climate change objectives. There are various programmes in place across the agricultural sector that can be harnessed to maximise land use. Numerous studies are ongoing and it has been highlighted repeatedly that education and knowledge transfer are key to seeing the newest and most innovative systems and technologies put to use at farm level. Emphasising financial rewards for farmers as well as the environmental benefits of the various methods will help to maximise land use potential.

With these issues in mind, the report includes several key findings. We recommend that there be further assessment of concepts such as sustainable intensification, which has become something of a buzzword but is none the less relevant, and offsetting our land sharing, with a view to putting such concepts into practice where possible. In Wicklow, to give an example, we have a great deal of highly productive land but also a lot of land that is not interfered with. These are natural habitats, including land under forestation, which could be used to offset the carbon output of more productive land by acting as very valuable carbon sinks. The report recommends the provision of grants for afforestation and bio-energy crops. There is a recommendation to harness the high-technology schemes and greening measure proposed under the new Common Agricultural Policy, which, for the first time ever, acknowledges environmental and greening measures as part of the payments under Pillar 1. We point to the need to foster knowledge transfer to farmers through upskilling for all agricultural and environmental farm advisers. The committee concluded that discussion groups, in particular, are a valuable way of getting knowledge across to as large a cohort as possible in the fastest and most efficient way. The report recommends that we encourage the use of the such groups and include demonstration farms for this purpose. At farm level, the report recommends supporting the use of low-carbon food tools such as the carbon navigator, nutrient management planning and the implementation of best practice through participation in better farm programmes.

The committee's report was prepared shortly before an agreement was reached on a new EU climate and energy policy framework for the period to 2030 at a meeting of the European Council which took place on 23 and 24 October last year. EU leaders agreed at that meeting to target a reduction in domestic greenhouse gasses of at least 40% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. Agreement was also reached to build on the main building blocks of the 2030 policy framework for climate change energy as proposed by the European Commission in January 2014. The 2030 policy framework aims to make the European Union's economy and energy systems more competitive, secure and sustainable, and sets a target of at least 27% for energy savings by 2030.

The conclusions of the Council meeting acknowledged the importance of sustainable agriculture and sustainable practices in the land use sector, including afforestation, as a key consideration in ensuring coherence between the EU's food security and climate change objectives. In this context, the committee's report is very important and worthwhile in drawing attention to the research in regard to carbon sequestration through restoration of cutaway bogs and by soils and vegetation through changes in farming practices. The committee heard during its hearings that changing land use is a slow process. Changing policy in this regard is the beginning of it, but changing habits is a slower thing. Every country requires an early management strategy in this regard because it is a difficult process to manage. That is why the committee decided to conduct hearings on the matter and publish a report.

It is not surprising that a new wave of discussion and debate followed the publication of the European Council's decisions. All the expert opinion suggests that we will need increased food production from the same land base or possibly a land base that is reduced as a consequence of water challenges across the globe. Indeed, the conflict between water use for food and water use for people will, in come areas of high-density population, become a very competitive one and it may not be possible to satisfy everybody. We will see, in the coming years, new technologies and innovation in regard to the production of food - proteins, in particular - from both land and sea. It is important that facts rather than perception are the basis for this debate. We must discuss the issues honestly and embrace everything the land in this country has to offer as a resource which can be utilised to mitigate carbon emissions and climate change. Reducing output with a view to achieving a reduction in our overall emissions is simplistic. As it is often noted, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. We in Ireland have one of the most efficient food production systems, from a carbon emissions point of view, particularly in the case of milk and beef. We should protect those systems. Nothing will be achieved by cutting our emissions if the food that is needed in the future is produced elsewhere at a greater cost to the environment.

I thank all members of the committee for their engagement on this issue and the various witnesses who appeared before us and assisted us in our work. I thank, too, the staff of the Oireachtas library and research service and the committee secretariat for their support in producing this valuable and important report. It is important that we are examining these matters at the policy formation stage rather than reacting to a policy that is already published.

11:25 am

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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I begin by acknowledging the work of the committee, including Members on the other side of the House, in the production of this comprehensive report, as well as the many other contributors referred to by the Chairman. I assure the House that the Department has taken cognisance of the issues raised in the report. There is no doubt that the global changes and demands that will impact on our agriculture and forestry industries make this document an important topic for discussion.

Addressing the challenge of sustainably meeting the growing global food demand will not be an easy task. The global population has doubled since 1970 to 7 billion people today and, if current trends are maintained, will increase to over 9 billion by 2050. Today, one in eight of the world's population of 870 million people does not have access to sufficient food. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that global agriculture production will need to increase by up to 60% over 2005-2007 levels by 2050 to meet the demands of forecasted population growth and the food and nutritional demands of wealthier consumers. This equates to an extra production of over 1 billion tonnes of cereals and 200 million tonnes of meat. By 2050, the planet will need to produce 60% more food with less land, water and energy, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Ireland has been a clear leader for some time at EU level in calling for recognition of the specific issues that arise in the agriculture and forestry sectors concerning policy on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Last October, the European Council's conclusions on the 2030 climate and energy policy framework were an important step forward in developing a coherent policy on food security and climate change. Ireland welcomed the conclusions which commit to examining how to encourage the sustainable intensification of food production, and noted the role afforestation can play in carbon sequestration. This is important for Ireland as we are leading the world in some of our climate change actions.

Afforestation is a major greenhouse gas mitigation measure that we are taking on agricultural land. It is essential that the EU's greenhouse gas accounting system should take the value of afforestation fully into account to encourage this real and additional mitigation.

Officials in my Department are continuing to work with colleagues in other Departments to ensure a whole-of-Government approach to building upon the October text, and working with the Commission to ensure that EU climate and food policies, to 2030 and beyond, are coherent and consistent in recognising the reality of the global challenges that we are facing.

Our cattle production, which is the mainstream of Irish agriculture, is very much based on sustainability principles. Some 90% of the diet of dairy and beef animals is composed of grass or silage that is grown on the farm in permanent pastures on which the livestock are reared. The amount of imported inputs, such as fertilisers, is low and reducing. This is in contrast to livestock production systems in many other countries that depend largely on annual crop.

In Ireland we have many natural advantages such as a plentiful supply of rainwater and a temperate climate providing ideal conditions for grass growth for most of the year. Food Harvest 2020 stresses a smart, green, sustainable approach to production. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, has recently put plans in place for a new agri-food strategy up to 2025 and sustainability will again be at the heart of this new strategy. It will build on the strong foundations laid in implementing Food Harvest 2020. An independent team of consultants has been procured to carry out an environmental analysis, including a strategic environmental assessment and an appropriate assessment of the 2025 strategy. I understand that they are now at the scoping phase of this process.

Origin Green, which is a key element of Irish agriculture and food policy, develops sustainability-enhancing activities at farm and industry level. Since its launch in June 2012, it has been enthusiastically adopted by the food and drink sector in Ireland. As the first national programme of its kind to be rolled out anywhere in the world, it presents a major opportunity to differentiate Irish food and drink products.

At farm level, for the beef and dairy sectors, there are established sustainability measures built into each inspection. To date, more than 70,000 beef and dairy farms have been involved. Similar programmes will be rolled out over the course of 2015 for pigmeat, poultry, lamb, grain and horticulture. My Department and its agencies continue to develop innovative measures and programmes, including the carbon navigator initiative, the pasture profit index and animal health improvements, including the compulsory BVD eradication programme.

Reduced production is not a realistic option for the Irish agriculture sector. We are committed to ensuring that the sector continues to grow sustainably so that Ireland can play its part in meeting the increasing global food demand, while having regard to Ireland's climate obligations.

If Ireland wishes to remain a world leader in the production, management and marketing of low-carbon, high quality sustainable food, then significant efforts will be required to maximise production efficiency whilst minimising the effects on the environment.

Compliance with existing environmental legislation and key policy instruments such as the CAP, and especially the rural development programme, will play an important role in underlying sustainable production systems.

Ongoing scientific research and investment in knowledge transfer, leading to a high adoption rate of best practices at farm level, will also be a critical success factor in striving towards our environmental goals. Research funded by my Department is being undertaken by Teagasc and the third-level institutes to determine the national baseline of soil organic carbon associated with grassland soils in Ireland, the sequestration potential and long-term stability according to soil type.

An ongoing commitment and delivery on key environmental targets under relevant national and EU legislation and strategies, and with international commitments, will be a critical success factor underlying Ireland's sustainability credentials towards 2025 and beyond.

From an agri-food sector viewpoint, I agree that it is critical that food production systems remain sustainable, thus respecting the environmental sensitivities in the farmed landscape, not only in designated areas for conservation but also in the wider countryside. My Department is committed to supporting the ambitious targets for enhanced food production towards 2020 and beyond, whilst also supporting biodiversity.

Sustainable production is therefore dependent on maintaining or enhancing this diversity, by respecting and optimising the processes which underpin these services including good nutrient recycling, carbon sequestration, pollination, et cetera.

The revised Common Agriculture Policy aims to encourage sustainable production systems through a range of measures under both pillars of the agreement. Under the new basic payment scheme, farmers are required to comply with numerous environmental standards in order to qualify for payment. The introduction of the new green payment is a key example of this, as well as more targeted priorities for protecting and enhancing the environment.

This green payment is in addition to the cross-compliance requirements, which consists of two components - statutory management requirements and standards for good agricultural and environmental condition of land. These requirements and standards relate to the environment, climate change, public, animal and plant health, animal welfare and the good agricultural condition of land. The statutory management requirements, in particular, relate to the implementation of the Natura Directives, thus aiding the conservation of endangered birds and threatened natural habitats, including wild flora and fauna.

Greening comprises three new components. The first is crop diversification, the second is permanent grassland and the last is an ecological focus area. Together these actions will benefit biodiversity, soil organic matter and structure, nutrients' management and input reduction. In addition, they have benefits for disease control and improving habitats and landscape diversity.

While these measures may have an apparent lower impact in Ireland compared to other member states, this is credited to the fact that many farmers in Ireland are inherently green by definition, due to the predominance of grass-based production systems and the extensive network of hedgerows.

The new green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, commonly known as GLAS, is the key measure providing a multiple selection of actions with environmental benefits across a wide range of areas. The tiered design feature of this scheme ensures a more balanced uptake of actions delivering on a range of environmental priorities with a particular focus across three areas: biodiversity, water quality and climate. Priorities include Natura habitats, mandatory actions for certain farmland birds, commonages, organic farmers, as well as priority access for farmers in high status water sites and actions for farmers implementing certain climate beneficial actions. Identified vulnerable water areas and climate actions are also targeted. There are also a range of general actions, some with multiple environmental benefits. Examples of key actions include traditional hay meadow, hedgerow actions, woodland establishment, arable margins, riparian margins, bird and bat boxes and solitary bee actions. The inclusion of mandatory requirements relating to record keeping, the involvement of an agricultural adviser and the requirement for nutrient management planning will ensure targeted delivery and greater efficiency.

Other elements of the rural development programme with benefits for environmental sustainability include the organic farming scheme, published this week, and targeted locally-led output-based measures which aim to promote the development of locally-focused projects designed to respond to specific environmental challenges.

The nitrates directive requires every member state to review its national action programme at least every four years. The current regulations were introduced by the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, former Deputy Phil Hogan, following an intensive expert review process jointly chaired by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and my Department. The review aimed to support efficient farming while at the same time support the delivery of improved water quality. A number of key changes included the revision of phosphorus limits for grazing and silage production, greater clarity in the definition of soiled water and revised allowances for certain arable crops. A number of additional safeguards, including enhanced buffers, were introduced also.

We also have the nitrates directive which requires farmers to comply with a stocking rate limit of 170 kg of nitrogen per hectare per year. This is the equivalent of two dairy cows per hectare. Ireland's application for a renewal of the derogation, that is, to exceed this application limit and apply up to 250 kg per hectare, was approved in February 2014 by the EU Commission. This derogation is justified on the basis that the majority of Ireland's agricultural area is grass, which has a long growing season. There are high rainfall levels which help to dilute any losses and our soils break down potentially harmful nitrate into atmospheric nitrogen.

Again, I thank the Chairman of the committee and its members for their input. There is a great amount of detail but it certainly addresses what is a hugely important matter.

11:45 am

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I compliment the Chairman of the committee, Deputy Andrew Doyle, on the work he has done on this report and for leading the committee in producing yet another important report.

What we are examining here will have implications way into the future. It is interesting to note the figures. A total of 66% of land usage is for farming, 16% is wetlands, 10% is forestry, 1.6% is settlements and 5.4% is other lands. Farming, forestry and wetlands account for far more than 90%. That is extremely important. That land is available as a carbon sink and it has many other advantages.

It has become increasingly apparent that land is not just for farming. The singular use of land is no longer true. What do we do with land in general? We farm it to produce food. We also use land to sequestrate carbon, in other words as a carbon sink, because we use it for forestry and so forth. When we grow renewable energy crops carbon is absorbed. The third use of land is for views - just looking at it. That is very important. If one asks a county council planner or councillor about land they will speak about the areas of high visual amenity in every county. The farmer or landowner does not get paid for it, but it is an important use of land. We spend much time and effort trying to protect particularly important views and also the look of the countryside. The fourth use of land is recreational. That has become a larger issue. It is approximately ten years since we started to recognise that the use of land for recreation is very important.

We must accept that there are multifaceted and, at times, competing uses for land. Any single piece of land can be used for a number of different reasons. When considering land use, the environmental impact is becoming more important. The European Union has indicated that to comply with our environmental targets we will have to reduce the beef herd by 35% and the dairy herd by 5.5%. This would be an utter disaster. Our country suits animal production. The best, most efficient and most cost effective crop we grow is grass. It is very easy to grow grass in Ireland. It will grow on tarmacadam if one gives it half a chance. To say an economy that is grass based should cut back massively on its animal production is unreasonable.

However, there is no point in saying something is unreasonable when we must also acknowledge that Europe as an entity will have to comply with quite stringent climate change regulations. We will have to control climate change. That brings us to the far more complicated issue that will arise at European level, which is the need to determine those who should continue to produce and rear animals. I do not believe animal production will disappear and that we will all eat only carbohydrates and stop eating meat. The amount of meat we eat might not increase, but meat will be part of the human diet for the foreseeable future. Europe should look at the total resource in Europe and decide that the places where meat should be produced should be the places where it can be done most efficiently from an environmental point of view.

In setting down the environmental targets for agriculture, Europe should take into account the efficiency with which each region can produce animal, beef and dairy products. If that is done it will arrive at a very different sum from simply saying that those who have high animal production across Europe must cut it pro rata.

That would be a highly retrograde step.

As Deputy Doyle, the Chairman of the joint committee, pointed out, the second issue is whether we can produce more while reducing environmental damage. Can we produce more and at the same time generate smaller amounts of greenhouse gases? Carbon navigators and other technologies mean less fertiliser is required and farmers can farm in a much more targeted manner. Major changes have taken place in the past ten or 20 years and it is vital that we continue to develop technology to ensure we can do more while causing less damage.

I am beginning to take a strong interest in the issue of biogas. Germany has a significant biogas industry. If we were to convert all the slurry produced here to biogas, we could meet 10% of our national requirement for natural gas. This is a proven product, not an experimental technology, and can be used to run buses and trucks. For some reason, however, despite being a major producer of slurry, we do not do much with it. When I asked about nitrogen content I was informed that the production of biogas generates a pellet form of nitrogen which, when spread on the land, releases nitrogen in a much more satisfactory manner than occurs in the case of raw slurry. This is a win-win scenario in that the methane used as biogas replaces imported gas and it produces a much more controllable and usable form of nitrogen than is provided by raw slurry.

I listened to the Minister of State's comments on the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, and ecological focus areas. Deputies will agree that contradictions are the only certainty in this very interesting world. On the one hand, we are telling farmers on arable land not to plough up the last bit of it and instead create copses and ecological focus areas, while on the other hand, we are telling the farmer on the hill that if some of his land is not in good agricultural condition and is not being intensively grazed, it will be ineligible for farm grants. As such, we are paying one farmer to take the best land out of intensive production and penalising another farmer on marginal land on the basis that his land is not productive in a farming sense. We must take a much more holistic view to land use and accept that it is not only about producing animals. The issue is the totality of the uses we want to obtain from land.

The Minister of State listed a series of impressive actions under GLAS. I am beginning to wonder, however, how many bat and bird boxes or solitary bee actions the scheme will deliver. From what I hear, these options may be available but they will not be taken up given the payment offered to farmers. Based on an examination of the figures, I predict that it will be seriously undersubscribed. Having been open for eight weeks and with only four weeks to go before it closes, only 10,000 people have indicated they will participate in actions and only 17,000 people have registered on the system.

11:55 am

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy should be a little more positive about the scheme and explain it to people.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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In the past week, 2,000 farmers indicated they may consider joining the scheme. If one multiples this figure by four, one gets a figure of 8,000, although one would not expect a significant show of interest in the final week. Furthermore, only 10,000 people have gone as far as selecting actions and none of the applications has been approved yet. While it is fine to introduce these types of programme, one cannot expect them to yield the expected outcomes if they are not made attractive to farmers.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I am speaking on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Martin Ferris, who could not be present to welcome the discussion on this report. I compliment the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Andrew Doyle, who presented the report today, all the members of the joint committee and all those who participated in the debate on this very important issue.

I represent one of the few constituencies which does not have a working farm, although the Irish Farmers Association recently relocated its headquarters in my constituency. The IFA is important to the future of farming in Ireland.

The joint committee made a constructive decision last year to make the issue of land use a priority for examination because the issue affects every last person on the island. The land is close to the hearts of people. None of us is more than a couple of generations from active farming and many of those who are not engaged in farming, including many Deputies, live in rural communities and benefit from farming. Those of us who live in urban areas also benefit from farming. If there was a greater understanding in urban areas of the difficulties and challenges facing farming, some people would take a different attitude.

The joint committee examined the issue of long-term planning. It is not easy to turn around the juggernaut of agriculture because change is a long process that needs careful consideration. The report before us highlights the need to take decisions now that will affect farming in future. The committee set itself the task of investigating how best to maximise the benefits we can secure from our agricultural land, while meeting the targets set in the Food Harvest 2020 plans, maintaining sustainability and meeting European Union environmental targets. It will not be easy to meet these different and competing demands. Achieving growth in the agri-food sector under Food Harvest 2020 will make it difficult to meet EU environmental targets or strengthen our ability to deal with climate change. We must not exacerbate climate change when increasing productivity on farms.

The report contains good research and seeks compatibility with national and European Union policy. The EU is preparing a land use directive aimed at dealing with the challenges facing agriculture, including food security and sustainability. This report is, therefore, both appropriate and timely. It sets out the challenges and demands facing the farming sector and I hope the Minister will not view it as a challenge but as an addition to what the Department will have heard. The report is accessible to anyone who wishes to take the time to read it.

I hope Ireland's voice, as reflected in the report, will be heard in the European Union. We want our concerns to be taken into consideration now, rather than finding ten years from now that we should have been more involved in the process of formulating directives emanating from Brussels.

In compiling this report, the joint committee made a genuine attempt to pull together all the stakeholders. It held a number of hearings and availed of the expertise of Coillte and Teagasc. I compliment the work done by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service and the committee support staff in the preparation of the report.

When it comes down to it, the people who will or will not meet the challenges for the future are those working the land, the farmers and those involved in the agrifood business who hold such valuable potential for our future growth. Without the support of the farming community and support at farm level, we are nothing. There is a vital role for the Government in maintaining the support of the farmers of Ireland for the success of the industry, for its sustainability into the future and for the ability to pass it on to the next generations.

The targets - increased food and general agri-production - will be difficult to achieve while keeping our environmental targets in mind. The use of technology will be invaluable and the reluctance of farmers, in some cases, to use it is no different from that of many in urban areas who are afraid of new technology but, thankfully, it is decreasing. Young farmers, in particular, have a greater understanding of the advantages of new technologies and many, who are older than me, have embraced technology on the farm to benefit themselves and, I hope, to the benefit of the future of farming. Training and upskilling must be a part of any plan to reach those targets. That is a challenge for Teagasc, the Department and the farmers in terms of food production and in how we deal with the reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions targets set for us. The use of the carbon navigator, for instance, should be encouraged across the board.

Farmers must avail of the grant aid for afforestation as a carbon sequestration measure for the cultivation of bio-energy crops, as mentioned by Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, and comply with existing legislation and regulation such as the nitrates directive.

The Food Harvest 2020 policy, which is intended to involve smart green growth, means increased production across various agricultural sectors. Sustainability and environmental protection are very challenging but the goals must be reached in order to be compliant with our current EU environmental obligations which may change in the future. This is another reason we have to be fully involved in Brussels in the formulation of directives and not find ourselves in trouble in the decades to come through a lack of foresight. We must understand the targets now but also what are realistic targets for the Irish agriculture industry in the future.

The abolition of milk quotas has given rise to anticipation of growth of at least 30% in our dairy industry and some estimates are even greater. The emissions associated with such growth must be compensated by a very strong environmental programme, including carbon sequestration. The danger is that with the increase of the dairy herd and the subsequent increase in emissions, there will be pressure on suckler farmers to reduce the herd to compensate. This would not be acceptable considering the suckler herd's contribution to the beef industry not just in farming, but in other jobs in the beef industry which it necessitates. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, or his successor, needs to engage continuously with the European Union, especially in regard to climate change mitigation, the fact that our beef is produced in a very environmentally friendly way compared to other nations and the vital role it plays in agriculture on this island.

We have to move towards carbon-neutral farming while not compromising our capacity for sustainable food production. More and more the suspicion is being expressed by farmers and commentators that the European Union is intent on reducing our beef herd. Negotiations are taking place between the European Union and the Mercosur countries regarding beef imports to the EU and there are also the implications in regard to TTIP, which could be damaging and of which we need to be aware. We do not want the Government to lie down in Brussels when negotiations are taking place that could affect Irish farming and land use. The challenge for the Minister of State and the Department is to ensure, as somebody said, that the green jersey is worn but, in particular, those of farmers and all associated industries. The Government needs to stand up for Irish beef farmers and the future of the Irish agricultural industry in a responsible way.

In many ways, the land question was central to the Irish revolutionary cause pre-1916 and afterwards, and we must always be conscious of the relationship between the Irish people and the land. There is a positive way forward for the use of land in Ireland and for Irish farming which involves compliance with our environmental obligations, improving the quality of our water and preventing further biodiversity losses, but at the same time, grant aid must be increased and maintained and the environmental schemes properly administered to maintain and increase their effectiveness.

I am glad this report has been brought before the House and I hope the discussion on it does not end here because that is the challenge for any report from a committee. Much time, work and effort is put in by committee members and sometimes a report gets a hearing in the House but then sits on a shelf. This is one of those reports that should not sit on a shelf. The Minister of State and the Department must take note of what is contained in it because it is a good report.

12:05 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I thank my colleague, Deputy Andrew Doyle, and the committee for bringing this important issue to the House. We must maximise for economic purposes the land available to us, whether arable land or marginal land, as each has its own particular use. It is up to us to develop those uses, bearing in mind the regulation in regard to climate change while, at the same time, maximising our export potential to the best of our ability. Some people may see those issues at variance with each other. I am not a believer in the theory that people will eat less food in the future. Everybody has to eat. As the population increases the demand for food will increase also. We are in a particularly unique position in Ireland in that we can produce food better than anybody else, much more efficiently and with less emissions, and we do it competitively. In any negotiations, we must keep in mind at all times the importance of ensuring we are allowed do that. Some say this is hugely damaging to the environment but farmers in this country have been looking after the environment for hundreds of years and have done so very effectively. The scientific evidence will show that.

The challenges ahead are how to maximise the potential in respect of the arable land, increase employment in the agrifood sector and increase exports in line with Food Harvest 2020, particularly in the aftermath of milk quotas. We must recognise that as long as there is a marketplace, somebody will produce the food to fill that market need. Given that we have a very effective and efficient food production system, obviously this is the place to do it. There will be those who will say one cannot do that in the future. Experts usually emerge at times like this and say we must reduce our carbon emissions. We must, we can and we will do so. We have to minimise to the greatest extent possible our reliance on fossil fuels as a means of energy production while maximising our potential in regard to the use of marginal land for tree growing purposes. My old hobby horse in relation to trees is that there are so many experts. Not only is the country full of experts but Europe and the world are full of experts. One thing we should remember about tree growing is that certain trees have a greater capacity than others to absorb carbons. That poor unfortunate Sitka spruce is probably the best one. It is much maligned by planners the length and breadth of this country because it is claimed it is not a native species and comes from Scandinavian countries.

We should also remember that there is a Scots pine in the Céide Fields that is 5,000 years old. I do not know how it came to be there because modern planning criteria would suggest it appeared only in the past couple of years. We need to recognise there is great potential to increase and improve afforestation on the lands that are most suitable for that. It is not a great idea to use up valuable arable or tillage land for that purpose when there is an adequate amount of marginal land available the length and breadth of the country.

The other issue is how to use the land for recreational purposes. For example, the recent announcement about tourism in County Longford indicates the very good economic use we can make of particular lands, drawing in a large area of the surrounding countryside to its economic benefit. As a result, the country’s economy receives a boost.

We will always have competitors who will denigrate what we do and say something else must be done. We need only ensure that we do right by the environment and the food producers and by reasonable, efficient use of the available land. We must also have regard to habitats directives. Greater consideration needs to be given to the impact of the directives, not after the event but beforehand. Lessons have, I hope, been learned in recent years, because it is possible to accede to the general requirements of the habitats directives without interfering with economic activity on the land.

It is approximately 60 years since any major land drainage was done, and that needs to be dealt with. If not, climate change will bring heavier rainfalls and drainage will be a moot issue. Some experts believe we should have national wetlands, which would be of great benefit to the world’s economy, but they would not be too beneficial to our economy. In any future negotiations on such issues we need to keep in mind the uses to which we propose to put the various lands, separating the arable from the marginal. There is nothing wrong with having adequate drainage to ensure the water table does not rise, because if we do not have adequate drainage and river cleaning from time to time we will end up with an entire flood plain. That is not to the economic or environmental benefit of the country. It might be grand for frogs but it will not be of any great economic benefit.

Clever, effective use of our land in respect of housing, agricultural production and leisure activity can increase our economic benefit dramatically, above and beyond anything we have so far envisaged. We can prove that to our colleagues throughout Europe and globally because we must engage with experts globally far more than we used to. If we concentrate on those issues we can do whatever has to be done, such as considering alternatives to our dependence on fossil fuels. I do not know what they will be. There is a debate on wind energy. Some do not like it but those who are far from wind farms are happy enough with it. Those whose environs are directly affected take a different view. One way or the other, however, we have to find realistic alternatives. There is not much sense in proposing something that will not happen for 30 or 40 years. We need to depend on the alternatives we can produce fairly quickly because an acceleration of climate change may leave us with very limited options. Whether it is nuclear energy, which I do not agree with, or biofuels, which are fine but one has to grow a great deal before meeting the requirement, we need to agree a strategy and proceed from there.

12:15 pm

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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I offer sincere thanks to everybody who contributed to this debate. The contributions have been extremely helpful. I assure Deputy Ó Snodaigh that this report will not be put on a shelf to gather dust, because it is a very constructive report. Once again, I thank Deputy Doyle for his leadership in bringing forward this thought-provoking and worthwhile report.

Deputy Durkan spoke about the use of good quality land for forestry. I will address that point later. The production of food will be very significant as the economy develops, challenging developing nations, and we need to work with our European counterparts to address the economic ills we have endured for the past couple of years. Agriculture is a significant part of job creation, not only in the cities but across rural Ireland. I read in today’s newspapers about the divide between city and country in Ireland. Deputy Ó Snodaigh made the point that they need to understand each other better. He is absolutely right. People living in the cities need to understand the rural way of life, the economic difficulties that weather can bring to farmland and the financial issues that often pertain in rural areas. That understanding has begun to develop in recent years, along with a real understanding that we work together to create jobs. We are world leaders in food production. The dairy industry in Ireland is a world leader. Around the world people regard Ireland as uniquely positioned to increase production. The lifting of milk quotas is giving young people an opportunity. This is the first time in 35 years that people can increase milk production. That will have a significant effect on rural Ireland. The restrictions were lifted only a few weeks ago.

Now there is a new, fresh air about the future. Last Tuesday night, I stood in Tipperary Co-op and spoke to the management team there. They show great enthusiasm for the opportunities they see for increased milk production because of the removal of the quota and for job creation for builders, plasterers, roofers and others to build the required facilities. Significant work and effort will go towards increasing milk production, through better grass production and better usage of land.

We speak about Ireland's exports and we are exporting food to 175 countries worldwide. In 2014, the value of Irish food and drink exports increased by 4%, to reach €10.45 billion, representing an increase in value over the past three years of €3.2 billion or 45%. The dairy and beef sectors were the strongest performing categories in 2014, representing approximately €3 billion, or 29%, with €2.3 billion of food and drink exported respectively. Prepared foods grew by €135 million. Exports to the UK market are the highest, at 40%, which now equates to €4.2 billion of total Irish food and drink exports in 2014. Exports to the Continent come next at 31%. Exports to international markets are at 29% and the growth in exports was led by Asia, which showed an increase of almost €270 million, to reach €850 million for the first time. Within this, China recorded a further jump of almost 40%, to reach approximately €550 million, making China our sixth largest export area. Therein we see the opportunities and the potential.

In the agrifood sector, an environmental analysis of the agrifood strategy to 2025 is running in parallel with the 2025 agrifood report to ensure that environmental sustainability is fully incorporated in the final report. An environmental scoping consultation process has already been initiated. For Ireland, with a population of only 4.5 million, food security is not a critical national problem. We are in the fortunate position of being able to produce enough food to feed 35 million people. This will rise to over 50 million by 2020. This is the real opportunity for this country. With organisations like Bord Bia and the Irish Dairy Board working across the world, I have no doubt we will make a name for ourselves in the years to come.

Deputy Durkan spoke about the important issue of land use. I agree there is no point in planting trees on our best land. However, we need to get people to understand and appreciate that forestry is part of good land use for the future. We have significant marginal land across the country, particularly in the west, and it could be used far more profitably for forestry. There is an issue with the hen harrier in that regard that we must address and I assure Members and the public that we will work to resolve that issue with Europe as soon as possible. We need to take the fear out of the forestry sector. Some €240 per acre is available tax free for the planting of land and for putting marginal land into forestry while allowing farmers to retain their single farm payment. This incentive is backed by the Government and is provided for the next 20 years and beyond. The package has been approved and should be used in the future in the context of land use.

Deputy Ó Cuív referred to GLAS and to issues with it. Much thought went into the scheme and significant discussions were held. I attended those meetings and I know it took hours of frustration to try to find ways and means to deal with the issues. Mention was made of cages for birds and similar issues. I suggest the agriculture sector should look at GLAS as a positive way of protecting the environment and of making rural Ireland a better place. It should be looked at as a means to repair the walls that have been neglected for years, as a means of doing up farm sheds and of raising land nutrition levels. GLAS provides a substantial payment, although it is different from the REP scheme. Perhaps people developed bad habits with the REP scheme in the past. I urge people to consider GLAS as a way forward.

The Deputy mentioned that the issue of biogas has been on his mind for some time. Teagasc is installing an anaerobic digester in its Grange facility to study this issue. I see this as positive. Recently, I came across an instance in the horticultural sector where residue from growing mushrooms was being used to create energy. We want to encourage and develop such experiments where possible. However, such endeavours must be competitive with the cost of electricity. Teagasc is looking at the opportunities in this area.

I thank all Members for their worthwhile contributions to this debate. I thank in particular the Chairman of the committee, Deputy Andrew Doyle. I assure him that this report will not be left on the shelf, but will be used effectively in the future.

12:25 pm

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank all participants in this debate and thank the Minister of State for his closing remarks. We expect the report will be used. I thank Deputy Ó Cuív and Deputy Ó Snodaigh, who is deputising for his colleague, Deputy Ferris, and all members of the committee who participated in the preparation of this report during committee hearings. I thank the members of the library and research service for their help. Some of them went to Scotland to draw on work there. The Scottish EPA and Scotland's Rural College hosted a conference entitled, Delivering Multiple Benefits from our Land - Sustainable Development in Practice, which was based on an agri-land use module of a climate change Bill in preparation. This issue has many facets.

I am passionate about this report. Initially, the rationale behind it was that it was clear that Food Harvest 2020 and our climate change obligations were on course for a head-on collision unless something was done to address and confront the issues and give people a better and more informed insight into what happens in farming here. In the late 1970s, I was a student in the agricultural college in Rockwell. At that time, we were told the average yield from a dairy cow was approximately 1,000 gallons, but the target was 1,500 gallons. Now the yield is probably close to 2,000 litres. The lambing target was 125 per 100 sheep, but was approximately 100 if we were lucky. Now, we probably achieve 140 or 150. The average crop of spring barley was probably 1.5 tonnes per acre.

Two tonnes was considered to be good, but three tonnes is now considered the average. In terms of the beef herd, an animal had to be four years old before it was considered fit for slaughter, whereas we are now talking about animals aged 16 to 18 months, or, realistically, 21 to 24 months. All of these improvements have been achieved at no significant cost in terms of extra admissions. If anything, emissions have been decreasing. As the Minister said in his opening remarks, the use of chemical and other fertilisers is decreasing based on cost but also as a result of more efficient farm management and land use management, improved herd health and the use of available technology, including improved genetics and breeding.

All of that has been done against the backdrop of environmental directives, habitats directives, birds directives, nutrient management plans and environmental schemes to improve the environment. There was a rush at the outset to clear ditches, put up piggeries near lakes and so on, but that is akin to somebody taking up smoking without being aware of its hazards. We have moved on, and we are continuing to move.

What we tried to do in the preparation of this report was to demonstrate clearly that the model based on grass to produce food is a good one. We should bear in mind one point about grass. Grass is a fibre that holds soil together. What is now the Sahara desert was once covered in grass on which buffalo grazed, but they took away the buffalo, which was a ruminant. I do not want to get too technical about this, but the only animals that are efficient converters of grass fibre into energy and food are ruminants - cattle and sheep. That cannot be done without them. To simply say we need to reduce our beef herd by 35% to reduce our carbon emissions is nonsense. We must bear in mind that this country produces enough food to feed 36 million people. That is not a huge number in the global sense, but it is 30 million more people than we have on this island, so we have to export.

Most of what has been achieved by way of improvements has been profit-driven for efficiency by farmers, and so it should remain. Farmers should be paid to produce food, but if that food has to be efficiently produced, so be it. If farmers are given the tools to do it, they will do it. I speak as someone who continues to be somewhat active as a farmer, although my sons might debate that, and I hope to be able to do so for a long time. I firmly believe that we do it better than anyone else.

Farmers have always embraced new systems, technology and advice. We have also embraced the most recent environmental schemes. People might laugh at this, but many of those schemes, including the rural environmental protection scheme, did not pay. The farmers funded work but for many of them it did not yield any surplus money. Anyone who had cattle in particular had to do a good deal of work.

We need to view this as more than just an agricultural policy. We should view it as a total land use policy across Europe and then draw comparisons. I made that point in an article I wrote for a local newspaper, in which I stated:

[The Irish] ecosystem in its entirety provides us with the ability to produce food and bio-fuel from fertile soils, renewable energy, carbon sequestration and the disposal of agricultural pollutants from afforestation [and marginal land] and pollination and other biodiversity services from environmentally friendly practices [such as] agro forestry [and minding our native uplands].
There are many issues that have to be addressed in that particular case, and the use of locally led, output-driven environment schemes will help towards that.

There is a public good element to everything that is done. There is a tourism element also. If we do everything else right, with our beautiful natural landscape, the good marketing people in Fáilte Ireland and other organisations, improved road networks and improved awareness through the Internet and so on, we have the ability to attract a great number of tourists in terms of what we have to offer on our land. We should draw the whole package together.

It is too simplistic just to have an agricultural policy for our land. We are selling ourselves short. We should use that as part of the constructive defence of our position. Malta produces 2% emissions from agriculture. The European Union average is 10%. I do not know Germany's output percentage-wise, but I am sure its heavy industry is pulling down its agriculture. We have a very small output from heavy industry in this country but nobody has measured its efficiency. That is a percentage that does not come into any discussions because it is a relatively low percentage, but could it be lower? Could we produce food while generating fewer emissions? I am sure we can improve, and we must keep improving, but we should do that against the backdrop of trying to produce food in an efficient way for ourselves, Europe and the world, because in the global context, simply cutting down on food production, as the Minister outlined in the statistics he presented on the growing food demand, is not the answer. We should not overestimate the growing middle class. That is a point, but it is not the most important point. Food demand is increasing. People expect to get food. We have a moral obligation to feed the planet and a moral obligation to take care of the planet. That is what we are here for. Farmers, through the centuries, have been curators of the land. There is nothing nicer than looking out at a healthy crop, a healthy field of grass or a healthy field of cattle or sheep. That is what we like to see, and that is from where we draw our satisfaction. We like to be paid for doing it, but that is the key point. As long as farmers are given the tools to do that, they will do it in the most efficient way, but we need to have a climate change debate that is honest. The basis of that debate should be facts, not perception.

Question put and agreed to.

The Dáil adjourned at 12.50 p.m. until 1.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 28 April 2015.