Wednesday, 4 May 2016
I congratulate the new President of the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, Joe Healy. Cohesive, strong and united farming organisations are very important to the representation of Irish farming interests. I consider the IFA to be very important. It has been through a difficult period and now has new leadership following an election. I wish Joe Healy well in the challenges he will face and I look forward to working with him, if I have the privilege of being Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the future.
As Members are aware, the agrifood sector has performed strongly in recent years despite very difficult economic circumstances, with exports reaching an estimated €10.83 billion in 2015, an increase of more than 50% since 2009. However, price volatility has been an increasing feature of agricultural markets in recent times. The Department has introduced several measures to support farmers in this context, including a volatility package agreed by the Agriculture Council in September for the dairy and pigmeat sectors which was matched by national funding, making a package of €27 million. The extension of income averaging from three to five years in budget 2015 was also aimed at responding to these challenges. The Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 is a vital support through farm investment, agri-environment schemes and knowledge transfer schemes, as well as many other support programmes, and is worth approximately €4 billion to the Irish farming sector.
The Department also continues to explore additional funding mechanisms for the agrifood sector. Since its launch, the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, has made 4,619 loans amounting to €172 million drawn down by small and medium enterprises, SMEs, and 26% of all the lending through that fund has gone to the agriculture and agrifood sector. In March, the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, Glanbia, Rabobank and Finance Ireland announced the creation of a new €100 million Glanbia milkflex fund which will offer flexible, competitively priced loans to Glanbia milk suppliers with loan repayments which can vary according to movements in milk price and season. I would like to see that kind of thinking, resulting in new financial products, coming from other banks to make sure that opportunity, in terms of the flexibility and design of farming and farming income linked to repayment profiles, is available to dairy farmers in other parts of the country, but also in other agricultural sectors. Financial instruments are also being considered for inclusion in the rural development programme.
Turning to recent developments in schemes being rolled out and payments to farmers, the two main direct payment schemes delivered under the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, are the areas of natural constraint, ANC, scheme and the basic payment scheme, BPS. To date, payments of over €203 million have been made to 95,849 applicants under the ANC scheme, which many farmers would know as the disadvantaged area payment scheme. Ireland is among the earliest to pay the BPS in the European Union and commenced payments on 16 October 2015. To date, 125,676 farmers have received payments totalling €1.144 billion. This covers over 99% of applicants. I do not think any other country in Europe has that record. In particular, a significant percentage of farmers are still unpaid in our closest neighbour. Preparations for the 2016 ANC and BPS are well under way and the closing date for these schemes is 16 May.
I urge all farmers to apply as soon as possible and, where practicable, to avail of the online facility. It is much easier for us to get payments out quickly if we receive applications online. That is why we are encouraging farmers to use the facility. We accept that some farmers will have difficulty in doing so and we will, of course, accept paper applications.
During 2015, six new schemes were announced under the targeted agricultural measures schemes, TAMS. The second tranche for TAMS II closed on 25 March and approvals will commence when all of the required checks have been undertaken.
In regard to tillage and sheep fencing, I am delighted to announce that I have received informal approval from the Commission for the inclusion of a specific scheme for investment in respect of tillage farmers and the inclusion of sheep fencing as an investment item under the existing TAMS. I am very conscious of the fact that it has been a difficult number of years, in terms of pricing, for tillage farmers. I received a request from tillage farmers to try to put a tillage TAMS in place and for the past six months we have worked to get approval from the Commission for the scheme. It is hoped the scheme will be launched in the coming weeks.
I refer to knowledge transfer. Under the new rural development programme, €100 million is being provided to support farmers in terms of upskilling and training via knowledge transfer or discussion groups. Preparations are being finalised for the launch of knowledge transfer groups across six sectors, namely, beef, dairy, sheep, tillage, equine and poultry.
I am very conscious that the past 12 months have been very challenging for dairy farmers due to decreasing prices. The longer-term demographic and demand perspectives remain positive, but 2016 will also be a challenging year for dairy farmers. The focus is now on helping producers through a difficult time. In this respect, I very much welcome the package of support measures to address the challenges in the dairy and pigmeat sectors agreed in Brussels at last month's Council meeting. This package contains a number of proposals put forward by Ireland, including doubling the intervention ceiling for skim milk powder and butter and the Commissioner's commitment to consider further flexibilities in both the private storage aid scheme for skim milk powder and the state aid regime.
I have called on the Commission to consider the temporary suspension of EU import tariffs on fertilisers and I understand it is looking favourably at this request. It would make a major difference. The price of fertiliser should be coming down in any event as a result of the significant reduction in oil prices.
The Presidency conclusions also referred to the possibility of advance payments under the CAP this year, as was done last year. I also welcomed the proposal for the European Investment Bank and member states to work together with the Commission on the flexibility of an EU export credit tool, something which processors been seeking for quite some time.
I convened a meeting of the dairy forum on 9 March, at which I tasked the stakeholders present with developing on-farm financial planning for dairy farmers. The group met last week, under the chairmanship of my Department, and agreed to organise a series of events this year in that regard. It is about helping farmers through a temporary price problem. A number of people in the Chamber will have a detailed understanding of that.
Pigmeat prices have come under pressure in the past year and a half. Given the strategic importance of the sector to our agri-economy, last year I established a pig industry stakeholder group, chaired by Dr. Sean Brady. The group completed its report in February and presented it to the Food Wise 2025 high-level implementation committee that I chair. My Department is working on a plan for its intimidation the context of the Food Wise 2025 strategy. My priority at the March meeting of the Council of Agriculture Ministers in Brussels was to secure the reopening of the pigmeat private storage aid scheme and I am pleased to note that the Commission has agreed to the reopening of the scheme in 2016.
Ireland has also requested that the Commission intensify efforts to unlock the Russian market, which is a major market for the pigmeat sector in Europe. In the interim, the direct aid package payment has been issued to all pig farmers in Ireland with a minimal level of supply of 200 pigs slaughtered in 2015. In blunt terms, this means a flat rate payment of over €3,000 to each pig farmer.
A specific €30 million envelope for dairy and pigmeat has been made available under the EU promotion scheme. Ireland, through Bord Bia, will make an application for a proportion of that funding in the very near future.
As Deputies are aware, I have allocated €300 million to the beef data and genomics programme, BDGP, scheme. The ambition is to generate an uplift in the quality of the genetic merit of the national herd and a more environmentally efficient herd as well as contributing to the income stream of suckler farmers. In total, there are more than 25,500 farmers in the scheme now and to date almost €38 million has been issued in payments to approximately 20,700 of those applicants. If one looks at the genetic profile change in the dairy herd in the past ten years the resulting impact in terms of things like feed conversion efficiency, yield and overall efficiency and profitability in the dairy sector has been dramatic We can do the same for the suckler herd and that is why we are investing this money strategically. The scheme is supporting incomes for suckler farmers but it is also changing the genetic base of the herd, allowing farmers to make much more informed choices around breeding programmes that can help get more efficient, faster growing animals that reduce the methane output from those herds. It is a win-win across a whole series of areas.
The establishment of a framework for producer organisations in the beef sector was a key outcome of the beef roundtable or beef forum, as it is known. I introduced a statutory instrument in February of this year which gives legal recognition for the first time in Ireland to producer organisations in the beef sector. My Department is currently working with various groups in terms of making that a reality. The relationship between beef farmers and factories in the past has been based on tension, lobbying and a lack of trust. We are going to change that. We are going to set up a much more professional relationship where farmer-owned producer organisations have the legal entitlement to negotiate on price, quality and a range of issues concerned to get a better deal for farmers. That approach has worked in other countries and it will work here too. It is a big priority for the incoming Government to get the system up and running and functioning for farmers in a way they can trust.
In terms of new markets, 2015 was a very successful year for meat exports. Overall exports of beef, sheepmeat, pigmeat and poultry increased by €140 million to €3.5 billion. The opening of the US market to Irish beef in early 2015 has provided an important outlet that holds enormous potential for future development given that we are the first EU member state to gain access. In the first quarter of 2016 approximately 700 tonnes of beef with a value of €6 million are estimated to have been exported, continuing the positive trends from last year. We continue to build on progress in the biggest beef market in the world. We will create an exciting niche market for Irish beef in the US market.
Significant progress has also been made along the path to securing access to the Chinese market for Irish beef with the lifting of the BSE ban by China in February 2015, and an inspection visit by a Chinese delegation to Ireland was hosted in January 2016. We are currently awaiting the report of this inspection team and preparatory work has commenced to help facilitate a follow-up visit, which we hope will take place later this year.
A wide range of other market access opportunities are being actively pursued at present: Israel, South Korea, Vietnam, Mexico and Ukraine. In addition, a Turkish delegation will visit Ireland next week to consider the potential opportunities for live exports to Turkey, which is a massive live export opportunity as long as we can do it properly, ensure the standards are right and that we develop the kind of commercial relationships that can be the basis of a lasting and very important outlet for a growing suckler herd.
On trade issues, I have been very active in highlighting the potentially very damaging impact of a Mercosur deal on the European agriculture sector, and on the beef sector in particular. I am particularly concerned about a draft offer circulated to member states ahead of a planned formal exchange of offers with the Mercosur bloc on 11 May.
My misgivings are shared by a large number of my member state colleagues who have spoken on this issue at recent Council of Ministers meetings, and we have been working together to ensure these concerns are fully understood by the Commissioner for Trade and by the Commissioner for Agriculture, who understands our concerns in detail.
While I have comments prepared on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, I understand Members will have a debate on it in the next few weeks and perhaps I will wait until then. I ask the Ceann Comhairle for a little latitude because this debate has been extended and I believe, if it is acceptable to the House, that colleagues might be interested in one or two other matters.
I wish to make a number of points strongly in respect of Brexit. Members are aware that the prospect of a UK vote to leave the European Union presents potentially highly significant challenges for Ireland. This is especially true from an agrifood sector perspective. The figures speak for themselves as the UK is by far the largest trading partner for Ireland. According to the Central Statistics Office, in 2015 we exported almost €5.1 billion worth of agricultural products and our imports from the UK were worth €3.8 billion. Although there still is great uncertainty about the outcome and the changed landscape if the UK decides to leave, the Government has started to consider the likely arrangements to be made in the event of an exit vote. The treatment of four main areas - namely, tariffs and trade, EU budgets, regulations and standards, and customs controls and certification - will impinge on the agrifood sector. In addition, the immediate impact of a Brexit obviously would mean a dramatic reduction in the value of the pound. Those Members who understand how the agrifood trade works across the Border, as do most, will be aware that the strength of the British pound has driven strong prices at a time when prices have been quite weak in the rest of Europe, particularly in respect of beef last year. Consequently, with half of its beef exports going there, the United Kingdom is Ireland's biggest beef market by far. If the pound is strong, it makes us highly price-competitive. However, were the pound to weaken dramatically, as it undoubtedly would were the United Kingdom to decide to leave, Ireland would have competitiveness problems with both beef and dairy prices and across a range of other services, technologies and agrifood products. This is a major issue for Ireland and Members should be following it closely. I am and will be in Northern Ireland for at least one if not two meetings to talk about these issues with regard to the interests of farmers in the Six Counties in the context of this vote.
I wish to address briefly the fisheries sector to raise some key issues that are of interest to some Members present. The possibility of Brexit poses the risk of a serious and complex situation for Ireland's fishing industry, as the UK is our second largest single market for seafood after France. The most complex fisheries issues are those related to the possibility of restricted access to fishing grounds and resources. The most likely approach would involve complex negotiations to try to determine how mutual access to shared traditional fishing grounds could be maintained and to address possible new sharing arrangements for fish stocks. It obviously is in Ireland’s interests for the United Kingdom to remain in the EU and this is particularly the case with regard to the two sectors to which I have referred today.
Before I conclude, I will touch on an issue currently facing the fisheries sector. I have been considering all the concerns raised by Deputies and by the fishing industry on the implementation of the EU points system for serious infringements of the Common Fisheries Policy. In this respect, I met representatives of the fishing industry yesterday morning and had a long and direct discussion on these issues. I also have asked the Attorney General, as a matter of urgency, to examine the statutory instrument I signed into law at the beginning of March. I have asked her in particular to consider the issue of whether there is a way in which the assignment of points for licence holders can await the completion of the prosecution process, while at the same time ensuring that Ireland is fully in compliance with its obligations under EU law. Some Members of this House have raised the issue of trying to vote down the statutory instrument that I introduced in this regard a number of weeks ago.
My point is that I hear what Members have said.
I have asked the Attorney General, as a matter of urgency, to change the focus of that statutory instrument - which, by way, is not yet in effect, despite what many people have been saying - to take account of the main concern. That is, that if somebody is found innocent by a court, their penalty points would be removed. In fact, we have asked the Attorney General to examine whether penalty points would be held back until a prosecution is concluded. I will have that legal advice shortly and hopefully it will deal with many people's concerns on this issue. This is a matter of law and legal advice. We are trying to be as open and helpful as we can be.
It is my intention to report back to the Oireachtas as soon as I have received the Attorney General’s advice and I have examined a way forward in the context of that advice. Subject to that advice, I would be open to amending the current statutory instrument to move further towards meeting the concerns raised on the assignment of points following the completion of the prosecution process.
There are other current issues, including landing obligations, pelagic controls and cameras on boats, which we also discussed with fishing industry representatives yesterday.
I am aware that across the farming sector this has been a difficult 12 months. We need to plan for the rest of the year to ensure that we do not have beef price problems later in the year on foot of an increasing herd. That is why live cattle exports to new markets such as Turkey are so important. We also need to ensure that we help the dairy sector to get through a temporary pricing problem. It is a temporary problem, but it is a very real one.
Many of the measures I have outlined are an appropriate response to many of those challenges. We will continue to design new responses as the year progresses through the beef and dairy forums, where there is direct debate with all the stakeholders involved. I look forward to hearing what Deputies have to say. I cannot be here for the entire debate because there are other issues going on today in which I am very involved, but I will stay for as much of the debate as I can. I hope Deputies will understand that.
I join with the Minister in wishing Joe Healy the best of luck in his new role as IFA president. He assumes the position at an extremely difficult time for our industry.
I have listened intently to the Minister for the last 20 minutes. In his concluding remarks he tried to synopsise the industry's problems. Unfortunately, however, I do not think he fully realises the crisis in the agricultural industry. For the first time in living memory, in all sectors, every primary producer is producing below cost. At the March meeting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council, there was no proposal to put an extra cent on any agricultural produce. I was disappointed to hear that at the April Council we had no elected representative in attendance at a time when we are in such a crisis. The Minister focused on the dairy industry and said there was a temporary blip, but the monthly Dairy Board reports show there is no end in sight for current prices. At the weekend, I spoke to a number of producers who have had a difficult spring which put milk under pressure. One of them told me he would get 19 cent per litre for his April milk. I did not improve his mood by saying that he would get that only if his co-operative or processor does not drop the price of April milk.
We are only 12 months into the post-quota system, yet unfortunately a number of dairy farmers will go bankrupt this year. We have to provide financial help for them but, as yet, there is no proposal to try to alleviate this major income crisis. The Minister referred to banks, and farmers currently have heavy borrowings. For the past four or five years we had a good news story with targets for Harvest 2020. Teagasc was pushing extra milk volumes, but we did not realise that the rest of northern Europe would increase production to the extent it has.
However, the average cost of credit in this country is the highest in the EU. Not alone will farmers have to get cheaper credit, they will have to get a holiday from repayments for 2016. Otherwise, they will go bankrupt. Co-ops will have to carry the trade debt for 2016. The Government must put proposals on the table to lift milk prices. The only way prices can be lifted in the medium term is through an increase in the price of intervention. The Minister earlier spoke about the ceilings for product intervention being lifted. While this is welcome, it is doing nothing for the price of milk. We have to get at least 26 cent to 28 cent per litre from intervention. Unfortunately, the best market for our product is intervention. The Minister will probably say that if the intervention price is increased, it will only prolong the agony. The reality on the ground, however, is that if the intervention price is not increased, some of our 17,500 milk producers, who are the best in the world, will go bankrupt. An increase in the intervention price is the only way to increase farm gate prices and it must be facilitated immediately.
The ban on trade with Russia and a drop in demand in China further complicate what is happening in the dairy sector. The reality is, however, that production is above the level of demand. Until the position in this regard returns to equilibrium, prices will not return to a reasonable level. The onus is on the Minister to ensure that our producers, who have significant potential for the rural economy as well as the economy as a whole, will be able to survive 2016. As it stands, there is no sign 2017 will be any better. With milk prices at 22 cent per litre, our milk producers cannot survive and will have to get financial assistance to get them through this price slump.
The Minister spoke about the beef producers groups. Live exports fell by 25% last year. There has been talk about new markets opening for live exports but no stock is moving at any significant level. One company has monopolised the industry and owns 50% of rendering capacity. It is able to determine what farmers will get for their cattle. The only way to tackle this is by bringing the beef kill to under 30,000 head per week. The only way to do this is through live exports. It is projected that between 80,000 to 90,000 extra cattle will have to be slaughtered this year with another 100,000 extra cattle in 2017. Live exports are the only way to keep that balanced but there are no cattle moving. I am concerned about what the processors will do to us in the second half of 2016.
The Minister referred to the beef forum which was to address the age and weight restrictions and the beef grid. Unfortunately, nothing has happened.
All those weapons are still being used by the processors to pay less to farmers for cattle. We need at least €200 per cow in the beef genomic scheme to keep our beef suckler herd in place. This matter needs to be examined under the mid-term review.
The Minister referred to the Mercosur deal on the European agriculture sector and the potential damage that could be done by 78,000 tonnes of extra beef from Latin America coming into the EU. The thought of it is enough to send a shiver up one’s spine. We are still producing under the costs of production. If this quantity of South American beef, the equivalent of 2 million extra cattle, is allowed into the EU, our beef industry will be in terminal decline. We have quality assurance and the best traceability. We have put the significant investment into ensuring we meet all the EU standards which the consumer rightly demands. If we allow beef of an unequal standard to ours to come into the EU, it will make a mockery of this significant investment. It will finish the beef industry once and for all. Up to 90% of our beef goes to the EU market. If this Mercosur deal goes ahead, we can forget about our beef industry.
Both the grain and pig sectors are generating product at below cost levels. Reports state that 15,000 ha will be left fallow this spring. They are probably the only grain producers who will not lose money on that ground. The pig industry is in terminal decline because the processors have a vice-like grip on it.
If feed prices go down by €10 per tonne, one can be sure as night follows day that pig prices will drop the week after. The retailers and processors are squeezing the pig producers in a vice-like grip and both must be tackled. The pig producers must get a meaningful return in respect of what is paid by consumers. If this does not happen quickly, pig producers will be like the sugar beet industry. The pig industry will be no more. Our sheep industry is worth €220 million to the economy and involves 34,000 farmers. Again, the mid-term review needs to deliver a €20 premium per ewe to sheep farmers.
In respect of the problems caused by volatility, the Minister said that income averaging has been extended. However, the reality is that when farmers go to pay their tax bill in 2016, they will have no cash flow to do so. They will have to borrow money to pay their tax bill, which is not a viable option going forward. The Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, ICMSA, has proposed a deposit scheme whereby farmers can pay tax on money in a good year and put money into a deposit scheme to be taxed at the corporation tax rate so the money will be there to pay tax in a year like 2016. This proposal must be examined by the Minister for Finance and I hope the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine will push it with the Minister for Finance.
The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine referred to the fertiliser tariff. European farmers spend €1 billion on fertiliser while we spend €500 million in this country. The Minister spoke about a temporary scrapping of the tariff. It is essential that it is scrapped immediately to bring down the costs of production in Europe.
We have problems with direct payments. The Minister spoke about bringing forward the date of direct payments. This would be welcome but the same amount of money will be paid to farmers. The Department's performance in respect of direct payments last year was poor. Farmers who established partnerships, formed companies or received the Scottish derogation faced major delays in accessing those payments. It is essential that those payments are made on time this year when income will be at such a low ebb.
It has been said that the national reserve and young farmers scheme will not operate in 2016. It is essential that we have a national reserve but this cannot be funded by a linear cut to other farmers' payments, which have been cut enough. I understand that there is a proposal to cut another 2% to fund the national reserve. This cannot happen and the EU has to find the resources to fund the national reserve and young farmers scheme. The farmers' charter must be reactivated and payment targets must be met to give it some bite.
The operation of the first targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS I, has been very poor. Farmers who were waiting for approval in the back end of 2015 in respect of essential work in farmyards and milking parlours got temporary approvals. They are now waiting for payment with no sign of it coming in the next couple of months. This is inexcusable given that farmers are strapped for cash and a charter must be put in place with strict guidelines to ensure that when work on a farmyard is finished, payment comes without delay.
The food sector is worth €24 billion to our economy and constitutes 10% of Ireland's exports and 7.7% of national employment. Its value to the rural economy and the economy as a whole cannot be overestimated. The Minister spoke about the potential danger of a British exit from the EU but unless something is done about farm gate prices, the very significant potential of our industry will be lost. Farmers cannot survive on the prices they are getting in the dairy, beef, grain, sheep and pig meat sectors. Action must be taken and the onus is on the Minister, or whoever occupies his seat in the next week or ten days, to ensure measures are put in place by the Government or the Commission to put extra money in farmers' pockets and increase farm gate prices.
Intervention is the only way to do it on the dairy side and live exports are the only way to do it on the beef side. If we are to realise the potential and the targets of Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025, the primary producer has to get a decent return. The onus will be on the Minister of the day - whether it is the present Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, or someone else in the next week or ten days - to ensure it is delivered.
At the outset, I would like to be associated with the wishes of support for Joe Healy, the new president of the IFA. Hopefully he will bring radical change to that organisation and restore trust among the wider farming community.
Under the Minister's watch, agriculture has slid into a crisis in so many sectors that I do not know where to start. I am inundated with calls and visits to my constituency office from farmers who are in desperation. When a new Government is formed, I do not know whether Deputy Coveney will still be the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and in the driving seat. Many would argue that he is leaving behind a legacy of neglect of the vulnerable sectors. Many, particularly in the farming community, are of the opinion that the Minister's Government has been a champion of the big farmer. They are also very critical of the leaders of certain farming organisations who were seen to be similarly supportive of the big boys to the detriment of many farmers born and raised in the proud tradition of agricultural production in Ireland who are beginning to realise there is no future for their children or their children's children in farming. That is an awful indictment not only of the Minister's Government but also of previous Governments. We have seen the championing of big farms as good and great, and small and medium-sized farmers and family farms have suffered terribly as a consequence.
Did the Minister really consider, during his time at the head of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the role of a progressive Minister in rural Ireland? Rural Ireland is very dependent on the family farm for its survival. The number of people leaving small family farms in the last decade or two has had terrible social consequences for rural Ireland. It is an indictment of the entire political system in this House. Does the Minister even consider that his place at the Cabinet table is intended to be a representative and supportive role for the man and woman who, by their efforts and skill, produce the clean, green, wholesome produce of Irish farms?
When I talk about Irish farms and family farms I am talking about people who work seven days a week, who are up all night either lambing ewes or calving heifers and who go out in hail, rain and snow and, unfortunately often this past while, through hell and high water to produce the very best agrifood in the world. They need their Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the leaders of the farming organisations to stand up for them but, unfortunately, the record of the past is that they have not stood up for them. They have given platitudes to the big, progressive farmer to the detriment of the small and medium-sized family farm. What is the point of a Minister who does not look at the most important link in the food chain - that is, the person who actually produces the food?
Let us look at the dairy sector. I remember watching the news on RTE at the end of March 2015. George Lee was excited about the end of the milk quotas and was talking as if the dairy sector had won the lotto. The Minister was there. If one opened one's mouth and urged caution, one was seen as somebody who did not know what they were talking about. Sinn Féin and I were criticised at that time for being naive because we were advising caution and warning that the obvious consequences of the removal of the quota would be an increase in production and a drop in prices. That was plain and evident for anybody to see, yet Irish farmers and people who were not even involved in the dairy sector were encouraged by the Minister, the leaders of the farming organisations and the processors to go into dairy production.
They were also encouraged by the banks.
George Lee and the Minister said Sinn Féin was against everything. He said markets in Asia were opening up and everything would be great if Irish farmers could just rise to the occasion.
At the national dairy conference in November of the previous year, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, went so far as to say: "The shackles come off next April and following that we will have an exciting mix of opportunity and challenge for all stakeholders." The shackles came off and the stakeholders, the producers, are the ones on their knees. The ending of quotas at a time of growing world demand was the opportunity of the century for the dairy sector, according to Bord Bia chief executive, Aidan Cotter. It is very easy for Mr. Cotter to say that given that he is earning €150,000 a year. The man with 25, 30 or 35 cows is out throughout the winter in the worst of weather, trying to put bread on the table for his family and trying to make ends meet.
We were told there was an opportunity in markets in China, India and Africa where a growing middle class was seeking sources of healthy protein. Farmers were encouraged to prepare for this bonanza or else they would not be competitive in this growing world market. Irish dairy farmers did what was advised and invested heavily in stock, equipment and buildings in order to rise to the massive opportunity and not be found wanting when it arrived. As Deputies know, many people involved in the tillage sector in the south east went out of tillage and into dairy farming. As a consequence of going into dairy farming, they had to borrow from the very start. They had to borrow to build milking parlours and to put in all the necessary infrastructure to avail of this great bonanza that was being propagated by the senior parties in this House and the leaders of the farming organisations.
I do not have to remind people that we bailed out the banks, against the will of many of us. The banks were encouraging people to borrow and invest, and many farmers took the credit that was offered. I am hearing from farmers that they are getting as little as 22 cent a litre, when to break even they need to make over 27 cent a litre and many would say 30 cent a litre. They now find themselves in trouble with their lenders who are horrified by the predictions that there is no price increase on the horizon until 2017. This means that people who are selling below the cost of production are going further into debt without any real support coming from the Government or the EU and they are being pressurised by the banks.
The problem is made worse by the fact that all dairy farmers are in the same position and, therefore, it is impossible to sell animals to ease the losses as no farmer wants to buy at this time. It is time for the Commissioner, Mr. Phil Hogan, in Brussels to stand up and look for an increase in intervention prices. I support Deputy Cahill in saying that we need a substantial increase in intervention prices.
It is also very important for the Minister to stand up to the big multiples and seek a fair price to get farmers through the difficult times. There is considerable length between the producers and the big multiples. Do we know what the producers are paid by the big multiples? We know what the farmer gets and we know what the consumer pays, but in between we cannot determine. We need to find a mechanism to address that aspect. We know what the producers get for the milk they are buying for 22 cent a litre. We want to know that the multiples are paying the producers. That is where we have to start.
In Britain, some supermarkets are selling chilled milk for a few pence more and passing that on to the farmers, being proactive in ensuring that the farmers will be able to continue. Those big supermarkets are playing a positive role in adding on a few pence a litre which can be observed by the retailer and so forth. At least it gives some help to the farmers.
My colleague in the North, the Minister, Ms Michelle O'Neill, is working with farmers to put pressure on banks and other lenders to be sympathetic and flexible. The Minister, Ms Michelle O'Neill, has written to the banks in Ulster. I have been invited with the Minister, Ms Michelle O'Neill, to go and meet the Ulster banks. Is this happening here, in this part of our country?
Nothing has come out of it. Political pressure needs to be put on so they will have to listen to the people and the producer, the person at the bottom of the ladder. It is up to us as elected representatives to ensure that is the case. They were quite willing to take the money from the people's pockets in order to bail themselves out. What have they done in order to reciprocate for the people most in need, the victims of their reckless lending? They were encouraged to lend to these farm producers.
We need Government action on this crisis as it will not resolve itself and farmers cannot be allowed to go under because of a lack of support. There is an air of quiet desperation out there among farmers who are being harassed by banks because they are in trouble with repayments. The Government should be looking out for farmers and supporting them. It is the job of the Minister and whoever comes after him to look after Irish agriculture. Vulture funds are in the here and now and they are threatening Irish farmers already. We need to challenge the vulture funds, where so-called non-performing loans are being sold at a knock-down price. They become involved in the eviction of people from their homes and farms.
I am fed up to the back teeth hearing that the market rules everything and that it is somehow just and right that somebody could lose their house or farm in an international financial deal that has no benefit for this country or its people. How can that be fair? These questions must be asked and answered. I am fed up hearing about profitability for banks and how we must protect it while we leave Irish people at the mercy of international financial vultures. That is what is happening now. Who benefits from that? Where does the Minister stand on vulture funds and loans being sold at a fraction of their cost while people, through no fault of their own, default on those loans and are shown no flexibility, understanding or mercy by the banks that the same people bailed out?
Some of those people are beef farmers, a sector that has seen one crisis after another over the past few years. I welcome that the Minister is trying to ensure we have a live trade output and I hope the deal with Turkey comes to fruition. The Minister's response to the beef issue was to set up the beef forum, which, according to farmers, has turned out to be ineffective and nothing more than a talking shop.
What will the Minister say about the latest leaks about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, published by Greenpeace? Will the US comply with European standards in agriculture? I doubt it. The leaked documents indicate that the US side is being influenced by chemical companies and commercial fuel firms. Here again is "big brother" influencing a negotiation that we as a small country will be compelled to follow if Europe capitulates to the demands of TTIP. It is a large and uncontrollable process. The Minister is telling us nothing and perhaps he knows nothing about the deal. It is not his job but what will happen to Irish agriculture under TTIP? We need to know the consequences. I was part of the last agricultural committee and it was one of the few committees to contribute to the debate on TTIP. I commend all Deputies from every persuasion who contributed to it. Deputy Deering spoke in that debate. Other committees did not even bother to debate it or were not encouraged to do so, which is wrong. This affects everybody.
Nobody has mentioned the comprehensive economic trade agreement with Canada and we need answers on it. What are its consequences given that it will take in genetically modified organism, GMO, production? The GMO aspect is a motivation but we in Europe are supposed to be outside of that. I have raised the matter of GMO production since the early 2000s, when I first came here. I was told that my party should bring motions through county councils to make those areas GMO-free and I am thankful that has worked to some degree. Is it true, for example, that the US wants to oblige the EU to inform American industries of planned regulation and allow them to influence the regulatory process to the same extent as European industries? These are serious questions.
There are other issues in rural Ireland besides farming that need urgent attention. The Government is stripping services and neglecting infrastructure and this has an effect. We want all farming to thrive and prosper, and there are many people living in rural Ireland who do not farm but who are dependent on farming. The way rural Ireland has been managed or mismanaged means there is much desperation in parts of our country. If the young people have not already gone, they are forgotten and left with poverty of opportunity. Could the Minister imagine being 19 or 20 in a small village in rural Ireland and not being able to find a job? What if there is no transport to allow that person to commute or if access to places where there might be a job or further education is limited? Does the Minister realise that in many areas where there are jobs-----
Young people in rural Ireland may have the opportunity to work ten, 15 or 20 miles away. If they take such jobs and seek insurance for their cars, they may have to pay between €4,000 and €10,000 for it. I have dealt with such cases. There is no public transport and the opportunity for a job may be 15 or 20 miles away so a person cannot take it if he or she cannot afford the insurance. If such people pay the insurance, they would be working for nothing or perhaps at a loss.
I refer, finally, to the statutory instrument regarding penalty points on fishing. I welcome-----
I will not allow fishing to be neglected. In the past two weeks, I met representatives of the fishing organisations. I commend the Minister on saying he is listening to us. I asked Deputy Boyd Barrett of People Before Profit to support a motion before the House on which we could vote to overturn the statutory instrument. It penalised people without any access to the courts and irrespective of the outcome in the courts, they will still have to carry penalty points. Will the Minister explain what legal advice he got before signing the statutory instrument? He is now looking to the Attorney General for advice but he signed the statutory instrument without any legal advice.
I ask the Deputy to conclude and not to take any more latitude. We gave some latitude to the Minister and, in fairness, there are plenty of other Deputies who wish to speak. We have lengthened the debate to allow Deputies have their say. I ask the Deputy to conclude and I call Deputy Penrose.
In conclusion, the most neglected sector of our economy has been the inshore fishing fleet. It has been decimated and suffered enormous consequences because of decisions taken by past Governments. Will the Minister ensure the statutory instrument is eliminated?
An accusation has been made that I made a decision without legal advice when I signed the statutory instrument a number of weeks ago, which is not in effect to date. I took advice from the Attorney General at that point and it was on the basis of that advice that I made that decision. It is important to correct the record on that.
At the outset I join colleagues in congratulating Mr. Joe Healy on his elevation to president of the Irish Farmers Association. He has a new broom and will help to restore trust in this important representative organisation. I also wish Mr. Eddie Downey well; he is a decent man who put his heart and soul into the job. He is a person of great integrity and I wish him and his family well into the future.
I also want to signal my support and that of the Labour Party for the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers' Association, ICSA, whose members have for too long been treated as Cinderellas and jilted bridesmaids by previous Governments. I acknowledge that the Minister brought it into the fold and I am glad he played a pivotal role in helping it achieve its deserved status in terms of equal treatment and access. I am very proud of the role it has played as a strong farming advocacy organisation, especially on behalf of the drystock farming community. I remember in the 1990s when it was a lone voice advocating its case and not too many wanted to hear it, but I persisted along with them and I am very proud of the role that Eddie Punch and all those people have played in farming representation since then.
I am glad to hear everybody talking about quotas and everything else because I was one of the people who spoke at length in the agriculture committee about the danger of having unlimited production and allowing it so quickly. It was portrayed as a panacea for Irish farmers; that is how it was presented to them. I had a view that it was extremely dangerous for farmers to proceed on this path and invest huge sums of money. Indeed, I warned the banks at the time that it was a recipe for disaster. They were predicating it on the idea that the price would take off at 27 or 28 cent and continue to rise forever. The fact that something is bigger does not mean it will be better. That means that eventually we will have fewer farmers. They will all be industrial-sized farms across the rural landscape. That is exactly what will happen. That is ultimately what results from the abolition of quotas. Milk production will be brought on by corporations, and the individual farmers and their sons and daughters, who work long hours, as Deputy Ferris has said, and who work extremely hard right through the night during calving season, will be the sacrificial lambs in the rush.
It reminded me of when I was a young agriculture student in the 1970s. I remember the clamour across the country when every Minister for agriculture had to descend from a plane and bring the goodies - six or eight pence per gallon, and so on. If the Minister did not do so, he or she was denigrated in here. There were debates in which it was said that Ministers were good for nothing and that they had failed. I remember doing a study as part of my undergraduate research. At that time - the very early 1970s - we mostly had shorthorn cows and very little else, averaging 480 gallons per cow. Every time we got an increase, of course, it was Europe-wide. The Dutch at that time were at about 720 gallons per cow and they had the benefit of cheap manioc, tapioca, maize and so on coming into the port of Rotterdam. The increased price might incentivise people and we might go up 40 gallons over a period of two years, but they actually went up by 100 gallons because they had cheap food and everything else. The more we got, the wider the differential in terms of ultimate production at the end. That is always the danger.
The danger was present with sheep as well. I remember the time when one could not go across the midlands of Ireland without seeing the whole place dotted with sheep. There were people who got into sheep who did not know them. Some of them did not know the difference between a ewe and a lamb. I warned about that at the time. Rooks come home to roost. I am always very worried about what happens in those situations, particularly for the farmers who have invested. They were warned; the likes of myself gave warnings. I have experience of it: I was an agriculture consultant for a number of years and I studied economics in agriculture as well.
I am deeply concerned about the way things are moving at this point in time. Volatility has increased in the dairy sector for various reasons, but generally it is a question of a mismatch between supply and demand. There are other factors at play. As I said before, dairy is unusual in that minor changes in supply and demand, or scarcity or oversupply, can lead to major changes in price. The reason is that the lag time in dairy is one and a half to two or three years, unlike other industries. If someone has a car business and demand falls off, it can be closed down straight away. One cannot do that in dairying - there is no tap that can simply be turned off. Since 2007, the frequency and magnitude of change has increased quite dramatically. In that period up to now, there has been a 240% sway. That is what happens: people respond. It is like the spider and the fly. We respond to what is out there. Weather shocks are having a bigger impact and we have moved from a regulated market to a free market, with little product subsidisation and very few refunds nowadays. As most Members have said, intervention is well below the price now, with some of them still paying 22 or 23 cent across the country. I urge the co-ops to be farmer-friendly at this time and release some of that money. There seems to be a lot of money swirling around, but now is the time to help people in respect of fertiliser costs and everything else.
A further complication for us is the seasonality of the grass production. We have a huge comparative advantage in our milk production, but we have a peak-to-trough ratio of 7:1, whereas the rest of Europe is quite flat. We have peaks and troughs, and that is part of the problem. If 75% of milk is produced over a short period - maybe half the year - and the market is very firm, then much of the milk is bought at that price, or if the market is very weak, it compounds the volatility, whereas the flat curve that occurs in the rest of Europe almost has a natural hedge built into it, so they will not suffer as much. We have all of that. That is why we are different and that is why the release of the quotas and unlimited production must be handled with great care.
I said here before that EU milk production was up 4.5% in 2014 and 1.6% last year. That is a cumulative increase of 6.1% and it represents a lot of milk. Why is it a lot of milk? Europe is seven times the size of the New Zealand market when it comes to milk output, so what happens in Europe is key. Everybody looks at the New Zealand market and the trade that is going on there, but the European market is a mall. On the demand side, the Russian ban has had a significant impact on EU exports, especially cheese. Russia was importing 30% of EU cheese and butter; that was 240,000 tonnes per annum, or 15% of EU exports, which was substantial. Then there was the Chinese market. In 2014, it took in about 2.2 billion litres of milk more than in 2013, and all of that collapsed. It is a funny thing.
The one thing I said here the last day was that the economic conditions in the US are improving and quantitative easing and low prices are helping to increase disposable income there and hopefully increase milk production, but dairy consumption, especially butterfat consumption, is making a recovery, which is positive news. Ten years ago, butter was the villain of the piece from a health perspective, with cholesterol and all of that, but now medical science is going the opposite way. That may be an opportunity. Ultimately, without China and Russia, demand is near 1.5% and we are increasing production by over double that. Unless we resort to intervention and so on, which I worry about - Lord save us and bless us if we get back into that. We have to try to get into niche products. The Minister is very strong on this. Niche products are the way to go to try to diversify. Of course, our baby milk powder market is bought.
Eventually, Russia's return to the process will make a significant change. The EU will ultimately have free trade with China, at least for dairy or agricultural food products, assuming a multi-sector agreement is not possible. There certainly has to be an increase in the intervention price, because it is significantly below the cost of production at present. The problem the Minister is speaking about is that 21 cent is very good for the Baltic states, as it is way above their costs, whereas it is not for us. That is the problem, and the Minister has to try to convince them at Commission level and everything else. I understand that. We have to look at what is going on, such as the flagrant use of liquid milk as a loss leader by retail corporations, as we discussed, and the possibility of introducing a ban on below-cost selling of food and food products. We have to get all of thisinto shape.
I also want to mention the drystock sector. The criticality of the agrifood sector to our economic position cannot be overestimated, as it accounts for almost €11 billion in exports, providing employment to 300,000 people directly in the industry and indirectly in our largest and most important indigenous productive sector.
At farm level, the perennial issue of profitability arises. Very often it is sectoral, but this year it represents a significant challenge across all of the sectors - pig, beef, dairy, grain and sheep. All of the sectors and enterprises are hit this year. The drystock sector, which I am extremely familiar with as I come from the midlands, continues to suffer from declining or virtually no income. Without the basic payments there would be no income at all. The sustainability of the sector would be doubtful without them. The problem with the basic payment system, however, is that it is lopsided. The aim of the Common Agricultural Policy was to maintain the maximum number of families in rural Ireland and to ensure safe, proper and adequate food supply at cheap prices to consumers. The problem with the basic payment system is that it was never meant for large corporations or companies. There are farmers getting €150,000 or €200,000. It is obscene. There should be a cap on that, with the excess given back to other farmers. The idea was to compensate them for not being able to produce food at that reasonable cost. If it means anything, they are the very people who should be assisted so that they can continue in their farming occupations and pass it on to their family. That is one of the reasons rural Ireland is in decline. That is the reason there is no money to pay or to spend. That is the reason rural shops are closing. I predict that it will be like the Wild West and we will have no shops between towns. In Westmeath, there would be no shops along the corridor between two major towns such as Longford and Mullingar. Post offices will eventually close, churches will close, and things will go out of existence because the population will not be there. However, if rural Ireland is subsidised in the way it is meant to be and the way the original CAP proposed, then we have a hope. We can have all the Ministers for rural development and Ministers for agriculture and Ministers for this, that and the other, but unless we change the focus and the way resources are allocated, we are at nought - it is all poppycock and great lip-service. It gets everybody on camera for RTE for a day, but nothing will change on the other 364 days, which are the days that count.
The weakness of and the decline in the value of sterling means a narrowing of the differential for steers secured from that source. Exchange rate movements are unfavourable, and this further diminishes returns for beef farmers in the market. It has a significant impact upon Irish agricultural trade. Weight limits are also clearly of importance, and the 420 kg restriction is daft. Any suckler enterprise based on continental crosses cannot survive on such weight restrictions, whether steers or bulls, but the 420 kg restriction, at current prices per kilogram, means there is no profit at all. This is aligned to the 30-month cut-off and the restriction on the number of movements. They have everything; it is the perfect storm. That is why the beef forum has to shake things up. We also need a pig forum. The draft Mercosur EU offer in early April would represent a death knell for the beef industry. Permitting 78,000 tonnes of beef to be imported into Europe from the Mercosur countries under a tariff-rate quota - what would this really mean for our beef sector, which is worth more than €2.5 billion annually? Where did the Commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmström, get a mandate to offer a tariff-rate quota? What is being done at EU level to resist? That must be the focus now. Will the Government insist that the EU complete an analysis of the cumulative impact of tariff-rate quota concessions in the Mercosur and TTIP talks before any deal is concluded?
What is of concern is not just the huge impact upon rural economies and communities. We must factor in the significant decrease in beef consumption across the EU. In the last five years there has been a drop of more than 500,000 tonnes in beef consumption across the EU. That is a huge amount. It is abundantly clear from this that the EU market would be unable to absorb such a huge additional volume of imports, which would lead to further downward pressure on prices and incomes. All hell would break loose.
I disagree with my respected colleague about Aidan Cotter. I believe he is an excellent CEO of Bord Bia. He is worth every cent of the €150,000, and more. We should not begrudge those people who are doing a good job. Aidan Cotter has been out in Iran working with the dairy market. Everywhere he has gone he has secured markets. He has a tremendous team of corporate people with him.
I am just about to conclude, if you could just give me 30 seconds, Acting Chairman. I want to respect you.
The pig market is in crisis. There is no sign of it climbing out of the doldrums. I know Sean Brady, Sean Murphy, Bernard Gilsenan, Ollie Leddy and all those people involved. I do not always agree with the IFA, but in recent weeks it has called for the formation of an industry forum for the pig sector analogous to that which operates currently for the dairy and beef sectors, incorporating producers, processors, millers, banks and other stakeholders. We need to develop a long-term strategy for the future viability of the pig industry - otherwise, it will be gone. I will leave Deputies with this figure. Significant producers who are at the heart of the industry - they are at the coalface - tell me that, on average, a 600 sow unit is losing as much as €5,000 per week. That is not sustainable. Pig producers are important in rural Ireland as well.
As a Dublin TD, obviously I am not as familiar as some other Deputies with the problems on the ground and the challenges that face rural Ireland or the agriculture sector. However, I have listened intently to this debate and many previous debates in the area of agriculture and I have started to develop some understanding of the problems facing our farmers and rural Ireland. I still do not pretend to be an expert, but a very definite picture is coming into view for me when one looks at the problems faced by farmers and rural Ireland generally. It starts with the fact that agriculture is our biggest industry - it is a truly enormous industry, with billions of euro of exports every year, 230,000 jobs linked directly or indirectly to the sector, and a fairly staggering amount of money coming in from the EU. The figure I have is €1.2 billion, but I heard the Minister talk about €1.4 billion.
That is really quite a staggering amount of money, and shows the importance of this sector to the State and our citizens. However, there is a big contradiction between an industry of this scale - we are the biggest exporter of beef, lamb and dairy in the whole of Europe, the biggest exporter of powdered infant formula and the UK's largest supplier of food - and farmers' incomes. It is a really gargantuan industry, with a lot of money coming in from the European Union, but there is an enormous contradiction in that 40% of farmers earn less than €10,000 per year directly from farming. Against this background of an enormous industry with exports worth billions, huge numbers of farmers are struggling, and struggling badly. They are facing very significant threats coming down the tracks, particularly in the form of TTIP. Some of us have been talking about this for some time, but recent leaks have clearly exposed the enormous threat posed by TTIP for many sectors, and most particularly for farmers and the agrifood sector.
Having listened to the previous contributors - this connects with the concerns about TTIP - I believe there is a dominance of the industry by the big agrifood processors and the big multinational and retail chains. Their domination of the whole sector and their effective control of pricing is putting small farmers in an extremely precarious position. Added to that are our old friends the banks. In both cases the Government really does not want to exercise any serious control.
It may meet these people but it shows no willingness to interfere with the market. It shows no willingness to exercise control over these banks or clip the wings of the big agrifood processors and retail chains which just want to squeeze the farmers as much as they can to ensure their profitability, thereby threatening the livelihoods of thousands of small farmers and, ultimately, connected to that, the future of small towns and villages in rural Ireland. All that is further compounded by the closure of post offices, small schools and Garda stations. One can go on through the list.
It is a huge industry but there are enormous contradictions-----
Following what Deputy Penrose said, and the figures bear it out when one looks at the grants and subsidies, it seems incredible that some of the biggest ones are getting these massive sums of money when small farmers are really struggling to survive. We have already had testimony about how, if things get any worse, many of these people will be bankrupted.
One other thing just strikes me in all of this. Another big contradiction is that we have 600,000 people in this country suffering from food poverty. Is that not an extraordinary contradiction as well? We are one of the biggest producers of food in the world and yet 600,000 people, mostly elderly people, children of the less well-off and so on, are suffering extreme food poverty. It seems to me that it is in those contradictions and in recognising those contradictions that, in a way, some of the solutions are to be found. One of the amazing contradictions of the Famine was that people starved while food was being exported out of the country. Is that not something on which the State should intervene? Should it not buy, at a reasonable price, the good quality food that is produced by our farmers? The State in the interests of farmers and society could set the prices and make directions on that decent quality food. This is decent quality food as opposed to the sugared rubbish produced by multinationals that is causing obscene levels of obesity among our young people and, in particular, the less well-off who have to rely, because of price factors, on the worst quality food when this country actually produces some of the best quality food in the world, although the farmers who are producing it are struggling to survive and are being driven out of business by the big corporates and the multinationals.
My final point concerns the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP. I have not got time to go through the list of the dangers that TTIP represents in terms of food quality, standards and so on. However, to cut a long story short, small and medium enterprises and the quality of farming and food produce will be destroyed if we do not stop this TTIP juggernaut right now.
Until Deputy Boyd Barrett spoke, there has been an elephant in the room in this debate. There was certainly an elephant in the room in terms of the Minister's speech. In the draft written version circulated - which time prevented him from fully delivering - there was one sentence about the four missing letters, namely, T, T, I and P, that is, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. In the draft written version of his speech, the Minister emphasises the need to maintain momentum in these negotiations. That is the conclusion drawn despite the leaks and what they demonstrate.
The Government now has a real problem on the issue of TTIP. The argument for the world's biggest free trade agreement, which is a race to the bottom in terms of environmental, labour and consumer standards in this country, has been built on two planks. The first is secrecy - a secrecy shrouded in talk about transparency. The second is the notion that it will open up the US market to the Irish agriculture industry. This notion is completely not backed up by any facts or real, objective studies that this is going to be a boon in terms of investment, jobs and, in particular, agriculture. Those two planks are now falling apart under the impact of the leaks which appeared on the Greenpeace website a few days ago.
In terms of what is demonstrated in general, it confirms what we the opponents of TTIP have been saying for years. The director of Greenpeace European Unit stated:
These leaked documents give us an unparalleled look at the scope of US demands to lower or circumvent EU protections for environment and public health as part of TTIP. The EU position is very bad, and the US position is terrible. The prospect of a TTIP compromising within that range is an awful one. The way is being cleared for a race to the bottom in environmental, consumer protection and public health standards.
Every single one of the commitments the European Commission and the Government gave are shown not to be accurate by the leaks. The leaks demonstrate that there is a conscious attempt by the US side to undermine European regulatory standards. The leaks demonstrate that without question. The leaks do not demonstrate any serious effort by the EU side to reject that attempt. The leaks demonstrate that the US side wants the right of US big business to have an input into the creation of new regulations in advance of any democratic input by the European Parliament or national parliaments. The leaks demonstrate, in contrast to what the Minister, Deputy Bruton, said on a number of occasions, that the US is determined to push ahead with an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, that is, private arbitration courts where big business can sue states because they interfere with the so-called right to profit. The leaks demonstrate that the vital precautionary principle is under attack by the US side and that the EU side is doing nothing about it. The leaks demonstrate that the Commission has been consciously misleading the European Parliament and the broader public, if one contrasts its notes of what it will say there and the reality of what is being demonstrated.
It is a good thing that we have the leaks. They assist what we anti-TTIP activists have called the Dracula strategy, which is to draw it out into the open and allowing the public to see what is going on. A crucial part of that is the impact that TTIP will have on agriculture. In contrast to it being a great benefit to Irish agriculture, the leaks and a study by Friends of the Earth Europe, entitled Trading Away EU Farmers, which came out last week demonstrate that it would be a disaster from the point of view of European agriculture and certainly from the point of view of small producers.
A key US offensive aim in the negotiations is to lower regulatory barriers. These regulatory barriers are things we consider basic in terms of consumer rights, consumer protection and the quality of our food. The result would be a win for big US agribusiness and a significant loss for consumers in terms of health and the quality of what they are eating and definitely in terms of small farmers. The US side considers all of what we consider to be basic consumer safety standards to be unjustified barriers to trade. It considers the ban on beef from animals treated with growth hormones as being "not supported by science". On the ban on pork from animals treated with ractopamines - a growth promoter - it is of the opinion that "certain trading partners consider factors other than science". It considers the traceability requirements for foods derived from genetically modified crops as "commercially infeasible". It considers buffer zones to prevent GM contamination as "unnecessary and burdensome". It considers the labelling of GM foods as "[creating] technical barriers to trade by wrongly implying that these foods are unsafe". It considers a ban on poultry meat treated with pathogen reduction chemical washes, that is, chlorine, as "not [to] appear to be based on science". It considers EU limits on pesticide residues allowed in foods as "unreasonably low thresholds". It considers the EU's lower threshold for somatic cell counts in milk as "a quality rather than food safety criterion".
The leaks demonstrate clearly that the precautionary principle is under attack. Numerous models carried out also all demonstrate that the impact on agriculture in the EU, in particular in Ireland given the centrality of beef, would be absolutely devastating. While US agriculture contribution to GDP would increase by 1.9%, studies foresee a decline of up 0.8% for the EU. However, in particular, beef is foremost in the firing line. To quote from the Friends of the Earth report:
All [the] economic modelling studies predict that if EU tariffs are eliminated there will be significant increases in imports of US beef ... Traditional beef grazing farms, which produce high quality meat, are considered particularly vulnerable to imports of cheaper US beef.
I welcome the protest today by the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association against the Mercosur agreement and the TTIP talks. We need to mobilise to stop this deal between the 1% on both sides of the Atlantic. It is against the interests of ordinary people, our environment, labour regulations and so on.
The Minister spoke about some fishing issues. The question of undocumented non-EU migrant fishing crews has come up. After years of denial on the part of the fishing industry and a lack of interest on the part of the outgoing Government, the sterling work of Ken Fleming and the International Transport Federation, with the help of the Guardiannewspaper, exposed the scale and breadth of abuses taking place. The ensuing scandal resulted in the announcement of an atypical work permit regime capped at 500 places with an onus on the owners of fishing vessels to register crews. The figure of 500 emanated from an engagement between the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Justice and Equality and the representatives of the fishing industry, although a credible report in the Guardiansuggested 1,000 permits could be issued. That was in January. As of last week, my office had been informed that only nine applications for permits have been made and no serious enforcement measures have been put in place ahead of the May deadline for compliance. We will not let this issue go. We will be pursuing any future Minister on this matter.
The focus of attention in the debate today will inevitably be on the current problems relating to income in the agriculture sector. Given the importance of the farming and food sectors we need to consider and anticipate future risks. We need to mitigate the difficulties rather than take positions that actually make matters worse for the sectors.
There will be several key issues in future. One relates to the sectoral plans in the area of climate change and how we are going to comply with our obligations while at the same time dealing with particular sectors. These include the built environment and transport sectors but the agricultural sector will probably be the most difficult sector for us to deal with.
It is not only about the farming sector. We need to think of the importance of the food sector to the country as well. The new Kerry Group facility is located in my constituency. It is only when I went to see what happens in that facility that I realised the extent of the sector. One of the criticisms levelled at the sector 30 or 40 years ago was that all of the added value materialised in other jurisdictions. That is where the real opportunity lies. We need to ensure we protect the reputation of what we produce. This is why we need to carefully consider the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP.
The agriculture and food sectors have always been and will continue to be vital components of the economic and social fabric of Ireland, yet the sectors face constant threats and uncertainty. This has always been the case. Obviously, they have changed dramatically over the decades. Indeed we can track significant changes in these sectors dating back to the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Another important area is the possibility of Brexit. Brexit is something we should be concerned about in light of our trade with the United Kingdom. I was listening to a programme recently on Northern Ireland. It covered the relationship between Northern Ireland and Ireland in the context of food production in Northern Ireland. It was only when I heard some of the practical aspects of what might change that I realised there could be very real difficulties in the sector. Those involved in the agri-trade sector are justifiably concerned about the impact of a potential Brexit. The situation should be monitored carefully. We need to understand the relationships, especially those between Northern Ireland and Ireland in that regard.
Another looming crisis in the agriculture and food sector is TTIP. The process indicates a serious problem in terms of reducing quality and dumbing down standards. The agriculture sector is worth €24 billion to our economy and it plays a vital role in rural economies, many of which have no real relationship with farming except that the money generated is fed into the local economy. Today, Irish cattle and sheep farmers are protesting outside the European Commission buildings against the concessions being offered in the TTIP talks. Concerns have also been raised about the comprehensive economic and trade agreement between Canada and the EU. This contains many of the most concerning aspects of TTIP and the possible effects on agriculture and food quality. When people are asked about the type of produce from Ireland, in the main there are favourable reports of the standards. This is an area of which we have been very protective. For this reason it is difficult to understand why we would want to reduce these standards. We are probably one of the stand-out countries in respect of our produce.
A recent United States Department of Agriculture report confirmed that the US agriculture sector would benefit far more than its EU counterparts as a result of TTIP. The report makes clear that if tariff and trade quotas were removed, US agricultural exports to the EU would increase by $5.1 billion, compared to $700 million going in the other direction. The report further stated that overall EU agricultural exports would decrease by 0.25%. Let us consider where the major benefit lies. Certainly, it is not in the agriculture or food sectors. We should ask where the benefits are going and who is writing the rules of the trade agreements.
Such scenarios obviously raise legitimate concerns with regard to how the agriculture sector can remain competitive. They also raise serious concerns regarding food safety and quality. We are justifiably proud of the quality of the produce in Ireland. It is generally accepted that European standards are more ethical and sustainable and produce a higher quality product. If successful, TTIP could see European standards of food production and farm-to-fork standards lowered to match those of the lowest. I am referring to the USA. I have read of the prospect of pork animals being fed with steroids that are banned in most parts of the European Union and the rest of the world but not in the United States. Whose interests would such agreements serve? The confidence people have in food would be diminished.
No doubt there are serious concerns. I recall what was almost a party-like atmosphere when quotas were abolished. The change was to open up all manner of opportunities. However, what no one anticipated at the time was that in reality it opened up a new range of risks. These risks are manifesting themselves in lower prices and a different type of competition. We need to consider the trade agreements in this context. We need to examine the risks closely. The farming community is very much focusing on that at this stage.
Maybe they focused on that because they underestimated the risks from other things that have occurred. We need to make sure that what we produce is produced ethically and in a sustainable way. What is the value in shipping live cattle over long distances to markets which could find the product at closer proximity? Where does the idea of producing food sustainably fit in with that? What element of the talks include that point? It is one we will have to consider seriously. We will end up paying large sums of hard cash if we do not meet targets. That should be a consideration.
In the past few years, the Government has bought into TTIP and appears to be one of its cheerleaders. Why? I do not see how the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. There is nothing wrong with trade. We have a small open economy and we need to trade with other parts of the world but I am concerned about the context of those trade agreements and who is writing the rules. If the big players are writing the rules in their own interests, as can be seen from the dispute mechanism, we need to stop being cheerleaders for something that may well be a major disadvantage to us in the future.
On behalf of the Green Party, I am very glad to contribute to these statements on agriculture. I want to broaden the debate to the use of our land as well as the stewardship of our seas, which the Minister addressed. Looking after our environment will be good for the farming and agricultural community and the wider rural communities who will manage our forests, peatland, biodiversity and our seas. There is sometimes a misunderstanding or misperception that sees a hostility or natural divide between the environmental and farming movements when the opposite is the case. That point was made very convincingly by Roger Schulte, an executive with Teagasc. He did some fairly extensive research on best farming practice and most profitable use of our land and saw a correlation between that and the use of the land which caused least environmental damage. We in the green, environmental movement need to get that point across. We need to work with people who are responsible for our land to make sure we look after our own environment effectively and well.
A small example, which is a useful precedent, is the Burrenbeo organisation in West Clare. It is a community-based organisation working with local farming communities to manage the land in a way that brings a range of benefits. It is an unusual case of land management because of the Burren karst limestone landscape but it provides a good lesson in how the role of the farming community is much wider than just the production of agricultural output for markets. It has a role in maintaining, managing, enhancing and developing our environment. Rather than establish policy on the basis of a range of punitive laws to stop people damaging the environment, it switches the model towards incentivising things that improve and help it.
I will use that approach to consider our use not just of agricultural crop and pasture land, but also uplands, boglands and forestry lands that need to be integrated in an entire managed system. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is developing a national spatial plan. It is critical to have a proper land use plan for the country within that to integrate spatial development planning with land use planning. We need that because of the increased flooding and because we have to meet certain targets under our climate change obligations. We have to change the way we use our land, including the way we do agriculture to get the whole approach right. One piece of land cannot be taken out and treated in a different way.
The boglands are a significant natural environment, in terms of protection of biodiversity, storage of carbon, water and prevention of flooding. It is deeply ironic to see advertisements in the newspaper today by Bord na Móna saying what a champion it is of protecting the natural world when in truth the plans promoted by the outgoing Government are to extract down to the last sod whatever is left of the big midland peat bogs. There is no word of that changing in any of the negotiations taking place. It is impossible for Bord na Móna or the State to present themselves as protectors of the environment, or this as a strong green country, when we are burning our peat reserves below the levels at which they could recover. That incredible store of carbon, water and biodiversity will be lost. That has to change. If we present ourselves as an origin green country, as the great example of good natural protection, or if Bord na Móna wants to present itself in that light, we cannot keep burning our remaining peat resources. We have to protect and support communities, landowners and farmers who see the value of that bog resource and start to protect it.
The value of forestry land in this State is half that of typical agricultural land because we have some inherent reluctance to tie land up or we see forestry as an inferior option, something that is not as skilled or honourable. That needs to change. We also need to change the nature of our forestry. We cannot keep continuing with this clear felling system of planting sitka spruce and pine and other crops, see it grow for 40 years, clear fell the entire crop and then start the same process again. In the long term, that process degrades our soil, leads to run off water pollution problems in our rivers and delivers a very low value crop. It will be increasingly low value as the soil is unable to keep churning that unnatural cycle. It would be far more intelligent, economic and environmentally beneficial to switch to a form of continuous cover forestry. We could take the plantations planted in the 1990s and retrofit continuous cover forestry to them by felling a certain number of trees on the inside to create areas where the next generation growth can rise. The output of the thinnings provides an ongoing income for the forester. It is very labour intensive, much better for storage of carbon, and we would end up with much higher value forestry. The Germans and Swiss adopt this system and get a multiple of the price we get for the wood. The biodiversity is much more valuable. The environment for local communities to use is much more attractive. Every which way it is a winner but there is no sign of it changing or of Government policy realising it.
If we are facing a real difficulty in European negotiations, rather than digging in our heels and saying we will not do anything, change or provide leadership on climate, we could make a switch and start dealing with peat boglands, forestry and agriculture in a different way that not only would help us address the climate change crisis we face, but also would improve the quality of our natural local environment.
There is an ongoing debate on the possible use of the forestry crop for biomass to burn in peat or coal-fired power stations. People may be aware of a recent controversy in Belgium which is considering a similar proposal. It realised it would cost billions and involve having to import wood from native woodland forests in America, South Africa and Vietnam. It is an insane response to the challenges we face and it would be a terrible pity if we went down the road of large mass plantations of short rotation coppice willow or other crops.
There are significant opportunities for the farming community in this country in terms of anaerobic digestion, where waste is turned into an energy crop. I agree with the use of forestry thinnings and new biomass wood crops for heating in the food and other industries which are off the gas network. I also agree with using solar and wind power in a community-owned way, where farming communities benefit.
There are major opportunities for Irish farming in the green energy revolution that is taking place. Solutions should be community-owned. We have to be careful around planning and development, but it is a future that provides a viable constant income that is not subject to the vagaries of some of the international food market prices on which our farmers are reliant. We should jump at it and we in the Green Party look to work with the farming community to help to make that happen.
Our real concern is that at the same time as we are not doing the right thing in forestry and peat boglands, in other crucial areas of agriculture we want to double output in certain areas and enter international dairy markets to compete with New Zealand and other countries. That is a problem for a number of different reasons, one of which is climate. There is a fundamental mismatch between what we have to commit to internationally and our ability to increase the dairy herd because of the clear connection between it and methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. It is not a case of tackling the agricultural community, rather it is that no one thinks about the trade-offs. If we decide to increase the dairy herd, our transport, business and domestic sectors have to change significantly and increase their ambition, possibly at real cost. That is part of the debate we do not have. It is not a matter of Ireland versus the rest of the world. Instead, we need to decide internally on how we manage our resources and play our part.
I refer to the major intensification of agriculture required to deliver the sort of output increases the Government seems to want. New Zealand is a similar country to Ireland and we should heed its lessons, namely, that one can trash the environment in the pursuit of short-term growth in output. New Zealand doubled its dairy output, dramatically increased its herd size and exported billions of euro in dairy products. However, academic research there has shown that the cost to its environment, such as the fouling of its water, the compaction of its soil and the leaking of heavy metals into the soil, is beyond any revenues received from the increase in dairy output. We are following that model, and we miss that reality and stark lesson to our cost. Let us not trash our country for the sake of achieving short-term profits on international markets which, since the dairy quota system has come to an end, are increasingly uncertain and volatile.
Instead, let us start to open up changes in the nature of farming to bring the power back to farmers. We find that following discussions at IFA and other meetings farmers tell us we are right because they understand there has been a fundamental shift in the power balance. Farmers are price takers and have no control over marketing arrangements. Profits go to processors and retailers. Farmers have realised that we need to change the agricultural distribution model or else they will forever be, to use a metaphor, sucking from the hind teat.
We need to change the nature of the distribution system and open up our domestic markers in order that farmers have a direct connection with consumers and can start to get better prices and have some control over the marketing of their produce rather than being subject to international forces which they have no power to control.
We should have models such as the English Market in Cork or the Milk Market in Limerick, which are local, covered, high-quality markets, on every high street in every town. We should work with our co-operative strengths in order that farmers can become involved in connecting directly with consumers and achieving better prices. That is the green way to go.
I heard none of that in the Minister's contribution. He referred to many lists of international agreements and European and other subsidy supports, but there was no realisation that the fundamental nature of agriculture has to change to empower farmers and protect our soil, water and air quality. If we do not do that in the long run, we will not have produce or the secure natural system on which we all rely to be able to develop.
I am very conscious of time. I have not considered fisheries, a subject I might leave for another day.
This is not an issue involving a rural and urban divide. I am an urban dweller and a consumer. Consumers are important in this process. They want better, more organic and natural Irish food produce. They want to know where it comes from and to have a connection with where it is coming from. They own the system of production as much as farmers. In protecting our land and nature and having access to nature it is important that we share the process. Land should not be privatised, parcelled off and closed down.
A recent story gave me a certain level of hope. I refer to the Great Western Greenway in Mayo. The project involved building a road from Achill to Westport. It was built because farmers along the route realised it would improve their access to their neighbours, allow their children to travel safely from one farm to the next and improve their area. It is fantastic for visitors and local people. We need to engender and share that sort of pride and connection to the land which will result in a more organic, greener and locally connected farming system, which is what we need to move to.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on behalf of farmers, in particular those in rural Kerry and Ireland. As a small farmer, I can identify with all their current problems as they strive to continue farming. This week the Irish Farmers' Journalreported that it costs €900 to maintain a cow over a 12-month period, including feeding it throughout the winter. Many farmers are not lucky enough to have calves. Many other things happen before they are fit for sale.
Weanlings are now selling below what it costs to keep them. Feeders lost €200 per head last year, and as a result suckler farmers, who are trying to produce weanlings, will be hit with a €200 deficit this year in marts and markets. Like all other areas of farming, suckler farmers are struggling. They are the foundation of the beef industry. I call on the Government to consider the request from farming organisations to give €200 per sucker cow as a premium to sustain farmers until things improve and ensure family farms continue to operate in rural Ireland.
Sheep farmers are also in serious trouble. Lamb prices decreased from €10 to €7 this year.
The margins are very small and when farmers are hit with such losses they will be in serious trouble all along the hillsides of Kerry where they are up late and early trying to endure and survive and when everything else is surmounted they have to deal with the fox. There were severe losses as a result of the bad weather which we had this year at lambing time. The sheep industry is in serious jeopardy as well. I support the call for a €20 ewe premium to ensure the viability of sheep production in rural Kerry.
Dairy farmers are in a serious crisis. I blame the previous Government for not advising farmers properly when the quotas ended. Farmers were advised to increase production. It was said markets were available in China and elsewhere and now we know the Chinese have no notion in the world of drinking milk. The market is not what was predicted and the new farmers that got into the dairy business are in serious trouble. They bought land, built sheds, bought cows and now they are selling the milk for below what it cost to produce it. How long does the Minister think that will last? Those people are in serious trouble. Those farmers were hell bent on working and they knew what was involved but they did not realise a market would not exist for the milk.
The monopolies of factories and their stranglehold on prices is unfair. Farmers are not being paid properly for what they produce. We have other problems as well in farming in rural Kerry. All farmers are losing money but the forestry that was blown down in 2013 have not been replanted. It is costing money to clear them and very little money is to be had for the timber that is taken out because it is damaged. Another problem is that there is no grant available for marginal land in rural areas to plant trees and the land is not fit for much else. If a grant were available to plant trees on such land many farmers could provide jobs but approval is not being given. One must have 80% of good agricultural land and 20% of marginal land in order to get a grant, which means that system will not work.
I ask the Government-----
I will share it with Deputy Michael Collins.
Rivers are blocked up all over the country. Farmers are terrified of clearing rivers and removing gravel or trees. The Government must give assistance because in many instances the OPW is involved in many of the rivers and it is its duty to clear them out. The local authorities say they are not involved but they must get funding from the Government because if a river floods and brings down trees and debris and then damages bridges crossing the public road the Government will have to replace the bridges. I ask the Government, the local authorities and the OPW to work together to ensure rivers are cleaned out. Many houses and roads would be made safer as a result.
Foiladaun and Clonkeen in the Glenflesk area are flooded. The N22, the national primary route from Cork to Killarney, is flooded. I call on the Government, and have already called on the Department of Finance, to fund the clearing of the Flesk river. Such matters must be dealt with urgently.
We must not allow beef into the European market. If that is to happen the European market will not retain its credibility. Beef cannot be allowed in from foreign countries. All farmers are losing money at present. A few years ago one farmer won the lotto.
I am very honoured to speak here on behalf of the people of west Cork. I wish to raise an important issue concerning not only the farming community but one that also poses a real risk to public health and safety. I refer to the Mercosur deal which is a proposed trade deal between South American countries and the EU which will result in the importation of up to 80,000 tonnes of beef into EU member states. This deal, if allowed to go through, will have a detrimental effect on the Irish beef industry and will affect the Irish economy. Up to 90% of the beef produced in Ireland is for the export market and this deal would have the potential to destroy the beef industry.
I also wish to highlight the potential health and safety issues associated with the potential deal and pose the following questions. What type of animal welfare regulations are in place in those South American countries? What type of traceability regime is in place? What type and standard of certification will be attached? In recent decades a very strong regime of traceability has been put in place both here and across Europe with the aim of safeguarding public health.
These are very difficult times for all farmers in Ireland. The dairy sector is going through huge difficulties at present with a major drop in milk prices. That has come very quickly on foot of the single farm payment fines for small farmers. If the proposed EU deal goes ahead, it could lead to many farmers going out of business. Today, the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers' Association, ICSA, is holding a protest outside the offices of the European Commission office and the Dáil at 1.30 p.m. to highlight the major concerns it has on the Mercosur deal. I call on the Government to take all steps possible to oppose the deal in order to protect public health and safety and to safeguard the livelihood of all those involved in the industry.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this very important issue. It is ironic that this is the second time in recent weeks that we have discussed agriculture. That shows the important role it currently plays and indicates the importance it will have in the future. I welcome today's debate because in the previous Dáil we had a very limited opportunity to discuss agriculture.
During the Celtic tiger years agriculture was a lost leader. Nobody wanted to talk about it. It was not sexy to talk about agriculture. We have now moved on to a different level. In the glory years we even lost a key element of the agriculture sector, namely, the sugar industry. It was a huge loss to a number of areas, including my area of Carlow. Those areas have not recovered since. That is evident across the board in the towns in County Carlow. There has been a serious negative knock-on effect following the loss of the sugar industry. During the difficult recessionary years agriculture has been the key driver of the revitalisation of the economy in which it has played a key role. Its turnover has amounted to €26 billion and there are 160,000 jobs involved in the sector. Agricultural exports reached €10.83 billion last year. Without agriculture the rural economy will not be able to develop. We have heard much talk recently about rural rejuvenation and decline. It is very important that the rural economy is developed but without agriculture being at the forefront of that we will not have very prosperous rural areas. It is important that we bear that in mind.
All sectors of the agricultural economy and community play a key role.
If the rural economy is going well, it has a knock-on effect on the construction, machinery and fuel industries, as well as on local shops. In general, if agriculture is going well, farmers will spend money straight away when they have it. I commend those who were involved in the construction of the new Food Wise 2025 initiative, in which the plan is to increase the value of exports to €19 billion by 2025, with an additional 23,000 jobs being created in that sector, which will be hugely beneficial to rural Ireland.
In recent years, a new CAP was renegotiated, which is very important. At the beginning of that process it did not look promising for Ireland, but as time moved on it resulted in huge amounts of money that will be funnelled into rural Ireland through Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 funding. This will be achieved through the basic payment in Pillar 1 and the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, and the beef genomics scheme, for example, in Pillar 2. As we move on to the next stage, the mid-term review of the CAP will be important. There has been much recent talk in this regard and it is now more important than ever to have an honest discussion about the mid-term review and to have a simplified version of the CAP.
As for the key areas in agriculture, the dairy, beef, tillage and sheep sectors are going through a difficult time at present. From the perspective of the dairy sector, there has been much talk about quotas and so on, but in 2009, before quotas were abolished, the dairy sector went through a highly difficult spell, when prices were as low as they are at present. While we currently are in a difficult spell, it is important to remember that although the price of a litre of milk to the farmer was 28 cent in 1995, and 21 years later, in 2016, the price per litre is 24 cent, the key issue is that over the intervening 21 years, the cost of production has increased by 50%.
Volatility, which has been the in-word in recent years, was evident in 2009 and people are going through a difficult spell at present. While there will be challenges to deal with, volatility will also be a problem for the future. To a certain extent, Ireland is playing hardball on the world market, and as it only provides 1% of the milk in that market, what is done here will have a small effect on the overall price. However, what we can learn from the current position is how to deal with volatility in the future, and this is extremely important. As Deputy Ferris mentioned earlier, the agriculture committee of which Deputies Heydon, Ferris and I were part invited all stakeholders involved in the dairy sector, including the banks, the farm organisations, the processors and the producers, to discuss the position at that time. The key outcome of that process was that it was necessary to get better before getting bigger and that it would be necessary to teach and encourage farmers to produce as much as possible from grass-based systems. That is the way forward, and Members will have noted how things have declined up the road in the North and across the water in England and how difficult people there and in New Zealand find it at present. In order to move on in the future, we must learn from the mistakes they made. At the same time, however, despite the existing challenges, there is huge potential in the dairy sector. We must be able to plan for the future and provide funds. One key recommendation from the report published by the aforementioned joint committee on how to deal with volatility in the sector was the possibility of establishing an insurance fund during the good times to enable development in the bad times for the future, and hopefully this can be taken on board.
The beef sector is another area that is currently going through a difficult spell, but it is to be hoped that the producer group that has come from the beef forum will be highly beneficial in this regard.
Am I running out of time?
To conclude, the key point I will make on agriculture at present is that there are serious issues to be dealt with, such as the supermarket issue. In this regard, I believe that tender loving care, or TLC, is what is needed for farmers and agriculture in general. I listened to Deputy Ferris speaking earlier about Sinn Féin's newfound association with agriculture and so on. One of its key proposals during the general election campaign was the so-called wealth tax, but I did not hear him mention anything about that or how it would affect agriculture and rural Ireland in the future. Perhaps that issue might be teased out a bit more as Members go on.
While the future of agriculture in Ireland is uncertain and there are challenges in the short term, it also has hugely exciting opportunities. Despite difficult economic circumstances, food and drink exports reached an estimated value of €10.83 billion in 2015, which constituted an increase of almost 50% since 2009. The basis exists for growth, as outlined in the Food Wise 2025 initiative, with its highly ambitious targets. The potential for exponential growth in food and drink exports remains, but this will require careful management of the risk factors ahead. Adequate finance is a key factor for the primary producer and it is crucial that it be maintained through these turbulent times. I refer to the creation by the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, Glanbia, Rabobank and Finance Ireland of the €100 million Glanbia MilkFlex Fund, which was announced in March. It is the way forward because it is the first time a financing mechanism has been linked directly to the price of milk. Financial institutions must roll with the sector during this time of particularly low commodity prices because they will still be there to make the profits in the future when the primary producers have returned to making profits. This is the kind of joined-up thinking and approach that is needed. Financial institutions must come on board, together with the merchants, which also have a role to play. In fairness to them, in recent years merchants have been playing the role of bankers, probably to a greater extent than they ever had intended, in many cases where there have been gaps in funding. However, in the dairy sector and all other sectors, this support, while necessary, also must be managed responsibly. Where a merchant or a co-operative sells the inputs to the farmers, buys the produce and acts as a banker, it has the potential to cause a debt spiral because it is buying back the outputs and the produce and the farmer loses his or her ability to argue for a competitive price. This is because it is extremely difficult to negotiate one's final bill for fertiliser early in the year if the merchant with whom one is dealing has all of one's grain in the hopper, drawn in when the price still was not agreed upon. Consequently, financial institutions and merchants must buy into the importance of the symbiotic relationship with the primary producer to ensure a long-term mutually beneficial relationship that lasts into the future.
I greatly welcome the Minister's confirmation of approval from the Commission for the inclusion of a specific scheme for investment in tillage farmers under TAMS. Tillage farmers have endured three really difficult years, and it is not just about the tillage farmer; it is also about all the other sectors, including the pigmeat, dairy, beef and sheep sectors, which depend on that grain. It would not be desirable to lose the tillage industry, making Ireland dependent on grain imports, because that is not a good basis on which to grow into the future. Members must recognise that the tillage sector has struggled greatly. The sheep sector welcomes the fencing investment scheme, and in respect of the beef sector, producer organisations have a critical role to play in the future to ensure a fair deal for the primary producer. Ongoing analysis of the relationship between the primary producer, the processor and the retailer is absolutely crucial to ensure that everyone can make a profit into the future within each sector. This is crucial for the farmer, the agricultural sector and rural Ireland in general, about which so much debate in this House is concerned.
The Minister outlined his concerns about the issue of Brexit, which I share. These are the key areas that require negotiation between the Council of Ministers in Europe and the relevant Commissioners for Trade and Agriculture, and which must be monitored carefully into the future.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to address the House today to highlight the significant challenges facing Ireland’s farming families. While it is widely recognised that the agrifood sector is the largest indigenous industry in Ireland, employing more than 175,000 people, the majority of farming families are struggling to sustain their businesses and produce meaningful profits. I would go so far as to state that the agricultural sector is facing a stark and real crisis. According to Teagasc, farming families' incomes fell by 9% in 2015. As this is despite the fact that the value of food and drinks exports reached nearly €11 billion in 2015, something is seriously wrong. The profits are not finding their way back to farmers and instead are being consumed by the processors. Members cannot accept a situation in which farmers continue to be price takers as opposed to price makers.
As a beef farmer living in a farming community, I can tell Members at first hand that beef farmers are feeling severe pressure, with average beef prices hovering at around €4 per kilogram, which is leading them to just about break even. It has been forecast that beef prices are set to come under further pressure in the second half of 2016, as it is likely that 50,000 to 80,000 additional finished cattle will be available.
This is largely due to live exports having fallen by 25% in 2015. Therefore, the next Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine must prioritise the opening of new external markets to live exports as a matter of urgency. The focus of the mid-term CAP review should be used to make the beef data and genomics scheme a pillar of the future of the beef industry and to target increasing funding to the beef genomics scheme by moving towards €200 per head payments on the first 20 cows.
We must also seek to legislate for a food ombudsman by amending consumer law. Such an office is needed to ensure the dominant position of a small number of processors on the price of cattle is not abused.
To be frank, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine itself has become a huge problem within the agriculture sector. Many farmers are completely disillusioned with the bureaucracy and red tape involved in even the simplest of issues such as basic payments. My constituency office is flooded with phone calls and visits from concerned farmers who have been waiting in excess of four, five and even six months for basic payments which are crucial to the sustainability of their business.
The Department received more than 7,000 national reserve and 8,500 young farmer scheme applications last year, but seven months on, hundreds of farmers are still waiting for their payments. This is an example of how the Department is failing in its role of supporting farmers in this country. As a result, farmers are experiencing severe cashflow problems and are finding it incredibly difficult to secure credit from banks to invest and grow their business.
The basic payment scheme and agri-environmental schemes like GLAS must be facilitated in an Irish setting with minimum bureaucracy and red tape. GLAS is not delivering for farmers as the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, did. The Minister originally promised an average GLAS payment of €5,000 but this will not be met.
The new beef data and genomics programme has been described by farmers as unworkable. It is the responsibility of the Department to ensure the scheme is practical in order that farmers do not incur additional costs through penalisation or reduction of payments.
Of course, inspections are important in ensuring high standards are met on farms and the highest quality produce is returned. However, too many farmers are suffering huge penalties for minor infractions. I have continually called for a yellow card type of system to be implemented in order that a level of discretion can be afforded to farmers in cases of genuine error or extenuating circumstances.
I call on the next Government to dedicate one Minister for agriculture alone, not like in the past when one Minister held two portfolios. Farming is the most important business sector in Ireland, so we need a dedicated Minister solely for that portfolio. Therefore, the new Government should ensure one Minister will deal with agriculture.
I have listened intently to the debate but I will not repeat what others have said, as the Minister is already aware of those matters. The concerns of the 140,000 farming families who are listening to us need to be met. As we have heard, overall farm incomes are down by 9%. It is unsustainable to expect primary producers to expand when they are not making money.
All farmers want a fair price and mechanisms need to be found to bring stability to the marketplace. The least the Department can and should do is to ensure that payments for various schemes are made on time. There is little sense in having farmers who can get credit or overdrafts from banks forking out their hard-earned income streams on interest to banks. A classic example is the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS II. Some nine months after opening, approvals have not been made for the vast majority of farmers who have applied for the scheme. The fact that the IT system is not operational clearly shows that farmers were sold a pig in a poke. Given the timescales of the grant availability, they again find themselves with serious cashflow difficulties.
The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government should get their act together on rural roads. Poor investment in local and tertiary roads is having a serious impact on agricultural communities. Local improvement schemes should recommence, including ring-fenced investment by the Department. We should insist that a percentage of all road moneys to local authorities is spent on tertiary roads. For the past five years, no money has been spent on local improvement schemes, LIS, community improvement schemes, CIS or tertiary roads in the communities I represent. This is a case of people who rely on tertiary roads being treated as third-class citizens, although they pay taxes like everyone else. I ask both Ministers to take this matter in hand.
In view of the limited time available, I will focus on the issue of fisheries and penalty points, to which the Minister referred in his statement. I welcome the Minister's statement on the penalty points regulation, SI 125 of 2016 and the fact that he is requesting the Attorney General to re-examine this offending statutory instrument which has been widely condemned, not least by the fishing industry. It fails to address the significant findings of the High Court and flies in the face of that court's decision on the preceding statutory instrument, SI 3 of 2014. Having known Deputy Coveney both as a Minister and as an MEP, I am surprised he signed this statutory instrument. He knew that, in the case of fishermen who were found guilty, penalty points would be attached before going to court. If the court decided that a fisherman was not guilty, the penalty points would still attach, but that makes no sense at all in common law.
In his reply to the debate, I ask the Minister to explain the legal standing concerning the implementation of the new SI 125 of 2016. He has asked the Attorney General to re-examine the matter in order that no penalty points are applied to an owner's licence until he or she has been found guilty by a court. Clarity is essential. If the statutory instrument is amended, I presume the 21-day period starts there. All parties on this side of the House, including Sinn Féin, have tabled a motion to rescind the statutory instrument Having done a headcount, I know that a majority in this House will support our motion to rescind SI 125 of 2016. We want clarity on this matter. If the Minister's hands are tied and he cannot do this, he should let us know in advance. We will bring this motion before the House within the 21 sitting days, as the legal position provides for.
I realise that the Minister is taking this question very seriously. He met the producer organisations yesterday and he has indicated he is trying to resolve this matter. More important, however, if Deputy Coveney is not the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine next week, I ask him to brief the incoming Minister fully. He should assure us that the new Minister will have an obligation to deal with this in his first days in office. We are here to assist in every possible way. We want to ensure the penalty points system that comes from Europe is implemented fairly. I ask the Minister to reflect on this and examine the system that is used in the UK. I do not have time to talk about Brexit, but a mirror image of the UK system could be applied here.
I thank my colleagues for accommodating me.
It seems to me the attitude of the Government and of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to farm families in the west, where I come from, is "live horse, get grass". We have been waiting a long time for things to improve, but the longer we wait the worse it seems to get for most of us.
Many members of the Government will have realised during the general election campaign just how angry people were. Fine Gael and Labour Party people went around the doorsteps telling us in the Border counties and the west to keep the recovery going. In that part of the world, however, we have seen very little sign of recovery. We are the first to feel the downturn when things are bad, and the last to see any recovery. We have seen no sign of any recovery as yet.
I sometimes wonder about the policy the Government is pursuing and what its aim is. What does the Minister think when he hears farmers saying they cannot survive? What does he say about that at the Cabinet table? Does the Minister plan to leave small farmers to sink or swim? Is it his plan to let them sink in order that we will be left with that magic number, the much heralded 20,000 viable farmers left in Ireland? Many people on small farms in the area where I come from are encouraged to get off-farm work, but there are no such jobs.
The last lifeline for many struggling small farmers was taken when the farm assist benefit was cut to the extent that most people lost that payment. At the time, the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, claimed there was no cut to core social welfare payments. Replacing farm assist with jobseeker’s allowance would have been funny if it were not so tragic for the small farmer in the west. Jobseeking, by the standards of the Department of Social Protection, is not compatible with farming. Being available for work, by the standards of the Department of Social Protection, does not acknowledge the position of the small farmer struggling to make enough from his or her holding to survive. They need the safety net provided by the farm assist payment.
The stress which small farmers are under financially is exacerbated by the stress they are now under due to inspections. The inspection regime is run in such a way as to suggest that it is not about improving standards or modifying behaviour for the better, but to intimidate and discourage farmers. Inspections should not resemble a police raid. No one is saying standards should not be maintained or that anyone should be allowed to lower the high standards of Irish farming. However, a more co-operative and constructive regime would benefit everyone. For some reason, the Minister and his Department prefer the heavy hand to the helping hand. I hope this issue is dealt with in the current negotiations about Government formation. Small farmers fear the call that a departmental inspection will be carried out on their farms.
The Minister needs to defend the most important people, the ones who produce the goods. The beef industry has become monopolised and industrialised with farmers penalised on the basis of spurious conditions and specifications set by the beef factories. Beef farmers have to dance to the tune of weight restrictions, number of movements and age of cattle. We are told this regime is consumer-led but I have yet to find a beef consumer in Ballymun or Berlin who knows or cares whether an animal was 34 or 36 months old or whether it was moved three or four times in its lifetime. What consumers want to know is that an animal was grass-fed, roaming free and not riddled with hormones. That is what Irish farmers offer, namely, the highest quality beef. The way the factories manipulate the market with their own feed lots, however, is not fair or transparent. It goes against the image we portray across the world. However, it is the reality of the way beef has been reared until it reaches the farm gate.
What is the Government’s approach to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP? So far, it has been very much a lapdog approach, meaning we do not even know what is being negotiated on our behalf. The repercussions for Ireland could be enormous. Documents leaked by Greenpeace last week indicate the US is making serious demands regarding lowering standards of protection for the environment and public health. These leaks show that the precautionary principle maintained by the European Union, which ensures a product must be proved safe before it can be released on the market, is not being defended. We are in danger of introducing the US version, namely, that one has to prove a product is dangerous to take it off the market. In other words, there is pressure from the US to turn our precautionary principle on its head. The EU has higher trade protection standards in health, human, animal and plant life when compared with the US. Big business in the US is trying to reduce these regulations while the EU remains mute, however. The leaks show the US side wants to be able to scrap existing EU rules in areas such as food labelling or the approval of dangerous chemicals. The US describes these as barriers to free trade, while most of us recognise they are dangers to human health.
The selling point and the main image of our agrifood across the world is that it is clean and green. That is our claim to fame on international markets. To keep our food clean and green, however, we have to maintain the highest standards. According to Greenpeace from the TTIP leaked documents, “The way is being cleared for a race to the bottom in environmental, consumer protection and public health standards”. The US is proposing that the EU would be obliged to inform American industries of any planned regulations in advance while allowing them the same input into the EU regulatory process as European firms. A Greenpeace representative pointed out, “Before the EU could even pass a regulation, it would have to go through a gruelling impact assessment process in which the bloc would have to show interested US parties that no voluntary measures, or less exacting regulatory ones, were possible”.
GM foods could also find a widening window into Europe with the US pushing for a working group to adopt what it calls a “low-level presence initiative”. This would allow the import of cargo containing traces of unauthorised GM strains. The EU currently blocks these because of food safety and cross-pollination concerns.
A Fine Gael Deputy referred earlier to Sinn Féin's wealth tax. Sinn Féin does indeed have a proposal for a wealth tax for those with assets worth in excess of €1 million. Unfortunately, I do not know of any farmers from south Leitrim or west Cavan who have an asset, and most certainly farmland, worth over €1 million. It was Sinn Féin's position that working farmland would be excluded from this tax measure anyway. The measure was targeted at big business with significant shares in and dividends from the agriculture industry. For the Deputies opposite to claim this proposal would have an impact somehow or other on the farming community is an absolute nonsense.
The Minister’s job is to ensure agreements such as TTIP do not damage Ireland. Like the doctor, the Minister must be charged firstly with doing no harm. Is he confident TTIP will do us no harm? Sinn Féin has no such confidence and believes that TTIP will do significant harm to the Irish agriculture sector. No Minister is standing up for rural Ireland or the farmers in County Leitrim that I represent. These are small farmers eking out a living on 30 acres of land with a handful of cows, while trying to rear a family and send their children to school. Those people need protection from big business which is manipulating the markets and destroying their incomes. The Minister needs to stand up firmly and proudly against that particular sector. Who will protect us if the Minister will not?
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate as the outgoing chairman of the agriculture committee and as a beef farmer. Agricultural output has been a key driver over the past several years in the overall economy. The obligation now, as I stated at the end of January, is to improve and protect incomes for primary producers. The agriculture committee produced a report, Report on the Grocery Goods Sector - Increasing equity and transparency in producer-processor-retailer relationships. This will be fundamental to improving the income return to the primary producer. It is not rocket science, and nor does it take a genius to know, that without food, human beings would not exist on this planet. There is an obligation on legislators, as well as those within the industry at national and global level, to allow countries and areas in the world, which can produce food in the most environmentally and animal welfare friendly way, to continue to do so. The collision course between agricultural output and greenhouse gas reduction obligations must be faced in a mature fashion. It must be recognised that agricultural output in this country is achieved to the highest environmental standards.
The agriculture committee agreed on preconditions to any agreement on TTIP which it put to the European Commission. A far greater threat, however, and one which was under the radar for a certain time but has manifested itself again, is Mercosur. This is the one on which we need to concentrate collectively.
I would be very sceptical about any benefits to the Irish agricultural sector if Mercosur, as it is currently being negotiated, became a reality.
The new grocery goods regulations came into force on Saturday, 30 April 2016. The director of regulation in the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission must produce a report by next March on how the commission has implemented those regulations in respect of retailers and wholesalers with a turnover in excess of €50 million. This will be very important. It is important for all of us here with an interest in ensuring there is a fair price for everybody within the industry, particularly the primary producer, that this is seen to work. A total of 20 of the 28 EU member states have voluntary or statutory arrangements in place to monitor how the price is divided up along the price chain. It is not about subsidies per se. It is about giving a real return for primary producers' produce. It is about making sure they get a fair return on the market and have all the enabling tools such as advice, knowledge transfer or flexible credit facilities so that they can grow their business. That is what we need. We need young trained professionals who can expect a lifestyle and an income - not to be millionaires but to have a lifestyle. My sons might come home but I know that unless they have another income stream even though it is not a small farm, although it is not a massive one, it is not a realisable objective. This is the area we must concentrate on. It is doable and it is a precious finite resource. We need to look at land use as opposed to an agricultural policy. I have always said that we need a land use policy that encompasses all elements. This way, we can embrace the debate on climate change.
I listened to the debate this morning and more hares were raised here than one would see at a coursing meeting in Clonmel. I listened to Deputy Paul Murphy speaking about somatic cell count levels being a food safety issue. It is not a food safety issue, rather it is a quality issue. People who know about agriculture, particularly dairy farming, would know that.
It is important to recognise that there are challenges. The largest challenge by a country mile is that to farm incomes. The reality is that this challenge has been coming for quite some time. The largest aspect for anyone working as a farmer - be they large, small or in between - is the area they can affect as someone in business, namely, costs. I previously made the point that we have not done enough in respect of costs and milk is the best example. When the price of milk was high at 34 to 36 cent per litre a number of years, farmers spent too much. I made the point that when prices are high, we must put money aside for when world markets eventually level out. We are now at the low point in a trough. It is a real challenge and we do not do it enough. I am speaking as a commercial dairy farmer. To put it into context, 22 cent per litre at 4.5 litres in a gallon is €1 per gallon or less than 80 pence per gallon. My father was also a dairy farmer. In the late 1970s, it was over 80 pence a gallon so that is where commercial dairy farmers are trying to eke a living. Break even is about 25 cent per litre. At anything below that, one is producing at below cost.
There are things we can do with the support of this House, and I make a proposal relating to the milk quota bill from two years ago. A bill of €80 million is due to be paid in the next number of weeks in respect of people who went over quota. This money is paid by the State and there is an agreement between the co-operatives to levy that money from the dairy farmers who over supplied in that period. The sum of €80 million is to be repaid in the next three months and I propose that the payment of this money be deferred for two years and that it be paid in 2018. There would be no cost to the Exchequer. The money that is due to repaid will be repaid in two years and it would make €80 million that comes out of dairy farmers pockets available immediately. I hope officials will address this and I have spoken to the Minister about it.
Deputy Doyle is correct that TTIP is not the issue. Anybody would think that the US farming sector was producing nothing but poison. Hormones have been used for decades in the US. We do not agree with them here and they are illegal, but they are legal in the US and there is no proof of any negative impacts on people's health.
Beef is the nub of the issue for the farming sector. The producers producing weanlings are not getting enough. If they took the time they put in per hour, they would be working for practically nothing so they put their money in and get it out but they are not getting paid for their time, which is a ridiculous scenario for anybody in any business. The finishers are buying the animal at too high a price. When they finish and kill the animal in the factory, the animal is not producing enough money for them to have a margin. It all keeps coming back to having a margin or not. That is the real challenge.
There are a couple of positive developments. Glanbia has an agreement with the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund in respect of the development of funding, which is very positive. The genetic merit increase in the dairy herd is also very positive. I was critical of some of the hares raised earlier. Deputy Eamon Ryan has a good proposal relating to forestry that should be explored.
I say in response to Deputy Martin Kenny that we should stop pitting farmer against farmer. Every person who goes out to farm an acre of land does it in the best way he or she can. We should stop seeing it in terms of east versus west, big farmer versus small farmer. A farmer does not and should not look at his neighbour as a small farmer. Farmers are farmers, not big, small, east or west.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to contribute to this discussion on agriculture. I will focus on two aspects of the general discussion today. The first is GLAS and the difficulty many farmers in my constituency face in qualifying for the scheme. It might be a particular problem for Donegal and privately-owned hill farms and hill farmers. Under the previous two tranches of the scheme, their land was only designated as tier 3 and, as we know, no tier 3 farmers were admitted into GLAS I or II. This is a very difficult problem for farmers. Members have discussed during the debate today how farm incomes have gone down and how much farmers depend on schemes like GLAS to supplement their income to allow them to remain viable and provide for their families. When the Minister devises GLAS III later this year, he should find a way to ensure that people with privately-owned hill land can qualify for either tier 2 or tier 1 so they can participate in GLAS and glean whatever benefits are available from it. It is vitally important that as many farmers as possible, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, can avail of the various agri-environment schemes. This should be given very serious consideration and I intend to raise it further in the House over the coming months as the new Government gets off the ground.
The other aspect I want to talk about, which the Minister touched on in his earlier contribution, is SI 125 of 2016 and the implementation of the European Union penalty points regime in the State. On 1 March 2016, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, signed into law new regulations to replace the previous penalty points scheme. There is huge anger right across fishing communities about the operation of this scheme and the way the Minister went about implementing this new statutory instrument because there was no consultation with fishing organisations. I do not think there was any consultation with the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, on the new regulation before it was signed in to law. During this hiatus period with the caretaker Government, this House is not in a position to address any of the concerns about that or to make any decisions on it. We have 21 sitting days of the Dáil to move a motion on this and all Opposition groups have submitted motions on the Order Paper to rescind this statutory instrument. It is vitally important and should be done without delay.
I note the Minister said that he has asked the Attorney General to look at the proposal to see how it can be married with the criminal prosecution system, but it is not enough. This statutory instrument has to be removed straight away and a proper system devised with proper consultation that actually reflects the needs of the industry. While fishermen may not be entirely happy with the penalty points system, they recognise the need for a system to be there and that it is a requirement under the Common Fisheries Policy that the penalty points are implemented. It is against all fair procedure and natural justice that fishermen cannot use the courts to address cases and concerns about the implementation of the penalty points. The new statutory instrument does not address any of those needs that were identified in the High Court judgment that struck down the old system. If penalty points are added to a fisherman's licence, a prosecution takes place for the same infringement and they are found not guilty, those penalty points actually stay on their licence. That is against any form of natural justice or fair procedure and should not be allowed to be maintained and continue within the State. It cannot be the intended consequence of the European Union rules that this would be the way.
This is a particularly and peculiarly Irish problem and the Minister is proposing an Irish solution to that Irish problem. He should be implementing a fair solution that respects the needs of everybody and also respects the needs for regulation and control within the fishing industry. In August 2015 a Danish vessel had penalty points applied to it when it was deemed to be fishing illegally in the Irish Sea, yet the Danish Government refused to add those penalty points to that vessel in Denmark. It shows how this penalty points system operates right across the European Union. We need to make sure it is fair and that fair procedure is adopted here. I call on the Minister to rescind the statutory instrument immediately.
Let me assure the Deputy who was worried about hares being raised that I will raise legitimate concerns. I will use my five minutes to focus on one issue in the Minister's speech, a subject that received one sentence in a 13-page speech on agriculture and yet, along with climate change, poses the most significant threat to agriculture and fisheries, which is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, which has been referred to many times. I invite the Deputies on my right to read it. I am grateful to the groups that are out protesting today and which have made us aware of this agreement, because otherwise we would have no information. What has happened in this Dáil with the previous Government is that its members have told us this agreement is excellent and good for the country so we do not need to know anything about it.
These barriers are in reality, given that most tariffs between the EU and USA are already at minimal levels, some of our most prized social standards and environmental regulations such as labour rights, food safety rules, and the regulation of the use of toxic chemicals. In addition to this deregulation agenda, TTIP also seeks to create new markets by opening up public services and government procurement contracts to competition from transnational corporations. Most worryingly of all, TTIP seeks to grant foreign investors a new right to sue sovereign governments directly before ad hocarbitration tribunals for the loss of profits resulting from public policy decisions. The investor-state dispute settlement, ISDS, elevates transnational capital to a status virtually equivalent to that of a sovereign state and threatens to undermine the most basic principles of democracy in the EU. TTIP is therefore not a mere negotiation process between two competing trading blocs but an attempt by transnational capital to open up and deregulate markets on both sides of the Atlantic.
The treaty has been negotiated under conditions of the strictest secrecy since 2013. Significantly there is absolutely no evidence that the absence of an ISDS limits foreign investment. Brazil, which is Latin America's largest recipient of foreign investment, has no investment agreement that contains such a clause. Indeed, the USA has no ISDS agreement with China, which continues to receive massive investment flows. In my opinion, the path to recovery does not lie through more deregulation and the lowering of social and environmental standards. The risk assessment carried out by the Centre for Economic Policy Research which was financed by the European Commission claims a benefit for this of €119 billion a year. However, at the same time it goes on to reveal that such gains, if they exist, will only be felt in 2027 and only if a comprehensive agreement is reached, which is not realistic.
The report commissioned by the Commission also confirmed that TTIP is likely to bring prolonged and substantial dislocation to the EU workforce. In recognition of this, the Commission has advised countries to draw on the Structural Fund to make up for what will happen. Among the most serious implications and dangers of TTIP is the dispute mechanism, which I have mentioned. It will also reduce the standards with regard to food imports. The US Government has explicitly used the TTIP negotiations to target EU regulations that block American food imports. These regulations rely on the precautionary principle that has been mentioned by many Deputies and I do not need to repeat it. The American negotiators seek to reverse that precautionary principle. The TTIP will lead to the downgrading of any labour standards identified as barriers to trade, such as collective labour agreements, which could be seen as challenging restrictions on the business model. I believe that layer by layer, a powerful machine has been constructed for weakening the capacity of a government to regulate in the public interest. In the context of the discussion later today on climate change, it is particularly significant that this agreement makes absolutely no provision for climate change.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on agriculture in this debate. I have listened to most of the speakers since this morning. It is our largest indigenous industry and the main industry that is keeping rural Ireland going. There are many issues facing the agricultural industry but, as previous speakers have said, each sector is now in dire trouble. We can look at international markets, international arrangements and where the markets are going, but we have to look at the advice that was given to our farmers over the past two to three years, especially in the run-up to 1 April 2015 when milk quotas were abolished and we were going to have the production of milk in the dairy sector without quotas for the first time in 32 or 33 years. The infamous programme by George Lee broadcast during the week of 1 April about the white gold should be challenged by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland because it was not fair or balanced and the past 12 months have shown that it was misleading.
Dairy farmers were advised that they could borrow up to €4,000 per cow for every increase in the herd. Monopoly would not have given that kind of advice to the farming sector. All sectors of farming are now in dire straits. I hear of people within the agriculture industry who are selling stock just to pay the day-to-day bills. Farmers with borrowings are finding it very difficult to rear a family and make ends meet.
One of the previous speakers said we should not pit the big farmer against the small farmer and all the rest of it. The debate needs to focus on an equitable and fair distribution of the supports to all sectors of agriculture to ensure we have the maximum number of viable farms irrespective of the quality of the land in an area. People spoke about forestry. In Rockchapel in my constituency, more than 60% of the parish is planted with forestry trees. There is a serious question about the direction of afforestation.
I wish to return to the primary producer. We have talked about the food industry and global exports. Our dairy and general food exports have risen since 2009. However, we need to remember the primary producers, the farmers, the men and women who get up every morning, get their hands dirty and work through the night, calving cows, producing milk, producing sucklers, whether they are in dairy, tillage, beef or sheep. Other Deputies spoke about the difficulty in the lambing season this spring.
In the past 25 years and particularly since 1996 when BSE or mad cow disease came in, the amount of regulation has increased and farmers have ponied up to it. Every farmer dealt with the bureaucratic nightmare and recognised that regulations had to be adhered to in order to ensure they had a world-class product. While they have a world-class product, they are not being paid for the world-class product they are producing.
Based on international standards and how the products are produced in other countries, we are as near to organic as damn it regarding what is seen as best farming practice in other countries. We have to compete on those levels. Departmental officials are arriving in farmyards with briefcases and laptops and frightening the living daylights out of farmers. Hard-pressed farmers are finding that there is a cross-compliance requirement, an i not dotted or a t not crossed in some shape or form, and I am concerned at the aggression with which the Department goes after them in those incidents. The Department needs to be more pro-farmer. Instead of policing the farmer, it needs to work with the farmer, who needs support. We need to be more proactive in looking after the primary producer.
Over the past five years, my major criticism of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has been that in all his speeches both here and directed to the agriculture industry, the food industry has always been number one and the farmer was the last man in the line. If we do not support the primary producer - the men and women getting their hands dirty - we will not have a future in this industry. I could speak for hours on the topic.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the issue. I have listened carefully to the debate. As we all know, the agrifood sector is the largest indigenous industry and makes a critical contribution to our survival during times of austerity. I wish to address two specific aspects: dairy farming and mental health in the farming community.
In recent years, those in the dairy sector were encouraged to invest significantly in their farms. One year has passed since the end of milk quotas and we have seen a decrease in prices, price volatility, a decrease in farm incomes and difficulties with cashflow for farming communities. The viability of the dairy farming sector has been threatened in particular. Farmers are the foundation of our rural communities. Without them, we do not have rural communities. They provide the economic backbone to these communities and their families support the local schools and shops.
Food security goes beyond our rural communities and is also critical to urban areas. Farm security should be of concern to everybody, including those in our cities and other urban areas. As an indigenous industry, returns for taxpayer investment in the farming community are greater than in any other sector because the money invested sources local materials. The money spent is also reinvested in the local community.
The Ornua PPI is showing a modest increase in the price of milk and the latest WASDE report is expecting a significant increase in milk production. As a consequence, the future for the dairy sector continues to be uncertain. I ask the Minister to take steps to ensure a fair price for our farmers' products, take measures to address price volatility, ensure food security for our nation, end the practice of late payments which is greatly affecting the cashflow, and ensure the dairy industry carries a fair share of the burden and it is not placed entirely on the farmer.
Farmers are particularly vulnerable to mental health risk factors. Farmers in general are isolated and are becoming increasingly isolated as a result of modern farming techniques and technologies. With a reduction of local services such as post offices in rural communities, the opportunities for farmers to interact in the community are also decreasing. We need to pay particular attention to this issue. When the income uncertainty is added in, there is increased pressure on our farmers. An ICMSA survey found that 50% of all farmers have been directly affected by suicide and 16% have had a direct impact of a suicide within their family. Our farming community is becoming more elderly and they are particularly affected. While I know some work on this has been done, I call on the Minister to work with the Department of Health to introduce additional programmes to address mental health issues in the farming community.
I welcome the opportunity to speak today about agriculture. The agricultural sector is the most important sector in Ireland. It has a combined turnover of more than €26 billion and represents almost 8% of GDP. It supports 160,000 jobs, representing 8% of the total workforce. It accounts for almost 11% of all our exports and in 2015 exported nearly €11 billion worth of product.
The Food Wise 2025 strategy aims to increase the value of exports by 85% to €19 billion; increase value added by 70% to €13 billion; increase the value of primary production by 65% to almost €10 billion; and support the creation of a further 23,000 jobs in the agrifood sector. At present, two main direct payments schemes are delivered under CAP - the ANC scheme and the BPS. The ANC scheme, which replaced the disadvantaged areas scheme, was launched in May 2015 and is co-funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. Payments range from €82 to €250 per hectare. To date, €203 million has been paid to more than 95,000 farmers. Ireland was one of the first countries in the EU to pay the BPS and €1.1 billion has already been paid to more than 125,000 farmers, which covered more than 99% of all applicants.
GLAS was launched in 2015 and effectively replaced the REP scheme. It had an overall target of attracting 50,000 farmers. To date, over 38,000 farmers have been approved for the scheme.
I note a third round of applications will open later this year and I urge any applicant who was unsuccessful in the first attempt to reapply after consulting an adviser.
Since milk quotas were abolished, the dairy industry has experienced much turmoil. Despite this, the long-term outlook is positive, and with new markets emerging, I hope it will not be too long before the dairy sector returns to a more settled state. In light of the challenges faced, a number of measures were introduced to assist farmers. For example, a fund of €27 million was allocated to dairy and pig farmers to help them through this difficult period and a wide range of packages were agreed at European Council level, including the doubling of the intervention ceiling for skimmed milk powder and butter. It should be pointed out that the beef sector is also being strongly supported across a range of areas. For example, €300 million was allocated to the beef genomics and data scheme to improve the quality of the national herd and increase profitability for farmers. To date, more than 25,500 farmers are in the scheme. A new framework for producer organisations will allow farmers have more negotiating power in the market. Pigmeat prices have also come under pressure over the past year and there is no doubt this is proving challenging for producers. This sector is very important and supports more than 7,000 jobs, with exports in excess of €570 million in 2015.
I note the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has been very active in recent times, and at the March meeting of EU agriculture Ministers he proposed measures for the pigmeat industry, including the reopening of the private storage aid scheme. Despite all this, it is important to recognise that the agri sector faces a very difficult time. I know from speaking to farmers in the Louth area that
farming incomes are still too low. Input costs are rising but milk, beef and grain prices are not and in some cases are actually decreasing. This cannot continue and we must support the agri sector. Since the abolition of the milk quota, the dairy sector has faced many difficulties. The price of milk for the producer has dropped but the end user does not see any reduction. The abolition of the milk quota must be looked at again and additional supports for the dairy sector must also be considered. In Louth there are eight farmers who cannot access the young farmers entitlement scheme despite fulfilling the criteria. I am told that the funds are not available and I ask the Minister to examine these cases immediately.
I know from my dealings with the farming community that some farmers borrowed heavily to invest in their farms at the time when money was easily available. In some cases they are being put under severe pressure to repay these loans at terms that are simply not sustainable. Again I will be calling for additional supports and help for farmers in such a position to renegotiate with their respective banks and restructure their loans in order that they can continue to farm their land. Another concern in the farming community is the ever-increasing age of farmers. There are not enough young farmers coming through and I know my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has done great work in this area. I urge him to continue this.
The agri sector in Ireland is a national treasure. We are known worldwide for the quality of our produce and our farming methods are the envy of the world. The Government must continue to support the farming sector, not only in Louth but countrywide, to ensure the long-term viability of our farming community.
I welcome the opportunity to speak today on agriculture, the backbone of the Irish economy. Along with its associated services, it underpinned this country's survival during the catastrophic economic crash of 2008 and it is now fundamental to the survival and prosperity of rural Ireland.
In County Limerick dairy farmers are hurting due to ongoing low milk prices. However, the same product continues to maintain its price to the consumer. This pricing crisis is due to factors such as increased supply and geopolitical developments arising in the past year. The removal of the Russian market and the devaluation of the Chinese currency are all contributing factors to this dynamic. Meanwhile, materials involved in production such as feed products, fertilisers and silage sheeting have all maintained, if not increased, their price. All these products depend on oil in production. Why are low oil prices not reflected in the price to the farmer of these products? There could be exploration of open book agreements in which commercial margins may be agreed and index-linked to fluctuations in the market. Open book agreements are not a new concept and already take place in other supply chains such as the information technology sector.
I welcome the agreements secured to export Irish beef to the new markets as outlined by the Minister. If conducted properly, we can compete and beat any other country in marketing our produce because it is the best. We have a massive diaspora with many Irish people in key decision-making positions in politics and industry that can be utilised and co-ordinated to allow us seamless access and help build new international relationships.
Locally, there must be exploration of initiatives to help alleviate financial pressures on farmers due to the low milk prices. Current planning laws in the likes of County Limerick require evaluation in exploring the option of freeing up farmers to sell sites to prospective buyers looking to settle in rural locations. The current planning guidelines were born at and are in situsince the time of the building boom more than ten years ago. They do not mirror the current happenings on the ground in the likes of County Limerick. The liberalisation of these planning laws would make it easier for more people to access a place in rural Ireland, thus enhancing the communities. It would also offer the landholder an option of selling sites to offset against current financial stress. This debate is required immediately.
It was also mentioned that farmers are being encouraged to make their submissions online to speed up their payments, but the access to rural broadband is not adequate to allow them do so. A positive inspection environment for the agricultural sector must also be encouraged. Inspection bureaucracy must be examined in a lean approach with a view to removing any surplus criteria. The continued development of a positive communication style from the authorities to farmers must also be encouraged.
I agree with previous speakers' comments on mental health in the agricultural sector. The current economic challenges coupled with other factors can greatly affect a farmer’s mental health. The farming lifestyle can be a complex area and for some it underpins their social inclusion. If removed, it would have a devastating effect. Ironically, however, for others that same lifestyle has a great impact on their social isolation, and this is an area of which we must also be mindful with a view to solving.
I begin by congratulating Mr. Joe Healy, the newly elected president of the Irish Farmers Association. I hope the necessary reforms will take place within the organisation and that it will support all farming families, including those with small and medium farms. Practices involving farm inspections and the imposition of penalties or the threat of imposing penalties through cuts to the single farm payments have been brought to my attention on many occasions by my constituents in Offaly and north Tipperary. If such measures were adopted in any other profession or livelihood, they would not be accepted or tolerated, so they should not be imposed on the farming community. I raise the issue of farm inspections today with the Minister. Farmers throughout this State are absolutely crippled with bureaucracy and red tape associated with the various farming schemes. Farmers are terrified of the Department's inspectors landing in the yard unannounced to carry out these inspections, which are often perceived as heavy-handed. It is beyond belief and unacceptable that for many farming families throughout the State, the Department is seen as a source of stress and fear rather than a source of support for these communities. It is little wonder that the thought of these inspections fills farmers with dread.
In Ireland in 2014, 10,000 farmers were hit with penalties such that €3.3 million was deducted from single farm payments, with €1.1 million deducted from the disadvantaged areas scheme payments. This, combined with falling farm incomes across many farm sectors, is having a real impact on our farming communities. Something must be done to address the issue. Provisional figures from Teagasc estimate that the average family farm income will fall by 9% to €24,000 per annum, less than 60% of the average industrial wage. It is welcome then that some simplification measures have been announced for the first half of 2016 that primarily relate to penalty systems in place, but more must be done urgently. New measures to reduce penalties include preliminary checks on aid applications and the "yellow card” system for first offenders. These are welcome and will, I hope, cut the administrative penalty in half when an over-declaration is minor. Reducing administrative burdens for farmers is crucial in any changes to the current legislation as unintentional mistakes often lead to penalties and reductions in income support. That is unacceptable.
Furthermore, there must be a change in the culture and approach of the Department and the European institutions on this issue. I fear that somewhere along the way, we have simply forgotten the purpose of these inspections. They are not there to provide an administrative and bureaucratic nightmare for farmers, as they often do, or to strike fear into our farming community.
They should be there to ensure the best possible standards of production and to support farmers in their efforts to achieve them. While no one would argue about the need for standards and compliance with the regulations, we need to remember that farmers are operating under serious pressure and they require support and assistance to navigate their way through the red tape and ever-increasing bureaucracy. The real test of the new system will be in the interpretation by officials from the Department and I urge the Minister to take action now to ensure the same climate of fear is not allowed to grip the officials in the Department. Instead, officials should approach the issue of inspections with the objective of ensuring that the high standards and productivity of Irish farmers is maintained through a collaborative approach to the issue of standards and compliance.
Deputy O'Dowd is not taking the time, so I will take it all. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. I know from the previous Dáil that statements on agriculture often attract a great deal of attention from rural Deputies in particular, which is a reflection of the massive contribution made by our farming families up and down the country and the associated agribusinesses that are the backbone of the rural economy outside our larger urban centres. I specifically want to speak about some of the challenges that are facing farmers in the agriculture sector in my constituency in County Limerick. No more than what previous speakers have said, there is an air of uncertainty in respect of agriculture at the moment, particularly in relation to the price of commodities. There are also other uncertainties that are troubling for the farming community, none more so than the upcoming referendum in the United Kingdom on Brexit and the potential impact that could have on an industry that is so driven by agricultural exports, given that the United Kingdom is one of the biggest export markets for Irish food products. In addition to the impact that would have on the processing facilities and the industries themselves, there is also concern about the impact on individual farming families.
There is a great deal of concern about that and other issues and I suppose that is why the farming community is to the fore at the moment in willing over the line the creation of a new Government, so that the new Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, or the incumbent if he remains in situ, would come to terms with many of the issues that are there at the moment and liaise with the farming organisations, which have acted very responsibly in the last number of months in very difficult circumstances. That being said, I congratulate and wish well the newly-elected leadership of the IFA, particularly Richard Kennedy from my own constituency, who was elected deputy president of the IFA. It is a great honour for him and his family and for the IFA in County Limerick, from which he received great support. I have no doubt that the new leadership of the IFA will try to bring the organisation with them. It is very important for rural Deputies that we have strong farming organisations. The ICSA and the ICMSA, together with the IFA and Macra na Feirme, have over the last few years since I became a Member of this House engaged very positively in relation to the issues that affect farming families and particularly young farmers who are trying as best they can to make a livelihood for themselves and their families.
Another issue that affects my own constituency relates to the training of young farmers. We are very fortunate in County Limerick to have the Salesian Agricultural College in Pallaskenry. I have raised this issue before in the last Dáil with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and I will continue to raise it. It relates to the resources that are available for teaching staff in our agricultural colleges. It is not that long ago that there was a question mark over the future of our agricultural colleges and whether they had a sustained future, because if a farmer was not building houses, selling sites and driving around in a jeep trying to sell more houses to their neighbours, there was a perception in rural areas that they were not a success. Now, luckily, farming is back as a core industry, along with tourism, in which young women and men can see a future for themselves. That is very important because it is what has driven the intake of students into colleges like Pallaskenry, but it has also put pressure on existing teaching resources. From that point of view, I would like to see greater emphasis on the training and continuing professional development of our young farmers in particular. The Minister of State, Deputy English, is also from a rural constituency.
Another issue I have raised before with the Minister relates to land mobility and the transfer of land particularly from one generation to the next, and the ease of the creation of farm partnerships. I know the last Government made great efforts in this regard through tax consolidation measures and in the extension of farm tax reliefs in terms of stock reliefs and so on, but we need to do more. It is a well-established fact that the average field in Ireland moves much slower in terms of land mobility than the average field in France. If we are to attract that generation of younger people into farming as a profession and to encourage them to build their capabilities and their output, which has happened in respect of the abolition of quotas has had a knock-on effect on the supply of milk in particular, we do need to back those measures up with supports. The supports that are very obviously to the fore in that regard are the tax supports, in terms of land mobility in particular.
Another issue I would like to raise which has bedevilled the farming community in west Limerick in particular and also in north-east Limerick relates to land designation by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which has a significant impact on the use of land. I have said it in the House before in the last Dáil: I thank the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, for the work he has done in respect of a locally led environmental scheme for the hen harrier. There was a time, back between 2011 and 2013, when I was the only Deputy who raised that issue, to much humour from some Deputies, who thought it was something to do with a cross between a military aircraft and some sort of endangered species. However, it was no laughing matter for the people who were affected by it, no more than the people who had land with the pearl mussel and a whole clatter of other things that were designated. The difficulties associated with farming in those areas is profound. The farmer's land is essentially worthless. It is rendered worthless by designation. There is an onus on the new Government coming in. There has been a great deal of chatter about things that are of importance. Some of the stuff that is out there as being at the top of the list in terms of importance was never raised at a door with me anyway, so I do not know what kind of a constituency I live in. The issues faced by people whose land is designated for some sort of special protection area, or under whatever sort of European directive cannot continue into the future without adequate compensation for the fact that these people's constitutional right to enjoy their land is essentially being infringed upon by a designation over which they have no influence whatsoever. Their land is essentially worthless - they cannot drain it, they cannot till it, they cannot build on it, they cannot cut it and they cannot plant it. The former Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, was very anxious that something would be done about the whole element of forestry, either in respect of deciduous trees or low-density conifers, in these areas as well.
We have to start looking at these things much faster. It is five years since myself and Deputy Michael Creed from Cork North-West first met the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht regarding the hen harrier. We have made progress, but it has been painfully slow and I would like to see the new Ministers, whoever is responsible for the National Parks and Wildlife Service and whoever is responsible for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, take a far more aggressive approach to dealing with these issues in relation to designation. EU designation is fine in terms of its implementation from Brussels, but it has a totally different impact on the ground for farming families, who essentially see their assets vanish in front of them. No bank manager will want to see someone coming in with the deeds of a farm with a hen harrier designation on it or with pearl mussel or anything like that, so there has to be some degree of compensation. I know we are in a constrained environment financially, fiscally and everything else - in terms of fiscal space and every other sort of space - but those people cannot be forgotten about.
Finally, in respect of the future of Irish agriculture, we are very fortunate that Ireland is renowned around the world for the welcome we give and the food we produce. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, has been very anxious to see a future for Irish produce in the new markets that are emerging in the far east and in the BRIC countries. Our new Government needs to be unapologetic, so that we use every possible opportunity, whether it is St. Patrick's Day or whatever. Regardless of the people in this House who will moan about people going overseas, it should be part of the remit of every Minister in the new Government to promote Ireland as a place in which to holiday and invest, but also to promote Irish food as something that can be consumed as a safe product. There is nothing wrong with Irish food. That comes as a result of responsible farming and as a result of inspections, which may in some cases be overzealous.
However, the inspection regime we have means that when we have a crisis - be it regarding horsemeat or a contaminant - we know exactly where our food is reared, what goes into it and who is responsible for it and we can deal with a crisis before it becomes an emergency. That is important. I know there are concerns around inspections, but if one talks to individual farmers, they will say it is important to know what we are consuming as that is why Irish farmers and Irish food can command the price they can.
I wish the incoming Minister with responsibility for agriculture well in the role, and it may very well be the incumbent. This is a multi-billion euro industry. It sustains hundreds of thousands of jobs throughout Ireland. At a time when we have a lack of proper regional development and a lack of balance, agriculture has again retaken its place. There was a time between 1997 and 2011 when the only time one heard of agriculture was when something was going to be taken out of it. Now at least we have an attitude that agriculture and tourism are two of the vital pillars that will revitalise rural Ireland. I wish the new Minister well.
Like my colleague, I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this very important subject for the simple reason that the agrifood sector is indeed a core part of this State's economy. I believe that when the boom years were in full swing, little attention was paid to the agriculture sector on the basis that there were other more lucrative ways of making a living. Deputy O'Donovan put it well in the sense that agriculture is one of the most important industries in the State. It is an industry that is readily able to provide an income to farm families and to provide an income to people in the industrial sector, the processing sector and the services sectors. In agriculture we also have an industry which is progressing dramatically and which is benefiting to a huge extent from its embrace of the computer age.
It needs to be recognised that we cannot develop the agrifood sector in isolation. The European Union must be with us in dealing with the issues that arise from time to time, in particular trade agreements - those pending and those in place - and in the extent to which concessions can be made in the course of such arrangements, debates and negotiations. We need to be forever careful to ensure we do not lose out in what is a central part of our economy. There is a tendency to do that when negotiations are taking place at a global level. I have every confidence in the European Commissioner, Phil Hogan, to work on behalf of the European Union and to the benefit of the agrifood sector in this State, which he always did, knowing the importance of the sector as a central part of our economy.
We must get away from the notion that is beginning to gain momentum - in this House also - that the European Union should be treated with a certain amount of contempt and to be avoided if at all possible. The European Union is hugely important in marketing our goods and, with a population of 500 million plus people, in being a marketplace. It is a huge advantage to have, particularly if one is selling a product that everybody has to use in the course of every day, week, month and year. We should never lose sight of the fact that the agrifood business is central to our economy and is likely to remain so for as long as we are around. I emphasise that if we depart or detach ourselves from the European project on this or any other issue, we are visitors to the table as opposed to being part of it. We need to recognise that we are all Europeans. We should avail of whatever is available to the people of Europe, as is our entitlement. If we do not do that and we opt out, we would then be treated as visitors at that table, a place we should not be.
As time moves on, challenges appear, for example, the removal of the milk quotas. That creates challenges. The one thing about any industry, be it agriculture, the motor industry, the service industry or whatever the case may be, is that they must be managed on the basis of events. I remind Members of the famous phrase by a certain gentleman in another jurisdiction: "Events, dear boy, events." Those events will affect us all in the future, so I congratulate the outgoing Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and wish the incoming Minister well, as we do with the new leadership within the IFA.
With regard to farming representatives nationally, the IFA leadership role is a very important position. It is a position negotiator at a very important level with Government, whoever might be in it. The leadership has to be responsible on the one hand and be representative on the other hand. I wish the organisations well as they perform a very important role, as trade unions perform a very important role.
With regard to the challenges - I will not say threats - of the future, we all have to be aware that the industry must be monitored carefully and we must identify the predatory issues before they become a serious challenge to us. We need to isolate the issues and respond to them within the confines of the regulations as they apply to Europe and the global economy. Failure to do so will mean, unfortunately, that we could become isolated and could be considered as continuous protesters. We are an integral part of the European complex of economies. It is very important that we recognise that. It is very important as we proceed into the future that we continue to give our best.
When this country was on its knees, and it was not so many years ago. economically everything was falling apart. I am not blaming any politician or anybody inside or outside this House for that, but by virtue of a series of circumstances, we found ourselves in a place that we did not want to be. Agriculture was one of the areas that rose to the occasion and did its job well, effectively, efficiently and in the shortest possible space of time. This needs to be recognised now and into the future. If we fail to do so and do not nurture industries like the agrifood sector, which requires that degree of management all the time, then we will pay a high price for it. In recent years we have developed our economy in a more balanced way. I hope this will continue - it is imperative that it does - and that the management required from time to time takes place in a non-invasive way for a positive effect and benefit to the Irish economy, to those who are directly involved and to those who depend on the sector for a living.
The Ceann Comhairle is aware I do not come from a maritime county but he will readily assert I am sure there are more harbours in County Kildare than there are in most other counties. They are canal harbours of course, as we all know quite well, because we have an abundance of canals there. We should not discuss the agrifood sector without mentioning the fishing sector also and the changes that have been and had to be made over the years. Reference has been made recently to some elements of the fishing sector who do not abide by the rules, especially the discard rules. There appear to be abuses and I ask that this be borne in mind. The discard rules were abandoned for two very good reasons. One was for the sheer waste involved and the second was the degree to which restocking and conservation were being undermined. I hope a lesson has been learnt from that situation and that we do not allow ourselves to drift slowly and inexorably back into the way things used to happen by stealth.
I do not want to spend too much time on the matter but my colleague, Deputy O'Donovan, referred to the famous bird, the hen harrier. It is incomprehensible that a person who is unfortunate enough to have their property designated as a heritage site, or whatever the case may be, would not receive some kind of compensation or recognition for the displacement of their and their family's industry, income and livelihood over the foreseeable future.
I accept entirely, and I am sure the Acting Chairman would agree with me, that we must have conservation rules and regulations but not to the exclusion of life and human beings. In the same way that we must have heritage sites, we need drainage as well. We need drainage in farmlands up and down the country. There is no good waiting for a flood to take place while avoiding the issue of drainage, something which is simple, natural, has taken place over thousands of years and has worked very effectively. It would be incongruous for someone sitting at a desk somewhere suddenly to decide that we no longer need that particular facility any more because we do need it. We avoid these issues at our peril.
I will make a last point on dealing with essential issues such as this one. If one's house goes on fire, one sends for the fire brigade. One does not ask the fire brigade where it got the water or how much it will cost; one puts out the fire. One of the things we need to do about flooding and designated areas etc. is to recognise that there has to be a life thereafter. Whatever it is we need to do now to intervene in a positive way on behalf of those situated in rural Ireland, we need to do it first and we need then to move on and do all the conservation that we require as well.
I would like to focus my contribution in this debate on the agrifood sector. The agrifood sector is Ireland’s largest indigenous industry and employs over 175,000 people with a turnover of €11 billion last year. Fianna Fáil in government introduced the visionary Food Harvest 2020 strategy for the period 2010-20. Food Wise 2025 has been generally welcomed by the industry and is a solid basis for planning a future for this industry sector. The agrifood and agridrink sector accounts for 7.6% of our economy. It accounts for 12.3% of Ireland’s exports, into 175 different markets, and 8.6% of total employment in the country. The total payroll in this sector is €1.8 billion, which is more than any other manufacturing sector in the country, and this provides a huge stimulus to the local economy. A recent article in the Irish Examineron the food industry in Ireland stated, "The future for the food industry and opportunities for global growth are literally mouth-watering." Ireland has evolved steadily from exporting live animals and freshly harvested crops to adding more value and exporting value-added food products. This industry has developed and continues to develop new products using new production technology.
One of the reasons I am focusing on this sector is that I see the potential for the industry in my constituency. Naas and surrounding areas are home to many food related companies with strong brands. These brands include Kerry Foods, Dawn Farm Foods, the Queally Group, Green Isle, Brady's, Kildare Farm Foods, Taravale Foods and Ballymooney Foods. I notice as well that Advanced Laboratory Testing Limited, located in Newbridge, provides valuable accreditation services for the food industry. I have seen at first hand the investment these companies have made and continue to make in terms of production, product development, technology, human resources and infrastructure. The Kerry Group, which now employs 800 people in Naas, has opened one of the world’s most advanced food innovation facilities. It was the largest single investment in food innovation ever by a company in Ireland and puts Ireland firmly at the forefront of global food innovation.
I believe strongly that Naas and the surrounding areas should be designated a hub for the food sector. I know that the former Minister of State and former Deputy for North Kildare, Áine Brady, was one of the first to propose such a hub for Naas back in 2007 and since we have seen the industry broaden and strengthen its link to Naas. I acknowledge her work in driving this agenda on behalf of Kildare and trying to secure more employment in the area. I know from talking to some people in the industry that having a designated hub for the food sector in Naas would bring benefits for the whole industry. It would facilitate a centre of excellence approach for the industry, bring synergies to the sector and enable collaboration between the companies involved in the sector. A hub would assist in building networks which would include knowledge providers such as Maynooth University or other relevant research services. Naas has easy access to the M7 and hence access to inland markets and export markets with easy access to ports and airports. I appreciate that other locations around the country have successful food related companies. However, to my knowledge, no other region has such a critical mass of food related companies. Having Naas designated a hub for the food sector will assist in marketing food products, improve competitiveness, attract the best in the business and share leading edge technologies. I call on the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and Enterprise Ireland to consider designating Naas and its surrounding areas a hub for the food sector.
He is sharing it with me. I would like to speak briefly on one sector which is close to my heart which is agriculture. Coming from east Galway, agriculture plays a prominent role in our mainstay. While agriculture has always been proven to be our mainstay as a nation in recessionary times such as those we have just weathered, it is far from a simple pursuit for many of our farmers, be they young or old. In fact, I would go as far as to say that farming has become a complex, onerous, anxious and often unrewarding business which, unfortunately, has become synonymous with slavishly hard work, high regulation from vested interests, low prices due to middle interests, high debt and a crushing lack of understanding from other sectors which fail to recognise the worth of agriculture to our economy. All of this is compounded by indebtedness to banks which simply pursue the bottom line and impoverish farming families who do not get a fair return for their hard work, with many of them living below the poverty line despite working 18 hours a day. Little wonder that many from farming communities submerged in flood waters due to bad planning question the merits of continuing to slave day in, day out with little reward. They are left to find that, at the end of their days, their farms are not safe from the banks, EU tariffs and fines, or the Revenue or find, perhaps, if they are fortunate enough to live long enough they have to trade it all for a bed in a nursing home.
I will focus especially on the rural social scheme, RSS. Currently in east Galway we have 150 people waiting to go on the rural social scheme. Most of them are either in receipt of farm assist or jobseeker's payments. It would cost an additional €22.50 per week to bring a person who is in receipt of farm assist or jobseeker's payments on to the rural social scheme. It would cost the State €3,375 per week to bring those 150 people within the scheme. On an average annual income, that will cost us €175,000. We could ask what is the benefit to the person. It gives them an income. It puts them back in the PRSI system and takes them off the live register. Most important, however, it gives them a sense of self-worth.
Living in rural Ireland, when the floods are rising around you, the days are long and the nights are very long, one has very little to do. Therefore, one has to look forward to doing something. Therein lies the value of the RSS. That is its value to the person. That is the value of the €175,000. What is the benefit to the community? The benefit to the community is that those people, believe it or not, are part of the town enhancement schemes. They are part of the Tidy Towns committees and clubs. They are the people who get involved in coaching and marking the pitches. These are the people that partake in the care and repair programme, a good example of which is to be found in Glenamaddy. They are part of the heritage project which is Portumna Workhouse and which could not have formed without them. That is what they do for communities, for the price of €3,375 per week. There are only 2,600 people on the waiting list nationally. There is a value to the person and a value to the community.
I was disappointed earlier today when the Minister spoke. He left out a few kernel parts about which I am passionate. He left out flooding and drainage. Let us be fair about it. The House will hear me harp on about this until the waters go but at this time, as I stand in this House, east Galway remains submerged. A lot of productive farmland is still under water. Many farmers are selling off their cows. They are realistic farmers, because at this stage they do not have grass for them and they will not have any fodder next year.
He also failed to touch on farm families. It is not an individual we talk about when we talk about agriculture. The whole family is involved in it. Therefore, we have to look at the wife, the children, older persons and everyone else as well. Farm safety did not come up today either even though we have an awful lot of accidents on farms.
I was glad to see Deputy Durkan hit on the issue of special areas of conservation. Many of the lands on the banks of the Shannon are designated special areas of conservation, with no compensation under the latest scheme. Many in east Galway are scratching their heads about that one. Does the House know what else the Minister failed to touch on? He failed to touch on the young farmer. I am just pulling out my notes because, while I can talk a lot ad lib, I need a little support as well. Delayed payments for our young farmers is undermining those looking to start in farming. The young farmers scheme was designed to encourage more young people into farming. However, huge delays in payments issuing under the young farmers scheme is leading to a lot of anger on the ground among the farmers involved.
Under the basic farm payment scheme, most farmers started receiving their payments last October. The Minister referred to this. Some young farmers only started getting the payment in December. Seven months later, the Department has almost got through all the transactions. We should be trying to embrace the younger community and encouraging them to stay on the land, but we are not really working with them. Those under 40 who have done all their certificates and courses are the people we need to keep on the land. We have to hand on the tradition and the ideas of rural Ireland to them. Believe it or not, people outside rural Ireland do not realise the value farming brings to the community. It puts billions back into the community.
Let us consider what is happening in the United Kingdom in the near future. What effect will this have on those of us in rural Ireland? We have to stand up and smell the heather in all of this.
The hands of the farmers are tied when it comes to banking. We are tying them with bureaucracy and tying them with the banks. It is time for the Government and all of us in the Chamber to step up and give support on both sides to the farmers. We have to work with the banks and encourage the freeing up of funds as well as working with the lines of bureaucracy that are tying up the farmers.
I welcome this debate on the farming and the agriculture sector. It is an important sector to the Irish economy. I will begin with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership because it has been in the news lately. Considerable work was done in recent years by a number of Oireachtas committees, including the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs and the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. The conclusion of the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last year was that TTIP poses opportunities and threats for Irish agriculture and rural life. He said the potential opening of the US market for Irish and other European agricultural produce was welcome. However, he also said it was vital that the stringent food standards employed for produce in the Single Market continue to be adhered to. He said issues such as quotas, food standards, genetically modified organisms and geographical indicators would be closely monitored by the joint committee.
The high standards that Irish farmers adhere to in food safety and traceability must be maintained and protected. The maintenance of high standards in respect of hormone-free produce is important as well. All commentary from Ministers at the various committees has indicated that the outgoing Government is committed to stringently upholding the standards of Irish and European food production in any negotiations or deals done under TTIP. This is important because, while there are opportunities in the dairy sector, the threats to our beef sector must be monitored and evaluated. There must be absolutely no reduction in the hormone regulations laid down under European law in respect of any imports from the United States. It is vital that the next Ministers with responsibility for agriculture and jobs and others who have involvement in TTIP talks are knowledgeable and understand the importance of these areas.
The overarching approved plan for agriculture is Food Wise 2025. The plan aims to increase the value of exports by 85%, up to €19 billion, and increase value added by 70%, up to €13 billion. It also aims to increase the value of primary production by 65%, up to almost €10 billion. The plan aims to support the creation of a further 23,000 jobs in the agrifood sector. These are ambitious targets, but as a nation we can meet them because we have considerable potential in the agriculture and food production sectors. The job creation targets must be met to help our rural and farming communities.
The most important element of the Common Agricultural Policy for Ireland is the direct payment. This amounts to €12.5 billion to be distributed among farmers in the lifetime of the new CAP negotiated by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, during the last Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union. There will be a mid-term review of the CAP. It is a difficult question but there will be a major debate about how that mid-term review should look. Within parties, counties, communities and parishes, it is difficult to get agreement on the best approach to CAP. In fairness, on the last occasion the Minister produced what I believe is a fair redistribution mechanism to gradually reduce payments to those on the top rate and increase payments to those on the bottom per hectare payments. That is the accepted aim. We saw a gradual movement of money from east to west. Even within western counties there was movement as well. It was a fairer system because it amounted to an attempt to help those on the lowest incomes and per hectare payments to move up while reducing the allocation to those on higher payments. The corollary is that the Pillar 2 schemes, including the old areas of natural constraint scheme, the disadvantaged areas scheme, GLAS and TAMS, are also available. They are part of the €4 billion rural development programme. GLAS is a follow-on to the AEOS and REPS programmes. There will be a roll-out of GLAS 3 in the autumn. It is important that those who did not get in under Tier 1 and Tier 2 priorities will have access to that. We need to consider the expansion of TAMS to allow for other initiatives such as rainwater harvesting or mats for slatted sheds, which are important in terms of comfort for cattle and health and safety.
The process includes a review of the areas of natural constraint scheme. I had flagged this to the Minister as a major concern because of the altering of boundaries. Any change to boundaries based on the areas of natural constraint scheme could be problematic and would cause concern. That is something we have to be on guard against. The next Minister and the Commission will have to be on guard to ensure this is done fairly and that there is sufficient scope for the Irish authorities to operate.
The beef data and genomics programme caused problems at the outset. There will be a review of this scheme. There was a fear that farmers who for whatever reason had to leave the scheme in the fifth year would have to pay back the moneys received. This has to be examined.
I hope there will be good news soon in respect of live exports to Turkey of up to 80,000 cattle. If a deal is sanctioned for the licensing of boats, veterinary certification, etc., it will be beneficial. Live exports play a vital role in providing competition within the beef sector in this country. The Minister has been at pains to point out on numerous occasions, however, that several European countries are seeking to have the live export trade banned. We should be cognisant of this and ensure the highest and strictest standards for our cattle going to these countries in boats. We need to ensure there are no health issues on those boats that would cause problems during their journey on the high seas or when they reach their ports of destination. It is an important market but there has to be a stringent licensing and veterinary regime in that area.
The sheep sector has traditionally been a low-income sector compared to other sectors. The Government has committed to a hill sheep and lowland payment under the rural development programme. I urged the Minister to introduce that.
There are a number of locally led agri-environment schemes. The hen harrier scheme has already been rolled out. We need to roll out schemes across other areas where there is an interest and where issues are at stake, including pearl mussels. We already have schemes in the Burren area that are important as well as schemes in other areas of the country for matters such as hill walking. These should be looked at too.
The last speaker mentioned delays for young farmers. She is correct. There have been delays in the young farmer payments. The Minister initiated the young farmer scheme. He got support from his European partners during Ireland's Presidency. We led the way with the young farmer scheme. Thankfully, those payments are now being rolled out, although there may be some minor delays.
Designated areas, commonages, hill farms and restricted lands are important. The designations made have led to particular problems. While the relevant farmers have access under Tier 1 and Tier 2 in GLAS, one of my main concerns is that under-grazing - in some cases it is a question of over-grazing - of these areas is leading to a loss of forage hectares. The basis of the initial change in the entitlement regime was to secure a fairer redistribution. However, where there is a loss of hectares because of scrub encroachment and under-grazing, there can be problems. Farmers would expect what they receive to increase under the rules.
Unfortunately, because of the loss of hectares, they do not see an overall increase in the value of money coming to them under the entitlement regime. That has been a concern for some time and needs to be acknowledged. More needs to be done to prevent the erosion of these forage hectares across the sector.
While I welcome schemes such as the Dunkellin scheme in south Galway, there is a lack of joined-up thinking in the Office of Public Works, OPW, or whoever is involved in the opening and lowering of the gates in the salmon weir in Galway which has an impact across the counties of Galway and Mayo on the levels of the Corrib and Lough Mask and has caused flooding problems. The OPW must have a better model for forecasting high levels of rainfall to predict or pre-empt floods and ensure we reduce the levels of the lakes and the flooding. There are significant challenges and opportunities within the agriculture and rural development sector and the next Minister will have his or her hands full to ensure that we optimise the incomes on our farms and within rural Ireland.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this issue which is very important for the area I represent. Our party is committed to protecting and developing agriculture for the 140,000 farm families in Ireland as the main driver of the rural economy and custodians of the countryside. We believe in the family farm model that places environmentally and socially sustainable farming at the heart of agriculture. The agrifood sector is the largest indigenous industry in Ireland, employing over 175,000 people and with food and drink exports reaching nearly €11 billion in 2015.
Fianna Fáil in government introduced a visionary food harvest strategy for 2010 to 2020. Food Wise 2025 has been generally welcomed by the industry but the litmus test will be if it delivers fair prices and profit levels for farmers. That is not happening. We are dealing daily with farmers who are struggling to survive whether in dairy, sheep or beef, which is the most common type of farming in my area. I know many farmers, young and old, who are expecting agri-environment option scheme, AEOS, payments and cannot get them. I meet people who owe money to the banks which put pressure on them because their limits have expired but they are waiting for money to come in. They are very frustrated because they cannot get an answer. There should be a person, or persons, designated to answer their queries. They are at their wits’ end trying to survive. We all know that the profit for farming today is what comes in the envelope. If that is delayed, it puts a great deal of pressure on farm families.
There are young farmers, new entrants, who have rented expensive land this year, expecting to get, on entering the new scheme, €310 a hectare only to discover that there is no money in the scheme for 2016 for them and their payment will be approximately €60 a hectare. That is a big reduction, particularly for people who bought expensive grassland. Some are tied into these schemes for five and six years and have discovered that there will be no payment. That is my understanding. Perhaps it is different, but I would like the Minister to respond to me on that point.
While the payment for the genomic scheme is welcome, this needs to be teased out because in my area, the north west, we are noted for producing the best store and beef cattle in Ireland but there is a great deal of confusion. I know good farmers who have developed suckler herds over the past 30 and 40 years whose cows get two or three stars but Friesian cows get five stars. This does not make sense to the people trying to survive in the scheme and something needs to be done about it.
I know a farmer who has a levy bill of €83,000 from his dairy for oversupply of milk. This man will not survive by farming. I do not know if there is a scheme in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine which could help this man with the milk he is producing. When he started to produce milk, it cost 38 cent or 39 cent a litre. Today, he gets 24 cent a litre. I do not know if he could qualify for other schemes within the Department. I would like the Minister to respond to that because it is very unfair.
The beef industry is the cornerstone of Irish agriculture and employs more people than any other sector. The move by ABP food group to take a 50% stake in Slaney Foods raises legitimate questions of sufficient competition in the beef and lamb processing sector. Should this move be approved, ABP will have close to 30% of the Irish beef processing sector and 40% of the sheep processing sector. ABP controls 28% of the national cattle kill, 40% of the national sheep kill and 50% of the country’s rendering capacity. That is a dangerous situation if it is allowed to develop because it limits the number of customers that will be at the mart to buy these cattle. That needs to be addressed. Farmers cannot continue to be price takers as opposed to price makers, particularly in the beef sector. Beef prices are set to come under pressure in the second half of 2016 as there will likely be between 50,000 and 80,000 additional finished cattle available, due largely to the 25% fall in live cattle exports in 2015. This is going to cause more than a ripple in the market. It is something that we must watch for and be able to address. It is crucial that the live export trade is kept open.
I was glad to hear the Minister say this morning that the Turkish market will open for live cattle. That is a crucial market but there is no point having the markets open if we cannot get the cattle on boats and out of the country. Apparently there are difficulties about some of the boats being used and there are issues for people buying cattle to export. Some of those need to be addressed to make it simpler so that when the cattle are bought they are ready to be exported straightaway.
The area I come from in the north west borders the Six Counties. If cattle are taken across the Border, they are treated as cattle of no origin despite going practically from one field to another and their price is cut by €150 a head. I ask the Minister to take this on board because it is wrong. There is nothing wrong with the animal reared in one field compared with one reared in the next field and there is no reason for that cut in price. I do not see any reason for it, except that somebody is abusing the market, and the fact that they are southern cattle being fed and slaughtered in the North.
To improve the living standard for farmers, there should be more places for rural social schemes because that work helps sustain young farm families. The State gets a good return on that money because good work is done, as can be seen in any town or village. The money is not wasted but well and truly invested in the local communities and it supports small farmers staying on the land. Without it, they will not be there.
In my county, Sligo, we have received no money to spend on local improvement schemes for the past number of years. People living on roads which have not been taken into charge by the county council could make a contribution to the cost of repairing them. There may be four or five families living on a road. The roads are disintegrating and it is very difficult for the families living on them.
It was a great scheme and it is unfortunate that funding was not made available over recent years. I know it is the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, but I ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to try to influence his colleague in the Department to make funding available as part of the road allocation to local authorities to ensure people have adequate roads on which to travel to work, take children to school and everything else.
Agriculture is of major importance to the country. We have to continue to export cattle. In 2015, 65,000 fewer cattle were exported on the hoof than in 2010. If we keep allowing that to happen, prices will decrease. The Turkish market is about to open, which is a good thing, but we have to keep our finger on the pulse. We need a group of people to concentrate on finding foreign markets as that is the only thing that will keep the pressure on factories.
I spoke openly about the single farm payment. Family farms have to be protected. In some parts of the country, 80% of the payments go to 20% of the farmers, something that cannot be sustained. People on the radio may complain about payments, but the reality is that 90% of what every farmer earns is spent locally in shops, hardware stores or general merchants, which creates jobs in local communities. If Ireland is to focus on regenerating rural areas, we will find that if we do not protect family farms, we will be in trouble.
Milk prices have hit a wall. There is no point in saying that we can give farmers a magic wand. The reality is that world markets will dictate the price of milk. Rightly or wrongly, Europe encouraged everyone to increase their herd sizes with the elimination of quotas, but now farmers are now paying the price. An increase of 3% or 4% makes a significant difference worldwide. We have to make sure that in planning for the future of beef, sheep or dairy farming, we do not encourage people down the wrong road as Europe has done.
Sheep prices have been fairly good this year, but sheep farmers have gone through difficult periods over the past four or five years. There are 2.4 million sheep in the country, and if budgets allow, a grant system or grassland-based system should be encouraged for the production of sheep.
Pig prices are going through a horrendous time. The EU has to make sure we keep a base price, in particular for smaller producers. Smaller producers throughout the country are hitting the wall.
I refer to the export of calves. It is good to see young suck Friesian calves going to countries such as Spain and Holland. If we do not maintain export levels, we will be in trouble.
We need to make the grant system farmer-friendly. Farmers should never be frightened to see a Department inspector pulling up outside their farms. The relationship has to be improved and to work because those who eat food, whether they like it, need farmers to keep producing it. We have to ensure a yellow card system that works for everyone is introduced.
In parts of the country, vulture funds are buying land beside farmers and are receiving the same grants. The system used to operate based on herd numbers, whereby if a person had a hard number, he or she received a grant for forestry but a vulture fund or bank would not. There is now an uneven playing field in parts of Leitrim, Longford and, in particular, the west which have been decimated. We have to try to tackle the issue.
At the end of the day, we have to encourage young farmers and try to do something to ensure they are included in any schemes. I refer to areas of natural constraint, ANCs. We have to move on and make sure that we put family farms first because that approach will create jobs and communities, which is how we want Ireland to go forward.
The most important thing about the farming industry in Ireland is that it is embedded in all our communities. Deputy Fitzmaurice alluded to something about which I am concerned, namely, equity companies and vulture funds buying large tracts of land in Ireland. This prevents young farmers who want to expand their farms from increasing output and making good livings from the land rather than struggling with smaller farms. We need to ensure this issue is addressed. I know there are legal issues, but it is very disconcerting to see large tracts of land being bought by people with cash in their hands while poor farmers who want to buy another 15 or 20 acres adjacent to their land are prevented from so doing.
In my constituency, Galway East, flooding and the damage it has done to family farms is a major issue. It has affected silage slabs, slatted houses and land. Last week I spoke to a farmer who has to reseed 80 acres of land. He did the work four years ago and has to repeat it this year. He is receiving no support from anybody and is suffering badly because there is no backup or support for him as he tries to address the problems created by nature.
Having listened and spoken to farmers in my area, I know one of the major concerns they have is the price of their product leaving the farm gate compared with its price on the shelf. The division of who gets what along the line leaves a lot to be desired. Farmers who are producing the best of beef, lamb and pork find they are not making money. Prices are desperate, yet processors and producers are making large profits at the expense of farmers. If we do not tackle this problem in a fair way, we will find many more farmers will get out of the business.
At some stage in the not-too-distant future the landlord system will return, whereby people will own large tracts of land which are farmed by small peasant farmers. We will have desolation in our countryside. We are going into that with our eyes open and without realising the problems.
Another issue facing farmers living in rural Ireland and trying to do business is broadband. As we know, farms are businesses, and more and more grant applications have to be submitted by computer. We do not have the required broadband to back that up, which is creating major problems for people who are trying to download maps and for farm advisers. The system is unworkable. If we want farming to be treated as a business and are trying to create a system whereby everything farmers do is transparent, all the information for grants is available and applications are processed properly, it is important that farmers are able to do so in the required manner. Otherwise they will not be able to access grant payments.
The other big issue relates to the ability of farmers to access loans. For cashflow reasons it is very important for them to be able to extract loans from the banks. Loans are not being made available by the retail banks. European Investment Bank, EIB, funding is available and it should be provided at a very low interest rate to allow farmers to draw down loans when they need them and pay them back after the harvest or when they get their creamery cheques.
My final point relates to dairy farmers. They will reach a critical point in the autumn, as will the beef trade, and we must make sure export lines are open for stock and that we have some form of protection or assistance for farmers who will experience a significant drop in the price of milk towards the latter end of the year. Thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for giving me a few minutes to speak.
This is a most important debate in the Chamber today. I am aware some Members are involved with committees and cannot attend the debate, but while the attendance is pretty good on this side of the House, I would have expected a better representation from all sides.
Agriculture is still the backbone of the Irish economy and the number of urgent issues the industry faces is overwhelming. In the time available I will try to outline some of the most pressing issues that have been highlighted by my constituents.
I wish to focus on flooding in my constituency of Roscommon-Galway. It is six months on and people are still isolated from their homes and farms. We may not see the floods here in Dublin but they are still in many areas, particularly in my constituency. In the areas where the water has receded, the problems of fodder shortage and land erosion are just two of the issues that the farmers face. One might think erosion only affects coastal areas, but it is also happening inland. We are seeing a crisis of the level experienced in 2013, and in some cases it is worse. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is on the back foot and has no plan in place to address this major problem in rural Ireland. I received figures which show that only 311 of the 377 farmers who claimed under the fodder scheme through the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have been paid to date. No funding is available for the reseeding of grassland devastated by the flood waters. Neither is funding available for land drainage, which is necessary on an ongoing basis in rural areas, particularly in the west and the midlands. I have visited local farms in my constituency and seen the damage at first hand. I have met with farmers who have had to sell their livestock at the mart because so much of their farmland was flooded. That is a terrible burden on a farmer who loves his land and his stock. None of the land in areas to which I refer is fit to graze, and it will not be fit to graze.
I believe 130 people have been paid under the emergency flood damage relief scheme. We must extend the flood relief package to include loss of grassland, crops and also loss of earnings due to the sale of stock at the wrong time. I have met farmers in County Roscommon whose livestock drowned. The names Castleplunket, Lisfelim, Knockcroghery, Dysart and Ballinamore in east Galway might not mean much to Members of this House, but people live there and small farmers are trying to survive, and their lives over the past six months have been sheer hell.
A land drainage scheme must be reintroduced immediately by the Government to ensure that drains that are choked and blocked can be dealt with before next winter. While I am pleased that the floods are receding, I am concerned that the debate on the damage and trouble caused by them is also receding. Before we know it next winter will be here and we will have serious flooding again. We must talk to farmers directly. We must talk to the people on the ground who know the cause of the flooding and the issues relevant to the area. With all due respect to officials or even politicians, talking about it without consulting the people is not the way to proceed. We cannot go into the winter of 2016 hoping that the flood waters will not come again.
The agriculture sector is a leading employer in this country, yet sometimes we treat it with disdain. We talk about it being the backbone of the economy. Many people from rural areas know how important agriculture is. It is a known fact that when farmers are not doing well then local villages and towns do not do well. The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys, who is from Cavan-Monaghan, is present and she will know what I am speaking about in that regard because she is from a rural constituency.
Another complicating factor for the agriculture sector is the beef genomics programme. It is totally unworkable for the average farmer. I call on the Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to revisit the issue. We need to get rid of some of the red tape involved in the process and ensure that the system is simplified and streamlined in order that farmers are not left without a proper income. The inspections, in addition to complicated applications and the imposition of penalties, are causing farmers a lot of stress and worry. It appears that the red tape is put in place by the EU bureaucrats who have no idea about the working of farmland in Ireland.
A fair price for produce must be addressed also. There is no doubt that we have the best food produce in the world, yet due to the rising instability in the beef, dairy, tillage and sheep sectors, the Government must do much more to ensure that a stable income stream for farmers is guaranteed as well as a decent level of profitability.
I fully support the introduction of a national food ombudsman to ensure that the monopolisation of the industry is stopped. An ombudsman would protect the primary producers, act as a watchdog and ensure that a small number of processors could not dictate the price of cattle. As has been said time and again in recent years, that situation is causing a lot of damage to the agriculture sector. We constantly hear that the agrifood sector is the largest indigenous industry in this country. We hear about the significant employment, with approximately 180,000 people working in the industry, and the significant exports, worth approximately €11 billion in 2015, yet the prevailing view in many circles is that agriculture is not an important part of the economy. Overall, farm incomes were reduced by 9% in 2015. In many respects farmers do not have a decent weekly wage. That is a fact of life for those involved in agriculture in this country.
In conclusion, I wish to ask the Minister to do a few things. He must immediately dispatch a senior official from his Department to the CEO of Roscommon County Council. The Minister must ensure the flooded areas are visited with the council officials. He must also seriously consider the introduction of a land drainage scheme, because that is a major problem in the constituency. In addition, he must reopen the fodder scheme, because there is no doubt fodder is in short supply for some farmers. Money is also in short supply for them, and if we do not help those farmers they will be out of farming this time next year.
Is ócáid iontach tábhactach é nuair atáimid ag pléigh ceisteanna talmhaíochta anseo sa Dáil, ceisteanna a chuireann isteach ar cheantair ar fud na tuaithe agus ar fud an Stáit. Tá a fhios againn an tábhacht a bhaineann le tionchar eacnamaíochta na talmhaíochta agus an méid a chuireann sí leis an eacnamaíocht.
Ní hamháin go bhfuil sé ag cur leis an eacnamaíocht, tá sé ag cur le ceantair tuaithe agus ceantair ina bhfuilimid ag feiceáil barradh na tuaithe le blianta beaga anuas. Chonaic muid sin ó thoabh daoine ag aistriú go dtí na cathracha agus bailte móra agus feasta mar gheall ar imirce. Anois, chímid an cruachás ina bhfuil ceist na talmhaíochta ann i ngach aicme difriúil den talmhaíocht. Labhair an Teachta Ferris ní ba luaithe sa díospóireacht fá dtaobh de na cinntí móra agus luchtacha a ghlac an Stát agus an tAontas Eorpach ó thaobh ceist na talmhaíochta, go háirithe na cúotaí fá choinne bainne. Ag an am sin, bhí Sinn Féin ag rá nach scéal maith a bhí ann do gach duine cé go raibh an tAire, an Rialtas agus a leithéad ag rá gur scéal ar dóigh a bhí ann don tír agus do fheirmeoirí ar fud an Stáit. Chímid inniu arís go raibh Sinn Féin i gceart ar an gceist sin agus chímid go bhfuil praghasanna ar lítear bhainne atá na feirmeoirí ag fáil níos lú ná an costas a bhaineann leis an bainne sin a chur ar fáil.
Tá fadhbanna móra ansin. Tá fadhbanna i earnálacha difriúla de thalmhaíocht. Ceann de rudaí a chím ag teacht as Tír Chonaill ó bheith ag éisteacht, ag caint agus ag pléigh le feirmeoirí ann ná nach dtuigeann an Rialtas seo - mar an gcéanna leis an Rialtas deireanach - an deacracht atá ag feirmeoirí, go háirithe feirmeoirí atá ag feirmeoireacht ar thalamh atá ar chnoic nó ar choimín nó talamh nach bhfuil chomh maith le talamh i lár na tíre, agus nach bhfuil na tacaíochtaí cuí ansin le cuidiú le na teaghlaigh seo fanacht ar an talamh agus le cinntiú go bhfuil glún eile ag teacht i ndiaidh sa dóigh go mbeidh talmhaíocht agus an gnó sin flúirseach sa taobh sin den tír amach anseo. Sílim go gcaithfidh cibé Rialtas atá ag teacht i bhfeidhm an tseachtain seo chugainn nó ina dhiaidh aghaidh a thabhairt ar an bhfadhb sin agus deileáil leis go bhfuil dóigheanna difriúla agus firicí difriúla i bhfeidhm i dtalmhaíocht i gceantracha difriúla ar fud na tíre. Tá a fhios agam, arís ón méid a phléigh an Teachta Ferris, go ndearna sé féin tuairisc don choiste talmhaíochta ar a shuí sé, coiste a ghlac leis an tuairisc d'aon ghuth ó thaobh na fadhbanna a bhí ann do thalmhaíocht agus iascaireacht i gceantair iartharacha na tíre seo ó Dhún na nGall thíos go Ciarraí. Ba chóir dúinn an tuaraisc seo a thabhairt anuas ón seilf agus ionchur na moltaí a bhí sa tuairisc sin a chuir i bhfeidhm ar na fadhbanna móra ansin.
Ní hamháin go bhfuil fadhbanna san earnáil talmhaíochta ar fud an Stáit seo, tá fadhbanna feasta san earnáil iascaireachta. Mar is eol don Aire, tagaim féin ó cheantair chóstach, ceantar an Mhuine Beag i bparóiste Ghaoth Dobhair, áit ina raibh go leor iascaireacht ag tarlú. Tá cuimhne agam féin le linn an tsamhraidh an t-airgead a bhí ar fáil mar gheall ar iascaireacht na mbradáin, na daoine a bhí amuigh ar na báid trí na séasúir difriúla agus go raibh go leor báid ag obair thíos ar chéanna an Mhuine Beag, céanna Ailt an Chorráin, na Cealla Beaga, na Dúnaibh agus na céanna difriúla ar fud an chósta. Inniu, ar an drochuair, níl sin ann. Amach as Ailt an Chorráin, chímid bád amháin nó dhá cheann. Is é an ferry an bád is mó a théann amach go hÁrann Mór agus ar ais isteach achan lá. Chítear na seanphictiúir ina raibh na báid uilig gnóthach, ó am ina raibh daoine na háite i mbun gnó, ina raibh gnónna á bhunú sna ceantair cósta mar gheall ar an iascaireacht a bhí ag dul ar aghaidh agus ina raibh teaghlaigh ábalta maireachtáil mar gheall ar sin. Caithfidh an Rialtas aghaidh a thabhairt ar an bhfadhb seo arís. Táimid ag ligean do na báid mhóra, na supertrawlers atá ag iascaireacht amach ónár gcósta, agus an dóigh atá an tír seo ag láimhseáil na pointí seo nuair atá siad ag dul go dtí an Eoraip agus ag pléigh na ceisteanna seo lena gcomhghleacaithe ag leibhéal an Aontais Eorpaigh. Caithfidh an tAire an fód a sheasamh do na iascairí beaga, na hiascairí ón gcósta, agus go háirithe na hiascairí ó na hoileáin sa dóigh is go dtig linn cinntiú go bhfuil na hiasc atá fós san fharraige ábalta tacaíocht a thabhairt do ceantair cósta, ceantair atá ar an imeall agus ceantair mar sin amach anseo.
Ba mhaith liom díriú isteach ar cheist amháin a chur mé os comhair an Aire fá dtaobh de na pointí pionóis atá curtha i bhfeidhm ag an Rialtas seo ar iascairí. Dúirt mé cheana é agus déarfaidh mé arís é: it is disappointing that, given the lack of a legislative programme - Members have dealt with no legislation since the election 68 days ago - the Minister had plenty of time to sort out the mess surrounding the penalty points system for fishing vessels over the past 68 days but simply refused to do it. In his statement earlier today in response to Deputy Ferris, the Minister said he understood the frustration of fishermen and groups around the country, as well as the overwhelming opposition of the majority of Members of this House to the legislation he signed. This is the key point and the penny must drop at some stage. The majority of Members of this House oppose that statutory instrument. It is in this context that he is reverting to the Attorney General to ask that the statutory instrument be amended to delay the placing of penalty points on a vessel until a successful prosecution of a vessel. Perhaps someone from the Minister's office can clarify whether the Attorney General, when she provided advice to the Minister last March, agreed that the specific provision Mr. Justice O'Connor found to be ultra viresto the Constitution should be copied and pasted word for word from one statutory instrument, which was deemed unconstitutional, to another. In the first statutory instrument, the mechanism for penalty points is set up by section 10(7) and in the new statutory instrument the Minister signed within days of the general election at the beginning of March this year, that is, Statutory Instrument No. 125 of 2016, it is copied verbatim into section 12(7). The Minister also made the point that the statutory instrument has not yet come into effect but it has been signed by him and will only be annulled if a motion for annulment is put within 21 sitting days of this House. There is no source of comfort for members of the fishing industry who, as matters stand, have many reasons to fear for the future. As it stands, a fisherman can receive a letter informing him or her that his or her vessel has received penalty points with no explanation given and it then is up to such people to prove they are not guilty, rather than the reverse burden of proof as happens in the legal system.
Mr. Justice O'Connor again stated that it was not acceptable to use delegated legislation to reverse the norm in the legal system. The lack of transparency also is a concern for many. The 1972 Act under which directives are transposed into secondary legislation is designed as a mechanism to free up the work of the Oireachtas. Members should listen carefully to the point that it is not intended to pass extra measures without having these subject to the scrutiny of the Dáil. This is exactly what has happened in the case of this statutory instrument and indeed Mr. Justice O'Connor recommended that if the Minister did wish to introduce measures that were outside the scope of the 1972 Act on EU directives, he would then be obliged to introduce such provisions by primary legislation.
Last week, Sinn Féin held a briefing on the matter and within 15 minutes, we were told that the argument most offered by the Minister and again this morning, namely, he was obliged to act quickly to fulfil the European Union obligation, simply does not stand up to any scrutiny. I have listed enough reasons for the Minister to consider seriously the motion that has been put before this House by Sinn Féin, other political parties and Independent Members, which is to annul this statutory instrument until there is full consultation. We have written to the Ceann Comhairle and I ask him to take notice of what I am stating again today. My party leader, Deputy Adams, has written to the Ceann Comhairle to ask him, through the parliamentary legal adviser, to assist Deputies by informing them as to their legal right to place an annulment motion before the House. If I am correct, the Ceann Comhairle has stated previously that such motions are to be taken in Private Members' time. Let me make clear that the Act which allows a Minister to introduce a statutory instrument also allows Deputies to put forward an annulment motion. The process is time limited within 21 sitting days and not every Member of this House has access to Private Members' time. Therefore, this House, if it continues in this trend, will be acting against the laws it itself has passed to allow Members of this House to put forward a motion in this regard.
I wish to take this opportunity to thank the people of Cork East for affording me the opportunity of representing them in Dáil Éireann.
I also wish Joe Healy every success in his new role as president of the IFA. His organisation has been through turmoil recently and this has been even more evident given the current crisis in agriculture. While other farm organisations have carried the mantra, it is important that the main organisation, the IFA, is functioning properly to ensure total representation for farmers. In addition, I congratulate John Coughlan who has been elected as the IFA's Munster regional chairman. He is from my area.
Almost six years ago, the then Minister for Agriculture, Deputy Brendan Smith, initiated the visionary Harvest 2020 programme which was to be the template for the future growth of the agricultural sector. It was on the back of this programme that the outgoing Government had some initial success, but their near abandonment of the programme and other failures has sent the agricultural sector back to the dark ages. This was evident in the last Government when they combined the Ministries of Agriculture and Defence, thus diluting agriculture and giving it less significance. I hope any incoming government will ensure that this Ministry when allocated will be a stand-alone one, giving it the prominence it deserves.
At last month's EU Council of Agriculture Ministers, we saw a package of support measures for the dairy and pigmeat sectors. I acknowledge that some progress has been made in this regard, but Commissioner Hogan's comments in the aftermath of a previous meeting have concerned me greatly. The commissioner suggested that EU structural reform was not on the agenda and that global farmers will have to respond to lower milk prices by reducing supply. This is something which I would not bank on myself. Increasingly, Commissioner Hogan does not sound like somebody who understands the gravity of the current crisis we have with regards milk prices, but rather like someone who is willing to see the market worsen before he will act. This is something that we can associate with the previous Government which let the problem develop into a crisis to the point where the damage is irreversible.
Many farmers who were encouraged and advised to expand their production with substantial capital outlay now find that milk prices have hit rock bottom and will continue to do so to the point where they fall below the price of production. I concur with Deputy Martin Ferris who said that on many occasions the Minister, Deputy Coveney, advocated that farmers should substantially expand milk production. We can see what is happening now, however. As recently as last week, a senior ICMSA officer criticised the outgoing Minister for telling farmers to increase capital investment and expenditure. They have now been left high and dry.
Further intervention is needed to take the surplus off the floor of the market. Otherwise many farmers will face bankruptcy. I plead with the acting Minister and Commissioner Hogan to act now before this issue goes beyond the point of crisis. It is important to note that there is something of a recovery in the Chinese market with demand for dairy products steadily improving. However, the changed price point is a major difference compared to that of just a few years ago. There is an onus on any incoming government to provide certainty at a time of significant price change. There is also a responsibility to create and develop a future market for dairying by pushing for a review at EU level on price intervention tools.
It is with grave concern that we have learned over the past few weeks of reports that the EU is in discussions for an EU-Mercosur trade deal with South America. I note that some farming organisations are protesting against a TTIP deal also. This represents a serious threat to Irish farmers. Ireland exports over 90% of its beef to the EU market. Allowing South American beef into this market could see Irish prices fall by over 30% resulting in Irish farmers taking a big hit in their incomes. It is important that we lobby like-minded countries to ensure that these discussions do not undermine Irish and European beef farmers.
I welcome the opening of the Turkish market, although departmental officials have yet to resolve the issue of quantity. It is hard to expect an exporter to hold 1,000 cattle before they are shipped out of the country, so the quantity issue must be addressed.
In addition, the Irish beef market faces further uncertainty with the strong possibility of a British exit from the European Union. Ireland exported almost €1.1 billion worth of beef to the UK in 2015 and an uncertain future with our biggest export market does nothing to bring stability to the beef sector. Like many other industries, beef operates on a supply and demand trend. I can foresee many factors that have the potential to affect future demand such as the possible EU-Mercosur deal and a British exit from the European Union. A support mechanism must be put in place to ensure that these factors do not have a detrimental effect on our beef industry.
It is no secret that the pig industry has suffered a price and profitability crisis over the past year. Pig farmers remain in a difficult position, selling well below the cost of production. Private storage schemes initiated by the EU have gone some way towards bringing stability on the Continent. However, its impact is not being felt in Ireland and the pig industry does not enjoy the same EU supports as other agricultural sectors. The average pig unit of 600 sows is operating at a loss of nearly €5,000 per week, which is unsustainable.
It is welcome news that the aid money that was promised to pig farmers is now being distributed. However, the €3,000 flat payment that pig farmers are receiving does not cover losses that many of them have suffered over the past year. The formation of a pig industry forum must be a priority for any incoming Minister. The main purpose of this would be to form a clear strategy that is workable for all stakeholders in the industry.
I welcome the news from last month's EU Council of Agriculture Ministers meeting that there is a possibility that a suspension in import levies may be put in place for the importation of fertilisers. I hope the Minster may be able to elaborate further on this. Cereal and grain-growing farmers have endured, and continue to endure, high costs associated with purchasing fertilisers, making it most unattractive to continue growing grain. It is imperative that these tariffs be abolished which would reduce the costs on these fertilisers by 14% saving Irish and European farmers almost €1 billion in the process. This is one issue the Minister needs to lobby for, getting his EU counterparts on-side to support this. The informal approval of the TAMS scheme for tillage farmers has been going on too long. Stronger results are required here.
In early spring, I visited a number of grain and cereal farmers in east Cork. I saw for myself the devastation that has taken place with their winter barley crops due a salt drift created from the sea mist during the storm season. This was the same weather cycle that caused flood damage and loss of fodder to farmers during the storm season. These tillage farmers should be considered for compensation under the emergency flood damage relief measures scheme. I hope the Minister will give serious consideration to this sensitive case. I should add that many tillage farmers in the Minister's own constituency took a big hit from storm damage. The Minister has to acknowledge that it was the same weather belt that wreaked havoc on this Island.
Both the European Commission and the previous Government have abjectly failed to deal with Russia as an export market, and no effort has been made to deal with this problem. It is unacceptable that Irish farmers should take a hit for the political and economic sanctions decided by the EU against Russia. I urge Commissioner Hogan to go all out to get a reversal of the Russian ban.
Currency fluctuations are having a major impact on exports to Britain due to the weakness of sterling resulting in a 6% loss to the market in 2015. I hope an incoming government will have strong provisions in place to protect Britain as our main export market, due to the possibility of them leaving the European Union. If the UK decides to exit the EU we need to be prepared. We need to establish our priorities and engage in negotiations at the earliest possible date.
Various groups say that rural Ireland is under pressure. However, while big is beautiful, we cannot lose sight of the importance of the small family farm and the important contribution that such people make to their respective communities.
Ar an gcéad dul síos, is í seo an chéad uair dom labhairt anseo. Mar sin, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le muintir Chorcaigh Thiar Thuaidh as mé a sheoladh suas anseo agus deis a thabhairt dom labhairt thar a gceann. Go raibh maith agaibh.
As this is my first opportunity to address the Dáil, I wish to acknowledge the people of Cork North-West who elected me to represent them here and to speak on their behalf.
Agriculture is a cornerstone of the economy. While there are tremendous opportunities, there are also serious challenges as outlined by many of my colleagues in this debate. I wish to focus briefly on a few of them. While it is important to support farm inspections and the principle of proportionate penalties, an increasing number of complex agri-schemes are placing disproportionate penalties on farmers. It is imperative to reduce the administrative burden by simplifying the existing regulations in the mid-term CAP review.
Schemes such as the basic payment scheme and the green, low-carbon, agri-environment scheme, GLAS, must facilitate an Irish setting with a minimum bureaucracy and red tape. Bureaucracy and red tape simply serve to paralyse the farming sector and actually obscure what the scheme initially set out to do. For example, GLAS is not delivering for farmers the way the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, did previously. The Minister originally promised an average GLAS payment of approximately €5,000. Many farmers are now struggling to reach €4,400.
Other small conditions are getting in the way of these schemes. For example, a farm may have more than one national monument on site but can only claim for one. These small tripping points are reducing people's capability of using these schemes. Another issue concerns how natural heritage area, NHA, lands are not prioritised in the same way as, for example, special areas of conservation, SAC, or special protection area, SPA, lands, even though many of the same restrictions would apply to farming them.
Another example of the debilitating effect of bureaucracy is the beef genomics programme. It has been described as one of the most bureaucratic and unworkable ever announced. Many farmers have expressed deep concern about the complexity of some aspects of the scheme. The Department must ensure that the scheme is practical and simplified, so that it is accessible for farmers and they do not incur additional compliance costs. The administrative burden and the low returns from the beef genomics scheme undermine the valuable beef industry, a cornerstone of the economy which employs many people. The mid-term CAP review should be used to make this scheme a pillar of the future of the beef industry. Increased funding under the scheme should be targeted at moving towards €200 a head on the first 20 cows.
Beef farmers are really feeling the squeeze. The average beef price hovers at €4 per kilo, leaving many farmers just breaking even. There is a concern there will be further pressure in the second half of 2016 when another 50,000 to 80,000 finished cattle will hit the marts. This is largely due to the 25% fall in live exports in 2015. The opening up of external markets must be a key priority.
Farm safety must also be a focus. While every farm is a workplace, it is also a home for children and the elderly. There is a wider community on a farm than just the farmer. Unfortunately, we see too many accidents and fatalities on farms. There is good emphasis on farm safety at farmer-to-farmer discussion groups with peer support raising farm safety awareness. However, there is a cohort of others, namely, children and older people, who fall outside of this and who are not part of that discussion. They need to be involved in farm safety in the same way as the farmer. Statistics on farm safety and accidents show they tend to be the more vulnerable. They need to be involved with awareness raised in, say, primary schools and through other opportunities.
Sin iad na príomhábhair gur theastaigh uaim tarraingt aníos. Tá go leor ábhair eile go bhféadfainn labhairt fúthu. I ndáiríre, a Cheann Comhairle, d'fhéadfaimis bheith anseo an tráthnóna ar fad. Mar sin, gabhaim buíochas le muintir Chorcaigh Thiar Thuaidh as mé a sheoladh anseo chun labhairt thar a gceann. Tá mé tar éis labhairt ar chuid de na hábhair is tábhachtaí sa réimse seo agus teastaíonn uaim go ndíreoidh an tAire isteach orthu amach anseo.
I thank the Acting Chairman. I note it did not take long for him to make it to the top job on the centre chair. He is doing a fantastic job.
I am glad to contribute to this debate, being from the north west, an area dependent on agriculture for its survival. We have smaller holdings, longer winters and worse land. We need more attention than most if we are to survive and continue to contribute to the output of this country. In agrifood, the beef sector is the most important. The north west is the engine room for beef production, where some 40% of the nation's weanlings are produced. To do that, we need to have targeted supports to ensure people are not dependent on having a wife working in a bank or as a doctor, or having a husband working somewhere else to supplement the farm income to keep food production going, keep people on the land and preserve what, after all, is the tradition that helped build this nation and its many positive attributes. In that regard, there are a number of steps that need to be taken.
While I do not doubt the individual commitment of any Minister in supporting agriculture and family farming, if we are to be successful and ensure people stay on the land, we need to be much more innovative in how we approach this area. We have heard from many colleagues across the House about the unworkability of many agricultural schemes introduced over the years, such as GLAS and the beef genomics scheme, as well as the bureaucracy, the administration involved, and the time and money these cost farmers. It often seems the focus is much more on compliance than facilitation or the application of common sense to target necessary supports to assist production, family farming and the tradition we have in this country of supporting the rural economy.
When the mid-term CAP review comes up, we would like to see any unspent moneys in the rural development programme channelled specifically into the areas of natural constraint scheme. However, again, the application of the scheme penalises people for having bad land, as opposed to supporting them with the difficulties they have and acknowledging they have constraints because their land is not so good, has rushy areas, vulnerable waters and so on. It would be a good day's work if, through the application of common sense and fair compliance measures, we improved these schemes so that farmers, as the custodians of our rural environment, could best go about their business in food production and continue to do what made this country famous through its annual exports of food products worth some €11 billion.
One issue close to my heart is our over-focus on compliance. That is not to say I advocate non-compliance. It is important we have workable and manageable rules and regulations. However, we must focus equally on market access. We have been bad at that. Paddy Rogan, a former chief veterinary officer in the agriculture Department, had a reputation for getting doors opened internationally for Irish produce. While we have been good on spin and press releases, as someone who worked in the beef export business for several years, I feel Bord Bia, albeit among the best in the world at what it does, is better at marketing than selling Tullamore Dew or Ballymaloe Relish than it is at opening up markets for manufacturing beef, for example.
The political world loves to bash the processors. It is easy to bash them in isolation, but one cannot do it without acknowledging that almost 45% of the animal is sold for less than €3 a kilo while a good 25% is sold for less than €2 a kilo. There are limited markets for that sort of manufacturing beef. The Philippines, for example, was, traditionally, a buyer, but that is packed to the hilt at the moment. There is some product going to South Africa. As we are the goody two-shoes of Europe and bearing in mind our responsibilities with the Ukrainian crisis, we are not interested in exporting to Russia although France, Italy, the Netherlands and Denmark have done bilateral deals to gain access for their 90 VL, visual lean, and 70 VL product.
We need to be more proactive. If the big boys have bilateral deals then "Goody Two Shoes" is not the rightful place of the Irish farming community. We want the ability to access that as well.
In the tradition of Patrick Rogan, when the new Government is formed next week, as we all hope, I hope that at a minimum, there is a junior Minister and an assistant secretary in the air full time and I mean full time in terms of manufacturing beef, vacuum-packed beef, frozen beef to third countries and live exports because we are good at spin but not so good at opening doors. I will give an example. The number of BSE-era restrictions on the import of Irish beef is prohibitive. The under 30 months rule is ridiculous in the extreme. Great Britain, which arguably had a far more difficult and severe issue with BSE, has less prohibitive veterinary health certification in respect of exporting to other countries. Countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia are beginning to open up but it involves a 30-month rule. A time-restricted market involving a 30-month restriction is not an open market. It does not suit our export market and does not suit the grass-finished animal because one cannot do it in 30 months.
We need to focus very heavily on live exports. Egypt was opened to much fanfare before the election. I checked before I came in here and not one animal has been exported live to Egypt. While we have a Department with responsibility for both agriculture and the marine, I am reliably informed that this is to do with marine restrictions on boats coming in. For example, if there is a market for 1,500 animals to be exported to Egypt, there are issues on the marine side and technicalities and restrictions are placed on them. I am told a "white flag" standard is applied to the export of live animals that is not being applied to the transportation of humans. Somewhere in the restrictions, we are losing sight of what we are trying to achieve. It is not a case of non-compliance. Of course we want to be in line with the World Organisation for Animal Health, OIE, which is the inter-governmental agreement on the control of disease to which we are all signed up. We do not want to break any rules in respect of that. However, as somebody who has worked in the business, I am bemused as to why instead of seeking to open markets and facilitate and spread our products far and wide, we are at times our own worst enemies in terms of the literal interpretation of rules and putting them into a practically unworkable situation.
An assistant secretary and a junior Minister should be in the air full time. The first priority is to have all BSE-era restrictions in respect of veterinary health certification for Ireland throughout the world lifted. They are unnecessary. Any market with those rules does not respect the fact that this is a BSE-free country. Great Britain, which had a more difficult problem in that regard, has sought proactively to have those BSE-era restrictions lifted for its exports. In respect of live shipping, from my own inquiries I know there is a market for in-calf heifers in the Moroccan market but we cannot export there. There is the marine issue about which I spoke but there is also the issue of veterinary health certification. We need to be much more proactive on this. As somebody who has marketed and exhibited in the big world trade fairs such as Anuga in Cologne and every other year at SIAL in Paris, I know that it is easy to sell Tullamore Dew and Ballymaloe Relish, with the greatest respect to those type of products. It is more difficult to sell the less sexy tens of thousands of tonnes of manufacturing beef that ultimately will maintain a reasonable price here.
Article 39b of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union states that farmers are entitled to a fair price for their produce except there are no regulations underpinning the enforcement of that. From supermarket multiples through to processors dictating weight limits and so on for farmers, this is having a very negative impact on prices for farmers. It is wrong, unfair and anti-competitive and we should be lobbying in a European context to have regulations put in place to underpin Article 39b so that farmers can receive fair treatment.
In respect of TTIP, Mercosur and the Sustainable Energy Trade Agreement, SETA, as much as opening wider markets for other Irish products attracts us, we must be very careful. I use Mercosur as one example. It is proposed to bring in 78,000 tonnes with a tariff of 7.5%. If this steak meat alone comes in, it would mean that 30% or €8 billion worth of the steak beef market in Europe would be gone. That would wipe out this country. The Minister should be very careful. Whatever post he takes up in the new Administration, he should make sure that whoever is Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine takes those points on board.
Given that agriculture is our strongest indigenous industry and we have had a very good debate here, particularly from our side of the House, I am disappointed that we have not had more contributions, particularly from the Government side because the crisis facing rural and agricultural communities cannot be underestimated at this stage. An awful lot of people pay an awful lot of lip service to an awful lot of issues in this House but we should have a lengthy debate today because many people are facing a crisis and I am very disappointed by the contributions of some Members.
I congratulate the new president of the IFA, Joe Healy, and wish him well in his new role. On my behalf and particularly that of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, I thank all Deputies from all sides of the House who contributed. While the views expressed have, of course, been diverse, the engagement of Deputies on the range of challenges facing the sector illustrates the high degree of importance that this House attaches to the agriculture and fisheries sectors under discussion.
The sector accounts for almost 9% of total employment and some 170,000 jobs in all counties in Ireland from rural farmers and small-scale producers of quality Irish products to companies of a size and scale that make them international players in key global markets. We know that the agrifood sector has performed strongly in recent years despite very difficult economic circumstances with exports reaching an estimated €10.83 billion in 2015, an increase of more than 50% since 2009.
Ireland has a hard earned reputation for high quality and sustainably produced food products. We must continually build on this reputation. We are all agreed that the sector needs to receive appropriate support to deliver continually for all stakeholders, particularly for farmers. In this respect, the Department makes payments to farmers totalling approximately €1.8 billion annually, including single farm payments, rural development programme payments and other payments.
We must also be conscious of the strong challenges facing the sector. As outlined initially by the Minister, price volatility has been an increasing feature of agricultural markets in recent times. The Minister has been to the forefront of advancing and agreeing EU responses to these issues and in this context, the Department has introduced a number of measures to support farmers, including a €27 million volatility package for the dairy and pigmeat sectors, the final payments of which are being sent out this week. This is in addition to vital support provided through farm investment and agri-environment and knowledge transfer schemes, as funded under the 2014-20 rural development programme.
As we look to the medium term, various challenges need to be faced, including trade negotiations, where it will be incumbent on the new Government to contribute to agreements that recognise that the Irish and EU agrifood sector has multiple interests to consider. We need to be particularly conscious of the potential impact of Brexit on the sector and we will also need to begin an EU evaluation of CAP. However, while we face challenges, we must also remain focused on the opportunities. Ireland is very well placed to benefit from long-term global projections around growing populations and an increasing middle class in fast developing countries. We have something unique yet tangible in the safety and sustainability of our production and we must continually build on this. I think there is a consensus that as we look back on a number of years of difficult renewal in our country, it is obvious that the Irish agrifood sector has been pivotal in the economic recovery we are witnessing.
It is not merely an emblem of recovery but a tangible source of optimism in terms of exports and jobs which represents the lifeblood of rural Ireland in particular. I have seen in my own constituency how the agrifood sector has been instrumental in growing local sustainable jobs. As a former credit union manager, I saw at first hand the contribution farmers made to the local economy. Farmers are never afraid to reinvest in their farms and the bulk of their money is spent locally which, of course, benefits rural Ireland. At a time when we are increasingly talking about the need to ensure rural Ireland is not left behind, the agrifood sector will continue to play a vital role in Ireland's recovery. In that respect, I believe the building blocks are present for a sustainable future for the range of stakeholders across the sector for a more vibrant rural Ireland.
I thank the Minister. That concludes statements on agriculture. We will now pause for a moment before the next item of business which is statements on climate change. In order to facilitate the arrival of the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, I would like agreement to suspend the House until 4.10 p.m. Is that agreed? Agreed.