Thursday, 27 October 2016
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
5. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the reason the Government opposed a proposed ban on the use of pesticides in ecological focus areas which was discussed at the recent European Council Agriculture Ministers' meeting. [32510/16]
On a day when the Zoological Society in London has estimated that we have lost 58% of global wildlife since 1970, why did the Minister oppose the Commission proposal at the recent European Council meeting for the introduction on restrictions on the use of herbicides and pesticides within ecological focus areas on large arable farms? Surely that runs completely contrary to our whole positioning of Ireland as an Origin Green country and weakens and damages Irish wildlife, which is an important part of the whole natural and agricultural system.
The EU Commission is currently engaged in a review of certain regulations pertaining to the basic payment and greening schemes. This process was commenced to try to reduce the complexity of regulations for farmers and to make schemes less bureaucratic and more streamlined to administer.
As part of this process the Commission has introduced a proposal to ban the use of plant protection products on ecological focus areas, EFAs. In Ireland this proposed ban would relate to land lying fallow, catch crops and nitrogen-fixing crops. This ban was opposed by Ireland along with 17 other member states.
For my Department, the main concern relates to nitrogen-fixing crops and specifically beans. In effect, the proposed ban would make it more difficult for growers to produce an economically viable crop of beans. In addition, a situation would arise where farmers growing beans but not using beans as part of their EFA would not be subject to this proposed ban. Potentially we would therefore have two standards for growing the crop within the State, with attendant issues relating to scheme controls.
Fundamentally, the simplification process is not intended to place an increased burden on farmers and administrators. My Department's view is that this proposal would lead to such an increased burden.
It is important to clarify that the current cross compliance rules that relate to the use of plant protection products ensure that such products are used correctly on all crops. My Department ensures compliance with these regulations by means of regular notifications to farmers, such as the recently published Cross Compliance booklet, and by means of on-farm inspection.
As well as being concerned about the standardisation with regard to bean crops, we should also show concern about the loss of bird life, the loss of invertebrates and the loss of insect life in the State which has been happening continually over a long period of time. We should be concerned that we have one of the lowest levels of organic agriculture despite it being a very lucrative and growing market across the European Union. We should also concern ourselves with looking at the options for saving money, as this scheme does. It proposes setting aside 5% of areas where one would not have to provide so much input and the farmer would actually be able to save money. Instead of doing that, we are positioning Ireland, I admit, with other countries. Other countries, however, at least have large organic areas and large areas where they are not applying any of these pesticides and herbicides. For Ireland to continue with that is doing greater damage than any kind of variation that might exist between one bean grower and another. Not applying the measure in areas of other catch crops, other nitrogen fixing crops or other fallow lands is a missed opportunity. Here was an opportunity to be truly green in our agriculture process and we have missed it again. As a country, we need to restore our green reality and not just use it as a branding tool.
To put it into context, we are talking about approximately 1,000 tillage farmers, 700 of whom have their ecological focus areas and the hedgerows on their land. Within the specific area of concern and the issue we are discussing here, the numbers involve about 300 tillage farmers. It is a question of balance. I accept Deputy Ryan's points, up to a point, but if we are to force those 300 tillage farmers, by virtue of these regulations, out of bean growing, or pea growing as the alternative protein crop, we will be forcing them back into a straitjacket in the type of crops they would then be harvesting. We would lose the diversity of crops that we currently have. Beans and peas have a nitrogen fixing element to them so they are environmentally beneficial as well. In looking at the proposal in the round, it must be taken into account that beans and peas are probably the only protein crops that are grown in the Republic of Ireland. We are substantially dependent on imported protein sources for animal ruminant feed. If we make it so difficult for those farmers to continue to grow protein crops we would be more dependent, with a heavier carbon footprint, on imported protein sources. It is not that I do not recognise some merit in the Deputy's argument - seven out of ten tillage farmers are actually compliant with ecological focus areas - it is a question of where is the best ecological gain. We believe there is some ecological gain in having a diversity of planted crops, in having the nitrogen fixing associated with these protein crops and thereby minimising our dependence on imported protein which is essential for a balanced ruminant feed.
It is not just about the whole agricultural and food system, it is also about the consumer. I believe that the Irish consumer will start to say "Please, Minister can we have our peas without pesticide on top?", even if it is a fodder crop. My point is that we need to actually start preserving areas of Irish countryside and even if this is about 300 farms they are large farms that are very heavy users of pesticide and herbicides. It is not unimportant for us to start managing our rural system. It is not as if the whole farm would be disadvantaged since it is only 5% of the overall land area. In those key areas, it would be right and proper for us to be truly Origin Green, to live up to the €364 million that we are providing in green subsidy supports and to say we will not be one of the blocking countries, that we will be one of the promoting countries with regard to this simplified green measure.
Why is it that it always seems, when it comes to the European Commission and better green solutions, that we are seen to oppose them? That is what happened in this intance. Even if it is only for 300 farms, it is not an insignificant statement that we are not restricting the use of pesticides and herbicides in the way we could have done had we gone with the Commission's advice.
It is a question of finding a balance. I do not dismiss the points made by the Deputy, but it is important to say that, for it to be worthwhile, both economically and agronomically, for him or her to plant a protein crop, a farmer has to have the possibility that he or she will harvest a decent yield from the crop. Without access to herbicide and pesticide control, that may not be possible. The consumer of the crop is the bovine industry. If we do not have a crop, we will import more protein sources. There is also a cyclical element that we need to consider in the bigger picture. It is also true to say we have very restrictive controls in the application of herbicides and pesticides. All one need do is ask any tillage farmer. They are onerous, rightly so, because ultimately it is about the protection of consumer health. There is, however, a bigger picture. I will reflect on the points made by the Deputy, but he should also reflect on the fact that if we do not commercially grow protein crops here - this is in danger of putting 30% of protein crops growers out of business - the consequence will be greater reliance on imported proteins.
I do not disagree with the Minister, but I call to his mind the bigger picture, to which I referred at the very start, that we have seen something like a 60% reduction in wildlife. At some point, the bigger picture, the ecological truth, has to come in. If we keep killing nature, it will come back and bite us.