Thursday, 15 October 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
We welcome the Minister of State, Senator Pippa Hackett, to the House. It is my first time to meet her in this capacity and I want to avail of the opportunity to congratulate her on her appointment and to join with all the other Members of the House to wish her nothing but success in her role.
I welcome the Minister of State.
I wish to speak today on horticultural peat harvesting. This sector makes a major contribution to the Irish economy.
There are 6,600 people directly employed in this industry and a further 11,000 in indirect employment. Many of those jobs are in the midlands, which have been particularly hard hit by industry closures and growing unemployment.
In 2018, the horticulture industry had a farm gate value of €437 million. It had exports valued at €229 million. Its employment value was just shy of €500 million at €497 million. Sectors directly supported by this industry include mushroom growing, vegetables, protected fruits, nursery stock and tree saplings. Its cost base would be greatly impacted by the proposed changes and it would put all those businesses under significant pressure.
The work this industry does has very little environmental impact in the grand scheme of things. Only 24% of total peatlands are used for horticulture peat harvesting. The CO2emissions from horticulture peat harvesting are a mere 0.52% of potential Irish emissions for 2020.
Current legislation prohibits all peatland owners, including Bord na Móna, from carrying out any work whatsoever on bogs until planning permission is granted and a valid EP licence is received. As a result of that, Growing Media Ireland, GMI, and Bord na Móna ceased all peat harvesting on 16 June 2020. GMI and the industry are now in a legal limbo as to whether they can harvest peat moss for the industry. Failure to do so will result in this industry collapsing in the very near future, resulting in major job losses and economic output.
If this issue is not addressed by the relevant Department, this industry is facing the reality that it will run out of peat moss supply in Ireland by July 2021. If the industry is not permitted to harvest peat for horticulture, it will be imported from other parts of the EU. That does not make any sense, either economically or environmentally. As we speak, peat is being imported into this country. It is laughable in the extreme that we would import peat. How does it make sense to say we cannot have peat moss for the sector for environmental reasons but we can afford to ship it from other countries, which results in even more emissions and environmental impact? I call on the Minister of State to take a common sense approach. She should sit down with the industry, sort out these issues and save jobs.
I would like to quote from one paragraph in the report of the Just Transition Commissioner. It states:
... some fast-track, 'one-stop-shop' arrangement needs to be considered for planning, licensing and regulatory compliance. Greater cohesion and co-ordination needs to be developed. [He recommended] that this issue be addressed as a matter of urgency.
He stated that this will ensure a just transition that does not result in the destruction of local communities and will also ensure that measures are put in place to secure appropriate aftercare, including the rehabilitation of very valuable post-harvesting peatland habitats. I stress that the habitats that will exist after harvesting can also be greatly beneficial to the environment.
We are talking about a small proportion of Irish bogs but a vitally important industry to the country. If we do not allow harvesting in this country, we will completely undermine the cost base of the mushroom and the vegetable growing industries. They have enough problems with Brexit and trying to maintain access to the UK market but if we destroy their cost base in this fashion, they will find it virtually impossible to survive.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Senator Pippa Hackett):
I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the Deputy for their nice welcome.
Peat is traditionally a very important component of the national horticultural and amenity plant sector. Approximately 60% of the value of Irish horticulture is dependent on peat as a growth medium, with the mushroom amenity and soft fruit sectors most reliant on peat. As the Deputy stated, the horticulture sector is a large agrifood sector. It is the fourth largest agrifood sector in this country behind dairy, beef and pigmeat. The industry continues to progress and develop. Of the peat that is extracted for horticultural purposes only 10% is used here in Ireland and 90% is exported.
My Department is not involved in the regulation of peat extraction as this is a planning process under the remit of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. In this context, as an action under the national peatland strategy, the Department published a consultation document entitled A Review of the Use of Peat in the Horticultural Industry. That consultation invited written submissions from stakeholders across the sector. On 7 September 2020, my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage and electoral reform, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, published a report on the review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. The report was prepared by an inter-agency working group following on from the submissions from stakeholders. Following the publication of the report, the Minister of State will set up an independent working group to consider the impacts on the sector. It is proposed that this working group will represent Departments, including my own, and there will be representation from State agencies, environmental NGOs and industry stakeholders. The working group will address the key issues raised in the report including the future use of peat by the horticulture sector.
The position of chair for this independent working group has been advertised and the closing date for receipt of applications is 23 November. Once the chair is in place, the selection of working group members is expected to take place.
I commend Deputy Cahill on raising this matter and allowing me an opportunity to contribute. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his latitude in this matter.
I raised this matter previously with the Minister of State's party leader, the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and his answer in respect of the job losses that would be caused to the Monaghan mushroom industry and the associated peat extraction industry was that they will need to diversify. He spoke about solar panels as being one option. The difficulty with solar panels, and there are prospects for that sector, is that we cannot eat them. This is about food production. The truth of the matter is that people will eat the same volume of mushrooms, for example, as they currently do. The question is where those mushrooms will be produced. They will be produced using peat. I fully endorse Deputy Cahill's proposition that the Government needs to consider a mechanism by which peat extraction can be used for essential food production services in this State and I encourage the Minister of State to pursue that matter with full vigour.
I welcome the Minister of State's reply in which there was recognition of the significant importance of the horticulture industry and the need for peat as a source of raw material. I welcome the formation of the working group and I hope a common sense solution can be found. It would not make sense from either an economic or environmental perspective to import peat into this country.
I agree with Deputy Cahill's final comment that it does not make sense to import peat here. The bottom line, however, is that the sector will have to transition away from peat. We will not have an endless supply of peat even if we wanted to continue with extraction. In the interim, as part of that, there may well be scope to facilitate that by focusing on the domestic demand for horticultural peat rather than exporting. Regarding the 10% that stays here as opposed to the 90% we export, there may be scope there, which would seem to me to be a reasonable approach in that we would put our growers ahead of those abroad.
My Department, in conjunction with the industry, is actively looking at alternatives to peat. While there are not yet any suitable or viable alternatives for mushroom casing, my Department is currently funding two research projects that have been commissioned by Ireland's mushroom producer organisation, CMP. In terms of the two elements to that, there is one on a spent mushroom stabilisation project. The objective of that project is to develop a rapid aerobic process to stabilise spent mushroom compost and create a by-product that could be used as a growing substrate within the sector. That work is ongoing.
The second alternative being looked into is a peat casing reduction project. The objective of this project is to examine the impacts of reducing the quantity of peat used as a casing material in mushroom production. A number of alternative substrates can be used but they have issues in terms of sustainability and their location.
This is an issue but I believe it is something the sector can embrace with proper support from my Department and others. I look forward to a healthy and vibrant horticulture sector moving forward.