Thursday, 1 April 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
The fourth and final important matter selected has been raised by Deputy Niamh Smyth, who wishes to discuss the need for co-financed funding for a scheme to support the poultry sector in counties Cavan and Monaghan. The Minister might give us a few bob around the rest of the country as well, if he can.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House at such a late hour to discuss this very important issue, which I appreciate. The Minister will be more than familiar with the Hennessy report. My question relates to its findings and recommendations on which the Government might act. The poultry industry is of particular importance in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, as it is in many places nationwide. It faces a threat at present from disease outbreaks and the associated economic implications. The outbreak in 2020, although it did not pose a threat to human health, did highlight the sector's vulnerability and the considerable costs of disease control. More than half a million laying hens were culled following the 2020 outbreak, leading to a 15% reduction in the supply of Irish eggs on the domestic market. Internationally governments, including those of the Netherlands and France, have established co-financed funds with the industry to improve disease control and mitigate its financial impact. The amount sought is approximately €2.5 million spread over two years. This is something close to the Minister’s heart and he met stakeholders in the poultry industry last December. However, behind the report, there are individual farmers and individual farm holdings, and families. I know, from past and more recent outbreaks, the devastation that causes for farmers themselves. Farmers are often not just in it for the money but it is a vocation and a love of the land and animals. I received some pretty tough phone calls from farmers who were affected by this, not tough as in aggressive but in the sense that they felt their future was very bleak because of the financial implications that this posed for them.
Are the Government and the Department in a position to undertake this co-finance scheme? Will it will be there to support these farmers when such outbreaks happen? I also wish to mention Manor Farm and Carton Brothers in Shercock, County Cavan, which is a massive employer in the local area and a massive supplier for the chicken industry in Ireland and far beyond. It is completely dependent on the farms and the supply coming from the poultry farming sector. They are very much involved in and interested in being part of the finance solution to this issue. I hope the Minister will have some good news for the poultry farmers who are listening. There are many in Cavan-Monaghan and elsewhere who desperately need that support and who need to know that if there is another outbreak of bird flu, the finance will be there to back them, support them and ensure they have a future.
I thank Deputy Niamh Smyth for raising this issue, which is particularly important in her constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, which is the heartland of the poultry sector nationally. At the outset, I want to pay tribute to the sector. The poultry sector has an annual output of more than €610 million. It often does not get the recognition it deserves for the massive contribution it makes. Importantly, the sector, including eggs as well as meat, supports over 5,000 jobs, of which some 3,500 farmers come from the Deputy's Border region.
During 2020, Professor Thia Hennessy, of UCC's business school, completed a comprehensive report on the economic importance of the poultry industry in Ireland in which a number of recommendations were made regarding the poultry sector. As the Deputy noted, I was happy to meet representatives of the poultry industry last December, when we had a very constructive discussion on Professor Hennessy's report. After that, I asked officials in the Department to carry out an evaluation of the recommendations in the report, in particular that recommendation which raised the possibility of establishing a form of fund that would be jointly financed by industry and the State and that might be used in order to improve disease control and mitigate its financial impact.
My officials are progressing this important evaluation, and are exploring what mechanisms may be available and that might be employed to assist the industry in dealing with the difficult challenges it faces regarding the threat of poultry diseases. I fully understand the sector's aim to seek mitigation of the risks that are faced, and where possible, to provide some reassurance to them.
In this regard, it is vitally important that any support system in which the State might play a role, is fair and reasonable to all and is consistent with national and EU legislation. My officials will meet the poultry working group again shortly to discuss these and other important matters. This will be an opportunity to further update the industry on my Department's position on the recommendations and to further progress proposals.
I wish to remind the House of the financial support that has been provided by my Department to operators that were affected by disease outbreaks during 2020. In respect of the outbreak of low pathogenic H6N1 avian influenza in early 2020, my Department provided a once-off ex gratia support, which was made available to all affected operators and all those that applied have now received payments. The nature of this disease is not one for which compensation is automatically provided by law, but my Department successfully achieved Government agreement for the payment so as to provide some support to affected poultry producers. It is outbreaks such as this which the Hennessy report and the sector are very keen to have considered in ensuring supports are there for affected farmers in future.
Regarding the December 2020 outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N8, there was an obligation on my Department to provide compensation to support affected farmers. The applications for compensation are being progressed and payments are expected to issue shortly.
My Department already supports existing rural development programme-funded targeted advisory service for animal health, TASAH, which provides assessment of on-farm level biosecurity risks at no cost to poultry farmers. My Department recognises the opportunity to develop poultry health and welfare initiatives and my officials are working to progress this. These types of approaches are consistent with the national farmed animal health strategy, which sets out the overarching principles by which we can work collectively to progress solutions, while acknowledging the various roles and responsibilities, cognisant of the financial imperatives for the industry and the State, on the principle of prevention being better than cure.
I thank the Deputy for raising this and I look forward to working with her and with the industry and Government representatives in the constituency to try to bring about progress on this important issue.
I appreciate the Minister's comprehensive reply. I will get down to the nuts and bolts of the funding being sought, which is €2.5 million spread over two years. In terms of the overall 2021 agriculture budget, that might seem quite small. Therefore, I hope that when the Minister sits down with his officials, that kind of finance can be put into it.
I am not overstating the matter when I say that my region, the Border region, which the Minister also represents, is very much dependent on it. There is a genuine opportunity. Manor Farm and such companies are very much interested and there is buy-in from them. Ultimately, what I propose will protect the small farmer and others farmers who may have to face the very unsavoury and unpalatable task of culling when there is an outbreak. I really appreciate the Minister's answer. I wonder whether he could respond on the funding available and give a timeframe for its provision so farmers will know the future is bright in their sector, that the work they are doing is worth carrying on with, that they will be protected and that the Government will have their backs.
I assure the Deputy that there is a very bright and secure future for the sector. It is a really important part of the overall agrifood sector. It is one I want to support and work with. There are challenges. Poultry farmers affected by diseases that do not automatically qualify for compensation and who must cull their flocks naturally incur massive financial costs.
I had a very thorough discussion with the poultry sector when we met in December. It has taken a very constructive approach to assessment by engaging Professor Hennessy in the first instance and also by putting together a comprehensive report. We had a very constructive discussion on that. Coming out of it, I asked my officials to assess further and engage on the recommendations to determine how we could work together to address this issue. The work and evaluation are ongoing. There will be a follow-up meeting with the poultry sector very shortly to discuss the evaluations and to consider how we might be able to go forward. I recognise the issue that arises and the financial impact on farmers. I very much recognise the need for a mechanism such as the one being proposed to try to provide a safety net for affected farmers. I look forward to engaging further with the sector on the possibilities that exist and on how we can work together in this regard.
Leis sin, táimid tagtha go dtí deireadh gnó na seachtaine. Tá an Dáil ar athló go dtí 10 a.m., Dé Céadaoin, 21 Aibreán 2021. Idir an dá linn, guím Cásca beannaithe ar gach duine.