Dáil debates

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Common Agricultural Policy Reform: Motion [Private Members]


6:25 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Minister is now present. I will just point out, and I mean no offence or challenge to the Minister, that it is increasingly becoming the case that Ministers are turning up late for the commencement of business. The day is long and difficult enough, and we are 20 minutes behind schedule. This is the second time today that we are late commencing a debate because we have been waiting for a Minister.

I call Deputy Pringle.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann: recognises that:
— the correct management of Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition 2, GAEC 2, land is vital as they are, in the main, low input managed landscapes and farmland habitats that must continue to be farmed if they are to provide the water quality, biodiversity and carbon capture that we need;

— calling into question the status of GAEC 2 land as eligible hectares is completely counterproductive, given that the definition of eligible hectare is quite broad:
‘is used for an agricultural activity or, where the area is also used for nonagricultural activities, is predominantly used for agricultural activities, and which is at the farmer’s disposal. Where duly justified for environmental reasons, eligible hectares may also include certain areas for agricultural activities only every second year’
it is extremely concerning that the Council of the European Union (the Council) foresee actions that will result in farmers being unable to carry out an ‘agricultural activity’, which itself is not a restrictive definition and to be deemed to have zero agricultural activity on the land (if there was any activity it would be an eligible hectare as a right) would have major implications for farmers in the future, amongst which would be access to:
— eco-schemes;

— Pillar II environmental schemes; and

— the status of the farmer as an ‘active/genuine farmer’;
— the European Union definition of an ‘agricultural activity’ is both:
— the production of agricultural products which includes actions such as raising animals or cultivation including by way of paludiculture, where agricultural products means those listed in Annex I to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) with the exception of fishery products, as well as cotton and short rotation coppice; and

— the maintenance of the agricultural area in a state which makes it suitable for grazing or cultivation, without preparatory action going beyond usual agricultural methods and machineries;
— in the implementation of GAEC 2, a new GAEC in this reform, it is absolutely key that the land remains as ‘agricultural area’ maintained by ‘agricultural activity’ and can qualify as ‘eligible area’; and

— the amendment proposed by the Council, as a result of the implementation of a standard under GAEC standard 2 listed in Annex III of this Regulation, and the positioning of this amendment in the text, implies that the land will fall outside this definition as a result of the management practices that are to be prescribed for it in meeting GAEC 2 and this is unacceptable as if we are to ask more of farmers and raise the bar of what is required of them then the rules and standards governing this must reflect this;
believes that:
— all GAEC standards should be developed within the context of the European Union Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Strategic Plan with achievable goals for the farmers, and in meeting these targets their land should be eligible for payment as a right, not as some sort of derogation; and

— as this is a new GAEC for changed circumstances, new thinking must come with it, and, if necessary, legislation amended to meet the new goals as the current Council position on this would allow the Member State to abdicate their responsibility to put in place a structure so that farmers can remain fully compliant with new requirements; and
calls on the Government to call for the amendment tabled by the Council of Ministers to the CAP Strategic Plan regulation in Article 4(1)(c) to be withdrawn, in order to maintain and protect the ‘agricultural area’ status of these lands, with the amendment being: ‘as a result of the implementation of a standard under GAEC standard 2 listed in Annex III of this Regulation’.

This motion relates to the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, legislative proposals and specifically the proposed draft of the eligible hectare in Article 4, which is of major concern. There are massive implications for farmers on carbon-rich soils, including peatlands and wetlands. These farmers have managed these environmentally sensitive landscapes for generations, as all Ireland’s uplands and peatlands are managed landscapes and have evolved in harmony with traditional agricultural activity.

In the current proposals for the CAP strategic plan, some areas being addressed are quite positive for farmers on high nature value land with carbon-rich soils. Convergence or flattening of payments is moving forward, with current proposals to set convergence at 85%, at least, of the national average, to give a fairer distribution of payments to all farmers. It is disappointing that the Irish position is still at 75% of the national average given the fact that the majority of farmers would benefit from further convergence of payments. The unfair system of variable greening in the 2013 reform, in which farmers were paid different rates of payment for complying with the same regulations, is being replaced with an eco-scheme payment. It is vital to ensure that the eco-schemes will be paid at an equal rate to all farmers who comply with the regulation.

To counteract these positive moves towards a more equitable CAP, we are faced with an attempt to remove carbon-rich soils from the CAP payment system to undo all the work that has been done to achieve a fairer CAP. Over the past number of months, I have been made aware by some of the farm organisations of the serious implications outlined in these proposals. They have engaged extensively with me at national and EU levels and sought clarity from officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the Council amendment. In assessing the detail, I have major reservations relating to the Council of Ministers amendment of Article 4, which states: "... as a result of the implementation of a standard under GAEC standard 2 listed in Annex 111 of this Regulation”.This amendment gives the member state the tools to set unrealistically high standards for GAEC 2 and in doing so removes agricultural activity from the land. This leaves farmers carrying out an agricultural activity on these soils in a very precarious and uncertain position.

In the implementation of GAEC 2, a new GAEC in this reform, it is absolutely key that the land remains as agricultural area maintained by agricultural activity and can qualify as an eligible area. The amendment proposed by the Council, and the positioning of this amendment in the text, imply that the land will fall outside this definition as a result of the management practice that is to be prescribed for it in meeting GAEC 2. This is unacceptable. If we are to ask more of farmers and raise the bar of what is required of them, the rules and standards governing this must reflect the new requirements. I believe that all GAEC standards should be developed within the context of the CAP strategic plan with achievable goals for farmers, and in meeting these targets their land should be eligible for payment as a right, not as some sort of derogation as is suggested here.

The correct management of these areas is vital. They are, in the main, low-input managed landscapes, farmland habitats, that must be continued to be farmed if they are to provide the water quality, biodiversity and carbon capture that we need. Calling into question their status as eligible hectares is completely counterproductive. The provisional definition of eligible hectare is quite broad. It states:

...is used for an agricultural activity or, where the area is also used for non-agricultural activities, is predominantly used for agricultural activities, and which is at the farmer's disposal. Where duly justified for environmental reasons, eligible hectares may also include certain areas used for agricultural activities only every second year.

It is extremely concerning that the Council foresees actions that will result in farmers being unable to carry out an agricultural activity, which itself is not a restrictive definition. To be deemed to have zero agricultural activity on the land - if there was any activity it would be an eligible hectare as a right - would have major implications for farmers in the future, among which would be access to eco-schemes, Pillar ll environmental schemes, areas of natural constraint, ANC, payments and the status of farmers as an active or genuine farmer.

The question must be asked and clear answers given. If a member state sees a need for this amendment then it must be visualising the implementation of measures that will remove all agricultural activity from this land. In what scenarios does the Minister see the need for this derogation?

Currently, these lands are predominantly farmed with livestock through low intensity sustainable farming systems. It is my strong opinion that any proposal that removes or eliminates farming activity will have negative implications, both in terms of biodiversity and carbon sequestration, as lands risk becoming unmanaged and overgrown, which will create a fire hazard and other negative environmental outcomes.

I ask that the Minister support the commission’s original proposal and the Parliament mandate as I believe the inclusion of the Council amendment puts the agricultural area status of this land at an unnecessary risk. The farmers who manage these lands have always recognised the importance of the correct management of these valuable farmed ecosystems. The threat they see in the current Council position has motivated them to campaign on this issue and they have brought it to my attention.

Any possibility of this land losing its agricultural status in return for providing this valuable public service is unacceptable to me, especially with the prospect that the sequestration activity could be used to offset unsustainable activity elsewhere. The treatment of farmers here is in stark contrast with the treatment of farmers availing of the derogation of the nitrates directive, whose eligibility status has never been questioned. This planned unequal treatment of farmers, based on soil type, directly contravenes the principle that CAP must be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner and in accordance with the charter of fundamental rights of the European Union.

The final wording on the GAEC 2 is not yet agreed. The Minister will no doubt draw attention to the three existing positions and the importance of these. While they are important, they are not the critical issue. The critical issue is the insertion of the amendment, which would hand the member state much broader powers in the implementation of GAEC 2.

The Minister may well say that it is not his intention that the land will lose its agricultural status but this amendment gives him and future administrations the power to do so. He will no doubt talk about this document protecting farmers and giving Ireland maximum flexibility. However, who are we protecting farmers from? Who is endangering the farmer? Ireland will be setting all the standards so do we need protection from our own authorities?

The EU will not be setting the standards. Brussels will not be telling us what to do here. If we want to protect these lands, the people who will provide protection are the farmers who have managed it for generations, supported by good agricultural policy.

We will also be told we are misrepresenting the facts and that this is not a derogation. I have statements from EU officials, however, who have called it a derogation from baseline eligibility standards and have acknowledged we have legitimate concerns. This needs to be resolved and this House can play a role in that by debating this fully tonight and making sure it supports this amendment.

6:35 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I dtús báire, ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil mo thacaíocht 100% taobh thiar den rún seo. Ní saineolaí mé ar an ábhar seo ach tá an t-uafás léite agam agus cloiste agam ó chuir an Teachta Pringle an dua air féin an rún seo a chur os comhair na Dála agus é faoi bhrú.

Ba mhaith liom a rá gurb é an rud a léimeann amach ná go bhfuiltear ag déileáil leis na feirmeoirí mar chuid den fhadhb seachas ag déileáil leo mar chuid den réiteach. Sin an rud atá ag teastáil, do na feirmeoirí beaga ach go háirithe, in iarthar na tíre, ó Thír Chonaill síos go Ciarraí.

Is gá déileáil leo mar chomhpháirtí ar an leibhéal céanna toisc gur cuid den réiteach iad. Bhí an Bille maidir le hathrú aeráide os ár gcomhair inné agus beidh deis agamsa, an tseachtain seo chugainn, labhairt faoi. Tá an Bille sin ró-lag agus, mar sin, tá mé 100% taobh thiar de bheart a chur i gcrích maidir le hathrú aeráide agus maidir leis an rud atá taobh thiar den rud seo. Ach tá an leasú atá feicthe agamsa baolach amach is amach do na feirmeoirí mar go mbeidh siad ag brath ar cibé cén Rialtas atá ann amach anseo agus cibé cén tAire atá i gcumhacht chun maolú a thabhairt dóibh. An chéad uair eile, nuair a bheidh na cainteanna ar siúl maidir le CAP nua, i gceann cúpla bliain eile, beidh siad thíos. Beidh siad ar chéim níos ísle mar nach mbeidh an zoning talmhaíochta i gceist.

I thank my colleague, Deputy Pringle, for doing this. He was under time pressure for other reasons within our group and he managed to get this tabled for discussion tonight. I am certainly no expert when it comes to this matter but I have read in preparation for tonight and I have listened. I have talked with Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association, INFHA, and indeed, over the last number of years, I have attended all of their meetings in Conamara and throughout County Galway. I have listened to them carefully and they come across to me as a very reasonable organisation. They also come across to me as protectors of our environment, who seek to farm in a sustainable way.

Before I go any further, I want to preface my remarks to say that next week, I will be speaking on the new climate Bill. I listened carefully yesterday when it was up for discussion. I believe it does not go far enough. I am, therefore, absolutely 100% determined to force this Government to take serious action on climate change.

Equally, I would not support any organisation that did not have that to the fore. I see this organisation doing exactly that. If this amendment goes through as part of the CAP negotiations, it will allow this Government or a future government to take away the status of agriculture from their land. It seems to me that in dealing with the farmers like this, we are dealing with and looking on them as part of the problem rather than as the most important part of the solution on how to farm sustainably and how to deal with climate change. If we remove that zoning agriculture from the land they have farmed for a very long time in a sustainable way then we are creating terrible problems. We are also dealing with those small farmers in a most unequal way to how we dealt with bigger farmers and various derogations on various issues, as has been mentioned by my colleague.

I ask the Minister, and I see that he is listening carefully, if he is opposing this motion or accepting it. Would he look at this with the view to not letting this amendment go through? Who is pushing this amendment? Is it himself as a Minister on the Council of Ministers or who is doing it? I understand he has a very important say in this and he can stop this going through. I do not know; perhaps I am being unfair to the Minister and it is not coming from him.

Certainly, however, when I look at what the farmers have presented to me and what they have argued, I cannot see any reason for going ahead with this. They specifically ask a number of questions, which I believe are very reasonable. They ask why baseline conditions are being created under the good agricultural and environmental conditions, and they are only talking about GAEC 2, which farmers cannot achieve without undermining the eligibility of their lands. They ask why, after this has been pointed out, the Council is still determined to continue on this route. This is important and something we must address. I say this as someone who is absolutely 100% behind climate change legislation.

Their third question relates to how much of this is driven by the urgent need to offset carbon emissions for the benefit of other sectors of society. What is Ireland's position, as represented by the Government, on this?

Unfortunately, I am speaking before the Minister of State. I hope he will tell us that he is not opposing this motion. It is a specific and practical motion which urges the Government to work with the small farmers and the organisations who are asking that the zoning is not taken away. The Minister of State may indicate that he is not going to do that. However, if the amendment is made to GAEC 2, it will allow the Government or those which succeed it to remove that in the future. The farmers to whom I refer would then be left in a position where they would be obliged to seek a derogation in order to get their payments. They are now at a disadvantage working from a much weaker position, as opposed to being equal partners in our fight for sustainable farming methods and in tackling climate change.

Again, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this year in the aftermath of the pandemic and the declaration of the climate and biodiversity emergency in 2019. We also have the data from the international agency which drew our attention to the high emissions rates, notwithstanding Covid. We are going in the wrong direction on every level. We need to work with the farmers. We particularly need to recognise the small farmers who have struggled year after year to maintain a sustainable type of living which benefits all of us and the environment. I appeal to the Minister of State not to oppose the motion and to work with us.

6:45 pm

Photo of Martin HeydonMartin Heydon (Kildare South, Fine Gael)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Ó Cuív.

I must express my surprise at some of the comments, particular those from Deputy Pringle. I consider myself a proud European and I believe that Ireland benefits from being at the heart of Europe. I also believe passionately in the principle of subsidiarity, enshrined in the Maastricht treaty, with member states having power over as many elements as they can rather than having all powers centralised. I was shocked to hear the Deputy state that he would prefer power to be centralised in Brussels rather than the Government having a say in such matters.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important matter. This Private Members’ motion will allow me to provide greater clarity regarding the Council’s proposals for GAEC 2. This is important because the motion demonstrates that there may, unfortunately, be a misunderstanding about the proposed Council text as set out in the draft CAP regulations. The proposed text, which is intended to provide certainty to farmers that vital direct payments will continue to be paid, appears to be misinterpreted in some quarters as indicating intention on the part of member states to prevent farming on such lands. This is simply not the case. That is not and never has been our intention.

The motion is not being opposed because it is vital that we use this opportunity to build a better understanding of what is, admittedly, a complex drafting issue. Most importantly, I want to ensure all parties have a clear grasp of what we intend to put in place under the proposed GAEC 2 for Irish farmers.

The next CAP has many goals to achieve. As has always been the case, it needs to support farm incomes. However, it must also ensure the schemes implemented under the new CAP strategic plan deliver significantly improved environmental outcomes. The European Commission’s proposals for the next CAP have been subject to ongoing debate in the European Council and European Parliament since their publication in June 2018. Both institutions agreed their respective positions on the proposals in October 2020. Trilogue discussions between them and the European Commission commenced in November 2020 which are still ongoing.

The new CAP has an increased environmental ambition. It must also help achieve the ambitious targets outlined in the European Green New Deal through, for example, the farm to fork and the biodiversity strategies. I support this. Likewise, I support the protection of our farm incomes. Sustainability of farm incomes is as important as sustainability of our environment and society as set out in the draft 2030 strategy for our agrifood sector. This increased ambition was a key factor in reaching the final agreement on the CAP budget last year, when, in the face of planned significant cuts, the Government achieved an increase in it. As a result, the way in which farmers receive support is changing with the emphasis shifting much more definitively to a focus on better environmental outcomes, delivered through the green architecture.

This green architecture combines greater environmental and climate ambition with Pillar 1 payments with further environmental achievement through Pillar 2 schemes. As part of the increasing climate ambition, it includes new standards such as the introduction of a new GAEC 2 which aims to protect peatland and wetlands due to the importance of these carbon-rich soils. The protection of such areas is important for climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as for biodiversity.

The Council’s proposals for the new CAP set out clearly that it is member states which will define these areas and set out the appropriate management practices to be deployed. I, along with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, have consistently called for appropriate national flexibility in this regard. Together we have succeeded in ensuring that the Council’s position provides for that.

We need to be able to consider how best we can implement the new standards to take account of our own farming structures. When we set this new standard, it will relate to how people will continue to farm these lands and not to the prohibition of all agricultural activities in these areas. With our feet on the ground, we as Ministers know what is needed in Ireland better than anyone else.

GAECs are minimum standards. That is how they are defined in the Council text. It is the stated intention of the European Commission that the other elements of the green architecture, such as eco-schemes and multi-annual agri-environmental schemes, should also be made available to farmers affected by GAEC 2 standards to reward farmers who implement further actions which achieve an additional environmental benefit. It is my view that this will be the case. The Council text does not prevent this from happening in any way.

To support this increased environmental ambition under the new CAP, the Council general approach aims to provide certainty to farmers that direct payments will continue for these lands, regardless of any issues which might occur due to the introduction of new schemes such as the new eco-scheme. The Council text includes proposed language that guarantees that farmers’ lands will continue to be regarded as eligible hectares for the purpose of direct payments regardless of any requirements of eco-schemes or the standards of GAEC 2 and GAEC 9 with regards to non-productive features and landscape features or land managed under paludiculture. However, this additional language in Article 4 of the draft CAP strategic plan regulation has no bearing on what the actual requirements of the GAEC 2 standard will be. This, as I have said, is up to member states to define. We are essentially asking farmers to commit to new basic standards. We are also seeking their participation in additional actions under eco-schemes and multi-annual agri-environmental schemes.

As we embark on the next CAP, farmers are surely entitled to have certainty that payments will continue. This desire on the part of member states at Council to provide certainty for farmers, as well as having it reflected in the regulations, is being misinterpreted as an intention to introduce standards that would prohibit farming on these lands. This is simply not the case.

The standards for GAEC 2 will be set out by member states, with national flexibility, under the language in Annex III of the draft CAP proposal. When the Commission made its proposals for this new GAEC, the suggested text was "appropriate protection of wetland and peatland". The Council wanted to ensure the protection under this GAEC, while effective, also clearly left scope for subsequent eco-schemes and multi-annual environmental schemes to be implemented on these lands. We also recognised that additional time would be necessary to put the new requirements in place. Accordingly, the Council has chosen to amend the wording to read “minimum protection of wetland and peatland at the latest by 2025”. Far from including a text to ban agriculture, the Council has proposed a text that allows additional time for the new standard to be introduced, while, at the same time, recognising that further environmental programmes, such as eco-schemes, are capable of being implemented on these lands.

I consider that it is the European Parliament’s suggested language, “effective protection of wetland and appropriate maintenance of peatland”, that places greater demands about what the new standard will consist of than the Council’s text. The European Parliament’s text also demands the immediate implementation of the new standard at the beginning of the new CAP which it continues to press for in trilogue negotiations.

Those who have raised their concerns about the new standard should consider this aspect carefully. They should highlight these issues and raise their concerns with MEPs. We need a better understanding from the European Parliament that more time is needed to allow farmers and member states prepare for this new GAEC, as well as asking it to support the Council’s wording on minimum protection.

Despite the misunderstanding at the heart of this motion, there is a key point that I fully share with the proposers. We need to ensure appropriate and effective national GAEC standards that farmers can clearly understand and implement as they go about their day-to-day farming on these lands. It is the Minister’s intention to establish an appropriate and effective GAEC 2 standard which will allow continued appropriate agricultural activity, as well as voluntary environmental practices on such lands, through participation in annual eco-schemes or multi-annual agri-environmental and climate measures.

We are both committed to this. I consider that the Council wording provides the appropriate flexibility to set minimum standards, allows for sufficient time to implement the new standard and continues to provide certainty regarding farmers’ payments. As the trialogue process continues, the Minister and I will remain fully engaged on all aspects to ensure the best overall outcome for farmers and the agrifood sector.

6:55 pm

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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We all have the same objective, namely, to ensure that in the future farmers can continue to farm in a sustainable way that they know best on the peaty soil of these lands. Some of this is in the lowlands and there is a fair amount of it in places such as Connemara. Having sat down with the Minister today and considering the complexity involved with the different institutions, he is following a very clear path to ensure the objective of having farming continue in these areas. I accept that there are people outside of government, such as in the NGOs, who have a different vision for these lands but the Minister is not one of them. Deputies on all sides of this debate want to ensure a good CAP. I respect the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association, INHFA, which has raised this issue. I am delighted it is being debated today because it is not often that the poorer farmers get their day in the sun in Dáil Éireann. We need to work together, keep talking and negotiating and present a common front in Europe. Our MEPs and the Government need to build a common front to ensure the interests of small farmers are protected and people can continue to farm these lands in a sustainable, as they have done for generations.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. The first thing to be said to the Minister, Minister of State, Government and officials is that we do not believe they are intentionally trying to take people away from the CAP. However, it is possible that none of them will here in five or ten years' time. That is not to wish them bad luck. Let us be very clear on what is happening; the Department is saying this is an amendment whereas the European Union, in the documents we have seen, is saying very clearly that this is a derogation. Deputy Ó Cuív, the previous speaker, talked about a derogation on the bogs, and they got that. What happened nine years later, when Deputy Ó Cuív was no longer the Minister? What happened with the water derogation? This is not a derogation agreed between a farmer and Europe but one that a Minister in this country will ask Europe for, not in this CAP but in five or ten years' time. It is not that people are having a go at the Government. This is, unfortunately, the way that things have worked down the years, no more than with the animal remedies at the moment. The consequences of what was signed ten years ago and what was done nine years ago are now known.

This will be the first time ever that there will be two systems under CAP, from the hills of County Donegal to the bottom of County Cork, and from the hills of County Dublin to Connemara and the wetland and peatland areas. That is the reality and no one can deny it. There is a front door. Someone in the Golden Vale is sure to be in but someone living in the hills of County Donegal - it is not all bad land there and I come from worse land than anyone else - or another peaty area is being mapped out at the moment, right across this country. Ever county has a bit of this land. Take below in Listowel. Reclaimed bog there is where the best of cows are giving milk. The fear is about what is down the road under this system, especially if one looks at Pillar 2. The Minister of State talked about eco-schemes and how he wants people in them. Let us say I have land where there was once habitat and I go into an eco-scheme or the old rural environment protection scheme, REPS, and let the briars grow and let everything be great for biodiversity. I defy a Minister to tell me that in five years' time, when the Pillar 2 scheme is over, I can go in with a digger and make that into good agricultural land to qualify for the single farm payment. I would not be allowed to touch it under the rules and regulations coming from Europe and the biodiversity strategy the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and the Government has signed for 2030.

What is coming on the right hand that is going to run along with the left hand? Let us say the agricultural policy is the 2030 one whereby 30% of our country, both land and sea, is to be designated and 10% of that will be what people will not stand on. With the best will in the world, we will not have enough land owned by the State to cover that. This is the fear, and the Minister understands it because he understands County Donegal and the west. The fear among farming families is that they will be put in this section and told their land is not good enough to qualify under the normal single farm payment but that because of the derogation, they can come in the back door and it will be sound. That will work and I do not doubt the Minister's and Minister of State's honesty in trying to ensure farmers are looked after. However, this is the first thing that has happened under GAEC. Whether the word "minimal" or some other wording is used, there will be a new wording for peatlands and wetlands. That affects large swathes of many counties right around the country. I am not leaving out any county. This is not the south against the north or the west against the east; it is about all farmers and small family farms. If one looks at the farms that are on or near areas that are peaty, they are generally small family farms where people are trying to make a living.

Let us look into the glass ball to see the future. What if we get a Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine like the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and he or she decides whether we go for the derogation and whether we ensure this land is eligible and that land is not or that we will leave land basically uninhabitable? This is the fear that needs to be addressed and now is the time to talk about it. What will happen then is those farmers fear that down the road they will be looking at what I call a theme park where they once farmed their sheep or their cattle. We should bear in mind that most of these areas are suckler and sheep areas. These people once farmed, sent their children to school and went to the local shop in these areas but, unfortunately, from then on, there will not be a need for any of it. That is the genuine fear.

This is not scaremongering by the INFHA or anybody else. There is a document which we have seen, and I will give a copy to anyone who wants to it. The word "derogation" is written in it in four or five places. When we have the word derogation, we must be very careful because of what the word means about what is down that road. This will not be between the agricultural farmer and Europe but between Europe and the member state and the Minister then has to go and look for it. The Department is saying it is an amendment. Why is one person saying one thing and others are saying the opposite?

We welcome that we will be more in control of our future because too much stuff comes from Europe. The only problem is that if a Minister has his tongue out to ask Europe for something, he is on the back foot. It is a sad day that we will have a two-tier system in the CAP that is going to come in depending on the farmer's land.

Let us look into the glass ball and look into the future. What happens if we get a Minister for Agriculture and the Marine like the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, deciding whether or not we go for the derogation and whether we ensure that that is not eligible or that is not or that we will leave it basically uninhabitable? What will happen then is those farmers - and this is the fear, it needs to be addressed and this is the time to talk about it - those farmers fear that down the road they will be looking at what I call a theme park where they once farmed their sheep or their cattle. We should bear in mind that most of these areas are suckler areas and sheep areas. Where these people once farmed and where they once sent their young kid to school and where they went to the local shop, unfortunately from then on there will not be a need for any of it. That is the genuine fear. This is not scaremongering by the INFHA or anybody else. There is a document which we have seen, and I will give a copy to anyone who wants it. In four to five places in the document the word "derogation" is written. When we have the word derogation, we must be very careful about it because of what the word means about what is down the road. Let us be clear on this because it is not between the agricultural farmer and Europe. It is between the member state and one has a Minister who has to go back and look for it. The Minister's Department is saying it is an amendment but why is one person saying one thing and the opposite being said the other way? We welcome that we will be more in control of our own future because too much stuff comes from Europe. The only problem is, if a Minister has his or her tongue out to ask Europe for something then he or she is on the back foot. It is a sad day really, that there will be a two tier system in the CAP that is going to come in which depends on the land u come from.

It will probably be more or less a regional system that depends on where one comes from.

If the Council of Ministers does not agree it when the Minister goes to Europe, then it will not be agreed. I am asking the Minister to make sure that the wetland and the peatland farmers will not be told they came in the back door and were given a few pounds and that it was not that they were great farmers or that they have great land. The day the Minister does that will be the day we will go down a wrong road in farming. I wonder if there is a theory and a ploy somewhere - I am not accusing the Minister of this - that we will get areas of the country where there will be less and less farming going on in them and that it might help the other areas that might be in a little bit of bother with what they are putting out in the line of carbon. That is the danger and the worry and it is not scaremongering to point that out.

The word we are hearing is that this will be nailed down one way or the other in May. The Minister has the opportunity. Given where he comes from, the Minister is well familiar with the situation with land on which mountain ewes live, where family farms have survived for years and from where the greatest of people have come out. Regardless of whether it was the Golden Vale or a hill or mountain where heather grows and from where mountainy sheep come out, if a family was reared in either of those places, they are both entitled to the same chance in life and the same application for the single farm payment. Those families should be under no obligation that they will be brought around this way into a scheme for the time being but that they will not do X, Y and Z. There is even a part of that document that talks about not being able to clean a drain. How have we farmed in the past on boggy or marginal land? We had to shore the land and clean the drains because that was the only way to get the water off it to make sure people earned a living on it. A lot of people will not even bother if that stuff comes in on the single farm payment. I hope some European is not thinking that where people brought the sweat of their brow for years to drain their land and make it workable to rear a family, they will no longer do so now.

7:05 pm

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I commend the Independent Group and Deputy Pringle on bringing this motion before the House. The specific proposal within the good agricultural and environmental condition 2, GAEC 2, framework with which this motion has an issue is one which, for the first time in the history of the Common Agricultural Policy, will differentiate agricultural land, calling into question whether carbon-rich soils will qualify into the future as eligible hectares for payment.

In the context of European regulations and directives, as has already been alluded to, exact words are incredibly important and they carry specific meanings. The Council has adopted what many would consider the most extreme wording of any of the parties to the negotiations that has threatened the agricultural status into the future of many of our family farmers. That agricultural standard is what is used to determine whether these lands are eligible hectares. Under the CAP, "agricultural status" and "eligible hectares" are the words of crucial meaning. Both are sacrosanct to farmers because without them, many farmers would no longer be economically viable. Farmers receive their basic farm payments and access to virtually every single agricultural scheme based on their land having agricultural status and thus being deemed as eligible hectares. No section of our farming community would accept a move against the agricultural status of their land. By differentiating those farmers from others, we are opening the door to further differentiation down the line.

Farmers, particularly those in the north and the west, have been down similar roads with the Department before. Natura 2000 designations came with a derogation but in 2017, of the 927 that were assessed, only 13 were deemed eligible. With a record like that I can understand why the Department is not inclined to use the term "derogation", even though the assistant secretary referred to it as such at a meeting of the agriculture committee last week. The simple truth of the matter is that the wording of this proposal bears a striking resemblance to that same derogation in the Natura 2000 derogations. It is a derogation that, along with the old rural environment protection, REP, scheme, was used as the carrot to the designation's stick, a derogation that, in the end, screwed and continues to screw farmers with regard to that directive. Here we are again with the Department lining up to give those same communities another kick in the teeth and telling them it is orthodontic.

The Department may ask 50,000 farmers to essentially trust it. That is what the Minister has asked us to do. If it is a choice between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, with its record, or an organisation such as the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association, INHFA, I trust the members of the INHFA. They are the people who are familiar with how new regulations override old derogations and they are familiar with the explanations as to why an existing derogation can no longer be used, explanations that often only make sense to mystical interpreters of directives and regulations in the Department itself. Farmers are being asked time and again to meet ever-rising environmental standards and Irish farmers have risen to the challenges time and again and absorbed the costs, by and large, within their margins. What is required in the next CAP is not another attack on Irish family farms but a guarantee that we will support our farmers to continue to deliver for rural Ireland, the Irish economy and the environment. Farmers have always delivered for us and what they need now is a Minister and a Department that will deliver for them.

As well as honesty and an upfront and determined attitude, we need a fair CAP. The Minister has yet to give the commitment that he will undo the gross inequality at the heart of the Common Agricultural Policy that allows people like Larry Goodman to draw down €500,000 per year while farmers in the Minister's constituency are struggling to make ends meet on pittances. That needs to be addressed in the next CAP and the Minister needs to give a commitment that he will deliver that. Farmers need fair prices, not the tokenistic and minimalistic approach the Minister has outlined for the unfair trading practices and regulations, which were unimaginative and insufficiently ambitious in the first place. They need a meat regulator with real teeth to break the stranglehold of the retailers and processors and they need fair play from the Department.

The Department needs to start seeing the family farmers of Ireland as partners, not as enemies and people to catch out and put another penalty on. It needs the three Fs, as I have mentioned to the Minister on a number of occasions, namely, fair play, fair prices and a fair CAP. This has to be a new departure for Irish family farmers.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I commend the Independent Group on bringing this motion. The issue at the heart of this is one of fair play for farming communities, particularly those on poorer marginal land across the west and the areas from the Minister's constituency right down the whole west coast and across all of the country. These are places where we have land in highland areas and where there are shallow bogs where farmers continue to farm. It is not as if these areas are left to run wild. We see that happen across areas of commonage and there are vast areas of that nature in my constituency. Yet, there is a perception out there that these areas somehow or other need a fence put around them and to be let go wild, as if that will solve some kind of ecological problem. It simply will not and we have seen that from various tests that were done in different parts of the country. Various pilot schemes were done from the Burren right up to Donegal.

We understand that what needs to happen is that farmers cannot have a section of land of this nature, particularly peat lands, designated. We cannot have that land being set aside as separate and different and not being considered as agricultural land. If this is done under a derogation then that can be reversed. That is the fear farmers have. While I am not suggesting that the Minister or the Government are setting out to do that at this point, clearly this wording leaves the option open for that to happen in the future. The Minister needs to be responsible and to close off that option in order that it cannot happen in the future. That is what needs to happen here. I mention the farmers, particularly those on marginal land, most of whom are family farmers.

Usually they rear suckler cows and sheep. They are at the bottom end of the ladder. They are the people who make the least money at all times. They need to make sure they get fair play. If the Minister delivers fair play for them he will do a good day's work but what has been the case in the past under successive Governments is that the Minister with responsibility for agriculture is seen as the Minister for the food industry rather than for the farmer. The primary producers are who the Minister needs to look after. In this case, the primary producers are those on the worst land in the north west and other areas of the country, which this particular legislation will damage. The Minister needs to close it off to ensure these producers are not damaged. I appeal to the Minister to ensure he stops this before it goes any further and change the wording. It cannot be a derogation. If it is a derogation it can be reversed and that is totally wrong.

7:15 pm

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I thank Deputy Pringle and the Independent Group for tabling the motion. Detailed scrutiny is foremost in determining whether an obligation signed up to on behalf of our rural and agricultural communities will work for or against them. For the purposes of ensuring that the fears of those farming on carbon rich soils are on public record, I will relay a number of questions and concerns to the Minister. If these concerns are not addressed in the course of the remaining negotiations, then the Department of Agriculture, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party will have to answer to rural Ireland for their failings. Signing off on a course of action that is such a threat to the sector it affects the most is not something anybody here should be willing to do.

Fundamentally, the motion deals with the need to maintain and protect the agricultural area status of the lands referred to in GAEC 2. The Minister must acknowledge the wording of GAEC 2 proposed by the Council of Ministers has the potential to leave farmers powerless regarding the agricultural status of their land, and at the mercy of future Ministers when it comes to their entitlements for basic income supports, for which farmers are paid per eligible hectare of agricultural land. It has already been acknowledged that if the amendments proposed by the Council of Ministers were signed off, a member state derogation would be needed to receive payments. This already acknowledges the fundamental problem with the wording. It also raises concerns that if such a derogation, or whatever other term is used for this instrument, is put in place, any future Minister or negotiations could effectively abolish activity on these lands permanently. This level of uncertainty simply cannot be tolerated.

As I have said, I want to relay a few of the many questions I have received from farmers to give the Minister an idea of their concerns and the faults they see with the current wording. They have asked the following questions. Will the Minister give examples of what he means by "maximum flexibility" as regards the Article 4 amendment? The Minister is acutely aware of how in 2017 maximum flexibility failed for more than 98% of 927 Natura farmers who sought it. How will GAEC 2 flexibility or derogation work in a commonage situation with multiple farmers on the same derogation-eligible hectare? Is land subject to GAEC 2 flexibility on the eligible hectare automatically eligible for the eco scheme, the areas of natural constraint scheme and pillar 2 agri-environmental schemes? If, as a result of a GAEC 2 derogation to eligibility, land loses its status as permanent grassland established under local practices, what timeframe does the EU allow to re-establish local practices traditional to the area concerned? We cannot allow the Minister to accept decisions that undermine the agricultural area status of these lands and risk so many livelihoods. These are the reasons I am supporting the motion.

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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We have a real opportunity with CAP to introduce fairness to farming. I will not go over the many years when farmers have been let down. I am speaking particularly about farmers in Mayo and the west of Ireland. A Minister from Donegal should understand what I am speaking about. I am very concerned about the complete breakdown of trust between farmers and the Minister and the Government at this particular time. The fear is palpable among the farmers I have spoken to. What they are afraid of is the derogation that we have been speaking about and the two-tier farming system they see coming down the track. If the Minister is saying to them there is nothing to worry about and everything is guaranteed, then he needs to tell them and communicate with them, the INHFA and others who represent the farmers and who know what they are going through.

A derogation is not a guarantee. The Minister is asking the farmers to trust, and to trust into the future. Farmers with wetlands and peatlands will not be left behind. I will tell the Minister what was said to me this evening. I was told that regardless of Covid or restrictions, farmers throughout the country will march if something is not done to allay their fears and provide a guarantee and give them the respect they need and demand. It is about issues such as not being able to clean a drain, as has been mentioned. The first time I mentioned in Mayo that people would need planning permission to put up a fence, people thought I was absolutely crazy but it very quickly came to fruition. I commend the Independent Group for giving us this opportunity to speak about these issues.

I need to talk to the Minister about the results based environment-agri pilot project, REAP, being brought forward as we speak. The planners were briefed on it the other day. Farmers with commonage and mountain grassland are being excluded. The commonage has been included in all previous agri-environmental schemes. There cannot be any degrading of payments made on commonage and mountain land in the new CAP budget.

As part of the climate action plan, there is an effort to designate even more land and put in place even more severe designations and restrictions. We cannot allow this to happen. There has been no consultation with farmers on how they will work or what levels of compensation will be paid. Serious negotiations must be carried out with the farming bodies before any designation is done. Farmers must be paid for the land that has already been designated. We are not just speaking about the land that has been specifically designated, we are also speaking about the buffer zones around it. We are speaking about the sterilisation of land along the western seaboard. We have seen it happen over the years since the original directive. It has to be halted and debated properly.

Approximately ten years ago in the Mullet Peninsula in Mayo, which is from where I come, there was a designation for the corncrake. Again, this was with very little consultation with farmers in the area. The knock-on effect of this has been huge. At the time, farmers were assured they could continue farming practices as they were. Now they see their dates for cutting have been altered, as have other things, which prevent them from maximising their land. Their land is where they produce their income. I have thought for a long time this raises a real constitutional issue with regard to the right to own property. Farmers own this land and we tell them that they own it but they cannot use it as a factor of productivity to earn an income.

The issue of planning restrictions due to designation has had a catastrophic impact on farm families and rural development. As the Minister knows, many landowners now have to produce an environmental impact statement when applying for a dwelling house, an agricultural shed or even a new fence. How can this make sense? The Minister is asking these same farmers to trust that a derogation will protect them in future. They were told all of the costs would be borne but now we see all of the costs must be borne by the landowners because of designations they never asked for. They were misled about it. The habitats directive designated land.

Government agencies know everything about the designation of land but they have conveniently forgotten the second part of it, whereby the landowner was to have been compensated for the loss of income or the costs incurred in the designation. This has never happened. This has caused trust to break down along the western seaboard. If the Minister takes REAP as the way forward, farmers on designated land will receive no compensation whatsoever for adhering to the restrictions imposed on them because of the designated land. I ask the Minister to go back and speak to the INHFA and listen to it, and speak to the other farming organisations and the farmers themselves to repair the trust that has broken down between the Government and farmers.

I am afraid the buck stops with the Minister. It is the Minister's job to fix it and I am asking him to do it. I know the Minister is only in the job six months but I am asking him to fix this.

7:25 pm

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I commend Deputy Pringle and the Independent Group for bringing this motion forward. It is one of those rare occasions when one can agree with almost everything that is being said in this room from the point of view that there is a responsibility on the Government to deal with the INHFA. A number of us have been contacted by it and other farming organisations. It is a lack of trust that they have. It is these protections that they demand. All of them are talking about it. We cannot create a situation where we have even more non-viable family farms. Family farms are an absolute intricate part of rural living in Ireland and we need to protect them.

I thought the whole idea of CAP was twofold - to protect family farms, particularly so that we can produce high-grade food to the highest specification, and that GAEC would be absolutely guaranteed. Deputy Carthy, in particular, has spoken about the inequalities that exist in CAP. He has said that we have to go back and negotiate better to deliver for the people who live on and derive their business from farms and the rest of us who get the benefit of that. We need to ensure that is done.

It is beyond doubt that we cannot have a differentiation in types of land. We cannot have a situation where farmers will be unable to use that land into the future and will not get the benefit of payments that are required to ensure we maintain viable family farms and a top-class food supply.

In fairness, I would like to reiterate the point Deputy Connolly made about farmers. We had the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill yesterday and an element of what is missing is partnership. Along with Deputy Carthy, when he was still a jet-setting MEP, I attended an eye-opening IFA regional meeting in Monasterboice. A group of people who were there started talking about the moves that would need to be made as regards agriculture and farms to deal with the climate crisis. They are up for that conversation. There is an absolute need for the Government to have that conversation and to deliver a roadmap for something that is sustainable for all of us. It needs to be done as soon as possible.

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
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Every time I talk about agricultural policy to people who have no interest in farming, I can see their eyes start to glaze over. I get it. It can seem like a niche subject that has nothing to do with the vast majority of the public but this could not be further from the truth. We do not often view the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine as a public service, as we do the Department of Health or Housing, Local Government and Heritage, but it is. Agriculture is how we feed ourselves as a nation. It is how we use our land. It is how we sell ourselves as a country to the world. What could be more fundamental than that?

As consumers, we have a right to know that our food is produced in a fair and ethical way and I can tell the House that at present it is not. That is at the expense of the majority of Irish farmers, migrant and Irish workers, consumers and the environment. This is a direct result of the policies implemented by CAP and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The power the Department wields is considerable and it needs to be held accountable by politicians and the public.

I thank the Independent Group for bringing forward this motion which enables us to talk about this matter. It raises a larger point about the role of the Dáil in relation to the Government's position on agriculture and marine policies at an EU level. The forthcoming CAP will shape not only farming practices but also the Irish landscape for potentially the next decade. It is unbelievable that there has essentially been no time devoted to discussing the Government's approach. The Minister and his officials are representing farmers and the State, with no oversight or scrutiny from this House.

I have had to rely on parliamentary questions to get clarification on the Minister's position at the trilogue negotiations on CAP on issues such as convergence. The Commission seems to be pushing 75% convergence whereas the European Parliament proposed 100% convergence. What is the Minister's stance on this? I am unsure. In response to my parliamentary question, the Minister informed me that his Department is analysing the effects of all proposed changes and engaging with European colleagues and farmer organisations which will inform the decision-making process. This implies the Minister does not have a position. This implies the Minister is sitting at the Council of Ministers saying nothing. This implies no real representation of Irish farmers in the negotiations. However, representatives from farming organisations have informed me that the Minister and his officials have a position that they are pushing the minimum convergence, and for member states to have a greater function in setting the levels. Either the Minister does not have a position, or he does and he is not willing to make it known. Either way, there is no scrutiny.

I have also sought that we would have an opportunity to vote on the position the Minister is taking in the negotiations but he informed me, also through a parliamentary question, that this will not be voted on by the Oireachtas. The reality of the matter is that decisions are being made about measures that affect farmers across the country with practically no input from Deputies. Reduced Dáil sittings have decreased our opportunity to question Ministers but I am seeking that the Minister will ensure that a session is added to the calendar as soon as possible to allow him to present his position on CAP negotiations and for opposition Deputies and, indeed, backbench Deputies to ask questions. This large point relates directly to the motion before us. The only reason we are talking about this part of the new CAP is thanks to the Independent Group using one of its few Private Members' business slots for this. This motion is doing what the Government should be doing. It is outlining a clear position in support of Irish farmers, allowing the House to discuss it and directing the Minister to adopt that stance in the negotiations. It is clear, simple and transparent.

This motion highlights the GAEC 2 category, which refers to land with carbon-rich soils, such as uplands and drained peatlands which form significant portions of farmland in the west of Ireland and in the midlands. One could draw a line from halfway through my constituency to the Inishowen Peninsula and most of the land to the west would fall within this category. It is the land of small farmers and the land of families who depend on basic payment schemes. Through the work of the INHFA, Deputy Fitzmaurice, Mr. Luke 'Ming' Flanagan MEP and others, it has come to light that the CAP proposals could exclude this land from the basic income support for sustainability, BISS, scheme, which will succeed the basic payment scheme. This proposal from the Council of Ministers has implications for farmers' ability to access other payments because this land would no longer be classified as an area in which agricultural activity could take place. Deciding land is ineligible flies in the face of anything that resembles a just and fair transition.

For too long, we have seen small farms become more and more unviable. We have seen farmers' protests the length and breadth of the country, the inhumane treatment of workers in meat plants and so many more injustices in our food system, while a small few big players reap the lion's share of rewards. This issue falls in the same failing system. As the INHFA points out, this move essentially separates carbon-rich land from all other farmland in terms of CAP. It will remove the right of certain farmers to payments, with eligibility dependent on unclear derogations of which there is no guarantee. This motion rightly calls for the Government to oppose this amendment to protect the agriculture area status of these farms. Speaking at the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine last week, Department officials provided a passive summary of CAP negotiations. It was as if events were happening around them and they had no influence on them.

We remain unclear on what the official position is on GAEC 2 land. I would be grateful if the Minister could outline, in plain language, if will he will be opposing this motion at the Council of Ministers. Will he do everything he can in the negotiations to ensure that these lands will still be classed as agricultural - we all know a derogation does not go far enough - and that families farming them will retain their right to earn a living? My constituents in Beara and Mizen, around Bantry and on the islands, who will be affected by these proposed changes, are eager to hear his response.

The beef plan protests and subsequent beef plan task force epitomise the way the Department treats farmers and avoids meaningful engagement with them, as we are seeing this week. As a bit of background, there used be a law which banned below-cost selling of produce to protect primary producers and smaller retailers.

The Government got rid of this in 2006, so understandably the Beef Plan movement has been eager to include an independent regulator on the agenda of the negotiations they fought very hard to get. They want a regulator that can set rules to ensure fair trading practices but they have not been able to get that onto the agenda. Instead, the Government is planning to introduce a food ombudsman which, while welcome, will only oversee existing rules which are quite clearly not working.

Like many, I have always been beyond baffled at the special treatment that Larry Goodman and Meat Industry Ireland get. This treatment has never been afforded to small farmers, food producers, workers in meat plants or consumers and it is high time that changed. The Minister can change it.

7:35 pm

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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I thank the Independent Group for bringing this very topical issue to the floor of the Convention Centre so that we can debate it. It is the first time in a long time that we have had a discussion on an issue so important to Irish farming. We all know farming is under severe pressure in this country, particularly in the west of Ireland and the regions where we have small family farms of between 40 and 50 acres. These are family farms in which entire families are involved but I have noticed in recent years that the younger generation is walking away from farming because it is too much hassle and trouble. Farming, which was once a very simple way of making a living, has become so complicated.

We use a lot of wording now that has been borrowed from Europe. There are two words in particular that Irish farmers do not like, namely, designation and derogation. Designation is a bad word in farming and derogation has let people down, no end, in the farming sector. A new CAP provides the State with an opportunity to address some of these issues and to achieve some rebalancing so that farming can become enjoyable again rather than being such a difficult task for everybody. It is an opportunity to rebalance what we are doing and to get back to basics. What is farming all about? It is about producing food, including beef and dairy products. We are doing that and are one of the best beef and dairy producers in Europe. What really galls me is that when one looks at the way farming is going right across Europe, one sees that more and more people are leaving the land. Farms are getting bigger and bigger and we will eventually end up with huge ranches right across Europe. One must ask how and why that is happening and the CAP has a lot to answer for in that regard.

I am also worried about the fact that farmers in my constituency who may have a fairly high unit rate will be penalised heavily under the new CAP. They could end up losing up to 50% of their entitlements which is something that must be addressed as a matter of urgency. We need to make farming more attractive but instead, we are bringing in more and more rules and complications which is leaving people scratching their heads. As mentioned earlier, the new pilot REP scheme that was introduced this year is causing huge problems for farmers and farming organisations right across the country. It is leaving agricultural advisers in a predicament because they have to choose up to ten farmers for the pilot scheme. It has been communicated so poorly that farmers are asking why they should bother with it. There is nothing in it for the farmers as far as they can see. Their principal concern is that the scheme will create a lot of work, with no particular gain for the farmer. I want to work with the Minister to make sure that the family farm becomes attractive once again. I will now hand over to my colleague, Deputy Verona Murphy.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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I thank my Independent colleagues for bringing this motion to the floor of the Dáil and giving us the opportunity to debate it. At the outset, in the context of CAP reform, I would like to discuss convergence. In principle, convergence is a great idea but it should not be used in agriculture. Where it should be tested is in the Civil Service and I would urge the Minister to introduce a pilot scheme in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. For those who might not know how convergence works, I will provide a short explanation. Applying convergence in the Civil Service would mean that the upper Civil Service staff such as those at Secretary General level would take a sizeable reduction in their salary, which would then be redistributed down to the lower echelons of staff, to clerical officers and cleaners, for example. The money lost at the higher levels would be redistributed down to the lower levels and that would be done on an annual basis. When that is piloted in the Civil Service and accepted by civil servants, then maybe it will be time to try it in agriculture.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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There is no other sector in this country that would be asked to move money from the top to the bottom and be expected to accept it. Our teachers would not accept it, nor would our nurses or other medical staff but our very own Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine thinks that the farmers of Ireland, using our natural resources to the best of their ability, should accept convergence. They should accept money being taken from the good, productive farmer and given to where it can never be of any benefit. For example, in the Civil Service, the idea would be that those who receive extra would not do an extra ounce of work. The Secretary General would not deserve to be paid for the hours he or she worked and for his or her productivity but money would be given to the cleaner who would not be asked to do anything extra. That is the model that the Government and the EU expects Irish farmers to accept. I cannot believe that it is still on the table for discussion.

If there is anybody in this country who thinks farmers are getting money, hand over fist, let them think again. The Department is stopping them from doing their job in the way they did 50 years ago. Everything farmers put on the land is questioned. The Minister spoke about derogations. When he was in opposition, he lobbied for a derogation for diquat for potato farmers in this country but now he is telling us, as Minister, that the derogation is only for one year. We are discussing derogations tonight as if they will go on forever but derogations are meaningless. They are an entrapment of sorts, to get people to agree to things until the Department decides to change them, in line with the EU. That is why I have no faith in anything that becomes derogated; it either is or it is not.

I can assure the Minister that if the pilot scheme on convergence goes ahead in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, it will be the end of the idea in the agricultural sector. That is where we should start and that is where it will end. The EU and the Department should wake up because the farmers of Ireland are not asleep.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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The proposal from the EU in the form of the new CAP is not sustainable for small farmers and the Minister knows it. We know that proposed changes to CAP include making 10% of money available for landscapes that benefit biodiversity, 35% for environmental and climate related measures as well as direct payments for eco-schemes. The problem with all of this has been well flagged by bodies such as the ICMSA and the INHFA. Indeed, the latter has welcomed the fact that this motion calls for the amendment tabled by the EU Council of Ministers to the CAP strategic plan regulation in Article 4 to be withdrawn in order to maintain and protect the agricultural area status of lands. The EU Council of Ministers' amendment, if included in the final CAP legislative document, will have the effect of separating out this type of farmland for the first time in the history of the CAP. This is dangerous territory but for some members of the Green Party, it is not enough. One Green Party MEP, when speaking about this reform, said that "farming today is part of the destruction, and part of the problem".

That kind of mindset, which we are dealing with here, is dangerous for agriculture. There is an onus on the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Parties to show leadership and stand up for farmers. The Minister knows there are enough problems already in agriculture. I brought up the issue of the independent regulator, as the Minister did when he was in opposition. Now that he is in the Department some magical transformation has happened. It happens to Ministers when they go into the Department of Agriculture. I ask him to reflect on that again.

7:45 pm

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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Although the CAP is almost two years away, crucial decisions are being made now. However, decisions made now will affect farm payments from 2023 until 2027. I am particularly concerned that the EU recently signed a trade agreement with the South American trading bloc, Mercosur, covering a range of sectors, including agriculture. The concerns generated by this deal, particularly in the beef sector, show the EU wants to force Irish farmers to reduce production and engage in red tape green programmes, in which up to 99,000 tonnes of beef is imported from a high greenhouse gas emission country in South America. This is doublespeak again and demonstrates Government hypocrisy on climate change.

It seems that leasing of lands is escalating at an alarming rate and that grants given to younger farmers are putting older farmers out of business. By older farmers, I mean those who are only 35 years of age. Younger farmers are getting a grant of up to €160 but there is nothing for people who are 35 years of age upwards because it is reduced. For instance, if a grant is given to reseed our existing grasslands, primarily to those up to 50 years old, which require much fertiliser and high yields, what advantages would this achieve? This extends seasons, thus reducing meal feeds. Reduced meal feeds cut backs fertilisers and before the Green Party starts complaining, grass is now stitched into the ground thus not releasing any carbon from the ground.

A few weeks ago, the department of agriculture in Canada gave farmers a carbon tax exemption so they could compete in the world market. We penalise farmers here for competing. A Teagasc report I read recently showed that carbon tax has a direct impact on farming.

Our fishing rights were sold to increase the number of fish farms by 30%, even though they emit more methane gas, using climate change as a front to destroy Irish farming.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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The Common Agricultural Policy was introduced to provide economic security for the farming population. To be honest, it looked after the huge farmers and made them bigger but failed miserably to help farmers on low incomes. Year in, year out, different CAPs came and went. Farmers who had substantial ground, much of it rough hill and heather, were left on small payments while the large farmers continued to receive huge amounts in CAP payments to add to what they had already.

To add insult to injury, the Department of Agriculture, a number of years ago, sent out massive fines to farmers who had heather on their grounds until a case, which is still ongoing, was taken. The delay in CAP decision-making means it will be at least one year before the new CAP comes in. That is really unfortunate as we need new schemes in which ordinary farmers can participate.

What has changed? The Minister's Government is going to run a pilot scheme in this country, the results based environment-agri pilot project, REAP, originally called the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, from which farmers will get a measly €4,700. This is after Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael promised a REPS-style scheme to farmers in the last election of more than €10,000. Just in case hill farmers or farmers in rural Ireland might be able to apply for this grant, the Government is making sure that farmers who have heather in their ground will be exempt. Where is the Green Party now? Has there been a nod-and-wink deal done on this scheme, like the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill, to get it across the line? This is nothing short of a scandal.

The very same Deputies, many of them Fianna Fáil, who were in the House yesterday criticising our massive concerns on the climate action Bill are now screaming foul in their constituencies about the REAP scheme. In the name of God, who do they think they are codding? They are in government and they support it in bringing this new anti-small farmer scheme forward, knowing full well it will penalise the small farmer. They think they can hoodwink their constituents by giving out and saying the scheme is not good enough. I know the scheme is not good enough so these Fianna Fáil Deputies and Fine Gael politicians should stop supporting the massive, wealthy farmer and look after the farmers I represent in Cork South-West.

It is not good enough that fishing has been driven to the edge. Is the ordinary farmer in Cork South-West next? The Minister should not just take on board my views on the disastrous REAP scheme. I have been riddled with calls from the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, ICMSA, and farmers to demand change to this scandalous scheme, which I ask the Minister to make immediately.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I offer my sincere thanks to Deputy Pringle for his hard work in bringing forward this motion. It is very timely because this is a three-card trick as far as I am concerned. I am from the Golden Vale and proud of it. I will declare an interest. I happen to own land with lots of heather on it, which was reclaimed by my forefathers. They earned their living from it and fought for freedom in respect of it. Now, the right to farm that land is being taken from people. We do not know what is going on here. One would want to be up night and day watching the Green Party and what it is up to with the statements it makes and the way it has hoodwinked Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. It is a shocking con job. This derogation, mar dhea, is a con job. The derogation might be there and gone again. This is a three-card trick.

Where is the IFA? There is not a word out of it because it is supporting the big farmers who have the big CAP payments. We always wanted a fair and just transition for smaller farmers to support them, but there is not a peep out of the IFA. There is not a peep out of it either about the so-called Green Party carbon emissions Bill, another sleazy deal done with Government by this big organisation and others. I salute the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Organisation, Luke 'Ming' Flanagan in the European Parliament and other individuals who are awake to this three-card trick going on to fool people and get them off the land.

Cromwell came to Clonmel. We kept him out of it for about two weeks and he failed to get in. This Government, which is now in the shape of Green monsters, is creeping around everywhere. The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Senator Pippa Hackett, will not allow people with forests to cut them down. That is the blackguarding of people that is going on.

I salute Deputy Verona Murphy for what she said. This fancy scheme should be tried out with the Secretary General and officials who are always breathing down on the people who want to work and use the land, who want to have the land and air that God gave them, and have produce growing on it, carefully, while nurturing the environment. We want to keep our farms and live on the mountains beside the heather and not be driven to hell or to Connacht, which is the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan's point of view.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the Deputies who have contributed to the debate which has been a very useful one. It has been very open and wide ranging. I welcome the genuine engagement from all parties on what are, after all, complex proposals for future EU legislation. I hope our debate has managed to shed some light and to develop a greater understanding, both with regard to the Council’s proposals and, importantly, with regard to my approach concerning the GAEC 2 standard. As we finalise the negotiations on the future Common Agricultural Policy and prepare Ireland’s CAP strategic plan, I intend to continue to ensure broad consultation with all stakeholders on all aspects of the new framework.

Before I get into the meat of things here, I want to set the scene for the Deputies who brought forward the motion this evening. I thank them for bringing it forward as it is important to get clarity on things. GAEC 2 is important for farmers right across the country but, perhaps, most important for farmers in my own county as well as counties along the western seaboard, in particular.

I come from the west coast, from an area with some of the most beautiful and rich peat soils anywhere in the country. I am the son of a farmer from the hills and lowlands of Donegal. I grew up near the north Donegal coast in Carndonagh and we keep sucklers and sheep on what are some of the more challenging lands in the country. The sucklers and sheep on these lands played no small part in raising me and the rest of my family. I feel extremely lucky and privileged to have been able to farm these lands, in my own right, before coming into politics.

I find it disingenuous that either I, as Minister, or the Department would stand idly by and allow such a crucial cohort of farmers to be excluded from CAP. Both I, as Minister, and the rest of the Government are absolutely and unashamedly committed to the hill and upland farmer. Farmers on these lands are hugely important. They play a key role in managing the upkeep of these hills, they produce top-quality stock that is central to our €14 billion export sector and they help drive a regional and balanced economy. All of these are crucial to me, as Minister, and to the entire Government.

I believe in the long and sustainable practice of hill farming.

Along with the rest of the Government, we stand by our hill farmers as we stand by our lowland farmers. I, as Minister, continue to engage with all farmers and farm organisations through the CAP post-2020 stakeholders consultative committee. We update those on the committee regularly about the ongoing progress of the reform at EU level, but there have also been frequent and focused discussions on different elements of the overall CAP plan. In the case of the latter, the committee has put a lot of thought into the principles that should underline our approach to conditionality, to eco schemes and to agri-environmental schemes under Pillar 2. Dedicated workshops discussed these issues at the end of 2020, and further discussions are planned shortly, but we have to bear in mind that the legislative proposals themselves are still under discussion between the three institutions, so we cannot be definitive yet about the final outcome.

There remain some issues to be worked out about Pillar 1 as well as Pillar 2 but we will continue the process of developing Ireland’s CAP strategic plan and we hope we will be in a position to finalise it later this year. Members can see that we have been having a deep engagement with all relevant organisations and farmers' groups.

I need to be frank and say that I remain concerned that the substance of the Council approach is not fully understood by some. It is not clear to me why the Deputies would continue to call for the removal of text that expressly provides assurance regarding farmers' payments. Let me set out again the benefits of the Council's approach in four clear steps. First, we have the necessary national flexibility to make our own decisions. Second, we will set our own minimum effective standards for GAECs. Third, we will have time to implement the new standard for GAEC 2. Finally, farmers will have certainty regarding eligibility for payment.

I know this is the most beneficial approach for farmers. As mentioned by the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, I consider that this approach will serve farmers much better than the alternative approach by the Parliament, and I would urge all parties who continue to have concerns to re-examine the Parliament's text. I am sure many Members have contacts in the Parliament. To be serious about defending the rights of farmers in GAEC 2 regions, I ask Members to get on to these contacts in the Parliament and ensure they take the approach the Council of Ministers is taking and that I am backing. This approach is the best one for Irish farmers. I assure Members of that.

Let me address the issue of the so-called derogation, which was raised by a number of contributors. The text proposed by the Council in Article 4 confirms that, where lands are participating in certain environmental schemes or meeting the standards of certain GAECs, they are eligible hectares. Deputies have expressed concerns that there will be a requirement to seek permission or exemptions for activities on designated lands, as is normal in the context of the operation of a derogation. That is simply not a part of the Council text and that is why it cannot be described as a derogration. I want to clarify that the Council text does not require anyone with these lands to apply in such a fashion to be considered as having an eligible hectare. There is no provision proposed in the Council text to require a system of seeking approval from any Minister or official. The Council text simply states that areas are automatically viewed as eligible hectares. It is as straightforward as that. There are no applications and no decisions to be taken. They are eligible hectares.

I hope I have explained clearly that it is not the case that the Irish national standard for GAEC 2 will prevent farmers carrying out agricultural activities. Introducing the standard will require us to consider what management practices can best support good farming practices that protect our environment, taking our own local farming conditions into account.

I hope this debate has led to a better understanding of these issues for all of us. I have listened to everything said today and I will continue to focus on this issue in the ongoing debates at trilogue. I remain firmly convinced the Council's approach is the one that will best ensure Ireland will be able to design an appropriate and effective GAEC 2 standard that will allow farmers to continue to farm these areas.

Farming in these regions played a significant part in me being able to stand here before the House today as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I support everything about farming in these areas and I assure the Deputies and the House that I will not take any action that will halt farming in these areas. I hope I have provided reassurance about my absolute commitment in this regard and the appropriateness of the approach by the Government in following that.

Deputy Pringle mentioned he wants the European Commission to make the decision about this. I believe it is essential, with regard to how CAP is formed, that we have the subsidiarity to set our own destiny with regard to this matter.

The commitment of this Government to farmers has been demonstrated over the past year, especially over the last six months since I became Minister. There has been an 11% increase in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine budget to support farm families this year. Yesterday, I launched a pilot agricultural environmental measure, which will run between now and December next year, which can deliver almost €13,000 as a maximum payment for farmers on 10 ha of land, again supporting farm family incomes. As I comprehensively pointed out in this debate and as the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, pointed out before me, there is an absolute commitment to deliver a fair, well-funded CAP which ensures all our farmers, both lowland and hill land, fully participate in the next CAP and are fully supported for the significant work they do on behalf of their local communities and on behalf of this country too.

7:55 pm

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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For the record, the Minister said that there was no such thing as a derogation. I have a document from Europe dated 16 March 2021, regarding the Council proposal GAEC 2, about the derogation to the eligible hectare standard rules. During the exchanges with the European Parliament, including the ITM, meeting on 16 March, the European Parliament expressed concern regarding the Council's proposed GAEC 2 derogation from the standard eligibility. I want that read into the record because this is not just me saying it. Four times in this document, the word "derogation" has been used and I think people need to know that. I hope the document from Europe is wrong but that is what it stated.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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That is not the actual text of the-----

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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It is quoting the European Council. If the Minister wants a copy of it, I will send it.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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The European Parliament.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I will send the Minister a copy if he wants.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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This has been a useful debate. It has been useful to hear all the comments and contributions from everyone. I thank all Members for their support. The vast majority of Members have supported this important motion. It is topical, with where the negotiations are, that we should be debating this in the Dáil, because it is vital we debate and discuss this and that it is as open and transparent as possible so that people can see the decisions that have been made.

For the first time in the history of the CAP, this proposal has the potential to remove land from three baseline categories of land, which are arable land, permanent crops and permanent pasture. If land does not fall into one of these categories, then it loses its eligibility for all payment. I firmly believe this is not acceptable for farmers, who we are asking to deliver exceptionally high environmental standards. These farmers, often working in difficult conditions, deserve our full support, legal certainty and clarity about access to all payments in future. It is absolutely in our power to do this. The amendment proposed by the Council, supported by Ireland, is completely unnecessary.

We must consider the wider implications of this. Without properly-managed landscapes, which require farmers and agricultural activity to achieve, what direction are we headed in? Will it be a depopulated landscape or will we have unmanaged land which is ravaged by wildfires and that will actually increase carbon dioxide release and cause more emissions? Land stripped of any CAP support will become an environmental waste land with all biodiversity threatened.

It is essential to get this right. Farmers want to farm and will respond best when measures are designed around farming activity. Generations of experience have shown that traditional low-intensity farming practices are the best means of managing these lands. We have been here before when forestry was seen as the panacea to all our ills and this has proved to be a disaster under all the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic and environmental.

Equally, the imposed Natura directives, imposed without consultation, have not delivered for the farmer or for biodiversity. Consultation with and involvement of farmers is essential. I have consulted widely, and farmers are asking us and the Minister to remove this amendment as it is counterproductive and will not achieve anything other than putting farmers' livelihoods and rural communities at risk.

In recent days the details of the new results-based environment agri pilot programme, REAP, scheme have been unveiled with much fanfare by the Government. This scheme has been promoted as being a pilot scheme for future environmental schemes. Is the blatant omission of commonage land and land containing heather an indication of the direction of policy and that these areas are to be denied access to CAP payments and simply used as a carbon sequestration tool to offset emissions from other unsustainable practices?

The Minister has highlighted the proposed wording of this GAEC 2 as the key issue. It really is not the key issue, and I think the Minister knows this as well. The wording is open to interpretation, but the critical issue is the wording of the Council amendment. That is the key to this matter.

The focus on the three positions, including those of the Council and the European Parliament, is disingenuous as well. We are talking about the conditionality of the Council position and that is what the focus has been about. The Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, mentioned that it was the position of the European Parliament which was untenable. Why then did all the Fine Gael members support it? Maybe the Minister of State could answer that question.

The fact is that it is the Minister who will set the standard for an eligible hectare. He will be setting the standard for GAEC 2. It is completely within the Minister's power to designate when a farmer meets these standards and that when a farmer meets this GAEC 2 standard that his or her land is eligible as a right. Alternatively, will the Minister set the GAEC 2 slightly above the eligible hectare to exclude and discriminate some lands? That is the problem. That is also the problem in respect of what this amendment proposed by the Council does. It allows the standard to be set slightly above to allow land be excluded from an eligible hectare.

What we need is the Minister to set the standard definitely and to have that land there but to have it eligible as a right. That is all farmers are asking for and that is all they are interested in. I do not think that is a whole pile to ask. The land should be eligible, and eligible as a right. Then we can deal with environmental standards and with environmental protection from that point on.

Question put and agreed to.