Thursday, 21 October 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
11. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if a report (details supplied) will examine the way Ireland can position itself to take advantage of the growing international trend to plant-based diets; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51527/21]
My question is about the KPMG report recently commissioned by the Department, which is to examine the trend towards plant-based diets or increasing the amount of plants in our diets. Will the parameters of that report allow us to examine ways in which Ireland can position itself to take better advantage of that growing market internationally?
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Senator Pippa Hackett):
As Minister of State with responsibility for this sector I recently commissioned KPMG to compile a report on growth opportunities in the horticulture sector, including those opportunities deriving from the global trend towards plant-based diets. The report will form the basis of a roadmap for the sector, which will outline the support and approach required to take advantage of these opportunities, and there are many. The report’s outputs will sit within our new ten-year strategy for the agrifood sector, Food Vision 2030.
Additionally, the prepared consumer food centre located in the Teagasc food research centre in Ashtown is funded by my Department to support research, development and innovation in the prepared consumer food sector. Horticulture certainly feeds into this in a significant way. The centre provides companies with the opportunity to pilot equipment, to scale up their own production and to enable adoption of novel technologies to meet evolving consumer demands and expectations. The services include technical support and advice, new product development, including with regard to plant-based products, laboratory and analytical testing, pilot scale processing and the packing of foods and food ingredients.
My Department also provides supports to help expansion across the horticulture industry in Ireland through the scheme of investment aid for the development of the commercial horticulture sector and the EU producer organisation scheme. My Department has committed an allocation of €9 million in this year’s budget for the scheme of investment aid for the development of the commercial horticulture sector, recognising the sector's importance, as well as confidence in the sector to grow in the years ahead.
One of the things that have driven me mad for years, particularly at this time of the year, is to walk past apple trees laden down with apples only to find New Zealand apples on the shelves of our supermarkets. Mick Kelly had a similar journey with regard to garlic when he set up GIY Ireland Limited. He was looking at Chinese garlic on the shelves when it is so easy to grow it in this climate. By the same token, I visited Grantstown Tomatoes, tomato growers and horticulturists in Waterford, last week. The owner has an outstanding operation. The produce is of the highest quality and he uses biological pest control. All those things are absolutely first rate, but the market makes it incredibly difficult for him to make a margin. It is extremely tight and he finds that he can only aim at the highest end because we are not always prepared to pay for the quality. How can we help horticulture growers from now on to make it a more profitable business for the people involved?
The horticulture sector has been largely ignored over the decades in terms of support. That has increased more recently and it is something we have to build on. There is a role for horticulture, particularly now with the need to shorten supply chains. There is a huge import substitution piece that we are not embracing yet, and there is certainly an intent to do that. In budget 2022, €500,000 has been allocated for examining local food systems and how to connect local growers with local consumers. There are supports available but it is not always easy to navigate access to local foods for either a producer or a consumer. Work is going to occur in that area.
It is a massive opportunity for local and rural jobs, in particular. The horticultural sector is worth approximately €467 million per annum to the economy, and approximately 6,600 people are directly employed in it. There are many different sectors within it, but in field vegetables we have gone from 300 operators in 1999 to 140 operators now. The number has more than halved in that time. While the amount of produce arriving on the shelves is more or less the same, we have fewer producers because profit margins are becoming incredibly tight. Even with regard to soft fruit operations, we know that staffing issues are increasingly difficult. It is a sector that is primed and ready for growth and we have an outstanding quality of produce but the sector needs support to help it become viable.
Garlic can be particularly difficult to grow, but I take the point about the necessity to replace imported horticulture with Irish horticulture. However, it will be difficult to do that when carrots are for sale at 49 cent per bag. There has to be some correlation between the price at which products are sold and the cost of production. I grew up in Clare and there was extensive market gardening in Kinvara, presumably supplying Galway mainly, and in Ogonnelloe, supplying Limerick. That is all gone because who can compete? People think they are doing the world a favour when they are buying organic carrots from Morocco that have been flown in here. Unless there is some type of link between the cost of production and the price at which produce is sold, there will be a difficulty.
A further difficulty is that while it provides an opportunity for more jobs, as Deputy Ó Cathasaigh said, existing producers cannot get labour. I realise it is a matter for the Department of Justice but we really need to look at labour because it is a problem in the horticulture sector and in the general agriculture sector, yet we are deporting people from Ireland. Many of them near my constituency are from Brazil. They came here to work and have family links. They are being deported because there is no work, yet nobody can get workers.
The labour issue is going to continue to be a problem, and I ask myself where it will end. We are spiralling towards a race to the bottom and we have to get off that track. That is in supporting local food producers.
Many wonderful local food producers operate off a handful of acres, maybe employing five or six people supplying a small town with quite a significant number of horticultural projects and making a good living out of it. Therefore, it can be done. It is small scale. I suppose we very much focused on the retail side, the larger commercial growers and the supports tended to go that way, which is fine, but we end up with that conundrum. However, we also need to support people to grow for retail. That may drive us down the road whereby we are always looking for cheaper labour, always struggling with the price at the till. We need to look to other routes to market. Connecting with local growers is the way to go.