Thursday, 31 March 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Despite the prominent role of agriculture in Ireland, it is a fragile system exposed to disruption in international supply chains. We are net importers of many vegetables and we are highly reliant on industrial fertilisers. Will the Minister provide an update on his meetings with farm organisations to improve our national food security this year? What policy changes does he propose to ensure our food sovereignty in the longer term?
I thank the Deputy for the question. Last year, Ireland ranked first for food security on The Economistglobal food security index, which ranks countries across indicators of affordability, availability, quality, safety, natural resources and resilience. The Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, is the key mechanism for ensuring food security throughout Europe. Significant implications of the Ukrainian crisis are being seen across all sectors of the economy, including agrifood. The immediate humanitarian crisis is a key focus. Our thoughts are with the people of Ukraine and it has to take priority. We also need to take the necessary steps to ensure food security is maintained.
Following recent engagement at EU level, on 23 March the European Commission announced a range of actions to enhance global food security and to support farmers and consumers in the EU in light of rising food prices and input costs. The communication sets out actions in three areas. First, it presents immediate actions to safeguard food security in Ukraine and around the world. Second, it addresses the challenge of stability in the EU's food system, with a range of measures to support our farmers and maintain affordability. Finally, it confirms the EU agenda to make our food system sustainable and resilient in the years to come. It includes an allocation of €15.8 million in exceptional aid for Ireland, which can be topped up by up to 200% by national funding. I am examining ways to mobilise this support, taking account of the detailed requirements and conditionality attached to that exceptional aid provision.
I set up a rapid response team in my Department to monitor and address this challenge. I have also put in place the national fodder and food security committee, bringing together stakeholders from across the sector to address the challenges that will undoubtedly arise this year. It is important we continue to keep food production at a high level. We have to work together to ensure we overcome those challenges, which are not usually there, but are certainly an issue this year. I will work to support farmers in that process over the coming year.
I acknowledge the Minister's efforts to address the issue. What policy changes are we looking at to address food sovereignty? Farming organisations have outlined that very few farmers have the capacity to grow the grain we need. What consideration is being given to supporting the existing tillage sector to have the knowledge and capability to encourage planting of more grain? With targeted funding, farmers could plant more or rent suitable land. Has flexibility for the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, been examined? The other pressing issue is access to fertiliser. When we last spoke on this, there was a massive price increase, which is obviously still a major concern, but access is more pressing now. Farming organisations are warning of a potential fodder crisis, especially for small farms that cannot afford to bulk purchase fertiliser. We need to move away from our high dependency on fertiliser, which is a process. What is being done to address the issue now?
I have strongly supported the tillage sector throughout my tenure as Minister. The new CAP outlines the doubling of protein aid and the inclusion of a strong co-operation measure, which can deliver up to €10,000 to a 100 acre tillage farm annually. There is an important role for tillage farmers to play. They have been proactive in providing leadership. Some 60% of our grain is imported, so I have introduced this scheme, delivering €400 for each additional hectare of grain grown this year. There has been a strong response to that, particularly from tillage farmers, who are seeking to grow more than they did last year. Despite the increased costs, the economics for growing grain are strong compared with continuing to plant what was planted last year.
However, it is challenging to grow in that area. That is why I have included it within this particular scheme as well.
The Deputy is right about fodder. The most important priorities this year will be to grow grass and to plan for next winter and next spring. As farmers are now planning to do their breeding, they should also be planning to do their feeding. We have to look at what the supply challenges might be at the end of next year. We must take steps now to prepare for that.
The cattle are already calving now. The Minister is aware of the pressing need for farmers to be supported, but this situation raises larger points about our food sovereignty. The pandemic should have been a wake-up call to pivot towards a more secure position. In 2020, our vulnerabilities to food supply chains were clearly exposed. Now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted this weakness again. I am very concerned that no real lessons were learned, either by the Department or by the Government, on this issue. We need to move towards a more secure and sustainable food system that is built on a diversified range of crops, with shorter supply chains. This system would be better for producers, especially smaller farmers, for consumers and for the environment. Is the Minister looking at policy changes that will help to protect us from the next crisis? We know that there will be more of them, for example with regard to climate change.
We are aware of the need to have a sustainable and secure food system. Food Vision 2030 sets out a food systems approach to how we deliver that. All the stakeholders have come together to drive that on. It is important that we are sustainable in what we do. That is why we are seeking to reduce chemical nitrogen, to increase clover swards and to reduce emissions across the board, while keeping food security central to what we do and keeping food production up. That is important too. We should not take our eye off the ball on that either.
As the Deputy knows, I have strongly supported the tillage sector. Thankfully, we have seen the level stabilise in recent years. I want to see that grow over the next period of time. It is important that we grow more grain domestically. It is important that we supply and produce the food, not just for what we consume ourselves, but also for what we supply internationally. We must do that sustainably. While the current food security challenge is a result of the war on European soil, the food security challenges in a generation’s time will be around climate change. Therefore, across the board, we have to work together to prepare for that. We will do so by reducing emissions. The food security challenge of the future will arise if we do not reduce emissions.