Thursday, 12 May 2022
Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Security: Statements
I am delighted to be joined by my colleagues, the Ministers of State, Senator Hackett and Deputy Heydon, over the course of this debate. I look forward to what I expect will be a constructive and engaging debate this afternoon.
We are living, working and farming through a hugely historic and turbulent period for our great agricultural sector. Even before the illegal invasion of Ukraine and the impact that has had on our sector, our farmers, fishers and food producers have been proactively embracing a new reality of food production. This is a reality in which we are mandated to feed a growing global population with safe, sustainable and healthy food with an even greater emphasis of doing so in harmony with nature. At primary producer level, this is a challenge that farmers have grasped with both hands and on which they are leading out. In fact, I firmly believe that our food sector has been to the forefront of playing a leadership role in climate-proofing our economy. This underlines that our sector is one that has always been innovating, pioneering and facing down any and all challenges as they arise.
I will begin by reflecting on the impact of the war in Ukraine. On behalf of the Government, once again, I utterly condemn the illegal invasion by Russia of Ukraine. We are also mindful of the terrible toll being inflicted on Ukrainian citizens. At a time when we have our stock to grass, lambs and calves are with their mothers in the fields and the buzz of silage season is soon to be upon us, we see our farming counterparts in Ukraine dealing with the realities of war. What were cornfields are now, in many instances, battlefields. While we must be cognisant of the awful reality facing the people of Ukraine, our focus is also on attempting to protect our farm families in Ireland from the worst effects of the impacts of the war. Supply chains have been disrupted and inputs have been extremely volatile.
As a Government and as a people, we remain resolute in our solidarity and support for Ukraine. We reiterate the call on Russia to cease all hostilities immediately and withdraw from Ukraine unconditionally. I welcome the strong solidarity shown by Ireland and our people and by the European Union with Ukraine in the face of its illegal invasion. We will work with EU partners to consider and implement appropriate responses. This includes ensuring that food security is maintained for EU citizens and the Ukrainian people and in the wider global context.
While Ireland has recently come out first in the world on the Economist Impact global food security index, and the European Union is largely self-sufficient for food with a massive agrifood trade surplus, it is important that we do not become complacent about food security. We also need to keep in mind those who are living in countries that are many times less fortunate than ours. Ireland is providing some €20 million in humanitarian assistance to the UN and the Red Cross to deliver life-saving humanitarian assistance in Ukraine and neighbouring countries. My Department also provides flexible funding of €25 million per year to the UN World Food Programme, supporting that organisation to provide a flexible, timely response to humanitarian crises.
Millions of people have now fled Ukraine to seek refuge in the EU. We have operated an open-door policy to support any Ukrainians fleeing to here and this will continue to be the case. In my Department, and through the State agencies that report to me, we have played a leadership role. More than 50 Ukrainians have been welcomed by Teagasc at Ballyhaise College in County Cavan and a further 35 have been welcomed in Clonakilty Agricultural College in County Cork. I thank both colleges for their efforts.
Looking more specifically at both my own and this Government's response to this crisis, as I said earlier, our clear focus is on insulating our farm families as much as possible from the trade shock suffered as a result of the war and on supporting them in being able to continue to produce the food that is so important domestically and internationally at this time. Since the invasion of Ukraine, I have taken a proactive approach to dealing with the massive challenges facing our agrifood and fish sectors. Obviously, farming is not alone in dealing with these challenges but our great sector is particularly exposed as a result of the invasion, and we are working hard to support farm families through this situation.
I have operated a twin-track approach to the crisis with advisory measures and targeted financial supports for farm families. In early March, shortly after the invasion occurred, I met the main farm organisations and Teagasc to discuss the impact on Irish agriculture and supply chains. I also met members of the Irish Grain and Feed Association and representatives of the fertiliser industry. I established the National Fodder and Food Security Committee and tasked it with the preparation of a response to the emerging crisis in feed, fodder, fertiliser and other inputs and with developing contingency plans and advice to assist farmers in managing their farm enterprises.
I will continue to engage closely with the sector as we work together on this significant challenge.
Within my Department, I have also established a rapid response team, chaired by the Secretary General, to monitor the impacts on agri-food supply chains actively and to contribute to the whole-of-government response to the crisis. Over the past two months, I have announced targeted measures worth in the region of €90 million to support the agriculture sector directly, including a €20 million package in two separate parts for the pig sector. These two separate supports will see €90,000 paid to farmers. There will also be €12 million for the growing of new tillage crops as well as multispecies swards and red clover, both of which will help reduce our dependency on chemical fertiliser. Furthermore, there will be €3 million for the horticulture sector, a very important domestic market we need to protect. I was glad to work with the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, in delivering this. These measures will help Irish farmers at a time of escalating costs and build resilience against the expected impact of the events in Ukraine. I thank my Cabinet colleagues, and in particular the Taoiseach and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, for helping to deliver these important supports. They are real and tangible examples of the Government's commitment to the agri and farming sectors.
As Deputies will be aware, Ireland imports significant volumes of animal feedstuffs, including feed from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Russia and Ukraine are significant sources of global cereal exports, so the price and the availability of cereals globally have been significantly impacted. As of today, there appear to be sufficient supplies of animal feed and Irish importers are actively competing in the global market to ensure the supply will continue uninterrupted. Fodder availability on farms for next winter depends on several factors, particularly the level of grass growth and silage production this year, but there appears to be a decent bank of silage on farms carried over from the winter.
Nevertheless, it is crucial we do not stand still and expect this to be the case over the coming winter and into the spring. To that end, I am developing a measure to assist cattle and sheep farmers in producing fodder for next winter and I will shortly release further details on a scheme that will pay farmers up to €1,000 to save hay and silage. It will be paid at a rate of €100 on the first 10 ha, up to €1,000 per farm. My key message to farmers concerns the absolute importance of growing grass this year, saving fodder and hay and making use of the growing season that is ahead of us to do that, and I have committed strongly to them that they will be supported in the form of up to €1,000. I am conscious the war in Ukraine has seen issues with both the affordability and the availability of fertiliser and that this could result in challenges for next winter, which is why I have moved to introduce the scheme. While most cattle and sheep are now out on grass, I am conscious the winter season is just finishing for some. We must think prudently when it comes to silage and grain to ensure we will have more than enough to cover the level of stock on an individual farm. In essence, what farmers plan to breed they must also plan to feed.
Even before the war in Ukraine, I was conscious of the rising price of fertiliser and of the overall need to reduce our dependency on chemical fertiliser. Accordingly, last October, I tasked Teagasc with developing a roadmap to aid our transition away from using artificial fertilisers. I subsequently launched the Teagasc soils, nutrients and fertiliser campaign, a credible plan farmers are already using that will be good both for the environment and for farmers' pockets and bottom lines. As we know, Russia accounts for 22% of our fertiliser, so we have to plan in the short and long terms in light of that. Fertiliser merchants have indicated they are confident they will be able to meet the demand for fertiliser, although there are a number of challenges in sourcing product at the moment. There may be issues with the availability of certain products at times and importers are active in securing alternative supply lines where necessary. All farmers are encouraged to review their requirements in order that they can secure fertiliser supply if that is not already in place, and it is important all farms put in place a nutrient management plan to set their farms to grow the grass required for the winter and spring ahead. Advisers will assist farmers with this plan. A Teagasc survey found most tillage and dairy farmers have secured their fertiliser requirements for the moment, while dry stock farmers, many of whom plan on spreading less fertiliser on grazing ground, are finding it more difficult to secure their fertiliser requirements. Almost half of all dry stock farmers who were surveyed two to three weeks ago had yet to spread a chemical fertiliser, a concern that has led me to bring forward the €1,000 scheme to incentivise farmers to save hay and silage.
I am also aware of the issues relating to horticulture and have engaged, along with the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, with the sector. Energy is a significant input for many horticultural enterprises, given crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers and mushrooms are grown indoors in glasshouses and protected greenhouse structures. I am glad to have been able to bring forward a €3 million support package for the sector, working closely with the Minister of State, which will assist high-wire and mushroom growers as well as field-vegetable and apple farmers. Further details on this support package will be made known shortly.
Overall, our sector is one that relies on fuel of various types, from road, agricultural and marine diesel to natural gas. The year 2020 saw fuel prices at their lowest in a decade, while 2021 and this year have seen fuel prices increase to their highest in a decade. This is adding a significant additional cost to farmers, processors, road hauliers and the fishing industry. For many farmers, energy costs have increased by between 80% and 100% in the past year. While we cannot cover all aspects of the input price increases, we have to take a proactive and rapid step to insulate farm families as best as possible, and that is certainly the approach we have been taking. I again mention the pig sector and the challenging circumstances it continues to face, which both the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, and I are monitoring closely. Bringing forward that package to the tune of a maximum of €90,000 per farm has been crucial in supporting the sector at this time, and I recognise the work of that Minister of State in sharing the round table on the sector over recent months and working with stakeholders. We will continue to work to support the sector and to finalise the scheme, which we will launch shortly.
The seafood sector has been impacted especially hard by the crisis. The price of marine fuel remains a matter of concern for our fishing fleet and the broader seafood sector. This is the most recent crisis to hit our seafood sector in recent years and those crises are having a cumulative impact. The Government is acutely aware of the impact rising prices are having on businesses throughout the country, but while the European Commission has provided additional flexibility regarding the use of funds under the EU fisheries fund in the context of the fuel crisis, additional funds have not been made available by the EU. The impacts of Brexit and the trade and co-operation agreement also continue to be a significant concern for our seafood sector and coastal communities. That is why in recent days, I launched the tie-up scheme, providing for two tie-up opportunities of three months' duration each. This will mean boats will have an opportunity to tie up for one month in three and will be paid over the course of that month on an equivalent basis to what their income would have been over that time. As a result, the remaining two thirds of boats that are fishing in a given month will have a 50% higher quota to fish. Moreover, it will help improve the margins for the boats that fish in those months, while the other one third of boats will be able to avail of the tie-up scheme at the same time. The scheme will run in two three-month tranches and will be a strong support for fishermen at what is a challenging time for them.
Earlier today, I was glad to be able to announce a €45 million investment in our seafood processing sector. This, too, is a crucial part of our sector, responsible for more than 4,000 jobs nationally. While I continue to fight at every opportunity at European level to improve our situation with regard to the national quota, it is crucial we maximise the value of the fish we are catching and the quota we have, and that the value of every fish that is landed will be maximised both for fishers and coastal communities and for employment. The €45 million sum is an unprecedented investment in our processing sector that is targeted at adding value to the fish we catch in order that we will maximise the value of the fish that is landed and extract the maximum value and income. Of course, alongside that, as has been the case throughout my tenure as Minister, I will fight tooth and nail at European level, not least in the context of the Common Fisheries Policy review, to seek every way to improve our opportunities regarding our overall national quota.
Since the publication of the report of the seafood task force, Navigating Change, my Department has been working across the board to examine urgently its recommendations. We have also brought forward a number of schemes over recent months. The seafood sector is undoubtedly facing one of the most significant challenges in decades, coming immediately after the challenges posed by the pandemic and Brexit. I will continue to work very closely with the sector to support it.
As I said at the beginning, our great agriculture sector is facing some of its most significant challenges, as is our marine sector. Many of these are challenges we have not seen before. In times like these, it is crucial that we take a proactive approach and that we take steps to limit any potential disruption to our feed and supply chains. I know that farmers, fishers and the agrifood sector will rise to these challenges and meet them head on. By working collectively and collaboratively, we can ensure that the sector is insulated against the worst of what may come from supply chain disruption but the coming weeks and months will undoubtedly be challenging. I want the House to know that I stand in full support of our farmers and fishers, their families and their businesses throughout this period of historic upheaval. The road ahead will be challenging but we will get through it because it is in our DNA to persevere and flourish in times of adversity. There are businesses and consumers across the globe who rely on our amazing produce as a source of safe, sustainable and healthy food. These are our calling cards and what makes our agrifood and fisheries sector the world-class industries they are today.
I am sharing time with Deputy Mac Lochlainn. I will take eight and a half minutes. I thank the Minister for his opening statement and for being here alongside the Minister of State. I welcome the fact that we are having this debate. To give credit where it is due, I commend Deputy Mattie McGrath for persistently calling for this debate, which is very timely. I apologise that I will have to leave before the debate is over.
The Minister has a tough job at a very difficult time in Irish agriculture. In fairness, he gets some things right as issues arise, although he also gets some things wrong. However, what is consistently lacking in all of his deliberations, including in the speech he has just given, is a vision for Irish farming, Irish food and Irish agriculture. That is concerning. We need to have an ambitious vision. We need to recognise the challenges the sector is facing and put in place measures to address those challenges and to provide for that unique and very important aspect of Irish farming, the family farm model. We know that it is a model worth preserving. It is good for rural communities. In fact, many towns and villages would be nothing were it not for the network of family farms. They are the nearest thing those towns and villages have to an industry. They are also good for the economy. The family farm network was our saviour during the financial crash because family farmers do not operate at the whim of shareholders, stock markets or international investors. They do not up and leave whenever supply chains get disrupted. They are here for the long haul. I also argue that our family farm network is good for food security and for the quality of our produce. There are approximately 135,000 farms in this State. We have to work together to protect them and to ensure they employ best practices and will be here into the future.
The truth is that certain hallmarks have become embedded in agricultural policy not just domestically but at EU level that put this model under threat. Farmers have been encouraged, incentivised and, in some cases, forced to intensify and specialise. We see the challenges that presents. As farmers intensify and specialise, they also become more vulnerable. Certain sectors may sometimes have good years but they are often incredibly vulnerable to international shocks, as we have seen in the current situation where input costs are out of control and prices are dictated by processors and retailers. Farmers are increasingly being asked to do more with less support.
The Minister did not say much about the next Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, which will be a crucial aspect of how we move forward. We welcome some parts of his strategic plan. Some of the gross inequalities that have formed part of the fabric of successive Common Agricultural Policies have been addressed. We have seen some movement on upper payment limits, front-loading and convergence but it has been far too slow and these changes are coming at a time when the CAP budget is reducing, which is a fact the Minister has consistently refused to accept.
We have had a number of discussions on the strategic plan, although they were very limited. The Minister refused our request to bring the plan before the Houses of the Oireachtas for debate. The European Commission saw the CAP strategic plan before any farmer or any Opposition Member or member of the Minister's own party in this House did. That is not the way to do business. When we are talking about a CAP strategic plan that could have implications for Irish farming for generations, there should be a collective effort on the part of the Irish Parliament so that we have all bought into it. The European Commission sent the Minister back what can only be described as a scathing communication. We still do not know whether the Minister is going to come back to this House to engage with us and to address some of the issues.
The truth is that Irish farmers will not survive unless they get fair prices for their produce. The Minister referenced significant and unsustainable increases in input costs and some of the supports that have been made available, supports I would describe as minimal and, all too often, too little too late. He referenced the crisis reserve but has yet to give a commitment that his Government will co-finance that crisis reserve to the maximum permitted, 200%. I hope he will take the opportunity to do so today. We still do not know whether Irish farmers will see a benefit from the Brexit adjustment reserve fund or whether important sectors, such as the pig sector and others, will be able to survive into the future.
The truth is that, if we want the model of Irish farming to be one of premiumisation and for it to be sustainable and in line with our climate obligations and all of the stated objectives of Members of this House, a premium price must be paid for that premium product. It is absolutely ludicrous that the best model of beef production in the world, that of the Irish suckler beef herd, continues to operate at a loss. One of the things that needs to happen in that regard is that an enforcement authority needs to be introduced that can monitor the processors and retailers that have strangled the sector for far too long and hold them to account. I have often said here and elsewhere that there is money to be made in Irish beef. That is the big secret of Irish agriculture. The problem is that the people who are making that money are not the people who are doing the work, our primary producers. The Minister has promised an office for transparency and fairness rather than the meat regulator we would like to see. I again appeal to him to work with us to ensure that authority becomes a corporate enforcement authority that has full access to the accounts of processors and retailers in respect of the food they sell so that our farmers can finally have a level playing field.
The Minister's targets in respect of organics are one of the areas where the needs of the environment and those of Irish farming can coincide but those targets are absolutely pathetic, even compared to those of other EU states. Rather than leading the charge in developing our organic sector, we are following at the rear in every sense of the word. We know that, quite naturally, farmers will only move to organics if they see it as a secure move to make. The way to make it a secure move is to guarantee that they will get a premium price for their new premium product. That means the Government must be committed to ensuring that Irish organic products are marketed in a coherent and long-standing way. Through the procurement policies of every Government Department, we have to ensure that every cent of taxpayers' money that is spent on the procurement of food prioritises locally-produced home-grown organic food.
In respect of climate action, there are dozens of ways in which our farmers want to play their part and rather than supports, this Government is putting in place barriers in regard to low emissions slurry spreading, solar energy, anaerobic digestion and organics, as I have mentioned. In every one of those areas, the Government is always far too slow to act but always far too quick to implement the provisions that penalise farmers in much the same way as workers and families. It is time for a sea change. It is time to have a vision for a family farm network that will last not just a year, not just the lifetime of a Government, but for successive generations.
I want to start my comments by revisiting the issue of Killybegs and the scandal of how it has been handled. The Minister was at a public meeting there in recent weeks and he saw at first hand the scale of the anger and frustration. That is not just today or yesterday as it has been building up for many years. There has to be a solution to this. What is being asked of our industry, fishermen and fish producers in Killybegs is not asked of anybody else anywhere in Europe. I spoke that night and the Minister will have heard my comments, but I want to put them on the Dáil record so anybody with an interest can understand.
As we speak, in Killybegs, in a fish factory that I have seen with my own eyes, when fish are landed to be weighed, in that one factory alone there are ten CCTV cameras trained on the weighing system that belong to and are fully controlled by the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, the regulator. SFPA staff can keep an eye while not even leaving their office in Killybegs and they can watch the weighing happening in real time. If they want to be there physically, they can also do that. If they want to go around to the back end of the factory and check the trolleys, and check there is 20 kg in every box and 60 boxes, which is 1.2 tonnes, it is not hard to do. They have cameras trained 24 hours a day and it can be recorded for 31 days.
I ask where in Ireland today is there any industry in the private sector that would accept the regulator having eyes on it 24 hours a day. That is what they are willing to accept in Killybegs to address the concerns that may be there. That is what is in place right now. How on earth can our regulator not tell Europe to look at the scale of the oversight we have, which is unimaginable and would not be tolerated anywhere else in Europe? However, that is the scale we have and that is what we have achieved, and that is still not good enough for the SFPA or, indeed, the Government and the Minister to put to the European Commission. The Minister knows in his heart that it is outrageous, even if there was any justification for the concerns, but we have got to the point where even that is not acceptable.
We are denied quota so we are denying fish to our own fishermen. These factories would love to be producing fish landed by Irish vessels but they have to keep people at work, so vessels from other countries - from Norway and Denmark – have been landing in recent weeks. They land at the pier and no matter what weighing system they use, there is only a 2% allowance for the water. The Minister can imagine blue whiting that has to be maintained at 30%, 40% or 50% volume of refrigerated water to keep it fresh in order to comply with European food safety regulations. Yet, there is only a 2% allowance for the water even though it is about 30% or 40% water to keep it fresh and safe. The Minister can clearly see that that is madness, whereas it can just be taken up to the factory, where there are ten CCTV cameras trained on it. This is bureaucratic madness and the Minister knows it is wrong, but it is not getting sorted out.
To make things worse, rather than turn their fish for human consumption into fish meal, two of the vessels landed in Derry and 40 trailers transported the fish to Killybegs just to make a point. We must remember that the harbour in Derry is designated as a European Union harbour and it is included in the Irish protocol that we are all talking about right now. Our own Irish State agency is now saying to these factories in Killybegs, which were just making a point that this is bureaucratic madness, that their weighing permits are being removed and it is taking their livelihood away from them in real terms because they landed in a harbour “outside of Ireland”. They are suggesting that Derry is outside of Ireland. They are doing the British Conservative party's job for it. They are basically enforcing a hard border and ignoring the protocol that we all fought for. The Minister knows that is the political reality, whatever way they want to phrase it.
I state again that there are seven designated harbours in the North of Ireland. My understanding is that 150 landings of fish came through the North to Irish fish producers in the last four months, and some 35% of the seafood that comes into the Twenty-six Counties - the Republic of Ireland - comes through the North. This is the practice. I believe that what is happening is vindictive. I believe the factories that made a stand, stood up for themselves and said they cannot take this anymore, that this is totally unreasonable and would not be seen anywhere in Europe, are being punished for making that stand.
The Minister cannot let this continue. I appeal to the Minister and the Taoiseach, who stands over the shared island plan and the shared island unit that is funded and envisioned by him. How on earth can we talk about a shared island when we say that to land fish in Derry is outside of Ireland? We know what is happening here. These factories took a stand. The community in Killybegs took a stand. They said they are not going to be criminalised anymore, they are not going to let themselves be misrepresented and they are not going to destroy their industry. Boats will just turn away if this is the way they are going to be treated and if there is a chance that their catch could be devalued in that way.
I am taking all of my speaking time today on this issue. There are so many things I could say about fisheries but I am asking the Minister and the Taoiseach to please intervene with the SFPA to return to common sense and to make sure that the people of the south-west Donegal and Killybegs have a future in the fishing industry. I ask them to please do that as urgently as they can.
In the short time that I have, there are many points that I wish to cover. I want to start with the BRIDE Project, which will be familiar to many people who are concerned with biodiversity and partnership with the agriculture and farming sector. This is a project situated in north County Cork. I had the good fortune to visit the project on Monday last with the Labour Party leader, Deputy Ivana Bacik. I want to express my gratitude to Donal Sheehan, Sinéad Hickey and all of the team there for facilitating us in what was a great learning environment and a wonderful tutorial.
The model is a very simple one. It is a results-based demonstration project that is designed to increase the quantity and quality of habitats on intensely managed farmland. That is the key phrase – “intensely managed farmland”. The project is located in the River Bride valley of north County Cork and it will explore an innovative implementation of a results-based approach for wildlife habitats or intensively managed farmland. It aims to improve biodiversity and environmental awareness on intensive Irish farmland, reward environmental performance and highlight this nationally. It is also there to facilitate market rewards for sustainability.
I raise this because it is part of a European innovation project which is funded by the Department. It has key partners, which include the local authority, Glanbia, Teagasc, Bord Bia, the National Biodiversity Data Centre, Kepak and Birdwatch Ireland. I hope it will continue to be funded as its funding line runs out at the end of this year, as I understand it, and I hope the Minister will have the good sense to continue to support it. I believe the 42 farm holdings that are involved in this, which are of varying sizes and have different offerings in terms of what they produce, form a key model. When the new CAP comes in, particularly in regard to designing Pillar II instruments under the agri-environment climate measures scheme, I believe this is a key project that would plug into that Pillar II objective.
If we can get farmers to devote 10% of their landholdings for nature without losing income and if schemes can be devised, such as the BRIDE Project, which encourage and nudge farmers through a process of inspections to implement more environmental goods, such as riparian goods, grassland margins, hedgerows, increasing biodiversity and so forth, it will have a massive impact. Farmers are not encouraged in the current CAP to give more to those margins on their landholdings because there is a penalty for that. That is self-evident, as we all know. If the Minister can create a scheme using the BRIDE Project as a model, by which he would design an agri-environmental climate measure so that the farmer or landholder does not lose income but, in fact, gains income through a process as devised through this innovation partnership, and that is scaled up, scaled out and translated throughout the country, the Minister would find that many farmers would buy into it.
We are increasingly losing biodiversity. That is self-evident and we all acknowledge it. The way to get farmers back into managing the countryside is to ensure there is a financial incentive. The beautiful thing about the BRIDE Project is that it provides financial incentives. Where somebody implements sustainable or biodiversity measures, there is a marking scheme. The marking scheme determines the amount of money the person will gain, so income is being generated for the farmer. I will leave it at that. I hope the project will continue to be funded and I would love the BRIDE Project to be plugged into the next CAP under the Pillar 2 agri-environment climate measure schemes that will be devised. That would be a good thing for this country and the Minister would find many farmers would participate in it.
On the issue of forestry, there have been many repeated promises in respect of forestry growth in this country. We know the environmental benefits with regard to sequestration. However, despite the repeated promises to forest owners, they are still only getting half the licences required to meet the Department's targets. It is just not enough for the sector. Are we getting any closer to having licences issued within an acceptable timeframe of 120 days? The answer currently is "No". Second, are we going to meet our targets for 2022? We planted 2,000 ha in 2021, but it appears from looking at the metrics that we will end up with fewer than 2,000 ha for 2022. I wish there was a greater sense of urgency about the potential of the forestry sector to deliver. We still do not have what I would call a fit-for-purpose ash dieback scheme. We talk about the great game of hurling but, and I have raised this in the House previously, there has been no progress that I can see on the ash dieback scheme. Forestry is one of the sectors that can deliver much for us as an island. There has to be a greater degree of political imperative put behind the forestry sector to make sure we achieve the growth targets that are necessary to sustain the sector.
First, I echo what Deputy Sherlock said, notwithstanding issues that Cork and Kilkenny have had on the pitch in recent weeks. It is very sad for a rural dweller to watch wild ash trees all over my part of the country dying in hedgerows, not to mention the plantations the Deputy referred to and the failure to introduce an adequate scheme.
This is a timely discussion on a subject that is rarely discussed in any detail in this House or, indeed, in most national platforms outside it. That is particularly unusual in the context of our country's history and our capacity for food production. Last weekend, I was delighted to attend a Fine Gael conference on agriculture and food which really brought home, primarily through the huge attendance and the engagement of people, the significant role agriculture plays in the rural economy and will continue to play into the future. Since 2009, exports of food and food products have grown by 73% to a value of €13.7 billion annually. With in excess of 163,000 people employed directly, agriculture is the only aspect of our economy that reaches into every nook and cranny of the country. It is unique in that regard.
I agree with the Minister's comments about Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the scandalous human rights abuses that are taking place even as we speak. There are also the effects it is having on every country in the world in terms of flour production and general grain production, and in agriculture in this country and elsewhere in terms of fertiliser costs, agri-diesel costs and animal feed costs. I welcome the Government's decision on grant support for silage and tillage production. If he gets the opportunity in his concluding comments, I ask the Minister to answer a question that was asked of me at the Glenmore Fine Gael annual general meeting last Friday night by a sheep farmer, Mr. Jim Grennan, who comes from many generations involved in sheep farming. He asked why kale and turnips, which are tillage products that many sheep producers across the country would use for feeding sheep, are not included in the tillage scheme the Minister announced.
I also welcome the Government's decision to intervene and save the pigmeat sector, a sector that has not had some of the protections and supports other sectors of agriculture have had over my lifetime. That is in stark contrast to other decisions by other Governments, such as to let the sugar beet sector collapse more than a decade ago.
Notwithstanding that I am part of the Government, I want to pose to the Minister the central contradiction that is at the core of the views expressed by many people who outright oppose rural Ireland and the protection of family farms and the agriculture sector. Some of those sadly reside in the Government. As the world's population continues to grow exponentially, who is going to feed it? Will it be the few countries, and Ireland is chief among them, who produce food to the highest standards of environmental protection, sustainability and animal welfare or will it be countries whose systems are unsustainable? I have never heard any spokesperson from An Taisce or, indeed, the far left, not to mention most members of the Green Party, with the exception perhaps of the Minister of State, answer such questions. I ask the Minister to stand against the continuous chorus from commentators and others in our national media calling for less production of meat and dairy and to ask them who is going to supply these products into the future if the most sustainable country in the world at producing them is going to cut back on production in those key sectors? I ask him also to pose this question. Where do the alternatives come from?
I am tired of listening to people, principally from An Taisce, on the national airwaves talk about reducing dairy production when they know that demand for dairy products continues to grow and that our system of dairy production is among the most environmentally friendly and sustainable anywhere on the planet. We are limited by our existing climate and soil type.
I am struck by the number of times we hear spokespersons for these organisations on the national airwaves talking about changing from our reliance on meat to products that are grown in the ground. I do not know what percentage of land in Ireland is arable, but in vast parts of the country the only thing we can grow is grass. We grow grass very well in Ireland.
In my lifetime, I have seen extraordinary changes in agriculture. I come from a farm. I am the youngest son, so I got the road. I have two brothers who are engaged as farmers running family farms. I see the investment and time they and their families have put in over the past 40 years to change practices and to make them much more animal-friendly, environmentally-friendly and sustainable. There is a huge capacity and willingness from farm families across the country to change and to improve those practices even further.
I do not envy the Minister his job. What we are continuously faced with is a chorus of commentators who offer no solutions other than to ban things and to cut back on production, who lecture about issues they know very little about and propose the ruin of a way of life. What is agriculture about in my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny other than a means for people to live, support their family and educate them?
I am a firm believer in the old quote that is often attributed to Edmund Burke, even though I do not think he ever said it, that nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little. That is my view on climate change too. We do have an obligation to act. I firmly believe that the agricultural sector in Ireland is prepared to do that. We must ask how we can make the agricultural sector more efficient and more sustainable. A number of months ago we, in Fine Gael, visited a Teagasc facility in Grange where they are looking at additives to animal feed that would dramatically reduce the emissions from the cattle and dairy herds right across the country.
We must also address water quality. In recent years we have seen specific problem areas in the country where water quality standards have fallen. We know from targeted investment by the Government and by family farmers in the past 20 years that it is a problem we can address. Family farms are more than willing to do that.
I got a dig there, so I will finish up. My final point is that there are hard political choices. I will support the Minister in every way I can to ensure the rural economy and the rural way of life are protected. I believe the Minister understands that we have to firmly resist – he has to lead in this regard – the modern Irish scourge of closing down sectors of the economy or systems we already have that work well, before we develop an alternative or we look at adjusting our current practices to make them more sustainable. Peat is a classic example of that. I wish the Minister well in his task. I welcome this debate.
I am very pleased to speak in this debate. I attended the Fine Gael conference on agriculture in Tullamore at the weekend. It was wonderful to see how vibrant it was and how vibrant the participants were about agriculture and agri-food in Ireland. My constituency in Dún Laoghaire is not exactly a rural one, but it is dependent, as is every constituency, on the success of the agri-food business in Ireland as a key part of the Irish economy. I recognise the 160,000 people who work in the industry and the contribution it makes of €13.7 billion to the economy. It is an extraordinary fact that exports have risen by 73% in such a difficult period for Ireland's recovery.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, for organising the visit to the Teagasc facility in Grange, as outlined by Deputy Phelan. I learned a huge amount about more efficient farming. I went in as a sceptic, as somebody who had not understood quite how prominent Ireland is in terms of carbon efficiency in production of dairy and beef and how much more we have done and can do. I very much appreciated the opportunity to question the scientists and experts there. I recognise Teagasc's contribution to scientific development in ways that can continue to reduce carbon emissions from this country.
As Deputy Phelan has said, it is important to acknowledge how much more efficient we are as a food producing country than so many others, and the value of the contribution that Ireland can and does make. Fine Gael is a party that has always supported rural Ireland. The party has a track record of supporting and investing in rural Ireland and supporting farmers and we will continue to do that.
The pandemic should have been a wake-up call to improve our food systems. It highlighted the importance of farmers and producers and our overdependence on imports. Policies from successive Governments and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have eroded crop and livestock diversity and left us vulnerable to disruptions in global supply chains. We have become largely dependent on imported crops that we can grow here. Ireland is a net importer of potatoes, cabbage and many other vegetables. This situation is not only a food security risk, it is poor environmental practice. Importing food from Britain, Spain, the Netherlands and China is ridiculous when we can grow these crops here.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted our shortfalls in grain production in terms of food and feed-grade grain and our utter dependence on imported, manufactured fertiliser. These weaknesses have long existed in our system; recent crises have merely underscored them. Irish farmers can produce high-quality products. Consumers want to buy locally produced food. We need a radical policy shift to diversify the range of produce that will help to support farmers, especially small family farms, and ensure a more sustainable and secure food system.
Many farmers that have been forced to go into dairy production just to get by are being subsumed by large-scale industrial farms. Sheep farming has become increasingly unviable. Wool prices are so low that it is more economical to dump it. That is at a time when we should be insulating buildings with this natural and locally sourced product. The lack of measures to support widespread organic farming means it will remain a niche sector. Unless there is a major course correction, the small family farm will be a thing of the past in a generation. Central to this trend is the ridiculously low and unworkable prices farmers and producers get. Meat factories and larger retailers have a stranglehold on the industry, which this and previous Governments have refused to acknowledge and tackle. We continue to have a system that benefits a few key players and gouges the pockets of ordinary farmers.
We need a food regulator, an independent office with statutory powers to oversee and intervene in the sector. Instead, the programme for Government proposed a food ombudsman, a lesser form of oversight, and now that has been watered down further with the creation of an office for fairness and transparency. The Minister's press release describes how this new office will conduct analysis and make reports and will act as an advocate for farmers and fishers. This is not the language of enforcement. This is not the regulator that producers require.
Similar structural issues exist in the fishing industry where the system benefits the larger players at the expense of the inshore sector. I keep having to raise the inequity in the distribution of the mackerel quota, with only 2% going to inshore fishers. There are very real concerns that like last year, the tiny mackerel portion assigned to the inshore sector will be quickly reached. It is entirely within the Minister's power to address this glaring imbalance. The last time we spoke about this the Minister committed to reviewing it. I wonder if he has an update on it.
I am particularly concerned for fishers in island communities and those who fish off small piers across west Cork and the Atlantic seaboard. The relative economic value of line-caught mackerel sold locally is more beneficial to those communities than bulk landings by large pelagic vessels. When will they get their fair share? This is their livelihood. Families and communities need change now. They need this Government to properly support the inshore sector and to put it on a secure footing.
Related to this is the lack of investment in small piers and harbours. While I welcome the recently announced €35 million for marine infrastructure, it is less than half the €80 million identified in the seafood task force report.
Also, this funding is from the EU Brexit adjustment reserve rather than from a strategic or ongoing departmental investment. Coastal and island communities need a guarantee that small piers and harbours will be maintained and developed continually to the necessary level. Related to this is the slow-moving foreshore licensing system. Vital work to piers and slipways are being held up because of both the cost and time needed to acquire foreshore licence. This process needs to be reformed to enable the development of our marine infrastructure to support coastal and island communities.
The area of energy microgeneration needs to be progressed. There is a considerable capacity on farms to harness solar energy to power not only the farm, but to sell energy back to the national grid. This is a win-win for individual farmers and for addressing Ireland’s climate targets. There are thousands of farm buildings across Ireland that could contribute to our renewable energy production as well as being helped to address rapidly rising energy costs. I recognise the work the Minister has done in this area but this has to be prioritised further. Families are facing a cost-of-living crisis now. This is especially pronounced on farms.
The climate crisis compels action as soon as possible. Farmers can play very key role in this. The announced 60% grant aid for solar installation under the targeted agriculture modernisation schemes, TAMS, will greatly help with the high installation costs. However, because this is a reimbursement model, it would exclude so many family farms. For this scheme to be a success, it needs to provide funding upfront to help small farmers participate. The Minister will also be aware there are issues with being able then to connect to the grid to sell back, including the issues of costs and bureaucracy. We need to make this process as easy and user-friendly as possible.
The Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications must also progress the clean export guarantee tariff to support micro and small-scale generators. This is an area where there is very strong consensus and can make significant difference to farms and national climate action. I encourage the Minister to prioritise making this a reality for family farms.
I will address one of the questions that Deputy Phelan asked about who is going to feed the world and how we are going to produce more. It would be good to put it on the record that we do produce enough food in the world to feed the growing population. This is a matter of the quantity of food that goes to waste. One third of the world is starving, more than one third of the food we produce worldwide goes in the bin, and more than one third of the world’s population is suffering from obesity-related illnesses. The problem is the politics and the distribution of food. Ireland does not need to increase its emissions in food production to feed the growing population. That is just the reality.
I endorse Deputy Cairns’s comments on food security. It should go without saying that climate change has significant implications for global food security, especially in developing countries. For many, floods, drought and disease will cause crops to fail this year. People will go hungry. These extreme weathers are increasing in intensity directly as a result of our warming world. The World Meteorological Organization report, released last week, foresees a tragic future. We are up against our ecological limits. We know there is a 50:50 chance that we will breach that critical 1.5° C of global warming in the next five years. This will cause climate chaos for millions of people.
Here in Ireland, we need to focus our efforts on supporting farmers to continue to grow healthy, nutritious food to feed our people. I am afraid we are not doing that. A healthy environment sustains a healthy agricultural system. In Ireland, our agricultural practices have intensified to such an extent that we are pushing our environment to the brink in many ways. Our rivers flow laden with nitrogen pollution. Insects and pollinator populations are under significant threat. Wild birds like the curlew and the corncrake, which were once ubiquitous across our land and which had populations in the tens of thousands, are now only barely hanging on. Populations last year reached a critically low level of 150 breeding pairs throughout the whole country. On top of all of this, our climate is changing.
The Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, strategic plan is being negotiated at the moment with the European Commission. It will bring €9.8 billion over five years to Ireland to support Irish agriculture and rural development, or €2 billion a year. Reading the draft CAP strategic plan, I see a huge missed opportunity. We could be using this money to support farmers to future-proof their farms, to switch from high emissions farming and to build resilience into the farming sector so that our farmers can continue to produce healthy, nutritious food that is not at the expense of our natural world.
The European Commission agrees. In its response to the draft plan it noted on the dairy sector:
...the Commission has doubts whether what is proposed goes far enough. In this context, it particularly has in mind ... substantial implications for agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, for quality of air, water and soil, and for biodiversity.
In relation to the proposed eco-schemes in Pillar 1, the Commission comments:
the options involved might add only very modest environmental value in comparison to basic good practice in Ireland, with the result that the scheme as a whole brings about too little change.
In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the agriculture sector is a big emitter. Under the climate law, we have set a budget for emissions and each sector must contribute. Those sectoral budgets are also being negotiated at the moment between Departments. For agriculture the cut in emissions will range between 22% and 30%, equating to an absolute reduction of between 5 and 7 megatonnes of CO2equivalent per annum, based on the 2018 baseline, by the end of the decade. The €2 billion a year that the CAP strategic plan will give to the agricultural sector is expected to facilitate a reduction of only up to 1.2 megatonnes of carbon by 2027. That leaves us having to reduce emissions in agriculture to a far greater degree from 2027 through to 2030.
We are way off with this plan. Where are the rest of the emissions reductions going to come from if they are not to be supported through the CAP strategic plan? We are missing a huge opportunity here to have joined-up thinking and joined-up climate action across this State. We are missing an opportunity to prepare our farmers for the future.
The Minister recently announced a €55 million silage package. This is the third such package the State will provide to farmers in response to a fodder crisis. It is disheartening that the previous two packages have not been used to build resilience into our system to prevent against future crises. These crises will not go away if we maintain the current system, which is heavily dependent on imports. I am speaking of importing fodder, importing feed for animals and importing chemical fertiliser, all of which are subject to international price volatility. This is what we are seeing at the moment and we are not prepared.
We talk a lot about just transition in the energy sector, but we need to start talking about just transition in agriculture. We should be using any and all investment in agriculture to ensure our farmers are encouraged to grow the fruit, the vegetables and the grains we humans need to eat. We need to start thinking about how we are going to compensate farmers for allowing space for nature. Natural spaces on farms are currently not valued. Farmers are encouraged and paid to remove trees and hedgerows and to drain wetlands and bogs. We need to be doing the opposite. Rewilding land, restoring peatlands and wetlands, and creating spaces for nature to thrive are in all of our interests.
The eco-schemes proposed in the CAP strategic plan, as noted also by the Commission, are nowhere close to enough. I will give some examples. A farmer needs to sign up to two eco-schemes. Eco-scheme 4 is for the planting of native trees and hedges. A farmer will qualify by planting three - that is three and not 300 - native trees per ha, or 1 m - not 100 m or 1 km but just 1 m - of hedgerow per ha. Farmers can sign up to eco-scheme 1, which is for space for nature. The EU biodiversity strategy and Food Vision 2030 set a goal of achieving 10% of high diversity space for nature on farmland. The Irish voluntary eco-scheme asks farmers to commit to leaving 7% of the land for biodiversity, habitats or landscape features - just 7%. Research from Teagasc tells us that most farms already have between 5% and 7% of their land as unproductive. For many, therefore, this will be a no-change scenario.
When it comes to water quality, the most recent EPA report on water quality concludes that, "The most significant pressure causing a decline in our water quality is increased concentrations of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen entering our waterways." The main source of water pollution in this country is from nitrogen run-off from farms. One way we can get around this, as well as around the over-reliance on chemical nitrogen fertiliser, is the planting of multispecies swards. The voluntary eco-scheme encourages 6% of grassland to be sown in this way - just 6%. These numbers are so marginal.
We are overhauling the energy sector, the transport sector and other sectors. The change that has been undertaken in the agriculture sector is a far cry from the change that is happening in those other sectors and from what is needed. We are not using the CAP strategic plan to reduce emissions. We are using it to maintain the status quo. We should be using it for future-proofing our agricultural system, to protect the long-term viability of our farms and the livelihoods of farmers, and to restore our critically damaged environment.
I certainly do not agree with everything Deputy Phelan said, but I agree we have to support our farmers and rural Ireland. We can do this without compromising on the environment and climate. We can and must do better.
I recently said there is a phrase that should be written on the wall of every office in this Oireachtas. It reads: "Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future." This was said by Hans-Otto Pörtner, one of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, working chairs. We are walking a climate tightrope and every single step we take from here on has to be a step in the right direction because the fall is, frankly, unthinkable.
We have set out in legislation the overall carbon budgets that must be adhered to in order for us to achieve our climate goals. Agriculture, as a major source of our national emissions profile, will have to play its part when it comes to setting out sectoral ceilings. When I look at the draft Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, strategic plan, I am not sure I see that scale of ambition and step change in how we need to do things from here on. I struggle to see how this plan will integrate with the EU's nature restoration law, which is coming down the tracks, especially, as Deputy Leddin laid out, when many of the conditions of the Pillar 1 payments are so weak. I also worry, and Deputy Carthy referred to this, when I see my brother-in-law, neighbour, or fellas I used to play hurling with, encouraged to borrow so heavily to buy into a system that relies on specialisation, intensification and ever-increasing input costs. Again and again I hear stories of them running to stand still, and working harder and longer hours with nothing to show for it at the end of the week, all the while heaping pressure on our waters and land with all the attendant impacts on biodiversity.
I strongly believe there is a better way forward that offers a brighter future not just for our farming families but all future generations. I listened to some criticism of An Taisce earlier. I want to praise it. In fact, just yesterday, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Noonan, launched the legacy for life programme, which was developed by An Taisce to develop community-based supports for Ireland's natural environment with a focus on ecosystem resilience and biodiversity enhancement. I will draw the Minister's attention to two strands within that project. The first is a pond biodiversity project that looks to build Irish capacity and expertise in pond creation. That may sound like a small measure but it takes a small amount of land for a significant biodiversity pay-off, and not just biodiversity but carbon sequestration. It is something a farmer can create in an hour with a digger and, by the time he is finished, wildlife will already be in that pond. Probably more critical in the context of this debate is the advancing of farm-to-fork, which will seek to offer alternatives to current intensification-based food production methods.
These are examples of ways forward for our farming sector that will secure a viable future for farming families. It is a future that respects our planetary boundaries and nurtures biodiversity and one I strongly believe will also add sustainability and profitability, especially for small farmers and those small farming families that have for so long been the bedrock of our rural communities. I very much hope they will continue to be so in future.
Farming in County Wexford and throughout the island is a much-valued industry that contributes millions to local economies in employment, commerce and sustainability of rural communities. The Common Agricultural Policy is the single most important tool we have for securing the future of family farms and food security, yet the CAP budget in the next period represents a substantial cut to farmers' incomes and threatens the viability and sustainability of the small farm. The Government refused to bring its draft CAP strategy plan before the House for debate, scrutiny and approval, as Sinn Féin reasonably called for. We make the same reasonable call to the Minister now and ask if he will bring any revised plan to the House as well as re-engaging with the farming organisations and other stakeholders on the plan. I would also like the Minister to clarify the definition of the so-called forgotten farmers and whether the cohort of these farmers will be supported under the next CAP. Where exactly will the funds come from? Will they have access to the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, through the next CAP rounds?
I met recently with local Irish Farmers Association, IFA, members in County Wexford. We had a very healthy and robust discussion. One of the biggest issues they raised with me is their skyrocketing costs. They are deeply troubled by the cost of diesel and fertiliser, which is having a detrimental impact on their farms and businesses. As the Minister knows, fertiliser prices alone had increased by 160% to 228% year-on-year by January. The price of organic poultry feed has increased 77% as of April this year, while farmers are also facing spiralling energy costs and other costs of living specific to farming. It is, therefore, understandable that farming organisations described the initial reduction in the cost of agri-diesel by 2% per litre as an insult, especially since this already meagre reduction was cancelled out by the carbon increases at the beginning of this month.
I will also raise the issue of farming contractors, particularly those involved in silage. Simply put, if they do not receive some recompense, small farms and small contractors will go to the wall. For example, it cost €5,000 to fill a 10,000 l tank last year. Today, it costs €10,000 to fill that same tank. Contractors will have no choice but to pass this cost on to the family farm or go bust. Following pressure from Sinn Féin, the Minister for Finance recently introduced further reductions to offset the carbon tax increases, which was welcome. However, those increases should have been stalled instead of using this roundabout mechanism that caused a lot of distress and does not go far enough.
Furthermore, the crisis in the forestry licensing system is far from over and is causing continued bureaucratic stalling for a product that is vital to the environment and the construction industry in Wexford and beyond. This is despite the climate advantage afforestation brings to the reduction of our carbon emissions, in addition to being a much-needed domestic supply of timber, which has now become a very expensive imported commodity and will, as I said, be essential to the building of much-needed homes for our young people. What plans are in place to address this?
County Wexford also has a strong maritime tradition and a strong fishing community. I meet regularly with our fishers and have spoken several times in this House to stand up for them and to protect this industry. Their contribution to the local and national economy is as important as farming, as it is to the survival of our small fishing communities and villages. In fact, Irish fishers have borne the biggest financial brunt of the Brexit deal. The industry has been left behind yet again in European negotiations in order to soften the blow for other industries. Irish fishermen will take a 15% cut to their pre-Brexit quota, which will cost €43 million per year, as a result of the trade deal. Only approximately 20% of the fish caught in these waters are landed by Irish fishermen. This is deeply unfair and a by-product of the failure of every Government policy since the Common Fisheries Policy was put in place. From talking to fishers and those working in other small coastal businesses in my area of Wexford, they feel completely abandoned, unheard and, forgive the pun, thrown overboard by the Government. Sinn Féin wants to see a revisiting of the Common Fisheries Policy. The Government must start arguing and negotiating for a fair quota system that reverses the existing disproportionate quotas, sets a fair deal for our fishers and protects our natural resources.
I thank the Minister for listening, Deputy Carthy for his Trojan work as Sinn Féin agriculture spokesperson and Deputy Mac Lochlainn, our fishing spokesperson.
We have a welcome opportunity today to discuss the issue of food security. Food production is important for our farmers, our fishers, our rural and coastal communities and wider society. It is important for me, my political party and the Government. You might need a doctor, lawyer, garda or priest once in your life, but three times a day every day, you need a farmer. We cannot take food security for granted or the vital role farmers play in the production of that food.
If the situation in Ukraine is to teach us anything, it is to highlight the complacency that has settled around Europe regarding what the European project was originally set up for, which is peace on the Continent of Europe. A key pillar of that peace is food security. That is the basis of CAP, which has been very successful down through the years in guaranteeing a stable supply of safe, nutrient-dense food that is produced to the highest standards in the world and in generating balanced regional development. Like any successful sporting dynasty, continued success can breed complacency. We have seen the recent CAP negotiations in Brussels across other European countries.
Following Brexit some countries were not willing to fill the gap left in the overall EU budget which left CAP vulnerable to significant cuts. However, as a food producing nation, Ireland, led by then Taoiseach Deputy Varadkar, was very keen to state clearly that we were willing to ask our citizens to pay more as an overall contribution to the European project to fund the priorities that other EU countries share such as defence, research and climate provided that we protected the successful programmes such as CAP. We do not have a food security crisis in Europe. We did not have one during the pandemic either. Our food supply chains underpinned by CAP have been severely tested but have proved to be robust. There are new policy priorities in Europe around the green deal and the farm to fork strategies.
They are priorities that Ireland and our agrifood sector are committed to deliver upon. However that cannot be at the expense of food security because farmers are already on that journey. Changes are taking place every day on hundreds of farms across the country to make them more sustainable, economically, environmentally and socially.
One hundred years ago this State was founded. Around the same time, farmers began to replace the horse and play with the tractor. Farms have been evolving ever since. Now the splash plate is being replaced with the trailing shoe; calcium ammonium nitrate, CAN, is being replaced by protected urea and ryegrass swards are being replaced by low-nitrogen clover swards. This all takes time, but I firmly believe that if we back our farmers and see them as the solution rather than the problem, we will deliver on the ambitious goals we have set ourselves.
I have just come from a farm safety event in Fermoy that was called Safe Farm. There was a live performance about a farmer and daughter working together over the course of a regular farming day. The conversations and interactions were so real to life. Everyone saw a little of their own farming set-up. The performance really reminded me, if we need reminding, of how little value farmers themselves put on their own time. The worries of the day are the price of the produce, the cost of the input and how every job needs to get done. Rarely does the farmer stop and consider how they are protecting themselves from all these pressures.
I have a very good friend who is milking cows and has been for some years. He is a dedicated farmer who takes great pride in his work and runs a very good farm. What I admire most in his whole set-up is the patience of his wife. In the last few years he has got busier and busier and is running faster to try and stand still. It is something that has been replicated in many farms across the country. Recently I visited Vincent Gorman's dairy farm in Kildare. Vincent first milked a cow 60 years ago on a three legged stool. He has developed his farm into a profitable farming enterprise that has allowed his son Brendan to return home. He has enabled the farm to fund both livelihoods and the next generation for Brendan’s son who was born last year. Vincent’s focus on making that farm profitable and making that dairy farm a sustainable model that can sustain a number of incomes has also allowed them to invest in its sustainability around fencing off their water courses and improving its sustainability and biodiversity because that is critical. When Vincent and Brendan think about following generations that will farm that land, they want to protect it. That is where farmers come from. The key is underpinning the systemic financial sustainability of those farms to allow farmers to do that as custodians of the land.
As a society we must not forget our farmers. We must never take our farmers, fishers or our wider food production system for granted. The negative coverage of agriculture in recent times has got in on farmers. As Minister of State with responsibility for farm safety and farmer mental health and well-being it is something that troubles me. I can see it. It comes up in every engagement with farmers that people are against them now and how they might not value the role that they play. The clear message from here today is that we are backing farmers through the support that we have provided to help assist with the cost of the inputs in the short term, but also in the long term as one that can really continue to deliver for our society.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Senator Pippa Hackett):
Like the Minister, I will also begin by speaking about Ukraine. We cannot forget the thousands of people who are suffering there as we speak this evening. We must also think of their fellow Ukrainians who have been forced to flee to Ireland and across the world to avoid the wanton death and destruction forced on their country by the illegal invasion by Russia. We as a Government are committed to welcoming people fleeing the war in Ukraine and seeking protection I Ireland. Work is ongoing across the Government to provide supports to those who have arrived in the last few weeks and my colleagues continue to plan for further large numbers of people who may arrive. My Department and its agencies are working to welcome Ukrainians here too. To date Teagasc has welcomed over 50 Ukrainians in Ballyhaise college in Cavan and a further 35 in Clonakilty college in Cork.
The war has put further pressure on already increasing input costs across many sectors but particularly agriculture. The Minister has outlined many of the actions taken by the Government to assist farmers across Ireland with the challenges they are facing. Deputy Phelan spoke about grass and our great ability to grow it and he is right but unfortunately the grass types we largely grow are almost wholly reliant on fossil-fuel based fertiliser and therein lies the problem. That is why this Government has supported measures like the multi-species sward scheme and the red clover scheme to promote environmentally sustainable methods of farming thereby greatly reducing the nitrogen fertiliser required while maintaining forage yields. This is an important measure which will help farmers reduce the cost of their fertiliser inputs. Both these measures, multi-species swards and red clover silage, can save farmers money while maintaining production levels and reducing their farm carbon footprint. It is a win-win. This measure is being delivered by my Department in co-operation with participating agri retailers and co-operatives throughout the country. It will support the establishment of approximately 12,000 ha of multi-species swards and approximately 4,000 ha of the red clover silage mix.
On organics, €256 million is earmarked for the organic farming sector over the lifetime of the next common agricultural policy. This compares to €56 million under the current CAP organic farming scheme, which represents a five-fold increase in funding and will help Ireland achieve a 7.5% organic target by 2027. This is something that the European Commission warmly welcomed in its letter. Organic farming is less reliant on costly inputs. Once again, I urge farmers to consider in the coming months how it could benefit not only the farm, but also their farm profitability and their own lifestyle and well-being. The scheme will open again later this year.
We have also secured almost €3 million in support for the critically important horticulture sector. This aid package, as the Minister highlighted, will support high wire protected glasshouse producers of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and field vegetable producers, mushroom producers and commercial apple producers.
The sector like many others is facing huge increases in input costs. We must ensure the long-term viability of the sector. These sectors make valuable contributions to the overall economy as well as playing a key role in producing top-class, safe, nutritious and local food. It is also critical that retailers similarly support native horticulture producers, providing choice to the consumer and valuing our native production base, which is something our consumers expect, and thereby securing the long term sustainable future for horticulture industry.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention forestry. The output of forestry licences was severely impacted from 2019 onwards as a result of a High Court ruling around environmental regulation. Since this ruling, my Department has invested in significant resources in hiring additional ecologists, forestry inspectors and administrative staff to work solely on licensing and to deal with the significant additional workload the 2019 rulings resulted in. I can assure Deputy Sherlock that there is a great sense of urgency around forestry. Last year licensing increased by 56% and my officials assure me that it will increase afforestation licenses by 100% this year. Progress has and will continue to be made. In addition, the passage of legislation recently will enable the development of a scheme to allow up to 1 ha. of native trees to be planted in suitable areas without the need for an afforestation licence. I hope to have this scheme established before the end of the year. Engagement with stakeholders on the design of such a scheme will begin shortly. Alongside this, through the work of Project Woodland, a new forest strategy has been developed which will include attractive financial supports to incentivise afforestation and help meet our climate targets.
Many of us have spoken about the criminal Russian invasion of Ukraine and also its impact on food security. We must all reassess the matter and make sure we are prepared and protected into the future. It is true that during Covid we had adequate food supplies.
We all accept that we have had a fabulous farming industry in this State that has been able to deliver for us for generations and that is something we have to maintain into the future. On the wider issue of food security, we are well aware of these specific issues that will impact dreadfully on many far-flung parts of the world, be it the Middle East or Africa. The issues people might be dealing with on the basis of this could be up to and including farming. Any mitigation that can be introduced in that need to be done. We have to be much more aware of all our interconnectivity from the point of view of protecting all of us into the future.
I will go back to one of the major points that Deputy Carthy made, namely the idea of how we have set our society up. It is about the network of family farms and the fact that most of us who are not directly from one are only a generation or two removed from one. We have to ensure the sustainability of family farms and we know they are not sustainable right now. We have specific issues, including inflation and the supply chain issues that have been brought about by Covid, Brexit and the war in Ukraine. We have other issues also, including the cost of fuel. While we welcome some of the mitigations that have been introduced, we need to look at that point. We know that the CAP payments will be reduced in real terms into the future. The whole idea of CAP was to ensure we would have a steady supply of safe food and that needs to be rethought in any revision of the CAP strategic plan. We need to know whether the Government has any intentions to do so and if it does, as it should, it should be brought in front of this House.
I agree with a lot that has been said on climate change. I have spoken here about my attendance at IFA meetings previously and I have seen different conversations there to those that are held in the public domain. There are a huge amount of farmers who are willing and able and who are looking for partners to do what everybody accepts is necessary. We have failings from a Government point of view and it has not necessarily delivered. We all know we need to do business in organic farming, forestry, anaerobic digestion and renewable energy schemes. We have to look at all those matters.
I also want to reiterate the issue that was brought up by Deputy Mac Lochlainn. We need a sensible solution to the issue in Killybegs with the offloading of fish. We need something that works for the people as what is happening now is ridiculous.
Given I only have a short period of time left I want to bring up the issue of a constituent who came to me about the beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, scheme. He accepted that it can only be availed of on the basis of a percentage reduction in stock numbers. The difficulty for him was that he was dealing with Teagasc on introducing slatted slurry pits and did not have them in at the time when the determinations were made. That gave him a greater level of capacity and anomalies like that need to be taken into account. I will bring that issue to the Minister and it is something we need to look at. That is a specific case but I imagine he is only one of many who have fallen between stools. We need to deal with that issue.
The first issue I want to raise, which I am sure has already been raised, is that in the farming section of the Irish Independenta couple of days ago it was highlighted that the methane emissions from dairy cows are probably being overestimated. Similar reports appeared at the end of 2021 and in the summer of 2021 in the Irish Farmers' Journal. The study quoted in the Irish Farmers' Journalin 2021 claimed that methane emissions from dairy cows are approximately 30% less than the estimated figures used by national organisations. This should be ringing major alarm bells for anyone who is blindly supporting the Government’s approach to climate action. I did not support the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2022 for a number of reasons but this is just another indication to me that the Government’s climate action policies are relying on questionable data. How many other climate-related areas have misleading or false numbers associated with emissions that have not been accepted as true by Government agencies or even by Ministers?
We are happy to tax people into oblivion supposedly to fund climate action measures, possibly based on incorrect figures. We have no balanced debate as the State broadcaster, RTÉ, has explicitly committed to being biased on the issue, having signed up as part of the climate change activist group. The voices of experts who disagree with the approach being taken and the information being provided are routinely ignored in the debate. There is no real debate at all; it is just constant and one-sided activism. Only a couple of weeks ago a Fianna Fáil Senator suggested the following in the Seanad:
If, however, we have a referendum in the future on tough measures to deal with climate change, for example, I do not believe it would be appropriate that our national broadcaster should be giving 50% of the space in such debates to climate sceptics.
Censorship of fair debate seems to be coming a trend within Fianna Fáil. Such a concerning suggestion just about sums up the Government's approach to climate change; attempting to curtail debate and crush dissent, even within its own ranks. There seems to be a small bit of dissent, however, within the Government parties at some of the harebrained ideas being proposed and floated around, the turf issue being the most recent example. It seems to have missed the attention of everybody that the turf ban would not apply to communities of fewer than 500 people. Therefore we must not have a climate crisis in communities of fewer than 500 people.
Some nine out of the 12 Green Party Deputies represent urban constituencies. While the other three rely significantly on urban votes there is no significant demand for the Green Party agenda in rural Ireland. Yet the policies promoted by the urban-centric Green Party do not seek to address the environmental problems in city areas. Instead they seem just to target rural areas. I am blue in the face from highlighting the folly of expanding Dublin Port, for instance, and I have called numerous times for the Port Tunnel barrier to be removed to reduce emissions at what is the most problematic area, according to the EPA, and those issues are ignored. Instead we have the sacred cow of carbon tax being protected at all costs and increased again at a time when inflation in the cost of living is hurting so many people, particularly in rural Ireland. Many farmers across the country have different decisions to make. With the cost of fertiliser continuing to pose major problems for farmers trying to keep their heads above water, there are a number of other issues which are also of great concern to the farming sector. All types of farmers are under severe pressure with the rise in input and related costs.
I wish to highlight again that as a nation we are consistently falling way behind on our tree planting targets, as the Minister mentioned himself. The years 2020 and 2021 were the worst for 70 years in the number of trees planted. The benefits of planting trees from an environmental point of view would far outweigh the benefits of increasing the carbon tax. There is great urgency and willingness among Government Members to increase carbon taxes every year up until 2030 but it does not appear there is any great urgency or willingness to achieve meaningful solutions such as planting more trees. The Minister commented on the problems we had in 2019 and I presume he is referring to the judicial review. The reason we had that successful judicial review is that the Government acted unlawfully. I would rather that the Government would concentrate on the cause of the judicial review than attack those who took it.
Food security is dependent on economically viable farms. If there is anything to be taken away from this debate it should be that point. Food security is also dependent on economically viable fishermen. There was talk earlier about the need for signs to go up in people's offices. If that sign was in the Minister's office and he delivered on his job when it comes to that sentence alone, he would have delivered successfully as a Minister. We need to have viable farms.
One third of farmers are economically viable, another one third are only viable because somebody is working off the farm and the final third are going into debt or poverty at the moment. Those are Teagasc's figures for that. Farmers are being hit radically by increases in costs. The cost of fertiliser has increased by 130% and the Government is doing nothing to protect those farmers. That increase in input costs will lead to increased prices of outputs over the coming year which will then turn into food inflation for families who are already struggling with the cost of living. We are asking the Minister to subsidise the cost of fertiliser to take the pressure off farmers.
The primary component of food security is farmers' ability to earn a living. This is especially so because between Covid and the war in Ukraine we have learned that international supply chains are not stable. Food staples are becoming really difficult to find in certain parts of the world. Britain has started to ration sunflower oil. Who would have thought two or three years ago that such a staple would be rationed? In a few years' time, particular staples could become very expensive or very rare. People who are not able to afford those foods could end up going without those foods or suffer food poverty as a result.
The Government and the European Commission must make it very clear that farmers will be supported to allow them to remain viable. At the moment that has not been the case. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have let farmers down in terms of the price of beef and other foodstuffs over recent years. The price of beef has increased because of international markets, but for a number of years the Government agreed that farmers should sell below the production cost of beef. I listened to the Minister state that at the last meeting of the agriculture committee.
It is ludicrous that fishermen need to weigh their catches at the ports. The fishermen coming in from stormy weather have to unload their fish after they have gutted and iced them. They then have to weigh the catch at the quay, re-box it, bring it 200 yards and weigh it a second time. Other European countries are not doing this at their quays because it is a stupid rule which needs to be opposed by the Government. It is unfair on fisherman and leading to the unviability of the fishing industry, which is another threat to our food security in the future.
It is a real pity that it took a war in Ukraine and the misery that has been inflicted on the citizens of Ukraine to bring food security back onto the agenda. Unfortunately, people who should have known better forgot about food security and thought that modern economies such as those in Europe had full energy security and food security. The realisation that food security and energy security are two of the top components of a country's security has been brought home to roost in recent months.
Unfortunately, food poverty will increase dramatically before 2022 expires. Many people in the poorer countries of the world will experience famine before this year is out. Thankfully this country has the ability to produce food sustainably. Under no circumstances can our ability to produce food be sacrificed for anyone's agenda. We are one of the most sustainable producers of food in the world. Our cattle are at grass for up to 300 days of the year. We have an environmental way of producing food which needs to be protected. Our production base needs to be protected at all times.
Is the Minister aware that in the past 48 hours one of the largest importers of fertiliser into the country published its results for the first quarter of the year? In 2021 it made a profit of €303 million. In the first quarter of 2022, it made €980 million. Not only has the cost of the fertiliser I spread on my farm trebled, but the profits of the fertiliser company have also trebled. We need an inquiry into how this happened. I cannot see what common-sense reason there can be for such an inflation in profits. The only conclusion I can come to is that it is at the expense of the primary producer. If the company had stock before the price increases came, surely that should have been passed on to wholesalers at the profit margin it was taking in 2021. I am extremely worried. This company is probably the major importer of fertiliser. That needs to be investigated urgently.
Tillage farmers feel left out of the supports that have been put in place. Farmers who are 100% dedicated to tillage feel there is not enough in the welcome measures the Minister has introduced in recent months. I again ask him to consider some incentives for tillage farmers to overcome the cost squeeze they are experiencing. AdBlue is an essential ingredient for modern engines on farms. Last year it cost 35 cent per litre and it is now €1.80. They are also under enormous cost pressure. While the Minister gave the incentive for extra tillage ground, many tillage farmers do not have any extra ground for tillage. As they would already be 100% tillage, that incentive would not work for them. I ask the Minister to look again at the tillage sector and see what can be done.
Many farmers have fixed-price milk contracts. They were pushed into these fixed-price contracts by the banks. The banks insisted that people who were buying land or doing extensive development would go into fixed-price milk contracts. Some people in my constituency have more than 50% of their milk in these fixed-price contracts at 32 cent a litre. Unfortunately, the cost of production is probably in excess of 40 cent a litre at the moment. In the month of April, most farmers received more than 50 cent a litre for their milk which will all be needed to offset the increased cost of production. However, this significant group of farmers are caught in this fixed-price contract. I urge the Minister to bring the stakeholders around the table to try to get this liability shared. The processors went into these contracts with the primary producers and then we have the end seller and the retailers. This cost cannot be borne by the primary producer alone and common sense needs to prevail. The viability of a significant number of farmers in a number of co-ops is under serious pressure and they risk going out of business.
I wish to talk about the supply of beef for the winter months. We have built up contracts around the world for beef on the basis of a 12-month supply. With the concentration on cereals this winter, farmers will be extremely reluctant to feed cattle in sheds and the supply of beef for those hard-won contracts around the world will be under pressure. I urge the Minister to talk to the meat processors to ensure that farmers can profitably feed cattle next winter.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this engagement with the Minister and Ministers of State from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine. I welcome the work that has been undertaken in the Department. As a Deputy for the constituency of Cork East and somebody who lives on a dairy farm, I would like to highlight a number of issues with the three of them today. It is greatly welcomed that the Minister and both Ministers of State are here in the Chamber.
I wholeheartedly agree with the point made by the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, about the attitude towards agriculture and towards farmers. I regularly hear that farmers feel they are under attack and that must stop. This conflict has shown all of us the importance of the production of agricultural produce in our own country. The fact that we are world leaders in food security is something we need wholeheartedly to protect.
I welcome the comments made by the Minister of State in that regard.
A particular point of concern that will arise in the next number of months is that we will see enormous pressure across Europe when it comes to energy supply and fuel supplies for the production of energy. Here in Ireland, we have a large body of work to do to ensure that there is security of supply for agriculture. Gas procurement is a considerable concern for major dairy processors in the Republic of Ireland. It is in the interests of all parts of the dairy sector that the issue be given the utmost consideration by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in communication with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Energy, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I flag here and now that will be a major problem in 2023 and we need to do what we can to guarantee the supply of gas for factories that are processing milk in this country. That is a concerning issue, according to the information that is available to me.
I will make another point that I have made repeatedly. I would like a photovoltaic, PV, system to be put in place for security of energy supply to dairy farms in Ireland. That is something that could be rapidly advanced in the summer months. PV is different to other styles of solar energy in that the exposure to daylight, rather than heat, is the important component. Exposure to sunlight is obviously important for all solar energy but PV works differently from other systems and is suitable to Ireland. That is one area in which I think we need to do a lot of work in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We need on-site generation of energy with back-up battery supplies.
The electricity bills for Irish dairy farms that milk, for example, 120 to 150 cows could range from €6,000 to €10,000. I worked in the sector and directly with farmers during the period when I worked on energy in the summers. The costs involved are staggering. There could be a lot of positive work done in that area that could have a long-term impact to help reduce costs for farmers if the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine would work with the Department of Environment, Climate and Energy. I ask the Minister to go away and consider that matter.
Another matter of concern is the supply of labour. Farm relief is a major issue. I am being inundated with calls in my constituency office about the chronic shortage of labour for agriculture in Ireland. Many farmers are reporting extraordinary difficulty in getting work permits processed. That is something the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has to hammer home to the Tánaiste and the Department with responsibility for work permits in this country. Agriculture is different from some other sectors. That is something we have to take away and do something about. I am repeatedly told that farmers are waiting in excess of three and four months for a reply. When there is a mistake in an application, they are often told to reapply and go back into the waiting system. That is causing a lot of stress and strain. There is a shortage of available labour at the moment because the economy is doing very well, with only 4.5% unemployment, and that is an area in respect of which we need to do a considerable body of work.
I reiterate my request that the Minister comes to visit the Cork East constituency. I know he is very busy. We were lucky to have him in the region in the past. I certainly want to get him back to the area as soon as we can to engage directly with the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association and the IFA. Both organisations are doing absolutely fantastic work in representing their members. The work that has been undertaken there has been helpful for me, as a Deputy, and I would like the Minister to meet and engage with them directly.
Turning to fisheries, I thank the Minister for the work he did in respect of Ballycotton. It has not gone unnoticed. I welcome the €1.5 million in funding that I had been seeking for the past year and a half. It is fantastic to see that funding has been put in place. It is greatly welcome.
We need to look ahead to the coming 12 months. Unfortunately, the position with regard to energy supply is serious. The impact that could have for agriculture is a level of devastation, quite frankly, that we have not yet thought about properly. The G7 countries' agriculture ministers are meeting for the first time. That gives one an idea of what is going on internationally. We in Ireland need to prepare for a situation that may never happen but that quite possibly could happen.
We are delighted to have this debate. Deputy Mattie McGrath has been fighting for the holding of such a debate in the Business Committee for ten weeks. It has taken ten weeks for us to have a debate on fishing. That says it all. The debate has been scheduled for a Thursday evening, when most rural Deputies have to get back to their constituencies. Anyhow, we will take what we can get, even if we have to wait for ten weeks.
Many farmers will be forced out of business if nothing changes soon for farmers who are facing an unprecedented input cost crisis. There are now growing fears that many farm businesses may go under as a result of soaring farm input costs. Even before the current input cost crisis, farmers were facing a unique set of acute and chronic stressors, including farm bureaucracy, climate conditions, animal and crop disease outbreaks, time pressures, workplace hazards, rural crime, finance, isolation, machinery breakdown and media criticism.
Farmers across all sectors are being hit by an array of spiralling input costs which are completely eroding margins that were already through the roof. The Rural Independent Group has been calling on the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Government to address this urgent crisis since last summer. However, so far the Minister has completely failed to address this crisis in any proper manner. Last week, the Minister announced some money for farmers cutting silage but like everything else this Government announces, the devil is in the detail. A farmer who has a milking cow will not get a cent. Most of the suckler farmers who will qualify will only get €200 or €300. That is the bottom line. That is what they are telling me in west Cork. Many farmers will not have the amount of land to qualify for the full amount.
The Minister may have issued a press release or two to suggest that a new pig scheme may come on stream but so far, that is all that has happened- a press release announcing a scheme that is grossly insufficient to meet the growing needs of even that sector.
We are here again today, having been calling for this debate for weeks, seeking immediate action from the Government and issuing the strongest possible warning that the farming sector is in deep despair over spiralling costs and many farmers are now saying to us they are unable to take ongoing losses. I wonder if this is exactly what the Minister wants to hear. Does he want farmers to go out of business? That would fit nicely into the green plan for this country.
Perhaps what is most disappointing is that the Minister and the Ministers of State have completely gone to ground during a crisis that has impacted every farm in the country. The Minister's response is, quite frankly, completely unacceptable. The ongoing silence while this crisis has deepened over the past six months demonstrates an arrogant disregard for the entire farming sector for which there is ministerial and State responsibility. Even data compiled by the State organisation Teagasc highlights that across the board, input prices rose by 30% in the past year with 200% increases in certain fertilisers. The cost of fuel has risen by 38.5%. The cost of feed has risen by 20%. The cost of electricity has increased by 22%. This situation is simply not sustainable at the current levels. The Minister and the Government know that but remain silent and take no action. They are as out of touch and arrogant as a British landlord during the Famine. The lack of action on the part of the Government to support farm families is bitterly unfair and cruel. Farmers cannot and certainly should not be treated in this manner.
I would like to talk about fishing but I do not have time because I am giving time to Deputy Mattie McGrath. We should have a debate on fishing. There are tie-up and decommissioning schemes. We were promised a scheme but the Minister did not announce it. People are looking for an announcement around the decommissioning scheme so they know what is happening in that regard. I know the Minister visited Keelbeg pier in Union Hall recently. The funding to secure that pier has not been forthcoming and parts of it have now been shut down by the council.
I, too, wish to contribute this evening. This is one of the most phony, disrespectful and dishonest debates we have ever had in this House. For ten weeks, and with the support of Sinn Féin and others, whose support I acknowledge, I have been looking for this debate. The issue of the national maternity hospital arose two weeks ago and a debate was scheduled earlier today. Debates on anything at all have been scheduled before the debate I requested. Has the Government completely lost interest in Irish agriculture? That is the way the Government is treating agriculture.
The Minister has his head in the sand. I mean no disrespect to him personally. The Green Party Minister has him. Farmers are being blackguarded. Non-governmental organisations, from An Taisce down, are tormenting and plundering the land and family farms out there. It is shocking. We will not know our farming industry.
Forestry is a complete mess. The Minister did it deliberately. I could mention all the other affected sectors one by one. There is a pig crisis that shows why this debate is dishonest. There has been a crisis in the pig sector for two years. The first five minutes or more of the Minister's speech was all about the war. The war is horrific, but all these problems were here before the war. I ask the Minister to be honest with himself, us and the people he is supposed to represent.
I am told the Minister can hardly go back to Donegal to meet the farmers and that is why he is at every mart in the country, from Mizen Head to God knows where; everyplace else. All these problems existed before the war. Representatives of the pig sector came to the Minister months ago. They openly wept. These are farming men and proud people who gave employment. They had pig farms and saw them go down the drain. They thought the Minister understood what to do for them. They wanted €100 million - €50 million in supports and €50 million to be borrowed. What other group of people during the pandemic agreed to borrow anything and pay it back? The Minister gave them a paltry €7 million. He is out of touch. I cannot believe the Government's backbenchers are so out of touch. I cannot believe the Government would abandon our primary industry and allow it to be thrown to the wind at the whim of the Green Party. Deputy Leddin, who spoke earlier, is delighted about the high price of fertiliser because it meant farmers will not use it.
Many towns, villages and cities are pumping out raw sewage. The Government has closed its eyes to that but is persecuting, demonising and blackguarding the farmers, saying that they are doing this. False figures are being produced. This is a phoney debate and the media is 100% behind it. One cannot criticise it. If we have a referendum, a Fianna Fáil Senator wants RTÉ not to give one side of the debate the same amount of time as the other. What next? The Government is trying to perish our people. I do not deny climate change but what the Government is doing is going to frighten the people. It is destroying our industries and is reckless.
The Greens got their answer in Northern Ireland and they will get it here, very soon. They were banished up there and they were banished here back in 2011 because of all the damage they did. Now, they have so many NGOs appointed. Imagine, there are 36,000 NGOs costing €5.5 billion a year and they are destroying our people, our country, our land, our industry and above all, our heritage. It is a shocking indictment of this Parliament the way power has been abdicated to these NGOs. The tail is wagging the dog here with the Green Party and their green agenda. The sooner they are gotten rid of out of this Parliament, the better. Then we can go back to some kind of normal, decent politics and understand our people. They can go and quash every other sector like housing and so on but farming must be protected and cannot be under siege the whole time. Deputy Collins said that the British landlords were not as bad at the time of the Famine. Cromwell was not as bad when he said “To hell or to Connaught”. The Greens want "To hell or to nowhere".
I have been contacted by many constituents in my hometown of Killybegs regarding the decision by the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, to use a weighing system which renders the fish unfit for human consumption. It can be hard for people outside the community to understand the significance of this or realise the effect it has had, but this is a community in decline, unfortunately, which is now threatened with the prospect of even further decline. The SFPA’s actions have caused incredible uncertainty among the local people of my town who fear for their jobs and their livelihoods. The sad thing about this is that the decline is because of Government inertia and not because of declining resources.
The fishing community has taken blow after blow in the last couple of decades, beginning with our negotiations to join the EU and the Common Fisheries Policy. The effects of this have been felt in all our fishing towns, not only by our fishermen, but by our factory workers, our netmakers, yardsmen, truck drivers, boat painters, administration workers, as well as our tourism and hospitality industry. The knock-on effects are endless and although this may seem like a small problem in Dublin, it is having a colossal effect on Killybegs and other towns across the country. It is very easy for Department officials to make such detrimental decisions without knowing their consequences. This issue is far from their doorstep but it is right on mine. My constituents and I are extremely worried about the future of our town. I had hoped that having a Minister with responsibility for the marine from Donegal would have changed things, even slightly, but sadly we have not seen a positive effect yet. The feeling of disconnect and the lack of respect for fishing communities remains. We still do not have enough quota while, at the same time, other nations have more quota in our waters than they can catch and the Department is happy to go along with that.
Why have we not been given the full rights to catch fish in our own waters when other countries do not use up their quota? Our industry is dying while other countries thrive off our waters. We make up 12% of all fishing grounds and waters of the European Union. We contribute hugely but get almost nothing in return. No other European country would accept this. Why do we accept this? I urge the Minister to think of the people on the ground, the community and the local workers, who are feeling the worst effects of SFPA and European decisions as well as bad Government policy. It is high time he listened to his constituents and stood up for the fishing communities in his county. Developing a policy for a review of the Common Fisheries Policy that benefits all would be a very good start.
In the short time available to me I wish to address a number of issues. First, the Minister is quoted as having announced that there will not be a ban on below-cost selling in the upcoming Bill. That, I have to say, comes as a huge disappointment to me. It is illustrative of the disconnect between what the Department is claiming to want to achieve and what it is actually doing. I do appreciate that there could potentially be competition issues around a ban on below-cost selling but it is not necessarily so. The Spanish Government, as I am sure the Minister is aware from attending agriculture meetings at EU level, legislated to ban below-cost selling in the agricultural sector. That was successful, as far as I am aware. I am not aware of any infringement proceedings being taken by the EU against the Spanish, so it is possible to do so.
Many people have been talking about the environment and about the importance of protecting the environment, including the Minister of State, Senator Hackett. I would agree with her on that but one of the worst things we can do is force farmers to produce below the cost of production because inevitably, in a desperate attempt to stay afloat, they are going to use more intensive agriculture methods and then something has to give. What gives, of course, is the farmers’ livelihoods, possibly their health, including their mental health and also the environment. It is possible to objectively determine the cost of production. Teagasc has a fairly good handle on this. While I am not saying that Teagasc has a monopoly of knowledge on this matter, it is one State agency that could be tasked with doing this.
Speaking of State agencies brings me on to my next issue, which is the Protected Geographical Indicator, PGI, that was being advanced to great fanfare by Bord Bia but which seems to be stuck now. Again, there is a feeling that this is going to benefit farmers but I am afraid it is not because it is going to be just one more tool to say that the whole national herd, effectively, is going to qualify for the PGI because it is so loosely drafted. The producer’s group is Bord Bia. If one looks at the definition in the European regulation, it is required to be a producer or a representative of producers but Bord Bia is neither. It is certainly not a group that represents beef producers. It is a broad entity.
We all know what Bord Bia is, which is a broad marketing board for all food produce. It is not a collective of beef producers or a representative body for beef producers. It is far broader than that. Even at that very basic level, then, I would question the lawfulness of it. Notwithstanding that, it is tied up now because of the objection from the United Kingdom. I can see why people think it will bring a benefit but in reality all it will do is stop that which the PGI is designed to protect, which is small groups coming together to say that they have a unique product like Burren lamb, Connemara lamb, Burren beef and so forth and to be able to market that. If everybody, including Larry Goodman, Dawn Meats, Kepak and all of the big players, will be able to go out and say that all of their beef has this PGI on it, which is effectively what the Department is hoping to do, then it makes it impossible for the smaller producer groups to actually do that. It takes away any competitive advantage that they could obtain.
The last thing I want to discuss is the incentives the Government has brought in around tillage. The Minister could not foresee the war in Ukraine and I am not expecting that he should have been able to do so. It is not unreasonable, however, to suggest that the war will be ongoing next year and the difficulties that exist this year will be there next year too. In Clare there is not a huge amount of tillage typically. In Donegal, there is more tillage but people cannot just change from beef or dairy to tillage overnight. The land is not there and the means and knowledge, particularly, is not there. I would like the Minister to confirm that this will be a scheme into the indefinite future or for at least as long as the current situation in Ukraine and Russia persists so that farmers can plan for the future and avail of this into the future.
I thank all of the Deputies who contributed to this very constructive and useful debate. The Ministers of State, Deputy Heydon and Senator Hackett, and I are always very willing and open to engaging with Members in the Dáil, the Seanad and at the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We are always available and very keen to ensure that there is enough time to discuss all of these issues. I am happy to come into the House every week, if needs be. Certainly, if there was any challenge around the organisation of a debate, it would have been around the ordering of the Dáil business. There was certainly no lack of availability at my end. Again, where there are any slots available or any potential for debate, I will always be available. I will come in the following week, happily, and would be only delighted to do so. The challenge is with the Business Committee and trying to order all of the business of the Dáil and find space, given that there are only three sitting days per week. I am delighted to be here, as are the Ministers of State, Deputy Heydon and Senator Hackett.
We cannot give enough time in this Chamber and the Oireachtas generally to such an important industry. It is the largest and most important industry in the country, our largest employer and largest source of exports. It deserves all the time it can get. I am glad to be here today.
I will respond to Deputies in reverse order given that some of those who contributed last are still here. Deputy McNamara made a point on low-cost selling. We had low-cost selling in this country until the mid-2000s and it did not really work. The practice was removed because it was found to add red tape and cost to the consumer, while not necessarily protecting the primary producer, which is our objective. As I said at a seminar held last week at the Backweston campus attended by many farming representatives and stakeholders, what we would really like to achieve, although it is not really possible, is a ban on below-cost buying. We want to ensure that when people are buying from the primary producer the latter achieves a margin. We cannot legislate for that but we must try to put in place a structure and system that respects primary producers and ensures they get a margin. This will be the key objective of the office. I am not sure if Deputy McNamara made a submission to the consultation but if not, I am open to any ideas or suggestions he may wish to make in a submission at this stage.
On PGI status, we have tremendous product in this country, namely, grass-fed beef. The idea behind PGI status is to put an identity on it that is recognised internationally and can add value to a product. That is the approach being taken.
On tillage, Deputy McNamara is right that we can only do so much and we cannot change things overnight. We wanted to do as much as we could to support people to do as much as they can. This is why we have introduced a payment of €400 per hectare for additional tillage grown this year. There has been a good response to this measure. I recognise the work of the chairman of the national fodder and food security committee, Mr. Mike Magan, and the role of Teagasc and Dr. Frank O'Mara, on the committee. The committee's assessment is that we are potentially looking at an increase of between 5% and 10%. If that is achieved, it will be a significant increase in one year. We want to try to continue to increase the area under tillage. We will have to look at how we do that in future years but it is certainly an objective.
Deputy Pringle referred to Killybegs and stated that, as a Minister from Donegal with responsibility for the marine, I had not yet made much of a difference. He cannot have been paying much attention because he has obviously missed all the investment in piers and harbours in the county, be it at Greencastle, Killybegs or Rathmullan, and elsewhere across the country.
There was a recent announcement of investment of €35 million in the processing sector. The heartland of the processing sector is Killybegs and all of the companies in the town will be able to avail of that funding, which is very significant.
At national level, we are battling at all stages for additional quotas. The biggest single impact on our national quota and fisheries sector over the past generation has been Brexit. Deputy Pringle, who is from Killybegs, ardently supported and advocated for Brexit. While the Deputy did not have a vote in Northern Ireland or Britain, he ardently supported Brexit. Nowhere in Europe has been more impacted by Brexit than Killybegs, which is the centre of the national fishing industry. No sector of our economy has been more affected by Brexit than fisheries. If Deputy Pringle wants to wonder about making an impact as a local Deputy backing fisheries, perhaps he should take a look in the mirror and consider the impact of his own policy. Not many paid attention but the policy he advocated for had that impact.
On fisheries policy and control issues, this has been a challenging time. Representatives of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority will attend the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine next week, which will be a good opportunity for discussion of those issues.
Deputy Mac Lochlainn raised the issue of weighing in Derry versus Killybegs and the impact of Brexit on that. There has not been any change since Brexit. The situation that pertains post-Brexit as regards weighing control between Derry and Killybegs and Northern Ireland and the Republic is the same as was prior to Brexit. Brexit has not been a factor in that. The same control issues and rules apply.
For a Deputy who was supposedly seeking this debate for ten weeks, Deputy Mattie McGrath did not have a whole lot to say or there was not a whole lot of content in what he said. The Deputy went around the house pressing lots of buttons but I did not pick up much substance, which is no change from the usual.
The Deputy mentioned the pig crisis. The first time he raised the pig crisis with me was in the week that I announced the scheme for the sector. He did so from the corner from which he usually makes his representations and noise but there was very little substance to what he said. His contribution was very much for a wider audience to give the impression that somehow he is delivering and representing a sector.
Very little of merit or substance comes from Deputy McGrath.
The fodder scheme was raised, which is very important. The key message for all of us, which I will give again today, is that it is important that people do the best they can this year to grow grass, fodder, silage and tillage. That has been happening but over the course of this year we need to make a big effort to prepare for next winter and spring to make sure we are fodder secure. It is about doing that planning.
Deputy Michael Collins stated that I had been silent for the past few months. I am not sure where he gets that from. The Government has been closely assessing and monitoring the situation and responding, whether to the real challenges facing the pig sector or the horticulture sector. I have been working with the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, on horticulture, and with the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, on the pig sector. We have also responded by supporting the fodder and tillage sectors. The Government recognises that it cannot do everything but we have been very much listening to and working with all sectors to try to support them.
I thank Deputy O'Connor for his comments and his advocacy on behalf of Ballycotton pier. He has been able to deliver €1.5 million for his local community on that. I take on board his points about work permits.
I thank Deputy Cahill for his contribution, which focused on the significant cost inputs in the sector. We will take that on board. The Deputy made a very important point about the supply of beef next winter. It is for this reason we have introduced a fodder support scheme to try to ensure there is good fodder supply. There will be an important relationship there between processors and farmers in preparing for next winter and making sure farmers are well supported to produce beef next winter.
I do not have time to respond to many of the other comments. Overall , this has been a very useful and worthwhile debate. The vast majority of Deputies approached it from a constructive point of view. I thank the Oireachtas and the Business Committee for scheduling this debate and the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating it. We will continue as a team to be available, working with everyone in the Oireachtas to support our farming community, a great sector which it is an honour to represent.