Thursday, 13 July 2023
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
I know the Minister is a busy man, as is his colleague, Senator Hackett. I am not sure if he got a chance to read the entire Irish Farmers' Journalthis week. There was a very interesting article on page 14. The newspaper was seeking the views of farmers on a potential dairy reduction scheme. My key question to both Ministers is on whether the Government has proposals for any potential dairy reduction scheme. If so, when is it going to be published?
Deputy Berry's question is quite a topical one. It is one that is coming up quite a bit at the moment and getting a lot of discussion as well. He is right that it was covered in the Irish Farmers' Journallast week and it has been raised at many of the meetings I have been having with farm organisations in recent weeks too.
I want to be clear that no decision has been taken by the Government to proceed with such a scheme. There has been no such Government decision, and no Exchequer funding provision is currently in place for such a scheme either. I have repeatedly stated that no farmer will be forced to reduce livestock numbers as part of the climate action plan process. I want to be very clear in saying the same thing here again this morning.
I established the Food Vision beef and sheep group, as well as the Food Vision dairy group last year to advance the actions for the beef and sheep and also the dairy sectors identified in the Food Vision 2030 strategy, as well as taking into account requirements for the sector to contribute to achieving the targets set for agriculture emissions in the climate action plan.
The first priority for both groups was to chart a pathway to achieving the legally binding target of a 25% reduction by 2030. Both the beef and sheep as well as the dairy groups submitted reports to me at the end of last year, which have been published. Those reports identified the measures that could contribute to reducing emissions. Since the reports were published, I have stated that owing to the serious concern expressed by the farming organisations on the proposals for voluntary reduction schemes, which would have provided a payment for those who were in position to reduce their herd or exit beef farming entirely, that such schemes in relation to the beef and suckler sector are off the table. Farming organisations said they were not in favour of it, and they were adamant on that. I want to work in partnership with farmers. I said: "Fair enough. It is off the table. That will not happen."
A key recommendation in relation to the Food Vision dairy group was to explore and take forward a voluntary reduction scheme for the dairy herd. In contrast to the beef and sheep sector, the Food Vision dairy group containing the farm organisations recommended that we should explore the capacity for such a scheme to play a role. At the moment, I am engaging and consulting further with the Food Vision dairy group as to what that might look like before I make any further decision on it.
I thank the Minister for that very useful response. I very much accept his views in regard to the beef sector. Some of the responses were quite interesting. Some 80% of the respondents to the survey by the Irish Farmers' Journal said they want nothing to do with a dairy reduction scheme. We can understand why; it is a very emotive issue. They have invested in their own technology and they do not see why the most efficient farmers in the world here in Ireland should be replaced by less efficient farmers elsewhere on the planet. However, there were 20% of respondents who would consider looking at such a scheme. It might suit them from a health point of view. Some of the farmers are moving on in age; they are not getting any younger. They might not have a successor lined up for the farm either. There is an opportunity here for a properly constructed scheme, which could facilitate farmers who want to exit the sector without damaging the viability and livelihood of family farmers who wish to remain inside that sector and to keep farming, as they have been doing for generations. There is a small bit of opportunity here for a scheme if it is properly constructed.
I think Deputy Berry explains it very well. As Minister, it has been my approach, and it will continue to be my approach, to work with farmers with whom we share this challenge. We all have to work together to meet the challenge. We are doing that and that will continue.
On the suckler and the beef sectors, farm organisations were adamant that there should be no scheme for them, so I said: "Grand, there will be none." Most of the calls and queries I got after that were from suckler farmers wondering why there is not a scheme. They said that if a scheme was voluntary, why would anybody prevent somebody wanting to do something voluntary. That is the mix of views that were there. The farm organisations were adamant that there should not be one. I want to back the suckler sector in every way I can. As I explained earlier, I have increased the payments from €90 per cow to €150 per cow. That is a reflection of how I am backing the sector.
Likewise, in regard to a dairy reduction scheme, which the farm organisations that are members of the Food Vision group have said we should explore, I am exploring that further with them by asking them for further detail on what exactly it would look like were it to happen before I would make any consideration on that or, indeed, discuss it with Government colleagues.
I totally accept the Minister's bona fides in that regard. For me, priority number one must be the technology pathway. The Minister announced yesterday his plan to increase clover, reduce fertiliser use and to have better feeds to reduce methane, among other measures. There is an option here, and I am glad the Minister is exploring it and doing it from a partnership perspective.
What is very obvious from the article is that there should be three criteria. I am glad the Minister clarified one, which is that it should be voluntary. Second, it should be properly resourced. The third criterion is that it should only be done following full and proper consultation with farming organisations. The Minister has clarified those points this morning. I am in favour of exploring this option hand in hand with the farming associations.
It is a viable option and worth considering, but only if it is done voluntarily and is properly resourced.
To give absolute reassurance to Deputy Berry, everything will be voluntary. It is about providing options to farmers, voluntary options, and ones that will pay farmers. That will help us collectively to meet the challenge of reducing emissions over the coming decade. That is something I am confident we will do, and that is the approach we have taken so far and will continue to take.
Where I am with a potential dairy reduction scheme is that the dairy vision group, comprising all stakeholders in the sector as well as farm representative organisations, has recommended that it should be explored. I have come back to them to say they should come back to me further with what exactly they are talking about here, what it would look like, what exactly it is they are saying we should explore and what should it look like? Once they come back with that, I will consider the matter further. Again, we will be doing it very much by working closely with farm representatives and all stakeholders, but particularly important in this is the farmer organisations. To emphasise, whenever they said they did not want it on the beef side, I very quickly said there would be none. I was absolutely clear that there would not be any. That marries very well with my own approach of backing the beef sector. I continue to engage with them in regard to the dairy vision group considerations in this matter.