Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

National Climate and Air Roadmap for the Agriculture Sector: Statements

 

10:30 am

Lynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)

I welcome the Minister. We are here to discuss the Ag Climatise plan published last December. However, we all know that before the ink had even dried, the Minister of State, Senator Pippa Hackett, was instructing Green Party members to ignore the plan for emissions on agriculture. Perhaps the Minister could start with confirming if we should ignore this plan as well.

We know our agricultural system is failing farmers. Despite the fact that Bord Bia says our food exports are growing by 60% and the sector is booming, the benefits are not trickling down to small and medium-sized farmers. Something is fundamentally wrong with the agricultural system.

Agriculture is not only failing farmers; it is also failing the planet. The current model of agriculture is one of the main sources of water pollution in this country and a contributor to our greenhouse gases as well, but the blame cannot be based on farmers. The whole system is geared towards over-production.

It is time farmers and the environmental sectors worked together. As has been said already, farmers are custodians of the landscape and they can play an important role in protecting nature. However, the system of incentives often prevents them from doing that. We heard already about the ridiculous situation around hedgerows and small scrubland and the incentives in place to remove them as opposed to preserving them.We need a radical rethink of how we do agriculture in this country.

On the issue of methane, we are told emissions will stop growing but are not told when this is supposed to happen. I take exception to selective quoting which references the distinct nature of biogenic methane. In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, report the distinct nature of biomethane is stated as being a short-lived gas but one which is multiple times more potent in its warming potential. Ag Climatise seems to rely on technological fixes and innovative breeding strategies, other technology, and food additives but according to Dr. Hannah Daly of UCC, it is not clear how these innovations will succeed in reducing the emissions.

Carbon leakage is often used as an excuse by many in the sector to prevent significant changes to the system. When we enact new environmental laws, the argument is often put forward that production will transfer to another country which has more lax laws. It is argued Irish agriculture will therefore become less competitive and if more serious action is taken to make it more sustainable, then we will lose out. Carbon leakage cuts both ways. There are reports of large Dutch dairy corporations setting up in Ireland. We are used to companies setting up here because of our tax policies but agribusinesses are moving production to Ireland because it is seen as a pollution haven. Is the Minister monitoring carbon leakage into Ireland? As other countries dump their unsustainable practices in Ireland, we could be left carrying the can when it comes to paying the fines for not reaching emission reduction targets. The risks of carbon leakage into the country need to be looked at carefully.

The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, announced the reopening of the organic farming scheme. Our small and medium farmers are our most sustainable farmers and they need to be supported more because of the leadership they show. It seems the policy approach is to leave them out in the cold. The farm-to-fork strategy aims for 25% land coverage of organic farming while the EU biodiversity strategy 2030 will see 40% of land designated or protected to some degree. Organic farming in Ireland currently has a spread of about 2% and the current scheme specifically prioritises applicants who will deliver large land cover. The plan is to achieve 840,000 acres of organic land. There are 500 places open to Government support. In order to reach its target, large farmers are required to take part, and small and medium farmers are being squeezed out. Increasing the amount of land dedicated to organic agriculture is clearly important but we need to see small and medium farms benefit from that scheme.

My final point touches on microgeneration. The transition to decarbonisation is often framed as something painful with cutbacks and involving sacrifices. We in Sinn Féin, and those of us on the left, often reject this view because we recognise that when making the transition to a decarbonised future, there is huge potential to benefit people's lives in real tangible ways, if done correctly. The transition to renewable energy is a clear example of that. All sources of energy, such as oil and gas, were concentrated in only a few places. This allowed people to have control over them and they in turn had control over all of our energy systems. We have seen the implications of the geopolitics of that. New energy sources, such as wind and solar, are available everywhere. That means we have an opportunity to build a new decentralised electricity system. Small-scale solar, wind and hydro power sources can be owned by a wider group of people, as well as communities.

My colleague, Deputy Stanley, introduced a microgeneration support Bill to the Dáil in 2017. A few weeks ago, the Government unveiled a scheme to comply with the EU’s recast renewable energy directive. If microgeneration is done correctly, farmers will be well suited to benefit from the scheme because they have large sheds with ample roof space on which to install solar panels. This would also provide a much-needed stream of income to farmers, in addition to reducing their electricity bills. Unfortunately, there are several barriers in the current model proposed which would lock farmers out of enjoying the benefits of microgeneration. A public consultation closed last week. I encourage the Minister to read Sinn Féin's proposal because it outlines how farmers could benefit from the microgeneration Bill, if done correctly. One of the main barriers in this regard relates to the export caps being too narrow. It would mean that only 30% of what is produced could be sold to the grid. This is designed to promote self-consumption. In businesses and homes, people can adjust when they use their electricity to match when they are producing it. However, that luxury is not available to farmers. They operate to natural rhythms and they cannot change when they consume electricity. If, for example, a dairy farmer is using the most electricity at milking times when the potential to generate electricity by solar is low, then using very little electricity during the day when the potential to generate solar is highest, this means there is little scope for that farmer to change when he or she consumes electricity to match generation. As one farmer I spoke to stated, cows are not open to persuasion about their milking times. The result will be that farmers will produce electricity that they cannot use themselves and that they cannot sell on to the grid.

The export caps are just one of the barriers that are preventing farmers from accessing the proposed microgeneration scheme and being part of the just transition. While that comes under the remit of the Department for the Environment, Climate and Communications, will the Minister consider these points and raise them with his colleague at Cabinet? We need a just transition for farmers and microgeneration has an important role to play in that.

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