Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

National Climate and Air Roadmap for the Agriculture Sector: Statements

 

10:30 am

Aisling Dolan (Fine Gael)

I welcome the Minister, Deputy McConalogue. It is great to see the national climate and air roadmap. We hear many questions from the farming community and there is much concern. The sector has gone through a massive change in the past number of years. I grew up on a dry stock and suckler farm and there have been huge changes. The number of people who were able to do those jobs full time is now very limited. There are many part-time farmers now.

The roadmap sets out an ambitious vision for a climate-neutral agricultural sector by 2050. It must be acknowledged that according to the last census of 2016 we are talking about 137,000 farms. We must protect farm income. The balance is climate action and protecting the planet. I understand that this is a living document. I presume that this means we will be able to adapt it as it goes through its different processes in the years ahead to ensure it meets the requirements of farmers and the climate.

The agriculture and food sectors continue to play a vital role in Ireland's economy, with agrifood exports accounting for 9.5% of total exports, with a value of more than €14.5 billion in 2019. Ireland is now the sixth largest net exporter of beef in the world. This shows that Ireland is leading in the world when it comes to agrifood. It is, however, about our challenge to reduce greenhouse gasses and to transition to a more sustainable long-term strategy. Farmers can do this working together, but we need such support from the State and from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We have seen how this year alone farming has adapted, through Brexit, Covid and online marts. These marts are in areas where we know the national broadband plan has not even been rolled out and are in intervention areas that have not been able to access broadband. In the west of Ireland it is very clear that farming is what keeps our smaller towns and villages going.

The Minister mentioned some of the targets under the Ag Climatise plan. One of the crucial areas is research and innovation for really targeting and meeting some of those technological demands to help farming and to help farmers. It has to be key in how we support them. Reference was made to Teagasc. I am aware that it also falls under the remit of the Minister of State, Deputy Martin Heydon, but necessity is the mother of invention. There was a query here as to whether or not we can come up with solutions, but if we invest in research and innovation of course we can come up with solutions. I will ask the Minister specifically about funding in this area. Joint projects have been funded through Science Foundation Ireland with Teagasc. There are initiatives and incentives throughout the State, with different pilots running. What are the key projects the Minister would consider for Ag Climatise under research and innovation and what are the potential projects for this year? We are familiar with the existing technologies such as the low-emission slurry spreading, LESS, technology, but I am curious about its take-up in the west and in smaller farms. What supports are in place for smaller farmers to embed these technologies and to ensure a high take-up? Mixed breeding is a crucial issue, as are methane and feed additives, which the Minister mentioned. He also spoke about fertiliser and how we are moving to protected urea. Again, communication with farming groups, which is very difficult at this time, is important. It is possible for it to happen through farmer organisations and through the Department rolling it out through Teagasc, perhaps on Zoom calls and online. We need to consider improving communication in respect of these measures.

When it comes to livestock herd numbers, there have been huge increases in certain sectors in farming. I am curious to see how that will be managed going forward.

The Minister mentioned the figure of 8,000 ha per year in respect of afforestation. What impact will this have on land use for beef and sheep farmers, particularly on small farms?

I welcome the references to organic farming and the target the Minister has set for an additional 400 or 500 farmers to join the scheme. There has been a significant increase in the number of people going back to part-time farming because they no longer have to travel. They are able to work from home with their day job and have more time to get into farming in the evening. There are huge queues to apply for the green cert. What supports is the Department offering to ensure that those people will be able to get the qualifications they need?

Turning to Bord na Móna, there is a strong focus on the State-owned bogs because it has moved away from peat production. The bogs are being targeted for conservation, to become carbon sponges. Where I am from, in Ballinasloe in east County Galway, and in south County Roscommon the greenway is coming and the cycleway will potentially come to that area. We have unique conservation areas in that section of the country. In Mountbellew in east County Galway, there is Carrownagappul bog. BirdWatch Ireland has spoken at length about this unique resource, which is highly significant at a European and international level. If Senators have the opportunity this evening, they should watch RTÉ, which will be broadcasting from the bog. It will be amazing.

What will be the expenditure by the Department on research this year? The Minister might also elaborate on the issues relating to Bord Bia, such as communication and marketing and competing for new markets in the context of Brexit.

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