Seanad debates

Tuesday, 16 April 2024

1:00 pm

Photo of Annie HoeyAnnie Hoey (Labour) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, to the House. As someone who grew up on a tillage farm and dabbled in the agriculture sector, I will keep my comments mostly to those areas I am familiar with. I certainly welcome the Minister's comments and his outline supports for tillage farmers. Once a tillage farming girl, always a tillage farming girl. Over recent months I have found myself peering out the window daily and muttering about planting weather and wet sodden land. I must have picked it up off my dad over the years when he used to do that. As a little girl I would stand beside him and nod along and go, "Yes, most certainly."

It has been incredibly difficult. As I have been going across the country I am struck by and cannot get over how often I see wet farm lands in a way that I do not recall seeing over the recent years. It has been incredibly difficult. I welcome the extensive outline supports the Minister has put forward today and which he told us about.

Agriculture is an incredibly broad sector, and during statements I am aware we could talk about completely different things and not cover absolutely everything. I will talk a little bit about the diversification of Ireland's agriculture and farming. I want to reflect on those farmers in the north-western German state of Lower Saxony who are being supported in their transition away from pig farming as the country seeks to make its agricultural sector more diversified and more sustainable. The agriculture investment promotion programme, AFP, accepts funding applications from farmers seeking to support this business. The new rules mean pig farmers who reduce their pig herds or quit pig farming altogether have preferential access to funding. This is just one of the examples. There are many different programmes around examining different ways farmers can look at a just transition, particularly for livestock farmers. In these Houses and in other parliaments across the world, there are conversations about lower meat diets and more plant-based processes and diets for people. We must recognise this as an essential step in addressing climate change. We can look at some of the different ways we can do this in Ireland to support some of these things.

The German Government also marked €42 million in its 2024 budget for promotion of plant-based, precision fermented, and cell cultivated proteins. In providing such a crucial sum for a plant-based transformation, the German Government is demonstrating how important sustainability is for the future. I believe it is becoming more commonplace among European countries to invest in and promote plant-based options. I would love to see Ireland starting to follow suit in how we are incentivising some of that. In October last year, the Danish Government published the first ever national plant-based action plan with a strategy on how the Nordic country can transition towards a richer plant-based food diet and boost plant-based protein production in the next few years. Denmark is at the forefront of plant-based policymaking. Between 2017 and 2022, Denmark witnessed a twofold increase in protein-rich plant crop production, generating an economic value of €1.2 billion.

Europe's plant-based food sector has grown significantly in recent years, with total sales value and unit sales spiking by 21% between 2020 and 2022 and the sector currently valued at €5.8 billion. The future for this looks even more promising, with a predicted annual growth rate of nearly 9% for the next five years. Moreover, by 2035, one in every ten servings of meat, eggs dairy and seafood worldwide is expected to be in the form of alternative protein. ProVeg conducted an EU consumer survey of 7,500 people in ten EU countries and found that the data suggests a broad and ongoing shift in Europe towards more plant-based eating. European habits on the whole remain unsustainable and multifaceted and a strategy is needed to further accelerate this shift.This could include emphasising the long-term benefits of different diet types, tailoring messages for diverse groups and regions and implementing transparent and trustworthy labelling schemes.

We cannot talk about food production, horticulture and agriculture without talking about food security. We must recognise that there is a decline in some small- and medium-sized farms. This is a concerning trend. Ireland is obviously very much an agriculture-based country. As someone who grew up on a very small farm, I do not like seeing farmers being pushed out of the sector due to financial constraints or because it is unsustainable. I recognise the really important part agriculture has played in of our history, but approximately 80% of CAP subsidies go to the largest 20% of farms. This policy favours large-scale industrial farming practices. As a result, smaller farmers who do farm in harmony with nature are still struggling and are often forced to close down their businesses. This threatens food sovereignty and food security. I would love to see a way for us to address this imbalance. CAP subsidies could be reformed to properly support smaller farmers and diversity in rural economies. The CAP has the potential to steer food systems towards addressing environmental issues, including climate change, biodiversity loss, disturbed nitrogen and phosphorous cycles and water and land degradation. Redesigning CAP policies to help support sustainable diets and farming practices is urgent as current subsidies do not do that. They incentivise the acquisition of physical access related to animal agriculture such as milking machines, which perpetuates what is going on. I do not know if we would do it in this room or at European level but I would love, in the context of CAP reform, someone to look at both supporting smaller farmers and increased diversification in how we farm.

As we work towards just and sustainable food systems, we need to consider justice from all angles. This obviously includes farmers because it is they who provide our food. The financial situation has deteriorated due to the wet weather, which has played havoc across the sector. Grain and fertiliser prices rose as a result of the outbreak of war in Ukraine. We still have some of the residual impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. There is no doubt that on a political and cultural level, farmers feel under attack as a result of some policies that favour cheap imported food over home production and from a society that underpays and undervalues them. We have already heard about the difficulties farmers find themselves in and the mental health struggles they face. I have found myself talking to not just older farmers but also to those across the sector about the difficulties they experience and the impact of this on their mental health. We need to implement policies that increase homegrown produce and move away from trade deals that just facilitate the importation of cheap food. It is important that we listen to farmers, not just corporations.

I will briefly discuss regenerative farming, which is a transformative approach to agriculture that prioritises soil health, biodiversity and sustainability. I was about to say that Ireland has a favourable climate, although the past year might not necessarily be reflective of that, but, in theory, our climate should support regenerative farming practices that focus on restoring and enhancing the national ecosystem. The health of regenerative farming in Ireland or part of it is an emphasis on soil health so by implementing techniques such as overcropping, crop rotation and minimal tillage, farmers aim to improve soil structure, fertility and microbial activity. Healthy soil is the foundation of a successful farm because it provides essential nutrients for plant growth and resilience against pests and diseases. Water conservation is another key aspect of regenerative farming. We have frequent rainfall as was alluded to here today. Irish farmers have the opportunity to capture and store water through practices like mulching, contour ploughing and agroforestry. By managing water effectively, farmers can reduce erosion, improve water quality and enhance the overall health of the land.

We could look at some EU policies that have improved matters across the Continent. The EU has invested nearly €500 million in plant-based start-up companies. We do not have major investment here in any plant-based companies. It would be great to see this. Aligning diet to guidelines on health and environmental sustainability, as has happened in Denmark, is another measure we could take. Other initiatives would involve: moving subsidies to sustainable healthy food production; paying farmers to convert their land to ecosystems for carbon capture and storage, as has happened in the Netherlands; investing in plant-based research such as the Smart Protein programme in UCC, which has done some research on plant-based protein crops in Europe, including Ireland; establishing a default veg approach in catering for schools, hospitals, etc.; and eliminating tax on food products aligned with environmental and health value.I am going to briefly touch on hare coursing because it is an issue that is very important and we have raised it a couple of times in this House. We recognise the cruelty associated with hare coursing and I encourage the Minister, as it falls within his remit, to recognise hare coursing for the barbaric bloodsport it is. We need to look into banning it.

I wish to follow up on a commitment the Minister's Department to investigate pig farming practices. About six weeks ago a spokesperson for the Department said it:

.... takes any allegations of breaches of animal welfare regulations extremely seriously. In relation to the alleged breaches of the pig welfare requirements raised by Animal Rebellion Ireland and The National Animal Rights Association in their recent press release, we will investigate these following receipt of any evidence ...

Has the Minister's Department begun that investigation? Is there a plan to do that? Will he provide an update on that?

There are loads of other areas I could touch on, including the human rights infractions for workers in the meat sector. When we are talking about a just transition, we not to talk not only about farmers in the sector but about all workers in the sector. We still need to look into the conditions of workers in the meat industry.


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