Tuesday, 27 April 2004
I thank Senators for requesting this debate, which is particularly timely.
On 1 January 2004, Ireland took over the six-month Presidency of the European Union. The theme of the Irish Presidency is "Europeans — working together". This theme is particularly appropriate in the year in which ten new member states will accede to membership of the European Union. Our broad overall objective for our Presidency from the point of view of agriculture is to support the European model of agriculture. This must remain at the heart of all actions of the Council because it reflects the social, cultural and economic realities of European agriculture and rural life. Within that broad objective, we have identified three specific objectives for our Presidency, namely, to facilitate the application of the CAP to the new member states; to continue the process of simplification of the CAP, initiated by the mid-term review decisions of June 2003; and to enhance food safety standards.
We have been working closely with the new member states on procedural and substantive issues that may affect them with a view to finding acceptable solutions. The simplification of the CAP commenced with the reform decisions taken in June last year and that process is continuing with the reform proposals for the olive oil, tobacco, cotton and hops sectors. Last week's special Council meeting in Luxembourg reached agreement on the proposed reform following several months of negotiations. It represents the integration of the Mediterranean products and hops into the new CAP framework and marks a shift from the current production-linked payments to the decoupled single farm payment scheme while taking account of specific production circumstances of the products in question.
The enhancement of food safety is a major element of the Presidency programme. The Commission, the European Parliament and the Council under successive Presidencies have worked hard to implement the demanding and comprehensive programme of work set out in the Commission's White Paper in 2000. When this programme is completed, the EU consumer will have the protection of what will be almost certainly the most comprehensive and up to date set of food safety standards and controls in the world. It is, therefore, one of our top priorities to maximise progress on the legislative measures in this six month period.
I am happy to say that we have already made substantial progress. We have secured First Reading agreements with the European Parliament on official feed and food controls and on a feed hygiene regulation which will establish a comprehensive registration system covering all feed business operators and set out clear obligations for each part of the production chain from primary producers to businesses. Following the European Parliament's Second Reading, we have finalised the proposals in the hygiene package. These measures will consolidate and simplify existing legislation and provide a high level of consumer protection and a "farm to fork" approach to food safety.
There are many other detailed issues which we intend to progress. The programme of work is a challenging one and I am confident that we will have a productive Presidency and that the measures I have outlined will make a significant contribution to the well-being of European agriculture, safeguarding the health of our consumers and preserving the environment and the welfare of animals.
Each year brings its own challenges and circumstances but this year Irish agriculture is on the threshold of a completely new era. It will be an era of not alone great change, but one which will be rewarding for Irish farming. The reform of the CAP agreed last June will substantially free farming from the straitjacket of bureaucracy and allow it to realise its potential from the marketplace. Just over 30 years ago, we joined the then EEC on the basis of exploiting our natural advantages as an agricultural country producing quality food on a competitive basis in European markets.
The apparent attractions of intervention and other artificial market supports overshadowed the longer-term advantages of access to some of the most high value consumer markets in the world. The situation was worsened due to the fact that much of the financial benefits of the CAP did not trickle down to farmers. The 1992 reform of the Common Agricultural Policy rectified this weakness by switching the emphasis to premia payments. While this improved the situation in so far as support payments were made directly to farmers, the system tended to encourage what became known as the farming of premia. This distorted both the function and perception of farming. Farmers want to be engaged in worthwhile and coherent economic activity serving markets and consumers. Agriculture, because of its very nature, needs and deserves support through public funding. However, the support system must be such as to allow farmers concentrate on producing high quality food for real markets. Anything else is unsustainable.
Agriculture remains of major importance to the economy. It has also to contend with the changed expectations of modern society on issues such as food safety, environmental concerns and animal welfare standards. Against this background, the CAP mid-term review involved difficult and protracted negotiations. The outcome agreed in Luxembourg last June represented a significant improvement on what the Commission had proposed a year earlier, and in particular provided a degree of flexibility for individual member states. The new CAP architecture will allow agriculture develop in a sustainable and acceptable manner. Cushioned by the single farm payments in recognition of the costs of compliance with societal demands, farmers can get on with the job of supplying markets, focusing on minimising production costs and maximising their incomes. Indeed, farmers very quickly recognised the advantages of farming in a framework free of the many constraints associated with the various premia schemes.
We are facing a period of major adaptation and change at farm and processing level and indeed for the administration which supports the sector. The early decision to opt for full decoupling, where Ireland has shown the lead to Europe, allows us to move ahead with certainty. The fact that after extensive consultation we took the decision at an early date to opt for full decoupling allowed us to have the detailed implementing rules for the new single farm payment tailored to meet Irish farming requirements. The requirement that, in order to draw down the single payment, farmers would have to have 100% of the average land area that they had during the reference period would have resulted in serious problems for certain categories of Irish farmers. For instance, approximately 50,000 hectares of land was planted with forestry between 2000 and the end of 2003 and quite an amount of land has been acquired under compulsory purchase order by local authorities. In addition, certain farmers who had land rented in or leased in during the reference period may no longer have access to that land. The 100% requirement would therefore have undoubtedly contributed further to an increase in the cost of rented land from 2005 onwards. I believe the balance has to be tilted in favour of active farmers who want to expand. In addition, the "freedom to farm" concept would have sounded hollow if farmers who may wish to reduce output were nevertheless forced to retain 100% of the land that they had during the reference period in order to maximise the single payment. It was for these reasons that a derogation from the 100% land requirement was sought. I am therefore happy that the final text of the Commission's implementing rules addresses these issues. The position now is that farmers who, for specific reasons, do not have access to the average amount of land they had during the reference period can apply to have their entitlements stacked on the available land in 2005 or thereafter, provided that they have at least 50% of the average land that they had during the reference period. The concession can only be applied provided the farmer has not disposed of land by sale or lease since the reference period and provided he declares all the land available to him each year.
The concession on land availability will obviously have a major positive impact in the forestry sector. There has never been a better time to consider planting. Farmers can effectively plant up to 50% of their land, retain their full single payment and also qualify for a tax-free forestry premium of around €390 per hectare for 20 years. The report in the farming section of the Irish Independent today indicates that farmers have moved in that direction, thereby showing confidence in the decisions made in the reform package.
My colleague, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Joe Walsh, has ensured that top priority is being given in the Department to prepare for the changeover to the single payment system. It is intended that each farmer will be notified of his or her single farm payment entitlements as soon as possible this year. Given the nature of the transition, it is inevitable that certain anomalies and technical issues will arise. We will address these issues to the best of our ability and we have been diligent in bringing them to the attention of the European Commission. Some 14,000 cases are currently being processed in the Department under the force majeure rule and we hope to make decisions on those as soon as possible.
While the introduction of the single farm payment is our strong focus, we should not overlook the new WTO round which will also have a major impact on our future. Ireland is an open economy and we have much to gain from a well-ordered, rule-based world trading system. We remain committed to the multilateral process and to securing a new WTO agreement. We were disappointed with the breakdown of the fifth WTO ministerial conference in Cancún last September. Contrary to some reports, the EU was not responsible for the breakdown nor, indeed, were the negotiations on agriculture the stumbling block. The EU participated in the negotiations in a constructive manner and will continue to do so. That is Ireland's position also.
The negotiations resumed at the end of March and there is renewed impetus to conclude a framework agreement for the next round by the end of the summer. This would represent a significant step forward. The reality is that the US presidential election and the appointment of a new EU Commission later this year will intervene and, therefore, there is no prospect of a new agreement being finalised this year.
As current holders of the EU Presidency, we will of course do what we can to facilitate progress. However, there must be a fair and balanced agreement in so far as agriculture is concerned and there is no question that agriculture can be sacrificed to pay for achieving an overall agreement.
The negotiations between the EU and the Mercusor countries of South America on a new free-trade agreement are also reaching a critical stage. Here again, agriculture will be crucial to the outcome. Our concern relates to the importation of agricultural products, of which Senators will have heard much, both in the media and in recent debates on agriculture.
The EU has undertaken two major reforms of the CAP, in Agenda 2000 and in the mid-term review, in preparation for the WTO negotiations. We will not be prepared to accept new agreements which would be so damaging to the prospects of European and Irish farmers that they would necessitate further reform of the CAP.
In this historic week, I am conscious of the benefits Ireland has enjoyed from EU membership and I believe the new member states should also have the opportunity to benefit significantly from their membership in the coming years. When completed, the current programme of enlargement will add over 100 million people to the population of the EU. This will create a new impetus for growth in the market with increased possibilities for all member states, old and new. The absorption of such a huge addition to the Union's population and land area, with all the economic, social and cultural diversity it will bring, will be a major challenge. An enlarged EU will also bring many opportunities both for existing and new members. As a major exporter of agricultural and food products, Ireland will have an enormous new potential market opening up to it.
We are on the threshold of a new era. By this time next year, we will be operating within a Union of 25 member states and within a fundamentally reformed CAP. We have shown ourselves to be ready to embrace change and to adapt to new circumstances and challenges. The market opportunities presented by the reformed CAP and the enlarged Union must be taken and I am confident that they will be.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Aylward. I thank the Leader for putting this item on the agenda. I do not usually act as Fine Gael's spokesperson on agriculture but that position has been designated to me today. I wish to refer to a number of important issues the Minister of State has raised, as well as others that he did not directly refer to in his remarks. I agree with much of what he said about the Fischler proposals on CAP reform. The Department should be congratulated on its work in this area. The majority of farmers, whether in my area of Kilkenny or elsewhere, realise the benefits of amalgamating and reducing the red tape in agriculture in recent years. The move towards a single payment will be welcomed across the board.
I am also encouraged by the Minister of State's statement that there is no question of sacrificing agriculture to pay for achieving overall agreement in the new world trade talks. Many farmers feared that the overall aim of getting agreement in those talks would mean agriculture taking a back seat, and I am delighted the Minster of State indicated the Government regards it as a priority that agriculture is not sacrificed. That is very important, because if the benefits outlined in the CAP reform proposals are going to accrue then it is necessary that agriculture is not sacrificed at those talks.
There have been rumblings from the Department recently to the effect that retired farmers will be catered for under the new CAP reform proposals. That should happen, as many of those farmers had to retire through no fault of their own. In many cases medical conditions forced people to retire before they would have wanted and whoever takes their farms over should be open to production rights. I am glad the Department is taking that on board.
Live exports were discussed today but there was no agreement on the issue. The Council of Agriculture Ministers failed to reach agreement this morning on a regulation improving the welfare of animals during transport, despite prolonged and intensive efforts by the Presidency to broker a solution. The Minister, Deputy Walsh, stated that extreme positions were maintained by delegations and this made it impossible to reach a balanced agreement which would meet the objectives of ensuring a legitimate trade for live animals, leading to a real improvement in animal welfare standards also. I urge the Minister to improve this situation, as he surely understands the importance of the live export trade to Irish agriculture. Any attempt to restrict this vital trade would have devastating consequences for Irish livestock farmers in terms of market access and price competition. I am far from convinced by the scientific evidence upon which the countries that oppose the trade base their arguments. It is public knowledge that Dr. Bernadette Early of Teagasc has conducted a detailed survey of the conditions in which animals leave the country in live exports for other parts of the EU. She found that in current conditions if the numbers of animals contained within each vehicle was not extremely large that there was no unnecessary discomfort caused to the animal, so one has to question those who continually complain about animal welfare. What is their evidence based on? These countries are insisting that animals should not be unloaded from vehicles at staging points and that stocking densities should be increased to allow additional space for resting, feeding and watering. These proposals will be unworkable and do not necessarily represent best practice.
IFA figures on a typical journey from Ireland to Spain or Italy costing €6,350 suggest that this change would increase the cost per animal from €99 per head to €144 per head. Given the margins for those in the beef sector, that kind of increase would make the trade unviable.
The current lack of support among a majority of EU states for staging posts is equally difficult to comprehend. Staging posts allow animals to be unloaded, watered and rested as well as facilitating essential cleaning and rebedding of trucks. Much of the opposition to the live trade is unfounded and there is no scientific evidence for it. The detailed Teagasc study on the transport of cattle to Spain concluded that the cattle reached Spain in excellent condition with no adverse impact on animal welfare. That is the current position, which leads me to question how the trade's opponents come up with their views. The survey also proved that there is no adverse impact on animal welfare from long distance transport, provided proper animal welfare conditions are in place, and that significantly reducing stocking density levels on trucks from the current levels adds no animal welfare benefits.
The live export trade is of paramount importance to Irish agriculture. It is worth €200 million per annum and involves the export of over 200,000 animals to Europe, with 70,000 animals going to non-EU markets. It provides essential cattle price competition and valuable market outlets for livestock. The industry is uncertain as to whether it will be permitted to continue into the future. We all know live exports provide a floor for the market and if the trade did not exist it would leave the beef factories with a virtual monopoly, though some argue they already have a monopoly. Removal of the live trade would enhance their position.
I will say no more.
Ireland is different to the rest of the EU when it comes to live exports. Since the Channel Tunnel was built Ireland is the only island in the EU as it stands. It is therefore essential that while we hold the EU Presidency we should do as much as we can to promote live trade. Already in 2004 the volume of the live export trade has dropped by 42% to only 33,000 tonnes. Farmers are constantly told by agriculture experts and those involved in State advisory bodies such as Teagasc that they will have a future in farming post-CAP reform. However, they have also been told that both quality and quantity may have to be enhanced and expanded. If there is no live export trade, beef farmers can forget about the future, so it is essential the live trade remains. Beef farmers have nowhere to go and nowhere to sell to if there is no live export trade. Their only option will be the factory.
The Minister for Agriculture and Food has a unique opportunity as President of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council, during Ireland's EU Presidency, to bring his influence to bear and to strike a favourable deal for Irish farmers. He must use this opportunity to our advantage, as this issue has dragged on for too long. If he does not deliver for Irish farmers on the live export issue, it could signal disaster for the Irish beef sector.
Another issue in agricultural circles is the nitrates directive which, in tandem with the concerns surrounding the live export trade, is clearly a huge concern to farmers, particularly dairy farmers. The Minister for Agriculture and Food has been too influenced by the dictates of his colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, who is far too removed from the genuine concerns of farmers and from the hardship this directive will cause for farmers already under threat as a consequence of the effects of falling farm incomes and global challenges.
The Minister for Agriculture and Food should be doing more to address farmers' concerns about this. So far he has done nothing to champion the cause of farmers when it comes to the nitrates directive. Why must farmers bear the brunt of the implications of the directive? I am extremely unhappy at the popular conception that farmers are almost totally responsible for any deficiencies in our water quality. We all know this is not the case and that industry and householders all have a role to play in protecting water quality. The Minister of State referred to the farming supplement in today's Irish Independent. He should read an article in it which refers to the results of a survey of water quality in County Cork. The survey showed the county has a high level of farming and that there are approximately 12,000 farmers in Cork. Some 15% of the national cattle herd and 20% of the national pig herd are located in County Cork. There are large intensive farming units in County Cork, particularly in Mitchelstown, where the Minister's predecessor resides. Despite all this, Cork is managing to improve its water quality. According to the results of this survey, which was carried out by Cork County Council, the quality of water in Cork has improved in recent years. Surely this is proof that intensive farming does not necessarily lead to poor water quality.
The improvements in water quality are due significantly to the effort put in by farmers who have invested time and money to create proper facilities to stop the contamination of local water. Naturally it poses the question that if water quality is improving, why must farmers be subjected to the unworkable rate of 170 kilos of nitrate per hectare as is currently proposed. The current proposition on the nitrates directive of 170 kilos per hectare is for the entire European Union. Ireland has a much longer growing season than large parts of the EU. It is safe to say that the one size fits all policy proposed under the nitrates directive is not essential for Ireland. There are parts of Ireland where it may be necessary but there are parts where it is not and the Government should do more to increase the rate per hectare.
There are two key issues in the nitrate action plan that must be addressed. First, the Minister must ensure Irish farmers are allowed to increase output to 250 kilos per hectare of organic nitrate and, therefore, keep stocking rates of 1.2 cows per acre. The implications of allowing farmers to put out only 170 kilos per hectare would be devastating for pig and dairy farmers. Second, a crucial issue that must be addressed relates to the Government's proposed closure period. Obviously, this is the most contentious part of the nitrates directive. It governs the timescale for slurry spreading. The implications of not being able to spread slurry for three and a half months of the year would create significant storage problems with serious financial implications for farmers at a time when incomes are uncertain. From an environmental perspective the amount of slurry that would be spread in the second half of January, if the closure period October to January is applied, would cause enormous problems. If the weather is fine in October and a farmer has a couple of dry fields, how can it be safe, on anyone's understanding of the EU directive, to prohibit him from spreading then? If the timescale permits it in January, when the ground conditions may be much worse and everyone in the area is spreading, how can it be said that it is safe for ground water and safe for water quality in rivers throughout the country? It is clear that it is not safe.
The nitrates question should be about good farming practice that can be promoted and enforced and not about using unworkable proposals that will make commercial farming impossible. That is the current proposal. It is possible to have both improved water quality and an acceptable nitrates plan. The ball is firmly in the Minister's hands on this issue and he can accommodate both agendas. It is not asking for the impossible, merely expecting the Minister for Agriculture and Food to do right by farmers. I urge the Minister, Deputy Walsh, to resolve these issues immediately and not to stall merely because he is worried about the backlash before the local elections. Uncertainty in the farming industry will do nothing to improve farmers' circumstances.
The last issue I wish to raise is Teagasc closures. I appreciate the Department is not directly responsible and that the board of Teagasc makes these decisions. Nevertheless, the Minister of State is familiar with a number of them in our area of Mullinavat where a black cloud is still hanging over the advisory centre. A decision was made a number of years ago, following dramatic cuts in funding by the Department of Agriculture and Food. There was a cut of €17 million one year and some other amount the following year from the budget of the board of Teagasc. I ask the Minister to indicate, once and for all, the Government's position with regard to keeping these important facilities open throughout the country.
I join Senator John Phelan in welcoming the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Aylward. I wish the Minister of State well in forthcoming events on 11 June as he would be a good representative.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate on agriculture. We know the success of this and the last Government relative to managing agriculture at European level and local level. We are particularly pleased with the team, the Minister, Deputy Joe Walsh, the Ministers of State, Deputy Aylward and Deputy Treacy, and with the departmental staff who have been engaged, on an ongoing basis, together with the Ministers relative to agricultural matters as they affect the Irish economy, Irish agriculture and farmers generally. I congratulate them all and ask the Minister of convey those sentiments to the Department.
Before I begin my contribution I have to recognise what Senator John Phelan said when he referred to the Cork test on water. It is fair to say that where Cork leads, except in hurling on the odd occasion, others follow. In the early 1990s, Cork was engaged in the introduction and announcement of the nitrates directive for the purpose of trying to improve water quality in some of the river basin that showed a high level of pollution in Cork. That has been done reasonably successfully. It may not have met the standard we would have wished, but it was a huge step forward. We are pleased with that and the tests have been confirmed by the EPA and Cork County Council. Cork is leading.
Another area in which Cork led — it should be of some interest to this House — and about which I have been speaking for some time, was the nitrates directive in 1991. Everyone put that to bed. When the time came, the chips were down and it had to be implemented. I recall for the House that Good Farming Practices was signed off by two Ministers, the then Minister for Agriculture and Food, Mr. Yates, and the then Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Howlin.
That is a debate for another day. We shall put that issue to bed. All these issues were ignored. The Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Joe Walsh, has been abroad since Sunday evening with his officials trying to make some sense of the live cattle trade. I invite the Senator to raise the matter with his Green Party colleagues with whom his party wants to go to bed. There was strenuous opposition from the Green Minister for Agriculture of Germany and also from Ms Patricia McKenna, MEP, and other members of that party with whom his party is in courtship. Perhaps the courtship could include a lesson on agriculture.
I have dealt with the live export issue. It is important to have a live export trade. Nobody will deny that except those few people who pretend to represent Irish people. They are equally and more vehemently involved in the nitrates directive. It is very important to have good relations with that grouping. They are anti-farmer and anti-agricultural production as we know it in this country. It requires a Damascene conversion if one contemplates coalition with them, but we would prefer to hear that now rather than later. Their genuine support is welcome and I would welcome more forthcoming support for the efforts of the Minister's team and the officials regarding those two very sensitive issues for this country. The Minister, Deputy Walsh, and his officials are doing their best on both issues. It is critical to have the support of national unity behind it. I hope that plea does not fall on barren ground.
I have my own views on the nitrates directive and perhaps I am starting where I should be finishing, but it is an important issue. It may not be known in this House but in 1991, Cork County Council southern committee engaged in experimental trials with anaerobic digestion as a method of waste management. It was and is a success story and I have a copy of the report with me. It clearly shows that in Denmark and Holland anaerobic digestion is considered the way forward. I contend that in five or seven years the lateral spread of slurry in this country will be over. The practice of injecting slurry into the ground may continue for a few more years but it is time the nation looked at a new way forward, such as anaerobic digestion. There can be no doubt that, from an atmospheric point of view, the lateral spreading of slurry is gone even though nobody likes to hear it. I had a meeting with farming organisations at the weekend and they were not pleased when I told them. It is my contention that it will happen.
It is important that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Agriculture and Food, together with the farming organisations, lead us into the future. That system should be examined and researched — perhaps research is the wrong word to use because the system is being used already. Four piggeries in Cork have been granted planning permission in recent weeks for the anaerobic digestion of slurry. It is the way forward.
The mid-term review and CAP reform were successfully conducted. The devil is always in the detail of the fine print. A successful achievement was that the scheme is designed to meet the needs of Irish agriculture. The Minister, the Minister of State and the departmental officials represented Ireland very well.
The CAP was formed under the Treaty of Rome to ensure that Europe had sufficient food but it began to go wrong in the early stages. A false market was created by intervention. I never regarded intervention as a successful marketing system other than as an excuse for lazy activity. It took products off the market instead of devoting time, effort and energy to producing what the market and the consumer required. It is essential that the consumer is regarded as central. I hope the probable downturn in agricultural production will not occur because Ireland has the perfect environment for the production of high quality produce. The intervention system and the other payments referred to by the Minister of State caused a slippage because it led to production-based agriculture rather than consumer-led agriculture and there is a difference.
The population of the world is approximately 6.7 billion and in 35 or 40 years' time it is anticipated to be 9 billion or 10 billion, if we are spared war and plague in the meantime. Those numbers will need to be fed. Food comes from land and land is the basis of food production. Food is required for life by humans. We should adopt a long-term strategy. Post-Fischler there is an absence of usage of land. People make wild statements and what I term uninformed comments in order to lead people out of agriculture and out of land ownership with a view to grabbing it themselves. That has been the case historically in this country — "you have what I want".
We should explore the possibilities of using our land both here and in Europe. Some bio-mass products are easily grown and suitable weather conditions would allow them to mature. Oil and gas are finite resources and they will be exhausted in 40 years' time.
I have not yet started my script. I was happy to mention those issues. I ask the Minister and the Department, Government and Opposition to examine them together. A way forward must be found or heaven help us. There is a possibility of user exploitation of our land both in Ireland and in Europe for the benefit of mankind and land is for the benefit of mankind. I have nine pages of script left.
I have not read out much of it yet and somebody will give out to me today.
The arrangements made are good. Let us accept them, move forward together in promoting agriculture as a sustainable way of life, cut out the negativity and state clearly that there is room in agriculture for production.
Agriculture is a tough way of life. I am older than Senator John Paul Phelan, probably the oldest swinger in town, and having been involved in agriculture all my life, I have seen many tough decades. Farming to the calendar never works, as we in Cork and the Minister of State's constituents in Kilkenny know. Practical solutions are required and the Minister and his Department are doing their damnedest to find them.
Perhaps it is time control of this section was transferred to the Department of Agriculture and Food because it would have a more enlightened approach. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has a role to play in this regard, but Agriculture House has broad experience and knowledge available to it. It has the capacity to manage well and has proved it beyond a shadow of doubt.
I wish the Minister of State well on 11 June. Senator Phelan should have a word with Green Party colleagues whom his party is courting to get them to see sense. He should show them the road ahead, if he knows what it is.
I agree with my colleague, Senator Callanan, and compliment him on his excellent speech. The only point on which we differ was his statement that where Cork leads, others follow, which was not quite right. He should have said, where Tipperary leads, others follow.
I welcome the Minister of State and his officials who have done an excellent job in recent years. As an official at some European Council meetings at which this issue was raised, I had an opportunity to observe their work at close quarters. One of the positive developments for the future has been the agreement until 2013 on financing for the existing member states, which I hope will offer a degree of confidence.
It is appropriate that we are holding this debate in fine weather. The cattle are out, most of the cows have calved and prices are very strong, frighteningly so for those trying to pick up calves in the market. This is the time of year when confidence, which is sometimes dashed in autumn, flows back into farming as we look forward to good weather.
Senator Callanan referred to the importance of land use. The main problem with agriculture is that it has become one sector of the economy among many, whereas it was once the principal economic sector. Quality of life for farmers is good in some respects and not so good in others. For example, one does not always have ordered hours or sleep filled nights, particularly at this time of year.
Assuring the future is an important issue. Farmers must receive maximum support in terms of timeframes for adopting regulations and so forth, on which the Department has been extremely effective. This does not, however, alter the fact that, comparatively speaking, farming incomes, except those at the highest levels, have not kept up with incomes in the rest of the economy.
I am concerned that farming could be semi-abandoned in some less favoured parts of the country. Last summer, while visiting the west for a week, I noticed there were fewer animals around than three or four years previously. When I mentioned this to a farmer, he told me it was possible that there will be practically none in five or ten years. We need farming to be carried on for all sorts of reasons. If necessary it should continue alongside other occupations because we do not want large areas to go derelict.
Senator John Paul Phelan raised the nitrates directive, an issue on which I have met local farmers and received representations. A pragmatic approach involving compromise on both sides is required. I was interested in Senator Callanan's remarks on anaerobic digestion. He is correct that farming does not go by the calendar. One can have totally different conditions from one November to the next. Cattle are taken in and brought out on different dates each year because conditions differ. In a bad year, for example, one must bring them in at the end of November, whereas in a good one, they could be kept out until shortly before Christmas. According to my brother, they can often be brought out on 1 February in the favoured areas of County Cork.
This is a political debate. The question of constructing an alternative Government was addressed at various party conferences in recent weeks. Political alternatives are important in a democracy. I recall that at the previous general election people were not greatly concerned about the Labour Party because it was a known quantity. Among farmers, however, mention of the Green Party in a putative coalition was off-putting, certainly in Tipperary.
Although the matter is not directly relevant to farming, the Green Party is completely opposed to building one-off houses in the countryside. Come the next election, the public will want to know what policies the parties will take on such issues. Is it the case that the Green Party will simply abandon all its positions for the sake of entering Government?
That is exactly the point. It is essential that there are coherent agreed positions so that the electorate can judge the alternatives. That is what the Minister of State is trying to do and I agree with him. Agriculture has been run in a very efficient manner for some years and that is largely due to the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, and the Ministers of State who have worked with him. People who want any change in that political management should think long and hard and know what are the alternatives. They want to know whether the Green Party will stick to its position and insist that its partners accept this or whether it will leave agricultural matters to Fine Gael.
Ireland has gone from being a country very dependent on agriculture to one that is no longer so dependent. It is important that we protect the industry and the people therein. Agriculture has a big impact on our environment. It is appropriate that Dr. Mansergh mentioned the environment and the views of the Green Party. There is a growing awareness of the importance of the environment. However, the support farmers receive under the REP scheme is far too low. There are requirements on farmers in the form of checks and balances and examinations and restrictions are placed on them through their involvement in the REP scheme. They deserve a significant increase in levels of support for that involvement. Anyone with a true commitment to the environment should support that because it is important to all of us.
The problem with agriculture is very simple, but I do not know the solution. From the beginning of time, the objective of people working on the land was to make that land as productive as possible. The effective farmer was the person who produced the most. That has changed since Ireland joined the EU. With the introduction of quotas, farmers are actually penalised for producing above a certain level. People should think about that for one second. We have turned the attitude of people working on the land on its head. In the past, the heroes of farming were people who could go to the local agricultural show and display cows who could produce an enormous quantity of milk in one year. The current position is that if they go over the limit, they are fined. How have farmers been able to adjust to that? They have not been able to adjust to the idea of leaving land to lie fallow.
We need to discuss the environment issue in greater depth. With the Kyoto Agreement, there are many requirements on countries and all debate correctly focuses on dirty industry. Nonetheless, the reality is there are some industries which will never be completely clean despite the Kyoto Agreement. We can balance the dirty industry with the production of environmental cleansing through various forms of farming, of which forestry is a classic example. Farmers should be able to sell environmental credits to industry for having a certain acreage in a particular crop which aids the environment. The captains of industry who pollute the earth and air elsewhere should be required to buy these credits. This would allow the implementation of the Kyoto Agreement, which looks at the positives as well as the negatives. This is already being done in parts of the Caribbean. In this way we can ensure that the wealthy countries of the developed world, which are polluting the atmosphere, are required to buy credits to cleanse the environment from those parts of the world where the opposite is happening.
We must look at the restrictions and restraints that are placed on the development of farming by the EU. It is very easy to have smart Alec debates on the straight banana, the wine lake and the butter mountain, which bring the EU into disrepute. However, there are positive things that could be done. The demands placed on fruit and vegetable producers to sort vegetables and fruit before they are allowed on the market are utter nonsense. Any chef will attest to the fact that a large beef tomato can often be tastier than a small greenhouse-produced one, which is small and perfectly spherical. Some of the requirements for sorting and grading are an unnatural and unnecessary restriction on vegetable farmers. Market gardening is impossible when someone in Brussels decides that all tomatoes should be graded according to size. In the past, we knew what we were looking for in a vegetable shop and were not worried about the size of a tomato.
The requirements in the food processing industry need to be examined. Someone who runs a sandwich business and is supplying ten outlets has to meet the same requirements and conditions as someone whose business supplies 500,000 sandwiches per day. That kind of restriction does not apply solely to agriculture. People come back from holidays in Europe with stories of how they had meals in restaurants for half of the price of such meals in Ireland. That problem has partly been created here. We have put demands on restaurant owners to meet unnecessary restrictions in hygiene and planning in order to go into business. These problems are also hitting the food processing industry and agriculture. They hit market gardeners and those they supply. There is no reason a small town delicatessen could not sell sandwiches to local shops in the area. If they are to do so, they must comply with the strictest and most demanding of rules and regulations, which are really written for huge operations. This should also be addressed.
On at least two occasions in the past year, farmers have raised the question of the cost and value of milk and of payment therefor. I still do not know why farmers are being paid a pittance at the factory gate and why the housewife is being screwed for huge sums of money when she is buying it in the shop.
He is only at the end of the line. He is not present but I have discussed it with him. In fairness, I will not single him out. Let us look at all the steps between the counter and the farmer and see where the money is going. The same applies in restaurants and other places. This is what we should be addressing.
Not a month goes by without our talking about consumers and the prices they have to pay. Senators mentioned costs four times on the Order of Business today and the Leader mentioned them in her reply. We are demanding low costs but we do two things to make sure they will never be attained. First, we have restrictions in the development of businesses at small enterprise level that make it impossible for people to compete on their own level. Second, we have a common law approach such that, no matter what one does, the principle of caveat emptor — buyer beware — applies. Why are we stuck with this? Just because somebody thought about it in the courts 400 years ago does not mean we should retain it. It is time we passed a law and moved away from the common law approach. There is no reason why the principle of caveat emptor should apply. Let us say "caveat vendor" henceforth. This would be a small matter.
I do not know why Irish lamb, agneau Irlandais, is cheaper on the Continent than in Ireland. I have asked the IFA why nobody is following this up. It is absolutely disgraceful. Irish farmers are being exploited.
On the question of meats imported into the European Union, I believe Senator Mansergh mentioned last year that if somebody imports Thai chicken into the Union to a country such as Holland or Ireland, that chicken will be processed in the Union and will not have to meet any other demands to be sold as if it were European. The same applies to Brazilian beef, to which none of the Union's rules on growth promoters apply.
There is much to be addressed in the area of agriculture. Our position should be one of support for the farming community. It has a huge contribution to make and it very often makes its case very badly. This is part of the problem. It is up to us to make the case for the farming community. In the future, environmental issues will be determined by the farmers and the agriculture community, on whom we can rely as long as we give them the necessary support.
I am glad to speak here today and I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I gather that the Minister, Deputy Walsh, is in Luxembourg representing our interests, as he has done so well and so often in the past. He has been a truly outstanding Minister for Agriculture and Food. His record in office and in Fianna Fáil since 1992 will stand up to any reasonable scrutiny. At all times, agriculture has been kept centre-stage. During the boom years and even during the recent international downturn we always focused on the fundamental economic and social importance of the sector.
Over these years a sophisticated and modern agri-food sector was developed. This sector accounts for over 20% of net foreign earnings and it remains the backbone of rural Ireland. It also supplies safe and high quality food and it further acts as the custodian of our countryside. We must always remember that the sector is contributing almost €10 billion to the national economy or almost 9% of GDP. Notwithstanding years of great change and, at times, crisis, the sector continues to account for almost 10% of total employment.
One point we can definitely make about the Minister, Deputy Walsh, is that he is excellent in a crisis. The challenges of BSE and foot and mouth disease not only had the potential to destroy farming in this country but also to inflict serious damage on the whole economy. With calm and resolute leadership these external threats were overcome. In spite of the enormity of these crises, we were not deterred from ensuring that the interests of Irish agriculture were represented successfully through a series of CAP reforms culminating in the Luxembourg agreement last June. This reform of the CAP, in tandem with the October decision to opt for full decoupling of premia payments from production, heralded the beginning of a new era in Irish farming.
It must be emphasised that while this is a time of change it is also a time of great opportunity. Farmers will be released from the excessive paperwork and bureaucracy with which they have wrestled for so long. Instead, they will be offered an opportunity to realise their potential in the marketplace. We all know they want to be engaged in worthwhile activity that serves markets and consumers well.
The very nature of agriculture and its needs means that it deserves support through public funding. This support system will only be sustainable in so far as it allows farmers to concentrate on producing high quality food for real markets. Last year's mid-term review of the CAP involved tricky and prolonged consultations. As I said at the time of the conclusion of these negotiations, the deal delivered by the Minister represented a significant improvement on what the Commission had proposed a year earlier. A real victory for the Minister was the protection of the €1.6 billion in annual support for agriculture, secured under the Agenda 2000 agreement. I have no doubt that the new CAP structures will allow agriculture to develop in a viable manner.
The single farm payments will enable farmers to get on with the job of supplying markets and focusing on minimising production costs while maximising their incomes.
I am pleased that as part of the process of adapting to change, the Minister achieved a significant increase in funding for his Department. The 2004 Estimate for the Department amounts to approximately €3 billion. This is substantial expenditure and proves a strong and systematic commitment to the sector. For example, an additional €70 million will be spent on the rural environmental protection scheme, REPS.
The decision to opt for full decoupling is one where, as the Minister has rightly pointed out, Ireland has shown the lead to Europe. It is a wise decision that allows us to move ahead with certainty. We can now look forward to the elimination of the massive EU bureaucracy that had expanded around the range of schemes currently supporting farm incomes. I have no doubt we can ensure that the transition to the new payment arrangements is as flawless as possible for farmers.
Farmers will now be able to direct their production towards maximising quality instead of maximising quantity. Concentrating on quality production in an improved environment will provide our food business with the capacity to take on and succeed against its competitors in both home and export markets.
Farmers will approach this change in a positive manner and will adapt quickly to the new framework which they know will secure their future. We can be sure that with this Fianna Fáil-led Government and this ministerial team, priority will continue to be given to agriculture and we will be able to meet any challenges in the future. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Aylward, for coming to the House to take this debate.
I wish to touch on the nitrates directive and the live export trade. One could be forgiven earlier for thinking this was a debate on the policy of the Green Party in a number of areas. I am glad some Members on the Government side accept the reality that we are in the dying days of this Administration. The next Government will comprise the caring coalition of the democratic alliance, good governance or whatever one wants to call it.
There has been much debate and much sitting on the fence recently on the nitrates directive. The failure of this Government to implement the nitrates directive is delaying the implementation of REPS III. REPS III is paying €80 per hectare as opposed to its predecessor which paid €60. This is not a plausible position. I accept there are other urgent priorities for this Administration but this directive was first adopted by the European Council in 1991. We must ask why there has been a failure to implement it to date.
Nobody would disagree with the fundamentals behind the directive in terms of protecting water against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources which is, in itself, a good thing. Naturally enough, we must look at the merits and demerits of the directive and how it impinges or impacts negatively on much of the farming community. The directive requires that member states designate vulnerable zones, implement action programmes and prescribe measures for reducing pollution by nitrates from agriculture. There was some debate on this issue in February when the Minister maintained the figure on the organic nitrogen limit was 170 kg per hectare. He said this was based on advice given by Teagasc, but that is not true. The advice Teagasc gave related to a figure of 210 kg per hectare. It would be interesting to know where the Minister and his officials got the figure and why the Minister said one thing and Teagasc another.
A survey was conducted recently on the nitrates issue in the North. It maintained that more than 4,000 farmers will face significant changes if the nitrates directive is implemented as currently proposed. It includes all the commercial pig and poultry units and around half of Northern Ireland dairy farms but only about 6% of low lying beef farms. The farmers concerned will either have to find alternative or additional means of disposal of animal manures or reduce stock numbers on their holdings if no other solution is found.
The extent of the problems faced by intensive dairy farms was assessed in this survey of 90 members which was conducted by the East Down Positive Farmers group. Based on its calculations of the theoretical nitrate production of the livestock on each farm, the survey indicates that only three out of 19 farmers can continue to farm as they currently do within the standards they currently operate. The other 16 farmers will either have to reduce livestock by a total of more than 520 cows and followers or obtain access to an extra 343 hectares of land. It is clear that land is the issue, but sufficient land is not available to offer what one would deem an immediate and reasonable response to that issue.
The farmers surveyed have a total of more than 3,000 cows on almost 18,000 hectares. Calculations in the survey maintained that there would be a combined loss of 3.7 million litres of milk production which, at 17p per litre, would amount to over £600,000 of gross income of the 16 farmers surveyed. That is a huge possible financial loss by any standard and is something of which we must remain cognisant. The alternative is an extra 343 hectares of conacre at £250 per hectare. That would add almost £86,000 to the aggregate farm cost of the 16 holdings. Whichever way one looks at it, this is causing difficulty.
The nitrates directive will force many farmers to consider significant investment in slurry storage capacity to comply with it. They will also need adequate land availability. Unfortunately, in some cases, that will not be an issue. It is incumbent on the Minister, particularly in his capacity as leader of the EU Council of Agriculture Ministers, in conjunction with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to find common ground and a compromise between the environmental people, the environmental Departments, the farming organisations and the various Agriculture Ministers. It is essential we do what is required of us at European level. It is embarrassing that Ireland has been frequently fined by the EU because of its failure to implement various directives. Other coalition Governments or previous Governments did not have a Minister with a designated portfolio in terms of Europe. That is an important issue in terms of the implementation of EU directives, particularly a directive as critical to the environment as this one.
It is disappointing that the talks on live exports did not succeed. This is probably one of the most serious issues the Minister will face in his capacity as leader of EU Agriculture Ministers. It is critical because it comprises a huge part of the Irish farming sector. Live exports have been hit in recent years for a number of reasons, not least because of adverse weather conditions over which no state or government has control. Export levels have improved due to better market demand. It is crucial that the current level of exports is maintained. Unrealistic requests were made by some elements of bureaucracy in Europe. We must look at this issue in terms of the protection of farmers' interests and genuine concerns in regard to animal welfare. There is a happy medium and it is incumbent on the Minister to find it.
More than 250,000 cattle were exported last year. These exports play a huge part in the Irish economy, particularly the agricultural industry, therefore it is vital to maintain them at this level. I hope that between now and the end of Mr. Walsh's tenure in his European capacity a solution will be found, common sense will prevail and the issue will be brought to a conclusion.
I welcome the admission by Members on the Government side of the House that this Administration is in its dying days. I look forward with the other members of the caring coalition to forming what will be a very good and positive agreed programme for Government, which will contain accurate information and truth.
I join my colleagues in welcoming the Minister of State, Deputy Aylward. Since his appointment as Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, he has shown a very clear and concise understanding of the issues that face farmers in this changing time. Together with the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, and the Minister, Deputy Walsh, he has provided excellent leadership in farming. Together they have assisted, led and been part of detailed negotiations in Europe at this difficult time. His endeavours will stand the Minister of State, Deputy Aylward, well in the forthcoming election, in which I wish him well. It is great to see someone of his calibre who will carry the banner not just for farmers but for all the different elements of society to the European Parliament. I have no doubt such people will be successful and assist us going forward.
There has been some debate in the House this evening on decoupling. I welcome the position the Government took at an early stage in achieving full decoupling for Ireland. There were different detractors both within Ireland and outside who appeared to suggest we should take some other route. I note that another candidate in the same election has been making considerable noise in recent days in regard to a land-based payment. This would be of no assistance to farmers who are working the system and working the land. It would reward landlords, which would not be in anyone's best interest. The approach taken maximises farmers' income, which is welcome.
A number of speakers referred to the movement away from bureaucracy. This has been called for by many farmers and farmer organisations. Removing some of the unnecessary bureaucracy has been to the fore in discussions with Government and the European Commission. Moving to a single payment approach provides for this. It will make it easier for farmers to engage in farming rather than engage in paperwork and bureaucracy, which is welcome.
Full decoupling will lead to moving away from a process of over-producing, to which Senator O'Toole alluded when he spoke about the butter mountains, beef mountains, wine lakes, straight bananas etc. We must move away from that process and try to assist farmers in developing their role as custodians of the land. We must allow them to produce in a sensible and careful manner. They must be allowed to produce a product which is required, is of a very high quality and saleable on the open market. Anyone who follows the whole food market in the EU recognises that premium prices are paid for high quality products. Unfortunately, Ireland has not been targeting that market. We have been trying to move large quantities of product. It was a matter of producing for the purpose of gaining subsidies and not looking at the quality of the final product. This is something that can be done in association with Bord Bia, which was to the fore in this area. There is now a better chance for producers, marketeers and the Government to put greater emphasis on marketing a high quality product for the top end of the European market.
We must focus on consumers. As a result of some elements of the Common Agricultural Policy, the market was more production driven than consumer focused. It was difficult at the time for those involved in the production side to get negotiations to a point where everyone was happy. Great credit is due to people not just in this country, but throughout Europe, who have been involved in bringing about these latest proposals. The focus is now on consumers and the quality of the product.
I was interested to hear Senator O'Toole say the restrictions imposed have been over zealous in some instances. He is probably correct to an extent. However, we can never lose sight of the importance of food safety. The Food Safety Authority has been to the fore in developing standards. I would not like to think that because one focuses on small business and small producers one in any way removes the obligation to provide a safe food product. This is something about which we need to be careful.
I am not sure these restrictions have led to the higher price of lamb in Ireland as opposed to on the Continent. Something with which Senator O'Toole might be more familiar is the cost of labour. I am not suggesting we should not have a minimum wage and we should not pay workers a fair price for the work they do. It is unfair, however, to compare France and Spain with Ireland in terms of the cost of food. Inherent in the cost of food, particularly at the point of purchase such as in a restaurant, is the cost of preparing food. The cost of preparing food and the cost of staff in Spain is much lower than in Ireland, therefore, we need to consider the issue in more detail.
There was some discussion earlier on the nitrates directive. The political point has been made in regard to when the guide to best practice was first initiated and who the signatories were. We should not play the blame game with one side throwing mud at the other. We must collectively resolve the issue. It is a real issue for farmers or those of us who come from a farming background. There has been a lot of hype and debate around the issue. It is something about which we are all concerned. Unfair remarks were made that the Minister, Deputy Cullen, is driving the issue and he does not have a regard or understanding for rural Ireland. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly in regard to the recent actions the Minister took in regard to Dúchas, An Taisce and the planning guidelines. He has shown a phenomenal empathy with rural Ireland.
I will be happy to discuss these issues at a later stage with Senator Finucane.
It is clear the Minister, Deputy Cullen, has rural Ireland at heart and has a clear concept and understanding of balancing the needs of all sides. I welcome his deliberations in that regard.
The issue about which I am concerned is that of live exports. Senator Burke and Senator Finucane will be familiar with this issue which is of concern in their areas. The west depends largely on the export of weanlings to support the market. Without the live exporters around the cattle ring in the marts, there will not be a sustainable future for farmers in the west, particularly in light of decoupling and other matters. It is vitally important that the live export trade is maintained. I am disappointed about the breakdown of the talks last night. The Minister has made strong representations to the other member states and all Ministers and their officials have been working over the past number of weeks to bring about a resolution. One state which for political reasons has stood full square and solid in the way of negotiations is Germany. To an extent, the British were on their side. The German Federal Minister of Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture, Ms Renate Künast, is a member of the Green Party. It was suggested that the Minister for Agriculture and Food has either created this problem or failed to resolve it. It would be worth noting that the German Green Party was behind the failure to reach consensus in Strasbourg last night.
The Fine Gael Party is working on a strategy to bring the Green Party to Government. I would like to hear clearly from the Green Party and Fine Gael if the deal is worked out in terms of where the parties stand on the issue of live exports from an island nation that depends on them continuing. We have to resolve this issue. Let us not throw mud from side to side. There is a lobby which wants to put farmers out of business completely and not just to prevent the export of live cattle from this country. They would much prefer to see land left idle, growing daisies and populated by butterflies. We have to continue to protect farming.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Alyward. In his concluding remarks the Minister of State said "we are on the threshold of a new era", but I am not sure that it is a new era for agriculture. How prepared are we for this new era? In the past two decades we have survived under Fianna Fáil Ministers for Agriculture and Food who had no policy or indication of a policy for any aspect of agriculture. Senator O'Brien made a very telling statement when he said the Minister is very good in a crisis. That is the only time we have seen an active Minister for Agriculture and Food in the current Government or in the previous Fianna Fáil led Administration. That is very sad.
If the Minister for Agriculture and Food was to provide leadership to the staff in Agriculture House to formulate policies of real substance to the people who work the land, then I am sure we would not say we are on the threshold of a new era but we would be en route to a progressive agricultural policy, which we have not had for the past ten years or so. That is fact — ask any farmer. When the Minister of State, Deputy Aylward, leaves the protected confines of Leinster House to face the electorate, he will find a very cold breeze in Leinster.
Farm incomes are falling and there is an exodus from the land. The Government, which cannot build confidence in people who have been involved in agriculture all their lives and for generations, is to blame. Why have young people who wish to go into agriculture no confidence that, as a sole source of income, farming will provide for their families in the future? All around the country there is obvious evidence, for example, Teagasc is selling its research farms in Clonroche, Wexford, and it is selling its fruit farm. In Athenry, County Galway, the Department is selling its lands at Mellowes College for an industrial park while vast tracts of UCD's farm in Celbridge, County Kildare, are being sold. Land in Ballinamore, County Leitrim is being sold also.
Four contrasting environments in four contrasting areas provided income to those working in different aspects of agriculture. It is indicative that Teagasc is preparing the people who are left on the land for an eventual exit from farming. The consequences of that are very serious not necessarily for rural areas alone, but for the whole country. If the active population in agriculture is declining, we will have declining income at national level. Everybody knows that the subsidisation of agriculture has been criticised. However, were it not for the support of premia payments, we would have a very serious crisis.
The figures speak for themselves. Farm income declined in 2003 by 2.2% at a time when all other incomes under the Celtic tiger were increasing by 5% plus. The average income from farming in 2003 was €15,500 compared to the average industrial wage of €27,000 or public service income of €39,000. In other words, the average farmer has 45% less income than the average industrial worker or more than 50% less than the average public sector employee. Unless there is a policy driven focus on farming, how can we expect people to continue in agriculture? From the profile of those engaged in agriculture, many will retire in the next decade, others will die and we will have a more serious crisis but, as Senator O'Brien said, we have a man that will respond to a crisis. That will be too late for the Minister, Deputy Walsh, who I presume will not be there.
Are we to get spin doctoring from the Department of Agriculture and Food, similar to that provided by the Department of Education and Science? If that is the content of it, cancel the printing immediately.
As Senator Callanan should know, the greatest fall in income in agriculture is in dairying sector. The decline in income from dairying was 23%. The current exodus from dairying is causing concern to the managers and members of co-operatives because they realise that within a short time there will be a crisis of supply. Look at the number of people who have left milk production. I will give the statistics from my parish. In 1993 there were 43 suppliers of milk and today the number has been reduced to three. What alternative source of income is there for those who invested heavily, thinking that milk production had a future? Teagasc has announced that milk prices will decline by a further 4% this year on top of the previous decline. The three dairy farmers in my parish will be gone.
Rural Ireland will only stabilise when farmers, as they are now doing, view land as a resource not from which they can make an income from farming activities but by selling sites. This is the only way they will be able to keep their incomes anywhere near the average income of their neighbours who are involved in industrial or other professional activities. That is the sad reality and the sooner that hits home to the Minister, the better. For the past seven years, he has been idle as regards farm incomes. Farming has dawdled along, hitting the waves when the wind is against us now and again.
I pay tribute to the Minister in that when we had a serious crisis he at least confronted it. However, he is wrong to claim the sole credit for preventing the spread of foot and mouth disease here. He cannot do so legitimately because it was prevented by people and relevant agencies working together. I grant that the Minister was at the head of the campaign, but no one should say he was solely responsible for preventing foot and mouth disease, although I have heard that said in the House.
Will the Minister and the Minister of State introduce flexibility to allow farmers to judge for themselves what farming activities can be undertaken within the terms of the nitrates directive? Farmers know best and are in no way responsible for pollution or other anti-environmental practices. Farmers must be granted the flexibility to decide when they can spread slurry. In the present climate, they should not be forced by the directive to spend more on providing additional capacity for storing slurry on their farms. If such flexibility is not granted, they will not be able to invest due to indebtedness.
The Minister of State should cater for progressive farmers who have proven themselves to be efficient and effective producers. They know best, so they should be allowed greater flexibility in spreading slurry. We are not talking about cowboys, although some people have referred to them as such. Farmers will not abuse such flexibility if it is granted to them. The greatest conservationists in the country are the farmers who, in so many areas, have responded positively to so many different situations.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Aylward, and congratulate him on his past and current work in the Department of Agriculture and Food. We must recognise also the efforts of the other Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, as well as those of the Minister, Deputy Joe Walsh.
The Minister and his two Ministers of State have shown leadership on many occasions. They have taken tough decisions when it was not popular to do so and when others sat on the fence waiting to see how the ball would hop before rowing in at a later stage when the correct decision had already been taken.
A few of them are still sitting on the fence in a number of parties, waiting to see what is the right thing to say. Great credit is due to the Minister and his officials, however. The single payment system is being introduced and I hope the Minister and his officials will take cross-compliance into account and outline how rigorous will be the checks and penalties. Farmers are concerned about those penalties so if an error is made what delay will apply to the annual cheque for farmers? Farmers have taken the new payment system into account and are delighted with the decision that was taken but errors will occasionally be made. In the past, delays arising from administrative errors may have related to a particular section or entitlement, but a problem arises with delaying a single annual payment. If a farmer is audited for some reason, will the audit hold up the single payment to that farmer? Perhaps the Minister of State and his officials could deal with that question.
The single payment scheme will give farmers freedom to farm with a view to obtaining a maximum return in whatever agricultural enterprise they may wish to undertake. Only 50% of total farm incomes now derive solely from farming. This has come about through the present Government enabling farmers' wives and other members of farming families to work in alternative employment for improved incomes and this should be recognised.
Much has been said about the nitrates directive, which is one of the most important issues currently facing farmers. Farmers are concerned about the directive, as public representatives know having met with them and members of the farming organisations. As someone who does a bit of part-time farming, I understand the situation. I recognise what the Ministers of State and the Minister have said in the past about adopting a common sense approach to the nitrates directive. Rules and regulations must be introduced but in some cases such regulations are suited to the position as it may have obtained eight or ten years ago, when there were real problems in certain agricultural sectors. The problems arose from a small number of farmers who were spreading slurry illegally and not taking sufficient care to avoid polluting water courses.
The Environmental Protection Agency's report on the quality of drinking water reflected the excellent quality of surface waters. It also demonstrated an overall compliance with the limits set by the nitrates directive. That is the current situation which is acknowledged by farmers who require clean water for use on their own farms and in their households. They recognise that much of the water supply to group water schemes comes from underground sources known as aquifers. Farmers are best situated to keep such water supplies clean and pure.
Those who draw up the rules and regulations relating to the nitrates directive must ensure that such rules can be operated and that no one will be forced to leave farming due to unrealistic regulations. Farmers are well placed to invest in farming because they continue to develop and modernise, thus raising farm enterprises to high standards. Before being elected to the House, I spent 20 years dealing with farmers all over the country. I saw farmers revamping and modernising their farms every ten years on average and spending substantial sums to do so. Local authorities have taken the interests of farmers on board, as has the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, in allowing them to sell sites which allow locals to build in their own area. That money will allow farmers to develop and modernise their farms, which will make their work easier and improve standards.
My county is part of the BMW region and much of it is designated a disadvantaged area. I ask the Minister of State and his officials to consider designating the rest of Laois and Offaly, approximately 25% of the total, as severely disadvantaged. I hope this is examined carefully by the Minister of State and his officials in advance of any further developments, particularly in regard to severely disadvantaged areas which are not in the BMW region.
We should also examine the importance of farming families and households. Some say that people are leaving farming, but that has always been the case. I have seen many farmers who worked seven days a week from the time they took over a dairy farm in their early 20s. When they hit 50 they felt they had given enough to farming, having made a substantial amount of money. They are moving out of farming but there are many young, well-educated farmers with green certs coming into agriculture. The mid-term review will reveal opportunities that will allow young farmers into the industry in the coming years. There will be great opportunities for those coming out of our agricultural colleges.
I compliment the Minister of State on addressing the concerns about rented land. Farmers who had rented substantial amounts of land were adding to their farms and there were concerns about the price of rented land. I acknowledge the work of the Minister and his officials in Brussels to ensure that 50% of a farmer's total landholding in a reference year would be sufficient. That ensures land rental prices will not go through the roof. Those who rented land from armchair farmers and who worked hard to produce from that land will not have to pay exorbitant prices and I compliment the Minister and his officials on a job well done.
Farming was at a crossroads but we have turned the corner. People can now decide on their enterprises and make a good living from farming. I wish the farming organisations well. They have made a valuable contribution in giving us relevant information to use in the debate.
It is interesting to listen to all strands of thought on this issue. Two themes seem to be emerging, one of which relates to the praise lavished on the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for his caring approach to rural Ireland. I refer particularly to his recent announcement on one-off housing. Senator Moylan said farmers could now sell their sites and allow planning permission to go ahead, thus earning well-earned revenue to supplement their income. He also said we were at the crossroads in farming. To a certain degree there is a contradiction involved in a situation when farmers have to sell sites in order to remain financially solvent; that contradicts the suggestion that farming is going extremely well.
I do not want to bore Members with statistics, but the dairy industry is the most important component of agriculture in my county. Any dairy farmer will tell you that very few sectors of the community would embrace the income figures they had in 2003, which are at the same level as in 1989. In parallel with that situation the supermarkets are making a 40% profit on milk, so is it any wonder there are concerns about supermarket price wars? The automatic target is milk, as a possible loss leader within the supermarkets.
Can anyone tell me that that loss of income is good progress for a dairy farmer? I do not know if Members have spoken to their local planning officials since the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government's announcement of new terms for planning. My local planning officials have told me that, if anything, the new terms make matters even more difficult. For example, in the past if one was building a house in a cul-de-sac or a road with a certain number of bends, one was allowed flexibility in removing a hedgerow on one's property. If one studies Deputy Cullen's statement, one sees he is opposed to hedgerows being removed, therefore one does not have the chance of getting an agreement between neighbouring farmers on improving sight distances for bends. That has been cited to me as a deterrent in the new rules.
In our county we have a pressure zone outside Limerick city where a condition was embodied in a planning permission that one had to occupy the property for five years. According to the Minister, that period will now be seven years. Based on the numbers of permissions in past years I do not see a dramatic increase in the number of planning permissions in my county. Refusals are still occurring.
Senator Moylan mentioned the nitrates directive and I agree with him on farmers' concerns about the water supply. However, the reality is that the greatest percentage of planning permission refusals in any county arises because of the percolation qualities of sites. An environmental health officer produces a report stating that a development is not suitable because of the soakage involved or because there are high water tables. If the nitrates directive and so on are the reasons for rejection, can the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government tell the planning authorities to overrule environmental health officers because they have to give planning permissions in those areas? I doubt it.
To a certain degree this announcement was a bit of a con job, because the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government had to respond to the wishes of the Taoiseach. Last year Fianna Fáil had a session in Sligo at which concerns in rural Ireland about one-off houses were aired, so I would not applaud Deputy Cullen on this issue. Many Fianna Fáil people have said it is great that Dúchas is gone. When it comes to looking at something from an heritage point of view it appears the last arbiter is the Minister. If one looks at the last election and the amount of funding which that Minister got from an industry which was publicised as such, I often wonder when a Minister is talking about a development which has a heritage aspect and where he is the final arbiter, what will be his final decision. If anything there was an over-reaction to Dúchas, which provided a buffer zone and which played a valuable role. Now there are people who say we must get rid of An Taisce.
If the Senator watched "Questions and Answers" last night, he would be aware that many rang in and praised An Taisce. I have not seen a great deal of involvement in my county with regard to any planning applications where An Taisce has objected to the planning development. I have seen no classic examples. This has been exaggerated out of all proportion. It is like a mantra among Fianna Fáil politicians. When it wants to blame somebody following a planning application refusal it automatically blames An Taisce. There is a terrible contradiction here. In my county we have never had a material contravention to the draft development plans, unless it was introduced by the officials for various reasons. The policy of all parties on the council is that we do not entertain people who want to do this. People came to me from Kerry who wanted to set up a business on the national primary route asking why I would not move a section 4. When I said we will not move a section 4 they said they would go to a Fianna Fáil councillor to get it done, but the Fianna Fáil councillor said the same.
In regard to An Taisce and planning, one has got to look at the whole approach to section 4s. The sad aspect of them is that they exist in many counties which have a high tourism and amenity value. They are depriving the counties in the long term of a revenue base from tourism. I am not here to defend An Taisce. I merely want to recall the realities of planning as I know them in my county. Often it is criticised out of all proportion in respect of its status. It is easy to say we should get rid of it, the same as we got rid of Dúchas. Perhaps that is Fianna Fáil policy and Ministers like to control all aspects of it in order to protect planning and heritage.
On the issue of farming and trying to generate extra revenue for farms, a group of farmers has got together on wind energy. There is a moratorium at present in regard to wind energy because of a concern of the energy regulator and particularly EirGrid and I do not know when it will end. I ask that somebody tell the planning authorities the acceptable number of megawatts that will go into the national grid. What is happening at present is that expectations are being fuelled due to the success of planning applications. They may not be sustainable because they may not get connected to the national grid subsequently and much expenditure is involved in the preparation of submissions. That has provided an extra revenue base for many farmers in different communities. It could be stifled for the future. Time does not permit me to deal with many other topics.
I welcome the Minister of State. In fairness to the Minister, Deputy Walsh, and the Ministers of State, Deputies Aylward and Treacy, they took a brave stance early on regarding the decoupling proposals. They were out on their own because the IFA was not prepared to make a decision. It was a brave decision taken by the Minister, Deputy Walsh, and welcomed by most farmers, certainly those in the west, to have 100% decoupling.
On the issue of force majeure, I realise the closing date for applications has passed and decisions will be taken soon. I have been speaking to a young woman in farming who has three children and lost her husband two weeks ago. I hope there is some way that lady can qualify even though the closing date for applications has passed.
On the nitrates directive, over a month ago an article in the farming supplement of the Irish Independent stated the EU Commission said Ireland has not gone far enough. I do not agree with that statement. The facts should be pointed out. A booklet, Good Farming Practices, was produced by agreement with the IFA, the Government and the then Minister for Agriculture, Mr. Yates, and the Minister for Environment and Local Government, Deputy Howlin, in 1996. At that time the figures were agreed. The nitrates directive dates to 1991. In fairness, the Minister has no choice but to implement it, otherwise he would come before the European Court because it has not been implemented since 1991. While I do not agree with it the Minister has no option but to implement it.
On the issue of slurry spreading and the dates for same I ask the Minister of State to be flexible. The dates mentioned may not be suitable for the farmers in the west because of the climate.
In regard to the export of live cattle, the cattle exporters from the west came before the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food and expressed their problem. Some 30,000 cattle were exported from the west last year, having been shipped from Rosslare. The exporters in the west had to take their cattle to Dublin for testing and take them by lorry to Rosslare, which is ridiculous. It would make more sense to have a licensed yard in the west to test those cattle and take them directly to Rosslare and I ask the Minister of State to look at that issue.
When watching the news on Friday night I was surprised to hear the leader of Fine Gael, Deputy Kenny, ask his supporters, after they have voted for their own candidate, to continue their preferences for the Greens and the Labour Party. Last Thursday, Patricia McKenna MEP, a senior member of the Green Party, was campaigning outside the Department of Agriculture and Food with Compassion in World Farming as part of its efforts to ban cattle exports. Such a ban would have a very detrimental effect on farming in the west, where I come from, and I wonder if Deputy Kenny realises the destruction of farming that would occur if the Green Party was ever given control of the Department of Agriculture and Food.
Senator Burke said the Minister, Deputy Joe Walsh, should not take the credit for keeping foot and mouth disease out of the country. In fairness to the Minister, he took a leading role in the fight to keep it out and if it had come into the country, we all know whose head would have been on the block and who would have been blamed. In my opinion he is not being given the thanks due for keeping it out of the country.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I wish him the best in his electoral contest in June. I thank him and his colleagues, the Minister of State, Deputy Tracey, and the Minister, Deputy Joe Walsh, for their work in the Department. I am pleased he mentioned in his opening address the question of the ten accession states who will join the European Union next Saturday. Their accession will have implications for the Common Agricultural Policy. It is both a challenge and an opportunity for us as members of the European Union to take part in the new CAP. A significant consultation process has taken place with meetings held around the country and the decision regarding 100% decoupling from next year has been welcomed. This will give flexibility to farmers in the way they can farm from now on. Bureaucracy hopefully will be reduced and eliminated.
On the question of bureaucracy, there has been a problem with regard to commonages, particularly in the west, for some time, as the Minister of State is aware. Dual claims have caused problems and it is amazing that people claim for the same parcel of land. People are looking forward to decoupling and I hope the Land Commission and the Department will be able to resolve those issues before it takes place.
I welcome the funding for schemes dealing with hygiene and waste management which have encouraged farmers to invest. The role of the agricultural colleges is very important and they have had to face the threat of closure in some cases. There are two agricultural colleges in my county of Galway, Mellowes College in Athenry and the Franciscan College in Mountbellew where the numbers are large. Young farmers also do CERT and business courses at the colleges and this is a positive sign for the future of farming. I ask the Minister and his Department to support those colleges.
I welcome the new rural FÁS scheme as it has been called. Herd numbers will be required by the 2,500 people who wish to participate in the scheme. It will help off-farm employment. I welcome all that has been done by the Department with regard to women in agriculture, particularly regarding the requirement for action on PRSI, carer's allowance, maternity benefits and rural transport. The county councillors of County Galway were ahead of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, in the draft guidelines which he produced. The councillors changed and amended the county plan to ensure that people would be given planning permission in rural areas on the simple principle that the further one is from Galway city, the better chance one has of building a house in rural Ireland. I believe that is a very good principle and I hope it will be supported by the Government and the Minister, Deputy Cullen.
I thank Senator Moylan for arranging extra speaking time. In Carlow the average farming income has fallen to approximately 52% of the average industrial wage from 70% in the past few years. I do not wish to sound negative about agriculture but it is important to examine the factual information. Many young people are not going into agriculture and the number of farms is decreasing while the size of farms is increasing. The recent census figures show that the number of farms has decreased by almost 2,000 in the space of two years. The number working on farms decreased by 5,500. The figures may be even worse for the past two years. Will we end up like the Americans with huge commercial farms? It seems we may be heading in that direction as pig farming becomes more specialised although there are only a few hundred pig farmers in the country compared to the past. It is now common for a tillage farmer to have 500 or 600 acres. In the case of dairy farming with an average milk quota of 40,000 gallons, people are not attracted to even double that quota. Many young people would not go near a quota of 80,000 gallons because it is not regarded as viable in the long term. They are walking away from farming and that is regrettable.
I was bemused listening to the arguments made by Fianna Fáil Members about the impact of the Greens in a future Fine Gael-led Government. I remind them that whatever concerns they have, it would not be any worse than the current Government.
When the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, was canvassing in the general election in Laoighis-Offaly, he created the impression that he would solve every problem in agriculture, yet the minute he was elected, he ran as far away as possible from the Department of Agriculture and Food and has not been heard of since. He did not bring the House down when the Government immediately following the general election changed the capital gains tax implications for farmers whose land was being acquired by CPOs. His voice went very soft and he could not be found. It is very unfair that farmers whose land has been compulsorily purchased for motorways receive a double whammy. They cannot reinvest in land without paying capital gains tax. This is a disgraceful decision by the Government and I have written to the Minister for Finance about it. Whatever concerns the Members opposite have about the Greens in a future Government, they should look at their own track record. Fine Gael will always ensure that the agricultural community is looked after.
It is correct that the nitrates directive has not been implemented since 1991, but 13 years later it will be suddenly implemented. The analogy of taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut has been used. I understand that two different standards will apply between the nitrates directive for Northern Ireland and that for the South. In my end of the country many dairy farmers use the New Zealand system where the cattle are brought in late in the winter and let out early in the spring. Those farmers would not be happy with the proposals. The blanket application of nitrates directives is not good. Pollution control grants for farmers and the young farmers insulation grant need to be increased. The insulation grant is currently €9,000, but that needs to be re-examined.
The website of the Central Statistics Office provides significant information. Prices are falling in every sector of farming but costs are rising. To illustrate the point, the cost of fertiliser in 1993 was €132 per tonne and it is now €186 per tonne. The compound 0-10-20 was €153 per tonne and it is now €201 per tonne. If one contrasts these increases with prices in various areas, one finds they are clearly not in line with inflation.
Will the Minister of State explain the reason the number of animals slaughtered, particularly pigs and sheep, appears to have declined in certain areas? Sheep and pig slaughtering lags far behind other European countries and Ireland and the United Kingdom appear to have a difficulty in this area. Butter production has also fallen by 8.9% in recent years.
The export market is crucial for agriculture. Given that we export approximately five-sixths of our agricultural products, marketing is vital. The Government has proposed decentralising Bord Bia to Wexford. Perhaps it should decentralise the agency to the four corners of the earth and establish offices in Tokyo, Berlin, Washington and other important centres with significant powers and greater funding to market and sell Irish products abroad. What will be the real benefit of decentralisation of Bord Bia to Wexford? It will have a knock-on effect on the town but the Government should consider the bigger picture at all times.
Research and development is as important to agriculture as other sectors. We need to examine how we can develop products and make them more attractive to consumers. Easy cheese and similar ploys have been successful in this regard. We need to invest significant sums in research and development, particularly in dairy and meat products to create more markets for them.
It is vital that we have family farms in future because without them we will have poor society. The recent census figures show major growth in towns, which is not necessarily a positive development. Sitting for hours in one's car travelling to work every day is not a good way to spend one's life. The growth of towns will have a considerable impact on rural post offices, primary schools, football and hurling teams and so forth and will diminish society.
The rural housing guidelines announced recently will not make a real difference. We need a sensible approach. I disagree with the approach to which Senator Kitt referred, which appears to have been adopted in Galway, although I may have misunderstood him. The policy of making it easier for applicants to receive planning permission the further away they are from the city sounds daft because it encourages people to spend hours travelling by car. We need to have a proper housing policy which encourages people to build houses in the areas in which they work and to make a contribution to local communities and society. We will not help rural communities by encouraging people to travel 40 miles to work every day because they will have no association with the community.
I thank Senators for their contributions. It is important to keep agriculture centre stage and this debate and the large number of contributions indicates that this is House is doing so. In view of some of the comments made by my colleague in Carlow-Kilkenny, Senator Browne, I look forward to the next general election as it will be interesting to see how he and his colleague, Councillor Mary White, fare on the same platform and how their partnership is received by the farmers of the constituency.
The Government has ensured that agriculture and the agri-food business remain the centre of attention, notwithstanding the positive growth in the economy and the temptation to focus elsewhere. In view of the finalisation of the mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policy, the Department, in a deliberate exercise, held a series of meetings throughout the country seeking the views of farmers. I was present at many of them and they were well attended. The overwhelming view, one adopted by at least 95% of farmers, was that we should pursue complete decoupling. The support of farmers made it easier to make the decision on decoupling.
The reason farmers approved the Department's approach was that they wanted the red tape and bureaucracy we have all had to endure over the years removed. I have special responsibility for customer services in the Department and we have been trying to simplify schemes for the benefit of farmers. Replacing the current schemes, including suckler cow, special beef, slaughter premium and many others, by a single farmer scheme and one application, will result in a series of benefits. For example, the number of applications to the Department using Area A type forms will fall to 136,000 from the current level of 479,000. In addition, only 5% of applicants will be subject to on farm checks to establish their eligibility, with only 1% subject to cross-compliance checks and 5% checked in cases of identification and registration of animals. These figures clearly bear out the importance of our approach.
A transitional period will be introduced but that is a separate matter with which I will deal in a moment. Agriculture and the agricultural food sector remains of key economic importance. We should not forget that the sector contributes more than 20% of net foreign earnings and accounts for 9% of GDP.
The Government's record on agriculture speaks for itself. We have led it through major crises such as BSE and the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. We also developed the best policy framework for its future, as I outlined in my opening address. We introduced the long-term development plan for agriculture through the agri-food 2010 plan, which is now being further reviewed under the chairmanship of the former Minister, Alan Dukes. In the past, long-term planning for agriculture was not a feature of Governments, which completely ignored the issue.
As well as the €1.3 billion in direct payments to farmers, which has been ring-fenced as a result of our role in the negotiations in the recent CAP mid-term review, we have provided significant financial contributions for improved schemes on farms. If Senator Browne followed the budget, he will have noted that the Department succeeded in obtaining significant increases in funding for the schemes to which he referred, foremost among them REPS, to which I will turn in a moment. Installation aid for younger farmers was also substantially increased.
Senator John Paul Phelan referred to a 2% decline in farm income in 2002. Aggregate farm income increased by almost 5% last year, a fact acknowledged by the farming organisations. Under the new arrangements, farmers will be able to enhance their incomes by concentrating on obtaining the best returns from the market under the new system. The sector has moved into a new era.
I will address some of the points raised by Senators, specifically several which threaded through the debate. While REPS has been very successful, Members will be aware from talking to constituents that draconian penalties were imposed under the scheme for slight misdemeanours and minor transgressions of the rules. We intend to reduce penalties, the number of on-farm visits and the level of planning input required. Farmers will no longer have to reapply every year as is currently the case and a menu of options will be available. We hope many more farmers will join REPS III.
Some Senators pointed out that the scheme had not received approval from Brussels. This is not the fault of the Department which lodged an application for approval some time ago. The normal internal procedure in the Commission for approving such schemes takes up to two months. The Department is in constant contact with the Commission and has received an assurance from Commissioner Fischler that no delays will occur. Furthermore, €216 million was allocated in the budget for the scheme. This increase of €70 million over the previous year speaks for itself.
Senator Callanan referred to biomass, biofuels, anaerobic digestives and other alternative uses of land. It is time to look at such areas, particularly in light of the Bacon report on forestry and the new REP scheme. There are improvements regarding the conditions of planting as the entitlement can be paid when 50% of a farmer's land has been planted. That will encourage many more people into forestry. We will also look at certain pilot projects but I will not expand on those now.
Most speakers referred to live exports. Last year almost 250,000 live animals were exported. When Fianna Fáil got back into Government in 1997, there were no live exports. They had completely stopped under the previous Administration. This week, however, we did everything possible in consultation with all the farming organisations to reach agreement on live exports under the Irish Presidency. We realise the importance of live exports to the economy, particularly as a result of the changes to the CAP under its mid-term review. The Minister for Agriculture and Food has made every effort to bring this to a conclusion. It was the German Minister for Agriculture, a member of the German Green Party, who insisted on an eight hour journey limit. We tried to come to a compromise, including the reduction of journey time sequences, which would have allowed trade to continue into the future. Positions on both sides were too extreme and there was no willingness to compromise. However, the status quo will remain and live exports will continue. We will hear much more about this as a result of the pressure brought to bear on other Agriculture Ministers by people like the German Agriculture Minister. It would have been better for everyone, including those in Irish agriculture, if the issue had been put to bed. So much for Fine Gael and its democratic alliance with the Green Party. When they stand together on the platform in Carlow-Kilkenny, I will be around to remind them of that issue.
The Senator should not forget that Teagasc has been decentralised to Oak Park. The Senator is meeting different farmers from those I meet. I am on the hustings and I am aware of what they are saying. The Senator will have some explaining to do. The famous document that is the nitrates directive was produced in 1996. The code of practice was produced by the Wexford twins, former Ministers, former Deputy Yates and Deputy Howlin. It is a pity that document is still around to remind Fine Gael of it but that is the reality.
Responsibility for the finalisation of the action programme lies with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, but that does not mean that we in the Department of Agriculture and Food will walk away from our responsibility because it will have a significant impact on agriculture. We have had extensive consultations with the Department and we have involved Teagasc, all the stakeholders and the farming organisations. The Minister has no problem fighting for a derogation and has said so publicly. Storage is an area we can examine. There was not a single month in the autumn and winter of 2003-04 when slurry could not be spread. The restrictions imposed can be sorted out if this is treated with common sense. We should not be point scoring on this as there is a derogation that can be obtained.
A certain candidate in the European elections from south Leinster called on the Government to adopt the Northern Ireland area-based EU support payment arrangements. Is this an attempt to pass hard earned support payments from small farmers to landlord type farmers? Is this history repeating itself? Is this Fine Gael policy? The debate is worthwhile and we should not get bogged down in the politics of it. Fianna Fáil has had the backing of farmers for what it has done over the past few years. It is an exciting time for farming.
Fine Gael is now proposing a democratic alliance. The Green Party wants to abolish the CAP, completely ban the live export trade, keep the nitrates directive and change the attitude towards rural planning. If that is to be the future policy on agriculture in Ireland, God help us.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House and giving detailed responses to the many and varied questions raised. I thank the Opposition for a good debate and recognise that an extension of time by the Government Whip allowed the debate to be concluded.