Tuesday, 26 June 2018
I welcome the Minister and acknowledge his presence. I ask that his Department develop a long-term strategy to ensure the sustainability and resilience of the agricultural sector during and after periods of extreme weather. It has been both an unfortunate and amazing year if one takes into consideration what has occurred in the past eight or nine months. We started off with Storm Ophelia. We then had nearly 2 m of snow in my part of the world in March and April and it has now been four weeks since we had rain. This is part of the pattern of climate we are seeing.
Most Oireachtas committees have a major focus on climate change and the drastic changes it is bringing for all sectors of society. It will continue to have a major effect on the agricultural sector, for obvious reasons. We are dependent on what the weather will bring in many ways, whether it is the storms and snow that arrived in the early part of the year or the drought we have experienced for the past three and a half or four weeks.
In many ways, we need to revisit our strategies. I am calling for a long-term strategy to be put in place to ensure the agricultural sector will be more sustainable and robust when it comes to dealing with these dramatic weather changes. For that to happen, a major body of work must be done by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. This will involve many stakeholders, including Teagasc, to ensure appropriate strategies are implemented. We do not want a repeat of the two fodder crises we have experienced in the past five years when we had to purchase fodder abroad. I have no problem securing fodder abroad but these crises have a major impact on the sustainability of the agricultural sector.
In many ways, we need to build a new ethos for how agriculture, the agricultural community and industry can deal with major environmental changes, which will continue in the years and decades to come. The body of work I am asking for should include education for farmers to ensure they have more stocks and training for agricultural advisers to ensure they treat spring as an important time of year. In the event of a drought, discussion groups should meet every 14 days to respond to the climate changes that are taking place.
In making this suggestion, I do not claim to have all the answers. I hope the Minister has some answers. In many ways, this is about a changing ethos and ensuring the agricultural industry moves and changes with the changing environment to remain sustainable and robust in the face of dramatic weather events such as those of recent years. I hope the Minister will start this process. We are dealing with a very short-term issue at the moment and the issue of fodder will also need to be addressed because problems will arise again in the coming months and years. In my part of the world, winter fodder is now being used as feed, which could unfortunately have consequences in the coming winter.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for the words of welcome and Senator Lombard also for raising this matter.
As was the case for many other sectors, agriculture has been affected to varying degrees by a series of weather-related events in recent years. Some of these were localised in extent such as the flash-flooding experience on the Inishowen Peninsula in August of last year. Other events such at the severe flooding of the winter of 2015-16 was regionally focussed, in this case the west and midlands. The winter and spring just past on the other hand were characterised by a prolonged and persistent period of poor weather, in the first instance affecting mainly the west and north west of the country. Following the snow of Storm Emma in March, the situation, particularly as to the availability to fodder, spread to all parts of the country.
Extreme weather events can therefore be anticipated to occur at greater frequency and the agricultural sector is most vulnerable to the effects of these events, which are partially inspired by climate change. My Department is now preparing sectoral climate change plans for the agricultural, forestry and seafood sectors, in line with the national adaptation framework, published earlier this year. A key priority of these plans will be to provide guidance on adaptation planning at farm level to build resilience in the farm sector. It is the building of this resilience that is at the core of my Department's focus in addressing the challenge of climate change.
As occurrences of such events increased in recent years, the response of my Department to each severe weather challenge has been informed by the specific needs of the particular situation and delivered in a timely fashion within state-aid rules that specifically apply to the sector. For example, in response to pressures on fodder supplies, felt initially in the west and north west, caused by a long wet winter and spring, I introduced the national fodder transport support measure in January 2018. As a further support I introduced a fodder import support measure in the first week of April in response to the need for additional sources of fodder from abroad and also to complement the more locally-based fodder transport support measure. These two interventions, working together effectively, addressed issues around fodder availability in the country due to the most recent weather event.
I fully share the view that the agricultural sector must be enabled to sustain itself and build up resilience in the shorter term in the face of external weather challenges. It was for this specific purpose that last May, last month, I requested Teagasc to convene a stakeholder group representative of industry, banks, agricultural media, farming bodies, etc., to co-ordinate advisory messages to farmers this summer concerning replenishing fodder stocks that have been used up. The first meeting was held on 11 May with further regular meetings planned throughout the summer. The message to farmers to harvest sufficient fodder, including a buffer amount, is continuously being amplified across the sector through Teagasc advisers, private advisers, FAS advisers, media, co-ops and banks. I am very strongly committed to the work of this group and linked in by telephone with its most recent meeting which took place yesterday morning, to receive a first-hand update on progress so far and to urge no let up in activity until all issues around fodder security for next winter are fully addressed.
A key information tool in this respect is a survey of the current level of fodder conservation on different farming systems in different regions. This information will help shape the direction and content of the next stage of work by the group. Today I am launching the first of two such Teagasc fodder surveys at Beef 2018, in the Grange research facility.
Sustainability and resilience are not only about fodder but encompass the entire farming activity. In this respect the group is also focusing on best practices in matching livestock numbers with available fodder. Financial budgeting is a key part of fodder budgeting and indeed overall sustainability of the farming system and must be a routine aspect of all farming enterprises.
While outside agencies can provide some support to farming communities in exceptional circumstances, farmers themselves must take appropriate actions to ensure their own resilience and sustainability into the future. Some actions are within the capacity of farmers themselves such as those being addressed by the Teagasc-led group, but others require the availability of specific tools to manage more complex threats, including risks posed by weather events. I have asked my officials to examine options both under the CAP 2020 proposals, but also under existing programmes, that might provide an appropriate risk management option for farmers in light of these increasingly regular weather-related events.
I wish to thank the Minister for his very comprehensive answer to the question. I welcome that he is launching today in Grange the beef survey regarding fodder supplies, which is a very positive step.Obviously, the dairy industry would need something similar to be launched and I am sure the Minister will announce that in due course. Those are the key issues. We need to balance our increasing livestock numbers with an increased volume of fodder, and have a buffer in place. These are very positive steps.
I again thank Senator Lombard for raising this issue. As will be seen at events like that at Grange today, the farmers who are engaged in this process will obviously take the messages on board. The problem is farmers who are more difficult to reach, who are perhaps age profile challenged or in enterprises where the returns may not be as good. A key part of my message to this working group is to make sure that, through their networks, whether it is the farm organisations, the co-op structure, Teagasc or the private advisory service, we need to be specifically focused on those farmers who are harder to reach in order to make sure they are part of the message. They can also be part of the solution. There is a lower stocking density on some of these holdings so there may be capacity for better fodder conservation measures.
We have all the stakeholders around the table and this is comprehensive. Sustainability is critical to our international image; it is also a key part of Food Wise 2025 and is one of the five pillars within it. We will be maintaining this initiative for as long as necessary so we can ensure that sustainability is an ingrained part of the operation of any individual farm, be it dairy, tillage, beef or otherwise, as that is very important.