Seanad debates

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Horticulture Sector

10:30 am

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House, although we are meeting in the Dáil Chamber, and for taking the time to answer the question that has been selected.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I warmly welcome the Minister of State to the House. I think this is his first time before Seanad Éireann. I congratulate him on his appointment to the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I know a lot about his work and his track record in this area. We have a particularly good Minister of State, who has shown a particular grá for and interest in heritage for many years. I wish him well in the task ahead of him.

I wish to raise the national peatlands strategy and the issue of peat moss in the horticultural industry. I understand that the preservation and restoration of peatlands is part of the country's climate action strategy. I congratulate the Minister of State and his party on the work that has been done on that. I know the climate action Bill is to be published in the coming days. I understand that and that Deputy Noonan is a Minister of State with excellent green credentials. However, I also understand the importance of peat in the horticultural industry. We had a long debate about forestry. We know that horticultural peat is of critical importance to the use of nursery stock in the forestry sector, where it is used widely. The long-term plan to phase out the commercial use of peat moss in the horticultural industry, as opposed to domestic horticulture and gardening, is of concern to me and many of the growers and participants in the commercial sector.

I refer particularly to forestry nursery stock and mushroom production. It is critical in the production of mushrooms. We have a very successful mushroom production arrangement. Believe it or not, we fly mushrooms to France from our airports. Mushrooms that were in Ireland two days ago are sitting on shelves in Paris, London and all over the world. We have a track record in this product. That is important. Peat moss is also used in organic gardening and horticulture.

This will also have a knock-on effect on jobs. That debate was cleverly played out in the forestry sector. I understand that concern. A balance must always be struck. I am really concerned. The curtailment of peat production will have an impact on Bord na Móna and more importantly on the communities, villages and people who derive their principal income from this work. They must have alternative employment.

Then there is the aspect which I really invited the Minister of State to the House to discuss. We need more research and more time. Phasing out peat moss will be a process. We talk about a just transition, but that takes time. We cannot just cut off the supply of horticultural peat moss until a new alternative such as wood bark or wood chippings is available. Substitutes are being trialled but the trials are not complete. That is an important factor. I am interested in hearing about where the national peatlands strategy is today. What are the Minister of State's plans? Does he see an argument for making this change on a phased basis? I am conscious of where the Minister of State is coming from and his green credentials. I just want to emphasise the importance of the horticulture industry to jobs, food production and the continuous supply of peat to the mushroom sector.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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It is a great privilege to make my first address to Seanad Éireann in reply to Senator Boyhan. He and I go back a long way in politics. I congratulate Senator Mark Daly on his election as Cathaoirleach. It is a great honour for the Senator and his family and recognises his long and dedicated work in Seanad Éireann.

I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this important issue, on which he and I have engaged on numerous occasions. This morning I was chairing the inter-agency group on the Drumkeeran landslide, which addressed that tragic incident in County Leitrim. We are making good progress in that regard. This feeds into the national peatlands strategy, as the Senator rightly said, and the efforts to find alternative employment and sources of income for midlands peat workers as part of a just transition. Good progress has been made in that regard, but there is no doubt that this element is significant to the horticulture sector. As Senator Boyhan has said, we want to deal with it in a manner that is sustainable, equitable and fair to workers in the industry.

The national peatlands strategy sets out a cross-governmental approach to managing issues relating to peatlands, including compliance with EU environmental law, climate change, forestry, flood control, energy, nature conservation, planning and agriculture. It is comprises 25 principles and 32 actions to be implemented by a range of Departments, Government agencies and semi-State bodies.

The peatlands strategy implementation group has a role in co-ordinating and reporting to Government on the implementation of the national peatlands strategy. This is a cross-departmental group which shares an independent chair with the Irish Peatland Conservation Council. It prepares progress reports on the implementation of actions under the strategy, which require Government approval prior to publication. A mid-term review of the national peatlands strategy is currently being led by my Department. This review is intended to assess the overall direction of the strategy and to ensure it remains focused on achieving its intended outcomes. Subject to the approval of the Government, I intend to publish a mid-term review document for public consultation, taking into account the views of the peatlands strategy implementation group and of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council.

Action 5 of the national peatlands strategy provides for a review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. A working group comprised of representatives from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency was established to undertake the review. Under the auspices of the working group, a key issues paper in relation to the review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry was published in 2019 and the public was invited to make submissions by the end or January this year. Some 34 submissions were received from a range of individuals in the environmental sector, industry and advisory bodies.

Last month I published a report on the review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. The review report was prepared by the inter-agency working group following the receipt of submissions in response to publication of the key issues paper. The review report notes that significant positives and negatives arise from ending the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry, as the Senator rightly pointed out.There are difficult choices to be made, from how we garden as individuals to the economic and cultural impacts arising from any significant changes. As a result, I propose to establish a working group, the membership of which will include representatives from relevant Departments and State agencies, NGOs and industry stakeholders and which will operate under an independent chairperson, to examine the issues that were identified during the review, including the need for investment in further research into the development, education and use of alternatives to peat moss, such as bark, wood fibre, biosolids, bracken and green compost, perlite, vermiculite, rockwool and horticultural clay. The Senator will be aware of these alternatives.

This week, my Department is set to advertise in the national newspapers for expressions of interest in the position of chairperson of the working group. Once the chairperson is in place, invitations will be issued to participate in the working group. The chairperson will not have an easy task, given the different and disparate views that have been expressed on ending the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. I hope the working group will endeavour to chart a fair and sustainable path forward, taking into account the impact any changes would have on individuals, industry, local economies and the environmental consequences for the country as a whole. I encourage all those who participate in the group to endeavour to engage in a constructive debate and in an open, fair and effective fashion. I expect the chairperson to issue recommendations to me arising from the deliberations of the working group within a reasonable period once it is established.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Before I call the Senator, I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment. I know he will do a great job and I thank him for all his courtesy when I called him in Kilkenny over the years. It was always a pleasure to have a chat. I call Senator Boyhan.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for that comprehensive review. He has clearly left the door open and recognises the importance of a transition from commercial peat to alternative materials, which is important.

I also thank the Minister of State for sharing with us the details in regard to advertising and establishing the review group, which will be particularly helpful. If we apply standards in regard to commercial peat, we have to be very conscious of the issues. I am hearing reports of peat being imported from other jurisdictions into Ireland, which has to be a concern, particularly in the European Union context. If we have a policy in respect of peat and milling peat in our jurisdiction, then we have to be consistent and to stand in solidarity, if that is the right word to use, across the member states of the Union. That is something the Minister of State might raise initially with the working group because we need to ascertain what level of commercial peat is coming into the various ports of the country. I am satisfied it is happening and it needs to be examined on the basis that we are all in this together, across Europe, and we need consistency.