Monday, 28 June 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
It will not be easy to follow the buzz my two colleagues to my left have created in the Chamber this morning but I will do my best.
I thank the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, for taking time out of her busy schedule to be here this morning for this very important debate on the imminent crisis facing the horticultural sector due to the restrictions on agricultural peat harvesting. The mushroom industry is the largest horticultural sector in Ireland with a farm gate value of €119 million, of which approximately 85% is exported to the UK. It employs over 3,500 people. County Monaghan is well known for its indigenous industry. One of the most successful of these local industries is the mushroom sector, which employs hundreds and hundreds of people and supports local farms and businesses and by extension, many local communities. The sector is crucial to the economy, particularly in the north of County Monaghan. However, the industry now faces a significant, and in my opinion unneeded, challenge at a time when it faces the consequences of both Brexit and Covid. A ban on peat harvesting will have a very serious impact on the mushroom industry in County Monaghan. The industry is heavily reliant on high-grade peat and there is currently no viable alternative to horticultural peat. If peat is not available here in Ireland, the mushroom industry will be forced to import it from the Baltic states or from northern Europe at a huge cost both in financial terms to the industry and in the form of the higher carbon footprint of transporting that peat into the country.
What sense is there in damaging a successful local industry for little or no environmental gain? It seems to be a case of cutting off our environmental noses to spite our face. To put things in perspective, there are 1.5 million ha of peatland in Ireland of which only 5,500 ha, approximately, are used for horticultural peat. That is less than 0.35%. Mushroom-casing peat represents a small fraction of this and probably as little as 10 ha to 15 ha annually. The Minister must introduce measures to ensure the resumption of the harvesting of horticultural peat for the mushroom industry to avoid a shortage this year, as well as a measures to financially incentivise the use of spent mushroom compost. We need a fair and efficient system which can allow horticultural peat harvesting to continue while the environmental alternatives to peat are researched and scaled up. I acknowledge the great work done by Monaghan Mushrooms on this, which is ongoing. All the sector is looking for is a just transition structure. The door is not closed to this but the sector needs time to assess the environmental, economic and employment benefits of such a measure. I urge the Minister of State to take these issues on board because the mushroom industry is hugely important to County Monaghan. If anything was to happen to it, or if it was to be damaged in any way, it would have serious consequences for the whole north Monaghan economy.
I thank the Senator for bringing this very important issue to the House. I appreciate the importance of the mushroom sector in Ireland, particularly in the Senator's own area of Monaghan. My Department has no involvement in the regulation of peat extraction. This is a planning process under the remit of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and an integrated pollution control, IPC, licence process under the remit of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. It is important to point out that there is no harvesting ban on peat. Rather there is a requirement for compliance with regulatory frameworks for the abstraction, which requires both planning and IPC licensing depending on circumstances.
Regarding the future use of peat moss in the horticulture sector, last September, the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage and electoral reform, Deputy Noonan, published a report on the review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. The review report was prepared by an inter-agency working group following on from the submissions from stakeholders. After the publication of this report, the Minister of State proposed the establishment of a working group to include representatives from relevant Departments and State agencies, environmental NGOs and industry stakeholders under an independent chairperson to examine the issues identified during the review. The working group has been set up and has met many times. It has addressed the key issues raised in the report itself, including future use of peat by the horticulture sector. The first meeting of the independent working group took place on 4 March. The group has met several times since then and has submitted an interim report to the Minister of State for his consideration. The Minister of State and his officials are currently examining the report. I understand the Minister of State wrote to the working group in the past week or so.
In addition to these developments, my Department is actively looking at alternatives to peat and has funded two research projects to date. It has also recently sought further research be conducted here to explore alternatives to peat-based growing media for horticultural production in this area in its latest research call for 2021. These must be available, affordable and sustainable and meet quality as well as increasing environmental requirements.
My Department also provides a support to the horticulture industry through the scheme of investment aid for the development of the horticulture sector. Financial support is available to assist growers and businesses through grant aid for capital investments in specialised plant and equipment, including renewable energy, as well as technology adoption specific to commercial horticulture production. The budget has increased to €9 million, which is a 50% increase, for 2021. This particular budget is always oversubscribed. It is really successfully. This scheme is 100% funded by the Irish Government.
In addition, my Department administers the EU producer organisation scheme for fruit and vegetables, which allows growers to jointly market their production in order to strengthen the position of producers in the marketplace. This scheme is a significant support to the mushroom sector in Ireland.
I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive response. Again, I emphasise the importance of this industry to County Monaghan and the people involved in it. I have spoken to many people working in this sector and they are concerned about their livelihoods. I welcome the fact that there is dialogue, everyone is keen to the best they can, everyone is promoting a commonsense attitude to this and a realistic timeframe will be implemented so that businesses can get up to speed with what they must do. Basically, all they are looking for is a commonsense approach to tackling this problem.
I agree with the Senator. There is a strong understanding in the mushroom sector and the wider horticulture sector that in the future, peat will not play a major role in their production but we need that just transition. We need to be able to support the sector and move to that place where it is not so reliant on peat. Within the mushroom sector, the research has looked at spent mushroom casings, blending that with other substrates, reducing the amount of peat in casing and looking at possibilities such as coir. This is from coconut husk and would have to be imported but the environmental damage would have to be measured up. We could look at wood fibre while biochar is another option. The research needs to be done but at the end of the day, we all know that peat harvesting will stop. We must support the horticulture sector.