Wednesday, 13 October 2021
Peat Harvesting: Statements
I thank the Cathaoirleach for this opportunity to speak to the House today on peat harvesting.
As someone from a large rural constituency, I absolutely understand the critical importance of the horticultural industry and its value to the wider economy. I have and will continue to work side by side with the industry to facilitate peat extraction. I have done this as a back bench Deputy and now as Minister of State.However, I want to put firmly on the record that most of the required decisions are beyond my powers and remit as Minister of State. I also want to be crystal clear; the Government has not placed a prohibition on peat harvesting. At the outset, it is important that I clarify exactly what my role, and that of my Department, is in relation to peat harvesting. As Minister of State with responsibility for local government and planning, I do not set policy for peat harvesting. My specific role, as Minister of State, is to provide the right policy and legislative framework for Ireland's planning system to function properly and in the interests of the wider good. This system includes the independent assessment of planning applications by planning authorities or An Bord Pleanála in respect of peat harvesting. I am prohibited by statute from getting involved in any individual cases. In my broader Department, my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage, has responsibility for peatlands in special areas of conservation, SACs, Deputy Noonan. He has published a report on the review of the use of peat moss in the horticulture industry and has established a working group on foot of its recommendations to examine issues identified in the review. I will provide a brief update on this work, which is not yet complete, later.
In terms of the planning system, all development, unless specifically exempted under the Planning and Development Act 2000 or its associated regulations, requires planning permission. Exempted developments, or developments that do not require planning permission, as regards peat extraction are set out in the Planning and Development Regulations 2001. Peat extraction involving a new or extended area of 30 ha or more requires an environmental impact assessment, EIA, and therefore requires planning permission. Peat extraction below that threshold may require an EIA if it is considered that it would be likely to have significant effects on the environment. Any peat extraction that would be likely to have significant effects on a European site, that is, an SAC, a special protected area, SPA, or a candidate area designated under the habitats directive, requires an appropriate assessment and, therefore, planning permission. However, Senators should be aware that permission can be sought by those in peat extraction and the system does continues to operate. For example, in 2018 Galway County Council granted permission for two bogs to be used for domestic peat fuel supply, namely, Kilcolumb and Annaghmore East bogs. It is important to note that I, as Minister of State with responsibility for the planning system, have no responsibility for policy on peat extraction. The planning system, by its nature, is a policy-neutral process. The EIA directive is a European Union law which requires that development consents for certain public-private projects likely to have significant environmental effects should be granted only after an assessment of those effects has been carried out by a competent authority. The first iteration of the EIA directive was adopted in 1985.
The planning system includes the availability of the substitute consent process set out in Part X of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, under which regularisation of any unauthorised development requiring retrospective environmental impact assessment or appropriate assessment under the planning side of the dual consent regime may be sought in exceptional circumstances. I want to be clear on one very important and critical point. I have no issue with supporting the exemption of peat extraction from the planning process. However, clear policy is needed to provide an alternative regime to be put forward to ensure that EU environmental standards are met.
Separate to this, I am pleased to inform the Seanad that my Department is working on bringing forward new streamlining amendments to the substitute consent regime in the planning Act by way of the general scheme of the planning and development (amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2021. The purpose of the amendments is to streamline substitute consent procedures by providing for a single-stage substitute consent application process for the planning system; to allow for simultaneous planning applications for any future development to An Bord Pleanála for all types of development, alongside an application for substitute consent, which is currently only available to certain types of quarry development; and other related amendments.
It is important to note that the proposals to streamline the substitute consent process in the planning system will, unfortunately, not have an immediate impact on the peat horticulture question in the short to medium term or on the work of the working group on horticultural peat use established by the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan. This will not be a silver bullet for those involved in the industry. Even if it is streamlined and peat extraction substitute consents are obtained following proposed amendments to the planning system, there would still be the further obligation to obtain an integrated pollution control, IPC, licence from the EPA for large scale peat extraction of 50 ha or more, that being the other half of the dual regime of planning and EPA licensing. All the time that it would take for a peat producer to apply for an IPC licence and for the EPA to assess the application would also need to be taken into account as part of the process to seek permissions and licensing for peat extraction.
As Senators may be aware, as part of the broader work of my Department in relation to peat harvesting my colleague the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage and electoral reform, Malcolm Noonan published a special report on a review of the use of peat moss in the horticulture industry on 7 September 2020. The report concluded that there are significant positives and negatives arising from ending the use of peat moss in the horticulture industry. There are complexities in terms of the environmental benefits of ending horticultural peat extraction set against the economic consequences for the industry, food security, the lack of an effective alternative to peat and the economic and cultural impact on the local communities that would be affected. On foot of a recommendation of the review, the Minister of State has established a working group of key stakeholders to examine key issues identified during the review. The working group was established by the Minister of State under the chairmanship of Dr. Munoo Prasad and is composed of industry groups, environmental organisations and relevant Departments, including representatives of the heritage division from my Department, as well as from the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Environment, Climate and Communications. A draft interim report has been prepared and sent to the Minister of State. The final report of the group was due to be presented to the Minister by the end of September 2021. The chair has in recent days requested a brief extension to 20 October, to allow the final report to be finalised. The Minister has agreed to this request.
I note the importance of the horticulture industry to our rural and regional economies. It was worth €477 million farm gate value in 2019. This is the fourth highest sector in terms of gross agricultural commodity output value. It has a higher output value than sheep or cereals and is an important part of our agriculture industry. I also note the carbon footprint being incurred to date due to the current situation whereby we are importing peat to keep our industries afloat. I understand that importation routes can mean up to 200 truckloads travelling 100 km carrying peat from Latvian bogs to Riga, then being shipped to Drogheda and finally driven to the midlands, where it can then be dropped off mere metres away from a bog that could have provided the same quantity without the associated carbon footprint. These facts must be considered by the Government and must form part of the debate on this issue. On this basis, I look forward to the publication of the work of the independent working group on horticultural peat and the recommendations that will seek to address the current crisis in the horticulture industry. I remind Senators of my earlier comments outlining that, in principle, I have no issue with exempting peat extraction from the planning process. I am playing my part to facilitate vulnerable sectors of our economy but it is also up to other Ministers to play their part and offer an alternative regime to planning. I look forward to assisting in whatever way I can to resolve this significant problem, including considering any proposals for new legislation from the working group, together with colleagues from other relevant Departments. That legislation would need to be in compliance with both Irish and EU legislation.
I thank Senators for their time and for allowing me to make this presentation on a very important matter. I took a long time to discuss it with the representatives of the horticulture sector in front of the Dáil this afternoon and to hear their valid concerns. I am working closely with them, as I have done from the very first day I was elected to the Thirty-second Dáil. I have had a series of meetings with them and I will continue to support them in whatever way the powers of my office allow me to.
One was politically correct and the other said things straight and might upset a few people. I will take the Minister of State's lead and give an honest appraisal of where I see things on this issue. First and foremost I want to put on the record of the House, as the Minister of State has, that the horticulture industry in Ireland is an essential component of our food industry. It supports 6,600 direct jobs and 11,000 indirect ones.According to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine it is worth €477 million to the economy, that is, €410 million for horticulture and food and €67 million for amenity horticulture. This critical sector is on its knees due to the unintended consequences of the restrictions on peat harvesting. It is all well and good to say that there is a need to look at alternatives, but there simply is no viable alternative at present for the majority of operators in the commercial horticulture sector. Teagasc's submission to the review on the use of peat in the horticultural industry highlights the specialised nature of the growing media required for different crops and the level of risk and research required before alternatives can be used.
As a result of the restrictions on peat harvesting, we are seeing what can be only described as "an Irish solution to an Irish problem". We are hiving off to another country, that is, Latvia, responsibility for the essential peat supplies to keep our horticulture sector ticking. One has to question the environmental impact of importing peat into this country. It is, after all, the same planet we are collectively trying to protect. I would go as far as to describe this as "eco-vandalism". We are all the time striving to be self-sustaining. It seems the particular policy and principle of self-sustainment applies only in certain circumstances, not in regard to peat harvesting. There is simply no justification in my book for preventing the harvesting of one tenth of 1% of Ireland's total area of peatlands, which is a fraction of the peatlands previously harvested, all in the name of climate action, while at the same time gas guzzling trucks are transporting harvested peat to ports in the Baltic's, where it is then loaded on to tankers fuelled by fossil fuels, transported cross the North Sea into the Irish Sea, and then collected by more trucks to be transported next-door to a bog that could have provided the same product. Where is the logic in terms of the economics and environmental impact in doing this?
I am aware the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, has been active in this space and that he has put his shoulder to the wheel in addressing this matter. It is a matter of particular concern to him in regard to his own constituency. I know he wants to see common sense prevail on this matter. The Minister of State's statement that he has no issue exempting peat extraction from the planning process is a strong signal. I hope his counterparts across other Departments will be as forthcoming in addressing this matter.
There is a planning element to this, but as rightly stated by the Minister of State, there is a policy and licensing element for which the EPA is responsible. If we were to bring forth emergency planning legislation in the morning to allow for peat extraction, it is likely, first, that it would be challenged in the courts and, second, that licensing would be a further hurdle to be overcome. We need to have a further debate on this matter with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan. This is a matter which all of us in this House, cross-party, are committed to rectifying. The horticulture sector across Ireland is important to the lives and livelihood's of so many people. It is critical to our rural and regional economies. I commend the Minister of State on his robust introductory contribution to the debate this afternoon. If everybody puts their shoulders to the wheel in the same manner, which I know the Minister of State is committed to doing, we can find a solution to this important matter.
This will not do. The Minister of State and Senator Cummins sounded like they wanted to scream but they would not dare to do so. They are like two flight stewards who have discovered that the pilots are taking the flight to London and on to Paris and they want to shout and scream and tell us all they are crazy but they are afraid that they will panic the passengers. It is obvious that despite their measured tones they are horrified at the direction things have taken.
I note that towards the end of his speech the Minister of State made a passing reference to something he will have been very well aware of because it was in the Westmeath Examinerlast week. On its front page, the Westmeath Examinerhad one of the most bizarre stories any of us will have read for some time. It summed up the very strange contradictions that exist in our energy and climate change policies. To be clear, the report was about 4,000 tonnes of horticultural peat which had been imported to Ireland, having been transported 3,000 miles from Latvia, on 200 trucks. That peat is now being stored in Rathowen, next to where an extraction had been abandoned in 2019. Am I not correct, Minister?
I know that, but the Minister of State's tones are measured. Does it not want to make you scream? This is a bizarre, crazy and irrational situation. We need to hear the Minister of State say that. The old phrases about selling ice to Eskimos, sand to Arabs or bringing coal to Newcastle spring to mind. Importing peat to store it next to a bog would be laughable were it not so serious an issue. One might say it is "No Latvian matter". As we know, harvesting in Rathowen and elsewhere all but ceased as a result of the High Court judgment which has led to onerous licensing and planning applications for bogs which were larger than 30 ha. Peat is, of course, important to the horticultural sector, particularly in mushroom farming. Apparently, we will need one shipment like this every two weeks for the foreseeable future to cope with demand.
We hear a lot in this House about the carbon footprint. How can you even begin to quantify the carbon footprint of shipping that much peat from abroad? Apparently, peat extraction contributed just 0.15% of our total CO2 missions in years past. The carbon cost of importation surely exceeds that by a considerable margin. This is a good illustration of some of the farcical and, frankly, self-defeating outcomes that can flow from climate change and planning policies if not well organised. I have said here time and again that we all support balanced changes to Irish life, habits, industry and agriculture as long as those changes are sensible and they do not attack traditional ways of life or punish people for living their lives in ordinary and responsible ways. Sadly, our policies are increasingly tending towards punishing ordinary people, damaging agriculture, crippling small businesses in certain sectors and destroying jobs, while doing little or nothing to reduce our carbon footprint overall. We end peat extraction in Ireland and start shipping in peat from the other side of Europe. What gives? We shut down two power generation stations, pat ourselves on the back for being good environmentalists and then import energy from abroad which was generated by burning fossil fuels or by nuclear power. We also need a debate on nuclear power. Ecological virtue-signalling often seems to be the aim here. That might be another example of the so-called "Irish solution to an Irish problem".
An opinion poll in last week's The Irish Timesshowed a deep level of opposition to the Government’s climate change policy among the general public. It found that 82% oppose new carbon taxes, 60% oppose reducing the national herd and 72% oppose higher prices for petrol and diesel. You will never get any argument from me if you say that the majority can sometimes be wrong; they frequently are in this House. The solitary measure that has widespread public support is the increased use of land for harnessing wind energy. My point is that if these are the numbers nationwide, can you imagine what they are when Dublin voters are excluded? Can you imagine what the figures would be specifically among voters in the midlands and west, the places most affected by these measures? All this suggests that successive Governments have failed to bring the public with them in relation to the measures necessary to tackle the impact of climate change. Yet, according to some of our leaders, we are only getting warmed up about it.
What do we think the farcical stories, such as that which I cited was on the front of the Westmeath Examinerlast week, are doing for public support for climate policy? Surely, they can only generate additional hostility and resentment.It can be argued that the Government is adding to this by the day. In yesterday's budget, the carbon tax was hiked up by 22% or €7.50 per tonne, to €41 per tonne. To ordinary people, that means €1.28 on a fill of petrol, €1.48 on a fill of diesel and €20 on a tank of home heating and all of this will bring in €412 million in taxes per annum. My point is that what the Government is giving on one hand, through modest increases in social welfare and reductions in the income tax bands, it is taking away on the other through these taxes. We hear many lectures about progressive taxation and yet it is indisputable that carbon taxes are regressive measures because they are levelled on everyone equally and therefore, hit the poorest in society the most. This can only cause a reduction of support from the public for climate change policy in the years to come.
I will conclude with the issue of peat harvesting. Domestic supplies of peat inevitably will be exhausted and the horticultural sector will have to rely, increasingly, on imports, which is a farcical situation. To prevent this, we should allow some kind of simplified licensing system whereby peat harvesting can be resumed, if only for a number of years, until a proper phased solution can be found. By doing so, we would likely be reducing, rather than increasing, our carbon output. The Irish Farmers Association, IFA, and the horticultural sector have called for legislation in this area. On the basis of the facts, as I am aware of them, I would support any legislation which deals with this problem in a sensible way. I brought four bags of turf to a friend in Dublin last night. I wondered, as I was delivering them, how much longer I would be able to do so.
I thank the Minister of State for coming in. This is a very important debate. The Minister of State brought great clarity on his role and the planning process. It was important he clarified that he understood the issue, supports peat extraction and the horticultural sector and understands the threat the current situation poses to a sector worth close to €500 million to us. It employs more than 17,000 people. There is no ban on peat extraction but, clearly, a dysfunctional system is in place and it is threatening the horticultural industry. At a time when we are all keen to do all we can not just to promote but to progress climate action, it is a low point for us to be talking about the State undermining one of the more sustainable parts of our agricultural sector. The Minister of State and other speakers have alluded to the farcical situation of us importing peat from eastern Europe, which travels thousands of miles in hundreds of trucks using fossil fuels, to a bog. It is reminiscent of something one would come up with in "Ballymagash". One one would struggle to come up with that scenario. If one was told that by somebody, one would say the person was joking.
Other Fianna Fáil speakers will speak to this issue, as it is does not directly affect people living in the constituency in which I live, Dublin Central, except that when we go to buy our mushrooms, tomatoes or whatever it is, we want to buy Irish and buy fruit and vegetables which have travelled less and have a lower carbon footprint. While the Minister of State does not have full and sole responsibility for this, I urge him to bring together the Ministers for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and for the Environment, Climate and Communications and put their heads together. This is a case in which there is a requirement for an emergency intervention, that is, some form of emergency short-term licensing that will allow the horticultural sector to survive and our producers to continue to produce for us at home and for wider consumption. We need someone to take this by the scruff of the neck and add a bit of common sense into what is not working and is a dysfunctional system and to ensure there is a just transition that serves the horticultural sector and all of our economic and environmental objectives.
If the Leas-Chathaoirleach keeps talking and does not allow me in, he will be in more trouble afterwards. I am only messing, as I know the Leas-Chathaoirleach will give me my ten minutes. I have no doubt about that.
On a more serious note, I was heartened by one of the Minister of State's sentences, when he said he had no issue with peat extraction being taken from the planning process, which I welcome. I could feel the frustration in his voice during his presentation on this issue. If the Minister of State feels frustrated, he can imagine how the people standing outside the gates of Leinster house feel this afternoon and how frustrated they must be. Not just frustrated, but fearful of what the future holds. We have this farcical situation outlined by a number of Senators, of peat being imported from Baltic states and transported here by sea and then transported on our roads to the midlands to rest beside bogs that have already closed. Senator Mullen said we were dancing around the issue without calling it what it is. I have no issue calling it what it is - complete and utter madness. It needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
I come from a county in which the agricultural sector is vitally important. The Minister of State and I had a conversation, not so long ago, about the importance of the agrifood industry to Monaghan, with particular emphasis on the mushroom industry. We are very proud in County Monaghan that Monaghan Mushrooms is the largest exporter of mushrooms in Europe and the second largest in the world. The mushroom industry is worth approximately €119 million. Approximately 85% of what it produces is exported. The mushroom industry and all involved in it in County Monaghan of whom I am aware are in a state of panic about this issue because they are fearful. I am fearful of the consequences for Monaghan's local economy, if anything were to happen to the mushroom industry. This is how serious this is.
The people concerned are not closing their eyes or ears to alternatives. All we are looking for is a common-sense approach, whereby a window of time would be given in order that alternatives to peat can be sourced. At present, they simply do not exist and the best brains in the country are doing their best to come up with an alternative but as we speak, it does not exist. All we are looking for is common sense. I acknowledge the Minister of State's presence this afternoon but perhaps it would have been a good idea, were all three relevant Ministers who have a say in this subject to be sitting alongside him this afternoon. This parcel seems to be passed from Billy to Jack and nobody is taking control of it. It has got to the stage at which someone has to take responsibility for it. If that person is not taking responsibility, he or she needs to be called out as to who and where the blockages exist. It is a critical issue that needs to be addressed. It is vitally important to the mushroom industry in County Monaghan and I sincerely hope that common sense prevails and we find a solution to this problem.
It is a tricky issue. As a child, I was reared while going the bog, footing turf and having great craic in the bog every year. It is what we all did in rural Ireland. The only thing I ever regarded as having to do with re-wetting bogs was when the turf did not get home in time and the sods got wet again.That was some years ago now. We are where we are, however, and it is a very different time and place. It is horrendous that food growers are struggling to grow food in this country because of the situation we are in, considering we are still importing 80,000 tonnes of spuds from England each year. There are lots of issues with food production and imports. The horticulture sector is worth nearly €500 million to the Exchequer, but there is still a lot more we must do also. What the sector is doing is great but we need to support it and go further and substantially increase the amount of food we are producing in Ireland if we are to be sustainable.
With regard to turf, peat and bogs, this is not a Government-created problem. EU regulations had to be implemented in Ireland. Bord na Móna was not following those regulations and it lost a court case. Bogs were being cut on a huge scale. It was not only the 0.1% of the bogs used for horticulture. They were being cut on a huge scale all over Ireland without planning or environmental impact statements. That was a serious issue which came to the fore in the court case. The Government's plan was for Bord na Móna to continue harvesting peat at a reduced level until 2025. This would give the horticulture sector time to do research and come up with alternatives. People have said there are no alternatives but that is not the case. We do not yet have alternatives because the work has not been completed to facilitate the transition we have been landed with. Bord na Móna operations were closed down suddenly and the stock sold off because it was no longer viable. That decision by a private company landed us in this position. We can blame everybody and nobody but, at the end of the day, that is what happened. It happened much quicker than anybody in government had foreseen.
Good work has been initiated by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, in looking at research into alternatives and what we can do in the meantime. We can talk all we want about planning exemptions, but we must be very careful because we have seen where the planning process has led us in the past when we built on bogs and flood plains and caused huge problems in other sectors also. We need to do something because this is an emergency for the growers, some of whom are friends of mine. Many of my friends make a living out of growing food. However, we must act it in a way that works. We must not cut off our nose to spite our face. We must get this right.
The problem with peat for the horticultural industry did not land a few weeks or months ago. It was foreseen when the EU regulations were introduced in 2013. The horticulture section of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is well aware of the issue and Teagasc is doing some research on it. As soon as he was appointed, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, started more research on this matter. It is not, therefore, a new problem but one that was foreseen. Unfortunately, Bord na Móna's decision to shut down peat-cutting meant the horticulture sector had to bring in peat from Latvia. It is madness that it has come to this, as everyone in the House will agree. Nobody wants that.
It is great to hear Senators expressing concerns about the carbon footprint of importing peat. If they care deeply about that, they should consider all the other stuff we are bringing in from all over the world and that we are hoping to export pigs to China. If, all of sudden, we want to have a proper debate on the carbon imprint of imports, as everybody does, we need to be honest and remember it when we are discussing other sectors also. It is interesting today to hear that some people have suddenly become obsessed with the carbon footprint of imports when half the stuff we have comes from China and nobody has ever mentioned that before. Let us have a fair and honest debate.
The situation with bogs and peat is very tricky. We all love the bogs and in rural Ireland we love cutting turf. It is sad to let go of old traditions but our old traditions will not save us in the climate and biodiversity crises. That is why we are at these mad crossroads. This aspect will come up under lots of issues, including horticulture, transport and energy. This is where we are at so let us not play political football with this huge crisis we face. At the end of the day, we and our children and grandchildren will be left with the consequences. It is a disgrace and shocking that members of the horticulture industry had to protest again today. Let us be honest about the debate we need to have to resolve the problem and not try to blame any sector or wash our hands of responsibility. The sector needs actions and solutions, not politicians playing political football.
I acknowledge that the situation with horticultural peat for some businesses has reached a critical point. I accept that it must be an extremely stressful time for those business owners and their employees. I also acknowledge, as have others, the importance of the agrifood industry to Ireland's economy. That said, it is essential that we understand how we have reached the situation we are in today to ensure we learn from it and do not repeat the mistakes of the past. For years, we have known that we have to stop harvesting peat.
Harvested peat, whether it is burned or milled for horticultural use, adds to carbon emissions and destroys our essential carbon sinks. We have all known this for decades. Peat is also one of our most important habitats for biodiversity, providing vital sanctuary for wildlife and an amenity for rural communities and tourists. Aside from all of those reasons for ending peat extraction, even the climate deniers of this world have to accept that peat is a finite resource. Therefore, it needs to be sustainably managed. Research has to be invested in developing a viable and sustainable long-term alternative for the horticulture industry.
I am fully aware and appreciate that the horticultural peat industry has been working very hard to try to reduce the amount of peat it uses, and that there are issues currently around the nutrient content, moisture retention and lack of consistency and variability in the supply of the alternative mediums. I look forward to reading the overdue report on this issue commissioned by the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan. I hope it will shed some light and give hope on what alternatives are available and what level of research and investment is required to develop a fully sustainable and long-term alternative. Ireland, with political will and investment, has a unique opportunity to be a leader in research into viable alternatives for the horticulture industry, not only in Ireland but throughout the European Union. Let us learn from the Danes. Not only did Denmark develop wind energy but it also manufactured wind turbines and created industry. Ireland can do the same for alternative horticultural mediums.
If we are to allow the harvesting of peat for horticultural use as a short-term emergency measure, we must be absolutely certain that what we are allowing it to be used for is the bare minimum. There is no justification for peat being milled and sold for recreational hobby gardeners like me. I do not need it. We can use the alternatives that are available. We do not rely on the crops we grow for income. There are also some horticultural plants that do not require peat sources. The Royal Horticultural Society has proved that in its ornamental gardens where it has almost completely eliminated the use of peat.
We also need to take on board the findings of the courts regarding the extraction of peat in the past. It was illegal extraction. We cannot allow a situation like that to happen again. The forthcoming legislation on substitute consent has to be robust and ensure that all extraction processes, including peat and quarrying, are environmentally sound. It is deeply disappointing that this week, an Oireachtas committee voted against Sinn Féin's proposal to extend pre-legislative scrutiny to hear the views of An Taisce, the environmental pillar and environmental law experts on substitute consent.
We seem to think in this country that if we pretend environmental protections do not exist, we can somehow stop the legal challenges. That is a nonsense. Have we learned nothing from the forestry debacle, when we were in the same situation one year ago when people's jobs were on the line because we failed to put in place a robust system? Have we not learned from the millions of euro in fines Ireland accrues daily as a result of the Derrybrien case? We have to stop trying to get around environmental legislation and our legal obligations. We must stop ignoring the Aarhus Convention and develop the legal framework that ensures we can protect our habitats, climate targets and business. Of course, we must have business but we cannot ignore our environmental obligations.
While I agree that we need a short-term emergency plan to support the essential horticultural sectors that currently do not have a viable alternative, we must stop the use of horticultural peat by those who have alternatives. I note that Britain is to ban the sale of peat to recreational gardeners from 2024.We must immediately invest in research on long-term sustainable alternatives. Such research should be done in a joined-up approach with the current circular economy and waste legislation that is going through pre-legislative scrutiny at the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action.
I note that it was the same in respect of forestry, in that nobody wants to see anybody lose their jobs. We must have just transition when it comes to climate action. However, previous Governments facilitated illegal extraction activities and failed to invest earlier in research and development of alternatives. We must protect the jobs of the 6,600 people who are directly employed in the horticultural sector and the 11,000 people who are employed in downstream activities. If we are now to facilitate the short-term extraction of peat and if we are to invest public money in research on alternatives, then I call on the horticultural industry to make sure that its representatives improve the working conditions for employees in return. I make that call because a 2018 Teagasc report found that the sector has difficulty in retaining staff due to low wages, poor working conditions and a lack of suitable accommodation. Another analysis of data collated by the Workplace Relations Commission shows that there was €185,000 in unpaid wages since 2017, which affected over 3,300 workers in the soft fruit and mushroom sectors. I hope that short-term measures and emergency support mechanisms are rightly put in place to protect the jobs in the horticultural sector and that as a quid pro quo,we will see improvements in working conditions for the mostly foreign seasonal workers who are employed in the sector.
Finally, I hope that everyone who has rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of importing Latvian peat will as vociferously point out the wrong, which is that up until recently we were a net exporter of peat. Such exports can no longer continue. We must have a sustainable and just transition when it comes to climate action.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. He has said that the committee is reviewing the significant positives and negatives but I will again mention an issue that has been mentioned by everybody else who has spoken here this afternoon. I refer to an issue that has featured in every local newspaper, including local papers in County Westmeath. I was shocked to learn, especially as someone who lives in the midlands, that just over three weeks ago this country, which is famed for the quality of its peat, imported 4,000 tonnes of horticultural peat from Latvia. It has been said that the 3,000 km journey had to be further supplemented by 200 trucks in order to bring the peat to the port in Latvia for its onward journey to Ireland. As also mentioned here, it is estimated that such a shipment will be needed every two weeks for up to a decade to meet the demand in this country. My colleagues also stated it has been reported that the area needed to service the Irish horticultural industry would be just over 10% of Ireland’s total area of peatlands but most importantly, these would be Irish peatlands.
The importation of peat has been described as madness and my colleagues have said it is like carrying coal to Newcastle and selling sand to the Arabs. The Minister of State can mention whatever he likes but the current situation in Ireland is unbelievable and is simply carrying peat to Paddy. I accept the argument that has been made that Ireland was a net contributor in the past.
Earlier the Minister of State, in his introductory statement, said "I have no issue with supporting the exemption of peat extraction from the planning process". That leads me to ask who has a problem with such an exemption. The Government is a tripartite organisation, for want of a better description, at present. One of my colleagues across the way suggested that we should have three Ministers here for this debate. I think we should, because the Minister of State has come in here and said that he has no problem yet there is a problem because we are importing peat from Latvia.
I am not quoting the Minister of State on that but on the whole issue, which is why we need three Ministers. I accept that he did not say that but I quoted him correctly in terms of the exemption from peat extraction. We need three Ministers to debate these matters because, as my colleagues have said, different versions have come from sections of the Government, which is always difficult to deal with when one must deal with the people that I encounter on the ground.
I am aware of the current problems with the proposed peat alternatives not just from environmental concerns but from growing concerns about their economic viability. I am aware of the commitment of growers and peat users to continue to reduce the amount of peat that they use over time and to embrace and test alternatives. However, they must be given time to embrace these changes. Depending on foreign harvested peat and simply pretending that it is okay because it is not harvested in Ireland is simply not good enough. That ignores the environmental impact of imports and does not give enough time to trial alternatives that could work from an environmental and economic viewpoint.
As mentioned here, the Department has estimated that the horticulture industry is worth €477 million as the farm gate value. As the Minister of State has mentioned, that figure is higher than the amount generated from the sheep and cereal industries in this country.
I live 3 miles from the Bord na Móna plant at Kilberry, which is just outside the town of Athy. It is a peat processing plant and the workforce has already been cut in half. As 40 jobs already have gone, where will that number of jobs come from again for a rural village like Kilberry? Where can these workers seek work? Realistically, the only way they can achieve work is by getting into their cars and commuting, which will add to the carbon footprint generated by this decision.
The plant at Kilberry is one of the plants that accept green waste. It is also investigating alternatives to peat production but I am sure that the research will require an investment in new machinery. Given that the success of these alternatives still is very much up in the air, will investment for research be forthcoming? It is a huge question for everyone who remains working in the plant. Plants like the one at Kilberry suffer because there was no proper discussion throughout this industry and small rural areas like Kilberry will suffer further job losses. Those living in the area have contacted me to express their concerns after they read reports in local Westmeath newspapers on the importation of shipments of peat from Latvia. To further compound the issue, I am told that there is a shortage of peat on the European market and orders for product that were placed by growers have been refused.
As the Minister of State has mentioned, we await a report from the consultation group and he stated that the date is now 20 October. As I understand the departmental officials have had more than 12 meetings with horticultural growers, it is now time for a solution to be reached.
A situation has developed where the Irish horticultural sector is now dependent on horticultural peat being imported from abroad, which has the potential to be devastating for the 17,000 people employed in the sector. The current situation will also reduce the economic benefit the sector brings to the Irish economy and the wider environment. There is no doubt that everybody involved in the industry realises that an infinite resource is not available. There also can be no doubt that in the midlands where I live, there is a need for more time and for our own peat to be used. Many of my neighbours are horrified that we import peat from Latvia while our own peat lies in the ground. Many more people are looking outside of their local area for jobs and such jobs will involve travel.
Those involved in this industry who depend on peat understand the aspiration to end the use of horticultural peat. They have told me they are more than willing to be involved in finding long-term solutions that meet this aspiration but all of this needs time. There must be a period of overlap where we can use Irish peat, albeit in an emergency. I have no problem supporting such a move and it is preferable to importing thousands of tonnes of peat at an environmental cost. This time, and hopefully peat will be processed only in emergencies, we must come up with economical and environmentally-friendly alternatives. As far as I can see that would be acceptable to all those who are involved in this industry and would protect as many jobs as possible in the midlands area.
I will begin by setting out the context in terms of the facts as to where we are, namely, in a climate emergency on a planet that is in a dire situation due to the impact of emissions. Yesterday, in the budget, it was again acknowledged that the science is uncompromising and that the world is burning. In that context, peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store that we have.Peatlands sequester more than 0.37 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide each year. When we damage peatlands, they emit emissions. Damaged peatlands are responsible each year for 6% of the all carbon dioxide and biogenic emissions that are driving and accelerating global warming.
This is the context we are in. Peatlands are one of the last things we have which can either help to save us or, if we let them be damaged, will help to accelerate the destruction of our planet. It is clear, and has been clear, that we are not only talking about restoration, which would be ideal in a scenario where we are talking about biodiversity. There must be investment in that area and it must be accelerated. Rewetting the peatlands so that we stop the damage becomes crucial. We must realise both the potential of peatlands to help us and the possible danger that could result if we allow them to be damaged. This has all been clear for years. The science in this area has been clear for years. We have also had approximately a decade of clear EU regulations and guidelines on this issue.
Let us be clear when we point the finger today at which Minister has been responsible for what. The finger should be pointed back at the policies and practices, which were supported by some but not all in the farming lobby as well, of over-the-top illegal extraction on a massive scale in the last decade. It takes ten years for 1 cm of peat to form. It has taken thousands of years for the peatlands we have here to form. I am passionate about turbary rights. I have submitted amendments to legislation in this regard to support turbary rights because I believe in the intergenerational relationship that people have with the bogs. The reality, however, is that multiple generations that may have had that experience of exercising turbary rights have been betrayed by commercial harvesting of peat on a massive scale. Hundreds of years' worth of peat has been used up in decades. That is what we have seen. When we talk about the scandal of imports, then, we must not forget the scandal of exports and that we have been exporting peat to the world.
That is the context and that is what has brought us to where we are now. We must bear in mind that in recent years we have not designated the special areas of conservation, SACs, that we were meant to. I was here just two or three years ago when we were trying to the dedesignate protected areas and natural heritage areas, NHAs, to allow for cutting. The line taken then centred on comparators. The question being posed at that stage was why it should be necessary to preserve a bog when it might be possible to find a better bog and suggest that it be preserved instead. That was the line taken then and the same approach is being taken now, in the form of suggestions that it might be possible to find someone worse. We seek a worse option and point at that as a way of justifying us keeping going with what we are doing. We are using that same excuse in respect of data centres, peatland extractions and farming and cattle.
Something has to give. We cannot simply use the excuse that we can find somewhere worse where this could happen and use that to justify us doing what we want to do. The same arguments are used in every country, and particularly in wealthy countries that have already used up their fair share of resources. How can we then expect developing countries, which are suffering the impact of climate change and that have not had the decades of economic prosperity, to carry the can because we do not want to change our industries? This is the context here and we must be honest about it. Coals to Newcastle is a good example, because we need to get out of coal, in Newcastle and everywhere else. We must end peat extraction and exploitation here and everywhere.
That said, I strongly support two proposals from the IFA. One is the need for more funding for the research and development which must be carried out in this area. It should have started earlier and that undertaking should have been allocated more funding. All the alternatives to peat, such as coir, softwood pine bark and wood fibre, require more research. It is needed and it should have started earlier. If we get that right, then that will be the new industry. I state that because horticulture happens everywhere, and this is going to be the future for Ireland if we can lead in this area. I also support the other proposal from the IFA, that of a just transition fund. It would compensate the industry, because this is one of the industries that must make radical changes and compensation should be provided in that regard. I believe that 100%. I add funding for climate justice as well. As well as the need for a just transition fund for the industry here, something similar is required concerning the Congo Basin blue fund. The Congo Basin, one of the poorest areas of the world, has peatland and there is pressure to exploit it for oil. It would be disastrous for our climate if that were to happen. We must fund the people there, and they are seeking such funding, to enable them to develop alternative uses for their peatlands. Let us take a stand on this issue.
I am cautious about whatever emergency measures might be taken. They must be for only one year. I think that 2021 is mentioned here. Regarding planning, however, I have an issue with exempting peatland extraction from the planning process. I have a clear issue with that because it has been the failure to apply proper planning and to meet proper standards in planning in how we have treated peatlands in the past that have got us into this situation. That is what has led us to this situation now where we have the level of degraded bogs that we do and where we have been in such trouble with our European targets. It also explains why Bord na Móna has had to accelerate its exit from this area. All of that has resulted from the failure to have proper planning in this regard. It was not just that planning failure, however, but also the failure to have dual consent. We must look at this context from the perspectives of agriculture and heritage and it is appropriate that we would do that. Bad planning is a disaster and it sets up problems for the future. Storytelling about things will not work. We must be applying the laws properly. I remind the Minister of State about the separation of powers as well. It is not appropriate that we would plan, as the State, to intervene in the planning process to the point whereby we would not be abiding by or fulfilling the requirements of EU laws on the environment.
I sympathise with the horticultural sector. I understand the problems being faced and it is an important sector. It has often been the poor relation, however. On the planning aspects, I also note the road safety concerns which exist regarding the proposed roads. Again, this issue was used as a flag when the horticulture industry was being thrown under the bus in the press to destroy our hedgerows and damage our pollinator pathways. Those pollinators are part of the environmental and biodiversity element which is crucial for the delivery of sustainable horticultural practices in future. In addition to research on growing media, far more investment is needed in soil health. Far more research is required into how we can build and improve our soil health. There has been degradation in that area and that will also have consequences. Soil health is also a part of the agricultural industry.
I am sorry not to be able to join in fully with the consensus in this regard. I have been speaking about the issues regarding how we manage our peatlands for more than seven years in this Chamber. I regret that it is being presented now as an emergency, when in fact it was entirely manageable with foresight.
I welcome the Minister of State. I am not going to repeat what has been said, but I am glad to see this debate happening. We went outside earlier and spoke to many of the businesses and people who are front and centre in this crisis. The Minister of State will be aware of all the issues. We have a crisis in this area and it must be sorted out. We can come in here and talk about where the fault lies, but it remains the case that we have a peat crisis. Horticultural businesses need some clarity. We cannot be importing peat. As other speakers said, funding has not been put into research to find alternatives to peat and we have now found ourselves in this situation. It is a crisis. We need emergency legislation for a short time until those alternatives are found.
I reiterate the importance of the horticultural industry in this country. It accounts for 17,000 jobs overall and 6,600 people are directly employed in the sector. This is not by any means a small issue. We can see the fear and worry being experienced by the people outside. They are welcome to come to talk to us. This issue has been raised in the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party. I have been raising this issue, along with my colleagues whom I can see here today, Senators Gallagher, Murphy and O'Loughlin.We have raised this issue for more than a year and we have not seen any improvement in the situation. We are here making statements instead of providing solutions. I want a solution to this problem because time is of the essence. In addition to solutions, we need a just transition for more than just the midlands. The just transition needs to be for everybody. We need to consider alternatives and focus on how we will move forward as a sustainable, environmental, fuel industry in this country, because we have the natural resources to do so much better than we are at present. It is unfortunate that we do not have the solutions here today, but I hope they come in the near future.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. Throughout last year and this year, Growing Media Ireland and the Irish Farmers' Association, IFA, on behalf of horticultural peat producers, highlighted the many substitutes to peat, but said that, in 2021, there is not a sufficient quantity of alternatives available that are affordable, sustainable and of the quality required. They said that removing peat-based growing media would damage our food and horticultural sectors. They highlighted how the sector faces a shutdown and that stock supplies would be exhausted by summer 2021, unless we introduce legislation to allow previously exempted peat harvesting to resume subject to licences, allow for an orderly exit from the industry and work to ensure a just transition for all in the industry, including compensation for loss of earnings, training and a process to rehabilitate boglands. They provided figures that state the industry covers 0.12% of the total area of Irish peatlands and employs 6,600 full-time staff, including 11,000 others in associated businesses, and contributed 0.15% of the projected annual carbon emissions for 2020. However, nothing happened and we remain in this current situation. Last month some 4,000 tonnes of peat were imported from Latvia, loaded into 200 trucks that burned diesel on a 3,000 km journey in order to bring it to a destination - local to me and the Minister of State - on the Longford-Westmeath border. It now sits in piles just metres away from a bog that could have produced the same quantity, but better quality, and would not have had as big an impact on our carbon footprint, while the same bog emits carbon whether or not we extract peat. When I considered that while preparing this contribution, I thought of "GUBU", the term that originated in Irish politics a number of years ago; it is "unbelievable" and "bizarre" that this has been allowed to happen.
It is important to note that this concerns a legal and a planning issue. Sometimes the media does not highlight that it was not a Government decision, but in fact a decision of the courts. Companies including Klasmann Deilmann - I spoke to Kevin Mahon outside Leinster House, and Ronan, Joe and others who have trucks and employees working at company on the Longford-Westmeath border - made an application for leave to apply for substitute consent and, 15 months later, they are no further along in the process. It would take six years to hopefully achieve the regulatory approval to start producing peat again. We need to streamline the permit process. We need a fair and workable licensing system that would allow for the phasing out of peat production and provide the opportunity for alternatives to be developed. More important, it would ensure there would be a secure supply of Irish-sourced growing media available so that the sustainable horticultural sector, which is important in this country, is not jeopardised.
We do want the situation whereby 400 truckloads of peat will be delivered per month to the midlands from Drogheda over the next ten years. We need guarantees from the Minister of State that this issue will be dealt with immediately. I take on board and welcome the comments he made today. I know he has a strong personal interest in this and I have every confidence that it will be dealt with. I hope that common sense, as Senator Gallagher said, will prevail upon all parties. Councillor Paul Ross, a member of Fine Gael in Longford, worked extremely hard on this project. I acknowledge him for the work he has done in that regard. I have every confidence in the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, to deal with this issue in a positive way.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I met with him outside the gates of Leinster House just after lunch today and I know he had meaningful engagement with the people there. He has injected a dose of reality to the debate and I thank him for that. The reality is that the horticultural sector is crumbling and in dire need of assistance, particularly the mushroom sector. I note Senator Robbie Gallagher spoke about the mushrooms in Monaghan. That sector is on its knees.
In terms of carbon footprint, we fly mushrooms to London and France, which is hard to believe. Due to the quality of our mushrooms, they are in demand across Europe. They are in Monaghan on a Monday and on a shelf in Harrods in London shortly after. Is that not a great thing to be able to say? Let us consider the Bord Bia strategy on Irish food and the green, emerald island of Ireland brand. We do not market and exploit the green island of Ireland enough, and hopefully that will be done north and south. A substantial number of employees working in Monaghan Mushrooms live close to the Border in Northern Ireland. It is a particularly important sector in that area and we must be mindful of that fact.
I take on board what Senator Boylan said whereby she made a strong case in terms of the finite resource. She also made an important reference to the failure of the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage to have a second series of post-legislative scrutiny meetings with groups, such as An Taisce, in the environmental network. That was regrettable and disappointing. Some members and I voted in favour of further meetings, but ultimately the Government the majority decided not to proceed. There was a vote called on the matter, which is extraordinary. Votes are rarely called in the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. That highlights how divisive this issue is.
In the time I have been allocated, I will concentrate on three matters. I met with representatives of the IFA who made four requests, the first of which I have a difficulty with and will, therefore, not promote. However, I do not have a difficulty with the other three. First, it requests the resumption of peat harvesting from existing horticultural peat bogs for 2021, at a minimum, and they state that there must be a period of overlap, which I agree with. We must ensure the just transition about which we hear a lot. We are talking about people's livelihoods and an entire industry. When will these people be paid? Where is the just transition in that? One cannot simply cut something off. There must be a gradual just transition. Second, coupled with a just transition, a just transition fund must be established to reward these people or a system to supplement their income. If people lose income due to a policy decision - I do not have an objection to some policies - we must provide for the shortfall in their income. It is important that we do not leave people without their income. The final and most important request is that we provide the funding necessary for research and best international practice. Across the European Union, if people bang their heads together, surely alternatives can be found.
It is a difficult situation with regard to peat, but it is clear that it is not required for John Innes composts etc. which some people may be familiar with and are used in the horticultural sector. We must ask what Teagasc, which receives substantial funding from the State, is doing and how is it collaborating with other horticultural and agricultural institutes. We need to talk about what the alternative medium will be. We know most soft roots can grow without peat. Coillte confirmed that peat moss is not necessary in the forestry sector because there are loams, soil mixes and various aggregates that can be used in seed beds for forestry. We know many plants prefer to be peat free. We have become reliant on peat. We must design a matrix of priority and highlight what the important elements are. As a member of the agricultural committee, who has studied and practised horticulture and who worked in the Kinsealy agricultural research station in Malahide, I know the significance of peat. It has limitations and potential and we must therefore prioritise it. I am concerned with protecting the horticultural food sector and the nursery stock sector.The real issue is food. That needs to be tied up with Bord Bia. We have a wonderful reputation as a producer of quality mushrooms and we need to support the sector. We have to recognise that peat is a finite resource and will end.
I thank the Minister of State for injecting a bit of reality and realism into his commentary, and for being brave enough to call it out and stand apart. We have a three-party coalition Government. The Minister of State still has his view and he is entitled to express it, and I so happen to support it.
It is a year since I had a Commencement matter on this topic. Part of the problem is that there was a different Minister from a different Department. That cuts to the heart of this issue, namely, that it cuts across too many Departments and one person is not taking charge of the industry and what needs to be done. I met Kieran Dunne and Larry Doran from County Kildare Growers and was horrified by what I learned about the impact this would have on the horticulture sector. It impacts 6,600 jobs directly and 11,000 other jobs will also be impacted.
I and many others have several times over the past 12 months raised this issue in the House. To be perfectly honest, we have been fobbed off and have been sent from one Department to another, from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and have been between four different Ministers. It is time to call for a halt to that.
This is an emergency and crisis. Senator Higgins said it was not an emergency, but it is. Something has to be done about this. We know the Irish horticultural industry makes a very significant contribution to the Irish economy, apart from all of those who are employed within it. The farm gate value was €437 million in 2018 and exports were worth €239 million. I imagine they are conservative figures.
We are not talking about a huge amount of peatland. Under 5% of Irish peatlands are under production. That is about 0.4% of the total amount of Irish peatlands. As we know, the current process is that horticultural peat harvesting requires planning permission and a licence from the EPA, which can take between four and six years. This is hugely disproportionate. The process is very burdensome and is completely wrong. We could have a situation whereby many of our home industries could close because of that.
Given the indigenous supply of peat in Ireland, it is incredible to think that those in the industry have to import peat from Lithuania and Holland. This morning I spoke to Brendan Guilfoyle from Kildare who told me he is importing peat from Scotland. The lorry that delivers his peat goes back to Northern Ireland. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever that in trying to balance climate change and what needs to be done about peat that we are encouraging the importation of peat from other parts of Europe which has travels thousands of miles and costs up to four times what Irish peat costs. We are talking about a green industry and peat that would be used to grow mushrooms, food, nursery plants and trees, which will also help with climate change.
It is unacceptable and hypocritical to ban the use of peat in Ireland for horticultural products and then import it from another EU member state or a third country. I know what happened in the mushroom industry many years ago because my family was in the business at the time. Those growing mushroom, plants and strawberries could be at a competitive and financial disadvantage. People and industry could be put out of business.
This issue needs to be revisited. Action needs to be taken. Fine Gael has been in government for the past ten years and I am disappointed that it did not do more in the lead up to this. Bord na Móna is part of the problem because while it had to commit to cease peat harvesting, it made a decision two years before it had to on supplying peat to the horticulture industry. A lot has to be done. I know from the opening remarks of the Minister of State that he understands this, and understands the importance to his constituency and mine, but we need action soon. A derogation for those who need horticultural peat is required.
I thank the Minister of State for being present today for what is an important debate. There is near unanimity in the Chamber. More importantly, at the outset, the Minister of State said he supports an exemption for peat extraction from the planning process because I know he gets just how important this is to the horticultural sector, including fruit and vegetable farmers, mushroom growers and many nurseries up and down the country.
As the Minister of State is aware, I now represent the constituency of Dublin Fingal which has the highest number of growers in the horticultural industry in the country. They feel neglected and under-represented. More importantly, they now feel their industry is facing extinction through absolutely no fault of their own or fault of the Government due to a ban on the extraction of Irish peat for those who produce the highest level of quality products in Ireland. This ban resulted from a court case.
The result of us failing to stand by the caretakers of our land and soil will mean that we will not see Irish fruits or vegetables on shelves in the coming months and years. The scientists of Ireland, who are passionate about looking after the quality of our soil and the water around them, do not take their orders from party leaders or whips the way we do. They take their orders from the land, sun, snow, nature and the environment. Quite simply, these people are farming our lands and are certainly not harming our lands.
Over the past number of months I have had the privilege of meeting dozens of people in north County Dublin, Kildare, Meath and Monaghan who are frustrated by the current situation. They appreciate the constraints and barriers, but as others have alluded to, they genuinely want a little bit of joined-up thinking from the three Departments concerned to make sure that we resolve this issue and get it over the line. The result should be that we preserve the livelihoods of employees and, more importantly, food production in this country.
I look forward to seeing the results of the report of the working group in the next couple of weeks. Substitute peat for the propagation of lettuces, broccoli, strawberries, mushrooms, nurseries, plants and flowers is not here yet. Even though there has been some research and development, we have not yet come up with alternatives. As has everybody else, I want to make it clear that importing peat is not the answer. The cost for the growers increases the cost of production. The quality of the peat being brought into the country, before we ever get the issue of the carbon footprint, means less of an output for our farmers. We cannot have that.
The peat we are used to harvesting in our bogs for fruit and vegetable growers and nurseries accounted for about 0.6% of our overall carbon footprint. If we are going to bring in 4,000 tonnes of peat from Latvia or anywhere else in the world every second week for the next couple of years to satisfy the needs of this market, albeit that it is of a poorer quality, our carbon footprint will go through the bloody roof. Nobody, even Senator Higgins, could stand over that and say that is a happy situation for us.
We have to recognise that all of us collectively have a responsibility to find a solution. In a number of weeks our mushroom growers will have absolutely no choice but to import peat that will consist of 80% water. Imagine telling somebody that we are going to import water from one part of the world to another and will then have to extract that water before mushroom growers can use it. One could not make this up. I know there are constraints and we find ourselves in unusual situations, but the buck has to stop with us because, as legislators, we have let these growers down due to the fact that we have not found a solution. I know it is not easy, because otherwise we would already have found a solution. It is incumbent on us to make sure we find a solution.I thank the Minister of State for agreeing to amend the planning Act to provide an exemption for the provision of peat extraction for the horticulture industry but we all know the elephant in the room is the need for the EPA to make a similar gesture. That needs to come loud and clear from all of us here today. It will not be forever and it is not to ignore all the arguments that have been made against peat extraction as something we should not be doing in the long term because it is not sustainable. In the medium term, we need to ensure we have Brussels sprouts for our Christmas dinners, and Wexford, north County Dublin and Meath strawberries on our plates at Easter. If we do not come up with a solution that provides an exemption to planning, and a provision for, or exemption from, EPA licensing, we will find ourselves having a different conversation about the future of Irish food production. This might be seen as a niche issue today but when the women who go to the supermarkets on a Friday and Saturday see empty shelves, there will be a hell of a lot more people outside Leinster House than members of our farming community.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I get very annoyed in all these debates about the horticulture industry. North-east Roscommon, as the Minister of State knows because he has relations I am very friendly with in that region, and the areas around Ballinasloe, Galway and Shannonbridge are major peat areas. They are very seldom referenced in the debates. When we talked about job losses with the closure of ESB and Bord na Móna peat operations, the Minister of State well knows that the area I live in is, I am proud to say, surrounded by bog, and is huge. We have suffered considerably as a result of the changes that have come about.
I was educated in horticulture. It is what I went to college to study. My first job was as a horticulture teacher and technician. I know a little about this although I will not say I am absolutely expert on it. Before the programme for Government was agreed, I wrote a short document for our party on what we needed to do with this industry, especially in relation to the green agenda. If you want the green agenda to succeed, horticulture must be at the top of that agenda. It is such an important ingredient in getting to your carbon count because of the fact you are dealing with plants, soil and that type of thing. People involved in horticulture are very passionate about the environment. We are talking about one tenth of 1%, just imagine, of Ireland's total area of peatlands to supply the Irish horticulture industry.
There has been a very good debate here with very passionate contributions from the Leader, Senators O'Loughlin and McGreehan and others. The reality is that while it was great to have that good debate, the one damn thing we need now is a solution. I acknowledge that a good while back I heard the Minister of State speak about this issue on the local radio stations, Shannonside and Northern Sound, and he was very strong on it. There are three parties in the Government, which I am part of and that I support. As far as I am concerned, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party Ministers have to solve this issue. There is one way of solving it, whether it is through emergency legislation or whatever, and we must get agreement on this, which is that we bring in legislation on a temporary basis allowing extraction from peatland.
When we speak about this issue it is also important to point out it was not the Government that closed extraction down, and this was referenced by Senators, it was a court order. When that happened action should have commenced on how we could have supported our horticulture industry. It is a very significant area in terms of revenue and it could be expanded greatly. It would be very good, environmentally, to deal with horticultural issues in terms of carbon count and all that type of thing. Bringing in peat from Latvia and dumping it on a bog in the Minister of State's county is shocking and disgraceful. As a politician, I am ashamed that is going on.
Today, I am very confident this matter will now be solved. It has dragged on for far too long. People in the industry have been very patient and very quiet in making their representations to all of us and they have been very fair about it. By the way, I repeat that many of those people are very environmentally friendly but by our actions and the type of carry-on that is happening now, we are actually turning off the people who are pro-environment and who look after the environment. We really are. It is a cart before the horse scenario and what is happening is totally wrong. I welcome the fact the working group will report very shortly but that report cannot sit on a shelf. It needs to be acted on straight away.
It was well-nigh impossible to get a continuous run of Irish tomatoes in Irish supermarkets this year. No matter how I asked, they would be there one day but not the next. One supermarket continuously supplied Irish tomatoes that were totally traceable to north County Dublin. That supermarket was not Irish; I will not mention it because I am not supposed to. There is the issue of big supermarket conglomerates supporting Irish products. I do not blame the shopkeepers, but conglomerates buy their stuff abroad. However, a chilled tomato is not anything like one produced in your country for quality and taste.
As everybody else has said, I am confident this will be solved. There is unanimity on this issue in the Seanad and common sense has to prevail. If we carry on like this, we will completely destroy the role of horticulture in controlling the carbon count and improving our environment. We have to do that but we are going the wrong way about it right now.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I acknowledge his presence here and his meeting with representatives of the horticulture industry. It was very important that such an engagement happened. Politics has been damaged over the past 18 months because of this issue. Where we are going with our climate action plan is also damaged by these debates.
We are talking about probably less than 1% of our bogs and how we include that percentage in our horticulture industry and the 17,000 jobs that depend on it. That is a very significant figure for rural Ireland. Outside the gates of Leinster House today there were horticulturists, owners of mushroom plants, workers and everyone, telling their stories about how their industry has been affected. They have been grossly affected by an issue that is something we can solve.
The real damage done is to the policy we have been trying to implement regarding our carbon emissions. It is very hard for us to stand up in rural Ireland and say we are trying our best to reduce our carbon count when peat is being brought in from the Baltic states and transported across the country in 200 truckloads. We are talking against ourselves in many ways and that has caused significant damage. If anything, we are playing into the hands of climate deniers because of what is happening. On many occasions over the past few weeks, we have seen the argument used against us, on local radio and in local newspapers, that this Government is now flapping on the issue of climate because it cannot even solve the issue of peat extraction, at a very small level, to help an industry that will collapse unless we get something done. That is why the Minister of State's speech was very helpful and is a good step forward. That is the kind of positivity we need to portray when it comes to this issue.
I am the Vice Chairman of the Joint Committee of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Like other Members of this Seanad, we have had engagements with Ministers on this issue that have brought no clarity to the situation. I welcome the report that will be published at the end of the month but we have been waiting months for it. The idea that we wait ten years for a strategy to be put in place to find another mechanism will not be appropriate. We need to find a solution we can put in place to ensure this section of society can live within the parameters that are there. We are talking about less than 1% of our natural bogs. We are not talking about burning peat or that kind of scenario. This is something to ensure our horticulture industry can survive. If we do not get real movement on the issue, a Seanad special select committee should be set up. This is one of the issues about which we should be talking. There are varied interests across the Seanad. We have seen that in the context of other issues in the past. That is a possible solution at which we might have to look if we do not get appropriate action in the next few months. If this lingers and moves forward, it will be up to us. We did appropriate work on the climate action Bill and, in many ways, got the backing of rural Ireland. We tried to get everyone in the same boat. We need to get everyone moving forward. If action is not taken, that would be an appropriate step forward.
I knew that Deputy Fitzmaurice was in the turf business, but I had not realised that Senator Mullen is involved in the transportation of turf. You find out something new every day. The value of this house is that there is great experience here. We are discussing horticulture and we have two horticulturalists in our midst, namely, Senators Boyhan and Murphy. They have outlined their great experience in many aspects of the horticultural business.
The Minister of State should seek permission from the Government to solve this problem. He knows all about it. He gave the impression, based on what he said, that he is au fait with the issue. He is the right man in the right place to solve this issue. It is a crisis, as has been said by several speakers. None of us are too far from the rushes or bogs. This is an issue that must be solved. It is ludicrous to be bringing in peat from Latvia, Lithuania and Scotland. As Senator Doherty pointed out, 80% of it is water in some cases. It is an important industry, as has been pointed out, that has 16,000 jobs associated with it and 6,000 people directly employed in the sector. The issues are around planning and licensing, and the Minister of State is the man to bring those two issues together.
On the licensing side, not everybody can be extracting peat. It must be controlled. Some speakers have pointed out that perhaps we can reduce the use of peat. It is ludicrous for us to import it. I would have a big problem if this peat was being extracted and burned, but it is not, it is going back into the soil again. That is a point that should be made. It is going back into the soil and is being used and reused in many cases. It is used for the mushroom business and then reused in other aspect of horticulture. Perhaps there are other composts that can be mixed through the peat to reduce the use of it. There is a lot that can be done. I appeal to the Minister of State to seek that permission from the Government. He should bring away from this Chamber the urgency of this matter, as several Senators have pointed out, and the jobs that are at seek. Quality products are produced in the horticulture sector the length and breadth of the country. I appeal to the Minister of State to get on with bringing in the legislation and getting the licences that are required for this industry.
I will be brief because Members have put their views on this issue on the record. I, as Minister with responsibility for planning, am guardian of the planning system. That system, by its nature, is neutral. It acts on policy. We need policy to work with the system in order to provide a solution. We can go around the houses and discuss how we got here. It has been a difficult process. The important point is that we must have a two-step process whereby if a project is exempted from planning, there is an alternative regime that meets the requirement of EU law. That is achievable.
I want to be clear to all Senators and everyone following this debate that I have done my part. It is up to other Ministers to do theirs. We need to put all our heads together to deliver this solution for the sector. That was why I prefaced my opening remarks with reference to the situation near my county and the expectation of peat being brought in, which is difficult to explain to people. I thought it was important to put that on the record at the very outset and to show exactly what is going on. I do not want to misrepresented. The horticulture sector is to the forefront of our considerations. It is the people in that sector we are fighting for in order to try to ensure they have a viable livelihood in front of them.
I made the remark that peat extraction is permitted within the State but the process around it is very difficult. A provider must try to get leave from the courts, which can take a significant period of time. The provider then must get substitute consent, that is, retention permission, followed by planning permission for future use before going to the EPA to get licensed. It is a complicated process, which shows how many stakeholders are currently involved and necessary to provide the solution.
I know people are frustrated at the way we got here. It is worth pointing out that the previous Government put in a statutory instrument intended to resolve this issue but it was struck down by the courts. Remarks were made about a court case and Bord na Móna. It was not the company. Bord na Móna made a commercial decision to exit the market. I understand it had initiated the process by making an application.
The following consideration is the key to unlocking this debate. When we talk about a just transition, we are talking about trying to provide a future while we wait for an alternative to be ever-present for the industry. To me, there is nothing just in seeing so many families outside the gates of Leinster House this afternoon fighting for their livelihoods because of this ridiculous situation. We need to provide a just solution, as per the notion of a just transition. Teagasc and all the other agencies of the State can work to find alternatives. We must ensure that they have budgets behind them to conduct that research and do that work. That is important and will be a key part of the solution.
In response to something said by some Senators, I do not support any illegal regime. The dual process that has been proposed is fully in line with EU law and Irish law. We want the best sustainable outcome for everyone here, and that is what the planning system can deliver. As I pointed out, the planning system is neutral. We do not ban things in the planning system, we follow Government policy.
On the climate issue, it is up to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to lead from that perspective in terms of how the Government responds with climate measures. The planning system then allows sustainable development through that mechanism. I hope that is clear.
A number of Senators made reference to the legislation, the pressures it is facing and how often it has been challenged in the courts. The process has been litigious and that is a considerable issue in allowing peat extraction. We want to ensure that what we have stands up to the highest scrutiny. That is very important. It is up to all Members of this House, who I encourage to assist me with this process. I have spoken the truth here about what I have done. I cannot do any more on my own because it is not under the remit of my Department. We need the other Departments to step up to the mark and do their piece. That is the key point I would like everyone here to take from this debate. We need to ensure that we put the process in place to ensure that we have a secure future for those families who are standing at the gates of Leinster House today.That is very important. As I said in my earlier remarks, horticulture is the fourth most valuable sector of our agriculture industry. It generates almost €500 million in revenue and employs 17,000 people. It provides incomes for all those families in our State. We need to stand up and be counted. We need to provide a clear pathway to secure their future. It is very important that people right across Government resolve to do that. I will not be found wanting in playing my part in connection with that.