Seanad debates

Wednesday, 8 December 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Agriculture Industry

10:30 am

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach agus gabhaim buíochas leis as a bheith anseo mar tá a fhios agam go bhfuil sé faoi bhrú mar go bhfuil a lán oibre le déanamh aige. The Minister is very welcome to the House this morning. The Minister knows, and he does not need me to tell him, that every farmer in the country is speaking about the price of fertiliser. It has gone through the roof. Recent figures I have seen show the price of urea has risen almost 80% in the past year. The average price of all fertilisers has risen by 72%. According to the World Bank, unfortunately, this is a trend that is set to continue. This is very bad and worrying news for the farming community. When coupled with a recent Teagasc report that predicts that farm incomes are set to decline by an average of 19% next year in all sectors, it is a worrying and troublesome time for the farming community. As we all know, what is bad news for the farmer is ultimately bad news for the consumer because the results of this will be higher food prices. This is something that affects us all.

We are told the reason for this is the increasing price of natural gas throughout Europe. Recently, I saw statistics that in the past year, the price of natural gas throughout Europe has risen by 441%. This is a crazy figure. This will be a serious problem for farmers. In the meantime, it will also be a serious problem for the importers and suppliers of fertiliser to the farmers. They will have difficulty in trying to source it. If they do source it, the cost they will incur by importing it will have serious implications for them holding this type of funding. A potential solution would have to involve the banks, as well as the farming community. There is another solution that has been talked about, which is temporary. The EU could set aside the anti-dumping charge on fertilisers, which we import from Trinidad and Tobago, the US and Russia, and perhaps that would result in an easement as well. The Minister has been proactive in this case and he wrote to the EU some time ago looking to see what can be done. We need a short-term solution. Perhaps a more long-term solution could be found in a county such as the one in which I reside. As the Minister will be aware, County Monaghan has a strong tradition of food production the mushroom, poultry and pig sectors. The waste that those plants generate currently cost farmers between €15 and €16 per tonne to remove from their sites. Perhaps if that particular product was dried, turned into pellets and some value added then that could be the future of fertiliser not just for ourselves in this country but for export. One would imagine that option would be a much more environmentally friendly solution or substitute for fertiliser in the long run. We should explore that option and I am interested in the Minister's comments on how we can explore the possibility of using the waste while solving a problem for the farming community.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue. He has his finger on the pulse regarding the importance of this issue for farmers and the fact that it will be a significant issue in the year ahead. We have found that to be the case during the autumn. There is no doubt that the situation has become more acute in terms of the inflation we are seeing and, indeed, it is going to be a significant factor for 2022.

Ireland, as a member of the EU, supports an open, rules-based trading environment. However, we recognise the need to ensure that agreed trade rules are applied uniformly with full transparency to ensure that wider commercial interests are maintained, and that EU industry is not unfairly disadvantaged as a result of third-country trade practices that might distort EU internal market dynamics, particularly referring to the issue of fertiliser, fertiliser tariffs, and anti-dumping tariffs and their role in pricing. It is for that reason that the European Commission operates a comprehensive trade defence system that seeks to strike an appropriate balance between user and producer interests when there is clear evidence that trading practices in foreign jurisdictions are having a distorting effect within the Single Market.

These trade defence instruments can include the application of duties on goods. This is the case in a number of fertiliser products, specifically urea and ammonium nitrate, UAN, and ammonium nitrate, being imported into the EU from a number of third countries. Anti-dumping fixed rate duties range from €22.24 per tonne to €42.47 per tonne. These duties are imposed on UAN that originates from Russia, Trinidad and Tobago and the US. As the latest measures were imposed in 2019, no full review of these measures is expected until 2024.

Ammonium nitrate, which is a key ingredient in calcium ammonium nitrate, CAN, is one of the main types of fertiliser that are used by many Irish farmers. Anti-dumping fixed rate duties range from €28.78 per tonne to €32.71 per tonne and are imposed on products that originate from Russia. As the latest measures were imposed in 2020, no review of these measures is expected until 2025. However, as provided for in EU regulations, an interim review can be initiated once the current measures have been in place for one year.

As has been discussed in this House in the past month, it is quite clear that there has been a sharp increase in fertiliser prices over the past year, particularly in recent months as pointed out by the Senator. I am very conscious of the impact that these price increases have had at farm level. The fertiliser market is driven by global supply and demand with several factors that influence the price of fertilisers. The major driving factors for the increase in prices over the recent period has been the increase in the price of raw material and the cost of energy production. There is also protectionism by global players and issues with the supply of certain fertiliser products.

The imposition of the anti-dumping tariffs from certain third countries is an additional, albeit secondary, factor when imported into the EU from these producing countries. At the November meeting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council, I raised the increasing challenge faced by farmers around fertiliser prices. I called on the EU Commission to consider all options to ease the pressure on farmers at this time, including the question of whether the imposition of anti-dumping duties on fertiliser imports continues to be appropriate. Indeed, I called for this matter to be examined as a priority. Last week, I wrote to the EU Commissioner for Agriculture, Mr. Janusz Wojciechowski, asking him to finalise the Commission's examination of the tariffs.

With fertiliser prices constituting such a high portion of farmers' expenditure, I am aware that the impact of rising fertiliser prices will very much have a negative effect on farmers' incomes. Ireland will remain a fertiliser price-taker in this regard as no fertilisers are manufactured in Ireland, rather fertiliser companies blend a number of imported fertiliser products into different compositions that are suitable for agricultural use in Ireland.

In line with the farm to fork strategy at European level, the climate action plan commits to a more targeted and reduced use of chemical nitrogen fertiliser over the time ahead, while maintaining the same level of grass produced through more use of multi-species sward and clover swards, for example. I engage regularly with the farming organisations and have introduced a number of initiatives to support farmers to reduce their dependence on chemical fertiliser such as the planting of multi-species sward and introduced a support for that. Recently, I also introduced a pilot soil sampling programme. Additionally, I have asked Teagasc to develop a roadmap for farmers to reduce the use of chemical fertilisers on farms. I expect to be able to publish this report before the end of next year.

Finally, the Senator made a specific suggestion for the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, which I will deal with in my further response.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. He has been on the ball on this matter, which he demonstrated when he outlined his contacts with the EU. I am sure that he understands and accepts that this is a serious matter. This is a particularly worrying time for the farming community as the price of fertiliser is rocketing. Ultimately, what is bad news for the farmer will end up being bad news for us all. The long-term strategy is to reduce the use of fertiliser and nitrates, which is important and I understand that Teagasc is working on a long-term plan. However, the most immediate problem needs an urgent response. I have every confidence in the Minister that something positive will come from his negotiations with the EU.

In conclusion, I look forward to his response to my suggestion concerning the waste generated by food production plants in County Monaghan.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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The anti-dumping tariff ranges from €28 per tonne to €32 per tonne for CAN, which is now a smaller portion of the overall cost because fertiliser prices have rocketed. At the start of this year the tariff was 10% of the price but because prices have rocketed the tariff is now a smaller portion. Nonetheless, it is another cost for farmers and I am determined to address this issue at European level. At national level, we have a lot of latent capacity in how efficiently we use organic fertiliser. There is a particular supply in Cavan-Monaghan as it is a region that is at the beating heart of the poultry sector at a national level. The constituency has significant pig, dairy and other sectors. How we use that efficiently and ensure farmers seek to replace chemical fertilisers with a better use of organic fertilisers will be important and I have given the task to Teagasc. Professor Frank O'Mara and his team are doing a lot work on how we can advise farmers to best use organic fertilisers in the time ahead, and how we can ensure that there is more collaboration between farm types so that the poultry sector, for example, can work with the livestock or tillage sectors to make the most use of such fertilisers.

The Senator used a word that is often used when talking about organic fertiliser, which is "waste". That is used in respect of the poultry sector. That has been the terminology used over the years and we must change that around so people view waste as a valuable resource. We must ensure that such waste is sought after and demanded by farmers because it is a powerful organic fertiliser, which we very much value. I want lots of progress in this area over the course of this year and next. That is a key way in which we can, hopefully, try to mitigate the very real pressure generated by chemical fertiliser prices.

Finally, I again thank the Senator for raising this matter.