Seanad debates

Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Brexit Issues

2:30 pm

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, to the House.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for selecting this most important matter. I would also like to welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the House and thank him for his presence. It indicates his absolute commitment to agriculture, horticulture and the potato sector that he has come here to respond to this Commencement matter.Part of the context for raising this question is that I am a member of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, as the Minister is aware. We have had some discussion about this issue, if not a great deal. I have also received a substantial amount of correspondence from growers and farmers, and especially from Donegal. As the Minister will be aware, it is an important county for the production of potatoes, and specifically of seed potatoes. In the next few weeks, I intend to travel to Raphoe to see such an operation. I am sure the Minister is fully aware of it.

I also speak about this issue in the context of the national agrifood sector and the strategy in that regard, including the horticulture strategy, as well as rural development, rural communities and the rural economy. I refer to all those issues together because I do not think they can be separated. The Minister and I know the potato industry is facing a potential crisis. If we do not resolve the issues concerning seed potatoes, then we are going to have problems. To give some background information, and the Minister will know this, approximately 9,000 ha of seed potatoes are planted in Ireland every year, requiring approximately 20,000 tonnes of seed potatoes. These are sourced from certified home-grown, imported and farm-saved seeds. The main varieties of potatoes produced here are Roosters, followed by Kerrs Pinks, Maris Pipers, Queens, Records and Golden Wonders, to name just a few.

It is a significant industry, and one that we should be ambitious about and endeavouring to grow. My focus in asking the Minister about this matter today is on the fallout from Brexit. As a result of the UK's decision to leave the EU and to end the Brexit transition period from 1 January 2021, the import of seed potatoes from Great Britain into the EU is now prohibited. That is a fact. The UK applied to the EU for third-party equivalence for the export of certified seed potatoes, but the EU refused the application because the UK's plant health regulations are "not dynamically aligned with the EU’s legislation". This means that the main concern for potato growers now centres on the supply of seed potatoes.

Having gleaned information from correspondence that I have seen from the Secretary General of the Minister's Department, I understand that the Department will actively and significantly support the production of the mini-tubers through the Tops potato propagation centre in Raphoe in County Donegal and others. I also understand that all necessary resources will be supplied by the Minister's Department to ensure that an adequate supply of mini-tubers is made available to the industry. I would like to hear a little bit about that aspect.

Returning to the key issue, there is a question about the supply of seed potatoes. What do farmers want? They want certainty, and they want it now. This is the time when they are planning their sowing schedules. This concerns the agrifood sector, and involves supporting the horticultural sector, the Irish brand potato and rural communities. Ultimately, in the broader perspective, we need a bigger strategy for the coming years to enable us to develop our own seed potential and our own seed production industry and to grow it. I am not happy enough, and neither I think is the Minister, for us to just sustain our current level of growth and investment in this area. We want to grow this industry as a part of the food sector on this green island of Ireland. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. He is a strong proponent of the seed potato sector. It is one with great potential, and I am committed to seeing it growing again and being restored to its heyday. This endeavour must be led by the industry, with support from my Department. As a result of the UK's decision to leave the EU and following the end of the Brexit transition period on 1 January 2021, the import of seed potatoes from Britain into the EU has been prohibited under EU plant health regulations. These regulations apply to all EU member states, where it is now illegal to import seed potatoes from Great Britain for seed propagation purposes.

The UK applied to the EU for recognition of equivalence under Article 44 of the EU plant health regulations to allow for the export of certified seed potatoes from Great Britain to the EU to continue post-transition. The EU, however, refused this application because the UK's plant health regulations are "not dynamically aligned to EU's [phytosanitary] legislation". Traditionally, there has been a strong demand and requirement in Ireland for high-grade seed potatoes from Great Britain.In recognition of this, my Department has actively engaged with the European Commission and other member states at various EU meetings on exports of seed potatoes from Britain, including at the EU chief officer of plant health meetings and the EU standing committee meetings on plant health, among others. At these meetings my Department has continually outlined to the Commission our view that there should be continued free movement of seed potatoes between Great Britain and Ireland. We have urged the European Commission to engage to find a solution to the resumption of this trade and have suggested that this could be achieved either by discussing equivalence under Article 44 of the plant health regulation or by way of a derogation. Exports of seed potatoes from Britain to Northern Ireland and the EU have also been discussed at the first meeting of the Trade Specialised Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement and at the European Parliament environment committee. In all forums the Commission has maintained its position that the UK's plant health regulations must be dynamically aligned to that of the EU for any resumption of trade to take place.

I am keen to highlight to the Senator that the ending of high-grade seed imports from Britain provides a real opportunity for the revival of domestic seed production, a point he dwelled on in his contribution. An all-island plant health status, seed growing tradition and the potential to form producer organisations by potato growers are all positives. There is an increased interest from major seed potato contractors in placing contracts for seed with Irish growers in the wake of Brexit. My Department will offer as much support as possible in developing the seed potato sector. However, further expansion of the seed area must be industry led. This expansion should be assisted in the coming years by the availability of seed of our main variety, Rooster, whose plant breeder's rights expired at the end of 2021.

My Department actively supports the production of mini-tubers through the Tops Potato Centre, in Raphoe, in my county, whose good work Senator Boyhan referred to in strong terms. To ensure that the Tops Potato Centre can cater for future demand, I am looking at how to improve our investment there.

In addition, my Department operates the seed certification scheme for the production of certified seed and will make available all necessary resources to ensure that all seed crops entered for the scheme are certified to the highest of standards.

I assure the Senator that my Department will continue to support the seed potato sector in building capacity to increase domestic seed supply and to maximise our natural advantage in this regard.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply and look forward to considering it in great detail. He is right that there is enormous potential. In any crisis there are opportunities and, therefore, we must focus in on them. I hear what he says clearly about the strict plant health regulation requirements, and that is very important. I also hear what he says about exports. The industry has to lead here.

My final call to the Minister is that, conscious of the area involved and its importance and significance to the horticultural and agricultural food chain and systems, we need to look at and keep the focus at all times on the Brexit adjustment reserve fund. There may be something in that for us. Surely, if there is, the Minister will go after it. It is good that we highlight this issue, identify the issues and try to address them and stand in solidarity with these growers. I note that the Minister referred to Raphoe and the work going on up there in the Tops centre. That is really important.

I thank the Minister for his engagement and his very positive response. He might in wrapping up touch on our potential for the Brexit adjustment reserve fund in respect of this specific problem.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Alongside the tremendous work that goes on at the Tops facility in Raphoe, my Department also provides funding to the Teagasc potato breeding programme at Oak Park and to growers for specialist equipment under the TAMS investment scheme.

As a further support to the seed potato industry, my Department is currently examining a capital investment scheme for seed potatoes to facilitate the development of the domestic seed potato production sector and capacity. There are state aid considerations in the development of such a scheme, and approval is also required from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, but my Department is engaged in this process.I and the Department will, in all of the ways we can, work with the sector to support it in restoring what used to be a tremendous domestic seed production sector. The sector has diminished somewhat in recent years, but we have the necessary natural resources, advantages, land and climate to do that. It is important that this is industry led, and that those who need to purchase seed for growing ware potato engage with growers that are willing to grow more seed potato and provide certainty to them that if they produce a quality seed potato product that they will be purchased. That is within our grasp and that of the industry, and I will work closely with industry. I will meet the IFA potato committee in the next number of days, following the meetings I had with it last year to try to further advocate that we grasp this potential. Alongside that, I will continue to advocate at European level for free movement. We have to grasp this opportunity for the restoration of the domestic sector.