Before the change of business I was referring to the high level of potato imports over the last few years. Since 1978 there has been a twenty fold increase in potato imports. In 1978 only 4,000 tons of potatoes were imported. By 1982 this had increased to 85,000 tons. Most of these imports have come from places like Holland and Denmark whose climates, like ours, favour potato production.
Since 1980 and the harmonisation of the EC plant health legislation there is free inter-Community trade in potatoes. This makes it more imperative that we get our act in order in relation to the potato industry. This Bill is at last tackling some of the issues which will go a long way towards improving our industry. One of the reasons for the increasing volume of imports has been the inconsistency in the production of potatoes for the home market. This Bill will go a long way towards curbing the cowboys in the industry who have contributed to the short supply, high price potatoes followed by excess supply and low price potatoes phenonomen. In 1983 the average price per tonne to potato producers was £200. In 1984, despite extra prices and extra inputs, the average price was reduced to something in the region of £100 per tonne, this bearing in mind that the cost of production per acre of potatoes is around £1,200. The approximate yield here is six to seven tonnes per acre. This shows that it is not an economic proposition to be in potato production at present. The one big problem about the legislation before us is that we need a firm commitment from the Minister that this legislation will be implemented rigorously. Without that commitment it will not be worth the paper it is written on. We must make the effort to implement the Bill, unlike what has happened over the years with the 19 pieces of legislation that I have already referred to; we must change the scene in this area. There is no point in getting the serious producers organised if we allow the cowboys to come and go as they please and take advantage of a high prices year.
We will have to tackle the problem of varieties. Kerr's Pinks have an inbuilt problem of endemic disease and they give poor yields. We must encourage an orderly production of varieties that will increase yields and will be more suitable for the processing industry. Much progress has been made with the Pentland varieties in this area and they have become more acceptable to the housewife. A survey done by the Agricultural Institute last year shows that over 50 per cent of housewives are dissatisfied with the potatoes on offer. The consumer buys mainly on the marketing of the potato. Recent experiments of selling potatoes loose and allowing the consumers to choose for themselves, even at relatively higher price, have proved tremendously successful. We have all heard the stories of weight being made up with stones, dirt and diseased potatoes. This has gone on for many years. The report of the Fruit and Vegetable Tribunal of 1940 referred to the fact that potatoes for sale on the home market were not subject to restrictions of any kind and said that there was little doubt from evidence submitted to that committee of speciments of potatoes taken at random from bags sent for sale on the home market that these markets had been utilised to absorb diseased and other potatoes which would not be allowed to be exported and that for far too long the home market had been used to dump potatoes that had no other outlet. Ireland is a potato producing nation and nowadays we must bear in mind the appalling situation in which we are a net importer of potatoes with the exception of some seed potatoes.
Even in the area of seed potato production we have a long way to go. Some question marks still hang over bags of certified seed potatoes. I have had complaints as late as this year in relation to seed Pentland Dels coming from the Department whose size range was totally out of order. We should look to this and ensure that the service being given by the Department is what it should be.
This Bill is extremely good and I compliment the Minister for bringing it before the House. It is a far more important Bill than is obvious on face value. We are aware of the inter-departmental committee of Ministers considering the food industry, particularly the value-added end of the food industry. The potato chip and the crisp have had a very good history. The crisp was introduced by Joseph Murphy in 1954 when in a small Dublin warehouse he started frying small pieces of potato and manufactured the potato crisp. The word "Tayto" has become synonymous with the potato industry and we have come a long way since 1954. The processed potato in the form of the frozen chip industry has not been so successful mainly because we have not grown a suitable type of potato and also because of the lack of commitment to contracts by potato producers. If we want to make sure that the chip industry is a viable industry we will have to encourage commitment to contracts by farmers and producers in general. Getting in and out of potato production from year to year is no good and signing a contract for a certain acreage of potatoes means nothing to the manufacturer if the farmer changes his mind or opts to go elsewhere if he is offered a better price. We will have to be businesslike in relation to potato production.
The increasing consumption of the frozen chip has been tremendous as indeed has been the increase in the consumption of convenience foods. I suppose it is an expression of the busy life most housewives lead today. There is no reason why we should not be to the front in this industry and why it should not become of tremendously important value to us. Before we can get to that stage and encourage the businessmen into this we will have to guarantee sufficient yields of the right variety of potato to have a consistent supply for this market. We are heading in the right direction with the Pentland Del. They have been tested and proved elsewhere and they are very successful in the processed chip industry. We have had limited success over the years in the dehydrated mashed potato industry because the variety we have been growing is suitable but even this end of the market is reducing in favour of the chip industry which is growing out of all proportion and faster than people realised over the years.
I should like to refer to a few of the provisions of the Bill. Perhaps the points I have raised may be implicit in the Bill, but I know, for example, that some of the new co-operatives and producers would like the Minister to clarify a few points which could be very important if not cleared up now. The potato co-operatives and those involved in them having read the Bill as it stands are not clear exactly what regulations it will now be necessary for them to comply with for the importation of potatoes into our market. For example, will those who import potatoes be free of any registration in relation to their packing and selling? Will the agents, particularly the Dublin market agents who import potatoes, who are free to do so, still be free to re-bag and sell potatoes where they like without any stamp or registration mark on them? This whole area of importation is deserving of some clarification by the Minister. At present imports of potatoes to this country bear no declaration of variety or size. Perhaps we could ensure that they fall in line with the standards demanded of our producers. We should never apologise for, if you like, erecting barriers to improve the quality of imports, particularly if we are merely bringing such standard up to that we demand of our producers.
Free trade is very acceptable and necessary for an exporting country like ours but there is no way people should be allowed to import goods here of a lower standard than we demand of our own producers. I would ask the Minister to assure the House that the whole situation in relation to the importation of potatoes will be attended to and will come within the provisions of this Bill, particularly in relation to registration of the sellers and packers. The Canary Islands and Cyprus early potatoes imported here are imported loose and bagged in the Dublin market. There should be some control exercised over the agents involved. If we control the small producer down the line who wants to sell his potatoes direct to the shops and to the supermarkets, then the bigger agents in Dublin should be subjected at least to equivalent restrictions and should not be free to sell what potatoes they like without any tracing of their source.
A difficult problem obtains in the whole area of importation, an example of which arose this year in relation to cross-Border trade in potatoes when because Northern Ireland producers had their potatoes out of the ground before ourselves and were confronted by a shipping strike a huge amount of Northern Ireland potatoes ended up on our market. I should like to ask the Minister: what will be the position in relation to our neighbours in the North of Ireland? Will they have to comply with our regulations in relation to the bagging and selling of potatoes coming to this part of the country? Will those growers who grow under contract for the processors we hope to encourage into business also be subjected to these regulations? Will people who sell potatoes in bulk to processors and factories be controlled and will these regulations apply to them?
I should like clarification or confirmation that the £15 fee for packing and selling will be £15 for both, or for one or the other, and not £15 on each occasion. There is some apprehension felt among the co-operatives that we will charge £15 registration for the packer and £15 registration for the seller with the result that if it happens to be the one man he will be caught for £30. I feel that is not so but that its interpretation is not crystal clear. Perhaps the Minister would reassure us in that respect.
Perhaps the Minister might refer again to this £15 annual fee. We have been assured by him now that it will be a once-off fee. But if the whole system is not to be self-financing how does he intend to implement it as an annual fee? This will not be an issue in most cases. But there are many small potato producers here who would worry were they not free to grow their small acreages, selling their produce to the local greengrocer. Were they caught for a fee of £15 every year — or indeed a higher one as the Minister may see fit — they might find that to be a disincentive. It is for the smaller producer that this is of greater concern. Indeed, in years like this they could all be called small producers because the profit has just not existed. If he can at all I should like the Minister to give us some details of what sort of application it will be necessary to make to the Department for registration, as outlined in the provisions of the Bill. For example, will specific forms be issued and, if so, from where, and through which agencies, or will the farmer or producer concerned simply write into the Department?
I would encourage the Minister to insist that the acreage of potatoes due to be grown be shown on that application along with the variety intended to be sown which would help tremendously with the production of statistics. It would also help co-operatives and others by way of ensuring that sufficient acreage of the right variety of potato be grown, dependent on demand either from the processors or from the ware point of view. If there could be some statistical information included on such application forms it would render monitoring and control easier, directing growers toward varieties of which we need more and encouraging them away from varieties that perhaps are not so acceptable any longer.
I have referred several times to the implementation of the provisions of this Bill. Perhaps the Minister could tell us how soon after its passage registration will become compulsory. For example, if the requirement to register drags on month after month there will be little point to its provisions. Will there be a deadline by which all growers must be organised and registered? How does the Minister intend to ensure that all growers, big and small, have indeed registered? In particular what are his plans for the next year as the regulations get off the ground and the system gains acceptance among producers? What plans has he to ensure that everybody is complying with the provisions of the Bill, which constitute his wishes and I imagine those of most of us in this House?
There is no doubt but that the real tragedy of the potato industry is that we are not an exporting country. If the provisions of this Bill help us to organise our industry in such a way that we hasten the day when that will happen, we shall have done an extremely good job. As the Minister said, it would be a mistake to feel that registration and other issues included in the provisions of this Bill will constitute the answer to all the problems of the potato industry. However, there is no doubt but that they will go a very long way towards co-ordinating the industry and ensuring that the potato variety produced is that most in demand from the point of view of the producer and housewife.Solanum tuberosum is synonymous with Ireland; we have been over that ground before. Successive Governments have failed to develop its potential. I hope that at long last we are on the right road, that the potato industry will be synonymous with the best in Ireland because the potato itself has been associated with us for generations through good times and bad.