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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 9 Jul 1992

Vol. 422 No. 5

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Agricultural Import Substitution.

Toddy O'Sullivan


9 Mr. T. O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food if he will outline the effectiveness of his Department's efforts to promote agricultural import substitution; if he will give comparative figures over the last five years; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Total imports of agricultural products have fluctuated within the last five years but showed a modest increase from £717 million in 1987 to £772 million in 1991. During the same period exports of agricultural products have increased from £1,882 million in 1987 to £2,046 million in 1991.

Government policy, as implemented by my own and other Departments through State agencies, has for many years, had as one of its primary objectives the development of domestic alternatives to imported products. However, a large proportion of our agricultural imports at present consist of products which are not readily substitutable by home produced products.

Significant progress has however been made in a number of areas regarding the provision of alternatives to imports. With regard to the fruit and vegetable sector, An Bord Glas are implementing development plans which aim at a combined market share recovery and export expansion of £60 million and the creation of 1,800 full time and 1,500 part time jobs. Already considerable progress has been made in this regard and exports of fresh vegetables now exceed imports.

Imports of animal feedstuffs amounted to £151 million in 1991. The greater proportion of this consists of corn gluten, soya bean meal, etc., which is used in compound feed production in the cattle, pig, poultry and sheep sectors.

In relation to the food processing industry, the IDA policy for all sectors of the industry is to grant aid projects which, among other things, are either export oriented or contribute substantially and directly to providing home produced alternatives to imports.

I take it from the Minister's response that no effective action has been taken by his Department over the past five years. We had an increase from £317 million to £772 million. This is an indictment of the Department's approach to this problem resulting in job losses and the loss of revenue to the economy. Do I take it that the Minister has no further plans? He is suggesting for instance, that some of the products that have been imported cannot be produced here. Is he referring specifically to bananas, oranges and things of this nature? I am referring specifically to vegetables which should be readily available here. Does the Minister not agree that it is both an indictment of his Department and an absolute outrage that the farming community in this country cannot provide the vegetables for which there is a ready market? Why can we not treat them as we do the dairy industry and set up some kind of co-operative?

I outlined what is being done by Government Departments and State agencies. I refer particularly to our progress in relation to vegetables. It is true that imports of food products are increasing and that can only be true if Irish people are buying imported products. If the Deputy wishes, I can go through the sad litany of the amount of imported goods bought by Irish people but in any event I will circulate the details in a tabular statement.

Irish people are buying imported vegetables because home produced products are not available in supermarkets. I asked the Minister what he is doing to rectify this problem. Is he prepared to let the figure escalate?

I do not accept that there is an inadequate quantity of quality Irish produced goods available in supermarkets. However, I would call on retail outlets to make a better effort to present Irish products more favourably. Tremendous progress is being made in the horticultural industry under the skilled guidance of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Hyland. The mushroom industry is doing outstandingly well in providing a fresh, perishable product.

Do not forget the work done by Paddy Hegarty.


A number of Deputies are offering. Deputy Connor was offering earlier. I will call the other Deputies later. A brief question.

I will be very brief. The Minister gave a figure of £772 million for imported goods in 1991. Can he give the figures for beef, dairy products and, in particular, pigmeat, goods we also export?

I was going to do that earlier but I was reprimanded for giving replies which were too long.

If it is a very long tabular statement it should await the perusal of the Deputies concerned before they could be expected to put an intelligent construction on the matter.

With respect, a Cheann Comhairle, it could give rise to another question. I asked for the figures for beef, dairy products and pigmeat only.

The statement is not very long.

The Minister can extrapolate the figures I asked for.

The figure for meat products — we produce sufficient meat — was £105 million. The figure for dairy products — we seen these for sale in supermarkets in Cork and everywhere else — was £62 million. The figure for fruit and vegetables was £160.8 million, while the figure for sugar products of various kinds was £38.2 million. I am not certain what the figure of £41.8 million for animal products entails. The figure for lard, oils and fat was £2.1 million. I think those are the main categories to which the Deputy referred.

We all welcome an increase in the level of exports. Does the Minister not agree that the review of the Common Agricultural Policy will put a great responsibility on his Department and the Minister of State to ensure that we have a policy of import substitution and that all concerned, producers and those selling the products, are made aware of this? This would reduce our import bill and give farmers a viable income. Customers will buy Irish products if they are available. It is up to us to ensure that this is done.

As the Deputy knows, I have devoted considerable attention to this matter over the last number of years. On many occasions Deputy Deasy has referred to the large quantity of products which go straight into intervention. We have called on our marketing people to have greater regard to the opportunities which exist not alone in the export market but also in the domestic market.

Would the Minister not agree that the amount we spent on the importation of vegetables has continued to increase over the past five or six years despite the fact that An Bord Glas were set up to reverse this trend? Would he accept that an Bord Glas are not as effective as they should be in this respect and are not doing the job for which they were set up? I wish to substantiate my statement. In 1990 we imported fresh chilled vegetables to the value of £37.9 million, approximatedly £4 million more than we imported in 1986. We spent £6.3 million on fresh vegetables——

As the Deputy will appreciate, he seems to be imparting information rather than seeking it. We must conform——

I respect the wishes of the Chair, but in view of the fact that we import products such as onions, carrots, turnips etc, I wish to ask the Minister if he believes An Bord Glas are doing their job or making any efforts to reverse that trend?

As I said already, the amount of ordinary everyday foods we import and which could be produced at home is nothing to be proud of. I should point out that in the main it is Irish people who are buying those products.

The problem is that home produced products are not available.

They are available——

Not in sufficient quantities.

——but they need to be presented in a better way. Retailers should make a better effort in this regard. In fairness to An Bord Glas they have made great strides in the past few years — our exports of fresh vegetables now exceed the amount of imported vegetables. We all need to work harder in this regard. For example, we should buy quality Irish products when we visit supermarkets.

It is not just a question of buying these products; we also need to grow them. It is now estimated that nine out of ten back gardens are growing grass and weeds. In addition to examining our consciences we need to go home and examine our back gardens.

Two wrongs do not make a right.

Deputy O'Sullivan must have a guilty conscience; his garden must be full of weeds.

It is a big garden.

May I ask the Minister what efforts the Commission is making on our behalf in the current GATT negotiations to stop the importation of corn gluten from the United States?

We are making every effort in this regard. I take the Deputy's point in relation to the importance of the kitchen garden. I was hoping that he might invite us to visit his garden to see his modest efforts in this regard.

It will cost the Minister; there is a visiting fee at this stage.

: The Deputy is an example to the House.

I suggest to the Minister that poor promotional marketing techniques are giving rise to the high level of imports. Farmers have not lost the ability or expertise to grow vegetables. Next September or October huge quantities of carrots and onions grown by farmers in my constituency will remain unsold while massive amounts of money will be spent on imported vegetables.

I agree with Deputy Moynihan that there is a weakness in the distribution system. We are endeavouring to rectify this problem by giving support to producer groups. I hope that as a result of our endeavours with the cooperatives there will be a pronounced improvement in this area in the coming months and years.

Would the Minister not agree that supermarkets will continue to stock imported products as long as they are purchased by consumers? I believe the problem lies in the wholesale area. Wholesalers who receive discounts, etc., supply shops with imported products rather than home produced products.

We need to improve the quality and consistency of supply of our products. If the housewife or consumer wants a particular product we should have it available.

Would the Minister agree that part of the problem is the monopoly which prevails in the importation of fruit and vegetables? A small cartel are dictating terms to the shopkeeper and consumer.

If we consistently produce a product of the required quality throughout the year we can sort out this problem. I know from my own experience that hotels and restaurants can get a very good product for part of the year but they are forced to avail of imported products for a major part of the year.

Would the Minister agree that some small reduction in imports of fruit and vegetables could be obtained by encouraging farmers to grow vegetables for their own use and perhaps for the use of the local community? In view of the likely demise of the Common Agricultural Policy, farmers may have to grow their own vegetables. Will the Minister encourage them to start now?

I agree totally and I have already referred to the good example of my colleague, Deputy Deasy, in this regard.