I welcome back the Deputies and wish the Minister a good morning.
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
1. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine when a compensation package will be introduced for beef farmers in view of the significant decrease in prices and incomes since autumn 2018 from the impact of Brexit; and if a formal application has been submitted to the EU Commission for exceptional or market disturbance aid. [20275/19]
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. This is to ask the Minister when a compensation package will be introduced for beef farmers, considering the significant decrease in prices and incomes since last autumn from the impact of Brexit. I also ask the Minister to clarify whether a formal application has been submitted to the European Commission for exceptional or market disturbance aid. There appear to be conflicting stories as to exactly what the Minister has applied for and when he applied for it. More importantly, when will aid come to the beef sector, which is crying out for it and in desperate need of it? I hope the Minister will be able to take this opportunity to give an assurance that aid will be forthcoming promptly and to give clarity as to what is being applied for.
I thank the Deputy. The agrifood sector is of critical importance to the Irish economy and its regional spread means it underpins the socioeconomic development of rural areas in particular. Brexit has the potential to have a very significant impact on the sector, given its unique exposure to the UK market, which accounted for 38%, or €5.2 billion, of agrifood exports last year. There are ongoing discussions with the Commission regarding the difficulties which would face Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit and the assistance that might be required for its agriculture, food and fishery sectors. Avoiding a no-deal Brexit continues to be the Government’s overriding policy priority. I have held a number of discussions with Commissioner Hogan regarding the potential impact of a disorderly Brexit on the sector. I have stressed the need for the Commission to be ready to deploy a range of measures to mitigate the potential impacts on agrifood and fisheries, including through traditional market supports and exceptional aid under the CAP's single Common Market organisation, CMO, regulation, as well as increased flexibility under state aid regulations.
However, it is also important to acknowledge that the past few months have been very difficult for beef farmers in particular, following a difficult year in 2018 due to weather conditions. There has been a prolonged and exceptional period of depressed prices since last autumn, with the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the outcome of Brexit, among other factors, contributing to this market disturbance. In light of the ongoing depressed market prices, in discussions with Commissioner Hogan and my EU counterparts I have stated I believe the deployment of exceptional measures under the CMO regulation to provide targeted aid to farm families who have suffered a sustained reduction in returns from the market is now required. I made an intervention to this effect at the April meeting of the Council of agriculture ministers, and my officials have followed this up with a detailed submission, which is under consideration by Commission officials.
There is very little detail from the Minister as to when exactly farmers can expect to receive the support they need. As the Minister should know, farmers needed this support months ago, not in the next number of weeks or months, because Brexit has been happening and impacting on the beef sector over the last period. Unfortunately, the Minister and the Government have not been recognising or acting on this. Despite the grave threat posed by Brexit, the Minister has not used that opportunity and that difficulty to ensure we are drawing down funds from the EU Commission to support our beef farmers. The performance of both the Minister and the Government has simply been unacceptable and has been neglectful of the farming community and the massive pressure it is under. A report from Professor Michael Wallace of UCD in today's edition of the Irish Farmers' Journal outlines that if action is not taken, the suckler herd will be reduced by approximately 140,000 cows over the next ten years. We also will see 14,000 suckler farmers leaving the sector and an impact on the approximately 52,000 jobs in rural Ireland that are underpinned by it. It is essential that this funding comes immediately. Can the Minister give an assurance to the many farmers who are desperately in need of it today, as to when it will come and the extent of the funding that will be available?
A Chathaoirligh, I do not accept the Deputy's charge that we have not been doing anything. There is a two-stranded approach to this. One is at EU level, and one is what the Government itself can do. In terms of the latter, there has been a significant level of Government commitment in the areas of market access, live exports, supporting producer organisations, the beef environmental efficiency programme and restoring payments in the areas of natural constraints, ANC, scheme.
At the level at which the Deputy's question is pitched, the Government also works at Commission level to try to ensure we get the best possible deal for Irish agriculture. Our overwhelming focus, understandably in the context of Brexit, has been to ensure that farmers would be supported in the event of a crash-out. I understand the view that we are dealing with Brexit already. There is market sentiment, as well as the sterling issue, and compounding those is the issue of bad weather. We have been making the case in recent times that, apart from the supports that would have been necessary in the context of Brexit, there is a case for the Commission to respond now to the difficulties the industry is facing.
The Minister states it is not correct that the Government has not done anything. He states there are two strands to his response, namely, the European Commission's response and the Government's response. I put to the Minister that neither strand has delivered a response in support of the agrifood sector and of the beef sector in particular. The Minister mentioned the ANC scheme but all that has happened in that regard is that the payments have been restored to the previous levels of a number of years ago. While I acknowledge we have the beef scheme, between that and the beef data and genomics programme, BDGP, neither adds up to what would have been available under the previous suckler cow welfare programme.
We have heard the Minister talking for two years about introducing a Brexit loan scheme and how that was going to be the big ticket response to assist the farming community. It was only last month that he finally introduced it, after two years of talking. As far as the European Commission goes, we have seen no funding come from it yet, despite two years of Brexit negotiations. No funding is coming to support the Irish agrifood sector, which has been in massive distress. It is past time that the Minister got his act together and recognised the massive pressure the farming community is under. It should not take protests outside the Cabinet meeting in Cork last week to draw some type of response from the Government in this regard. I am asking the Minister this morning to give a guarantee that there will be funding in this regard and to guarantee that it will happen promptly. What we have seen before now has been absolutely unacceptable and an entire neglect of our farming sector from the Minister and from the Government.
I do not agree with the Deputy but I do not expect the Deputy to agree with me either. Our responses have been comprehensive and I never presented the Brexit loan scheme as the panacea for all Brexit challenges; far from it. The Deputy may have elevated it to that status himself. It is the third of three financial products that we have developed for the agrifood, farming and fisheries sectors. It is an important part of the jigsaw that is necessary to support the industry in all its manifestations. There are things the Government can do and has done in terms of market access, live exports and the other things I mentioned earlier such as the ANC scheme and beef producer organisations. We also have made the case at European Union level. The response initially in terms of Brexit was to make sure that should the UK crash out, there would be supports available from the European Commission and should the UK crash out, the Commission has stated that those supports will be available. Those supports are different from the supports we are looking for now in the context of current market difficulties.
2. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the steps he is taking to address the crisis in the beef sector here in view of the fact that it is in danger of total collapse; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20266/19]
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. The issue in the Irish beef sector is the biggest topic that is concerning most farmers and indeed the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in recent months. We can see that around the country, where more and more farmers are considering leaving the beef sector. It is on the verge of collapse. It will need determined action now from the Minister and the Government to arrest the situation and to make beef farming a profitable enterprise into the future. It will require a big plan and a huge shift in where we have been going up until now.
I thank the Deputy. The agrifood sector is of critical importance to the Irish economy, and its regional spread means it underpins the socioeconomic development of rural areas in particular. Brexit has the potential to have a very significant impact on the sector, given its unique exposure to the UK market, which accounted for 38%, or €5.2 billion, of agrifood exports last year.
There are ongoing discussions with the Commission regarding the difficulties Ireland would face in the event of a no-deal Brexit and the assistance that might be required for its agriculture, food and fishery sectors. Avoiding a no-deal Brexit continues to be the Government’s overriding objective. I have held a number of discussions with the Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Mr. Phil Hogan, regarding the potential impact of a disorderly Brexit on the sector. I have stressed the need for the Commission to be ready to deploy a range of measures to mitigate the potential impact on agrifood and fisheries, including through traditional market supports and exceptional aid under the single CMO regulation of the CAP, as well as increased flexibility under state aid regulations.
It is also important to acknowledge, however, that the past few months have been difficult for beef farmers, in particular, following a difficult year in 2018 due to weather conditions. There has been a prolonged and exceptional period of depressed prices since last autumn, with the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the outcome of Brexit, among other factors, contributing to this market disturbance. In the light of the ongoing depressed market prices, in discussions with the Commissioner, Mr. Hogan, and my EU counterparts, I have said I believe that the deployment of exceptional measures under the CMO regulation, to provide targeted aid to farm families who have suffered a sustained reduction in returns from the market, is required. I made an intervention to this effect at the April meeting of the Council of agriculture ministers, which my officials have been following up with the Commission.
I am deeply committed to fully supporting and developing Ireland's beef sector. The existing range of supports available to beef farmers under the rural development programme, RDP, together with ensuring access to as many markets as possible, both for live animals and beef exports, are appropriate for the continued development of the sector. The beef data and genomics programme, BDGP, is currently the main support specifically targeted for the suckler sector and provides beef farmers with some €300 million in funding over the current RDP period. Furthermore, there is the beef environmental efficiency pilot, a €20 million pilot project for 2019.
My Department has rolled out a range of schemes as part of the €4 billion rural development programme. In addition to the BDGP, other supports available for suckler farmers under Pillar 2 of the CAP include the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, areas of natural constraints, ANC, scheme and knowledge transfer groups. Suckler farmers also benefit from the basic payment scheme and greening payments under Pillar 1. According to the national farm survey, suckler farmers receive support equivalent to approximately €500 per suckler cow on average. My Department is examining all appropriate measures to support the various agrifood sectors, including the suckler sector, in preparation for the next iteration of the CAP, and through the next agrifood strategy to 2030. Such measures should support and encourage suckler farmers to make the best decisions possible to improve the profitability and the economic and environmental efficiency of their farming system.
There are a number of matters I wish to raise. It is my view, and the view of others, in general, that the beef market is the victim of a market system that does not work for beef farmers. There is a prime product, namely, premium Irish beef, or the champagne of beef, that is sold as an average product, in the same way that bottom shelf wine is sold alongside champagne. That is the situation of Irish beef and it needs to change, although it will not change overnight, and I do not expect the Minister to flick a switch and change it overnight. Nevertheless, it is the direction in which we need to go. We need to sell our beef product around the world as a premium product at a high price and ensure that high price is returned to the primary producer. In the meantime, to make that happen, there needs to be an aid package in the context of Brexit and the crisis of the beef sector, as the Minister indicated. A good aid package needs to be put in place to get farmers through this period because the next 12 to 18 months will be vital. We need to see money on the table from Europe to assist us in that regard.
The carcass-grading review has been promised for a long time. Most farmers who send their cattle to factories say they do not know what kind of price they will receive and they are dubious of how the grading system works, which we all understand.
A cartel controls the movement of offal. How that part of the sector is licensed and monitored needs to be reviewed as a priority.
The Deputy has raised some interesting issues which I will try to address. Trying to secure the premium markets, where the price is highest, is a logical step for us to take. In that sense, we support Bord Bia, as the marketing State agency which works with the industry. We in the Department also examine what doors to market access we can open for our product. The more markets that are open to us, the better chance we have of navigating what might be a difficulty in the Asian market or geopolitical issues that might, for example, give us problems providing live exports to Turkey, as happened last year. Interestingly, a delegation from Turkey is visiting the country and Department this week, which, we hope, will yield progress in that area.
Bord Bia works with the industry and we open doors to allow new market access. That is a given. Where the industry decides to sell afterwards is an issue for it. It may decide to try to navigate a dip in a market if it has a long established foothold, or it might consider new opportunities. According to figures I have seen, in the first quarter of 2019, we sent nearly 1,000 tonnes of beef to China, compared with 1,400 tonnes in all of 2018. New markets, therefore, are important, as is working with the industry. I will travel on a trade mission to China with the representatives of the beef industry next week.
I appreciate that but the problem is that the new markets that have been opened, by and large, are niche, for small volumes of product. That has been the case until now. The vast majority of our beef is sold in Europe, while an awful lot of it is sold in Britain. That is well and good, and we understand that. The point, however, that cannot be made often or clearly enough is that Irish beef and meat, in general, is grass fed, from family farms and traceable all the way. It is a unique product and it needs to be sold as such at a higher price. I do not cast any aspersions on Bord Bia but it has failed to do that adequately until now and that needs to change. Before that change occurs, the Minister can immediately examine the issues of an aid package for the beef sector, grading and the movement of offal. If those three steps can be taken quickly, we can at least see that the Minister is committed to trying to do something to help the beef sector. Passing the buck, however, and saying it is up to Bord Bia to try to find markets will not solve the problem. The farmer who has cattle to sell in the next two months needs an answer quickly.
The Deputy presents the matter as though it is very simple. We sell most of our product in the UK and the rest of the EU because that market is the best paying in the world. It would be foolish of us, therefore, to vacate that market in pursuit of alternatives, given that we have a significant foothold there. It is important that other markets are open to us. I have spoken in some detail on the issue of pursuing an aid package and I will not dwell on that further because of limited time. As I have stated on numerous occasions, the grid is not the property of the Department. It is not for us to tear up and say we will change it.
If it is being abused, the Minister has an obligation to do something.
I do not have a role in interfering in the market between suppliers and processors. By law, I am specifically precluded from that. If they have an arrangement that determines how they are paid-----
Who licenses the processors?
The Department provides licences but the operation of the grid is not our function-----
There are conditions for those licences.
The operation of the grid is an issue for farmers and processors. We have previously assisted in the development of the grid and if we are asked, we will assist in its review. It must nonetheless remain an issue between both parties.
3. Deputy Jackie Cahill asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the targets his Department and Bord Bia have set for 2019 for live exports of cattle including those aged six months or greater; and the resources that will be put in place to achieve these targets. [20276/19]
What targets have the Department and Bord Bia set for 2019 for live exports of cattle, especially those aged six months or greater, and what resources will be put in place to achieve them? In his reply to a previous question, the Minister referred to the considerable financial pressure currently on beef farmers. There has been a significant increase in costs incurred by farmers due to weather conditions. The price that has obtained since the middle of last year is utterly unviable. The only way competition in the trade can be encouraged is through live exports. What plans are in place to ensure that a significant number of cattle will be moved out of the country in the second half of 2019?
Live exports are a critical part of Ireland's livestock industry. They play a significant role in stimulating price competition and providing an alternative market outlet for farmers. The Department facilitates this trade, recognising its critical importance to the agricultural sector and ensuring that live animal exports meet the highest welfare standards.
In 2018, total live exports of cattle increased by more than 30% to 246,000 head compared to 2017.
This represents a value of €110 million to the economy, according to Bord Bia. This growth trend has continued into 2019, with live exports of cattle totalling 163,000 up to 28 April, a 28% increase on the same period in 2018.
My decision in 2017 to reduce the veterinary inspection fee payable on live exports of calves less than three months of age from €4.80 to €1.20 has brought greater equity to the inspection fee regime. Since then, there has been continued growth in the export of calves, rising from 102,000 head in 2017 to 159,000 in 2018, a 56% increase. According to the most recent Bord Bia figures for 2019, calf exports stand at 123,000 head, with consignments to the Netherlands and Spain accounting for 50% and 31% of this trade, respectively.
This increase in trade is also apparent with regard to the export of non-calves - weanlings, stores and finished cattle - which are approximately 23% up on last year, according to Bord Bia's most recent statistics.
The live export of cattle is a commercial undertaking. It is, therefore, not appropriate for my Department or Bord Bia to set targets; rather, they seek to facilitate the industry by creating the market opportunities for the trade. My Department will continue to prioritise efforts to deepen existing markets and gain access to new third country markets through the negotiation of new and revised health certificates.
This week, my Department hosted a visit by a Turkish technical team, including officials from the ministry of agriculture and ESK, the Turkish Meat and Milk Board. The objective of the visit was to conduct an on-site fact-finding mission to evaluate the technical aspects of live animal and germinal product exports from Ireland to Turkey. This is yet another welcome development as we seek to re-establish our live trade with Turkey. The visit by Turkish officials follows on from my March meeting with my Turkish counterpart, Dr. Bekir Pakdemirli, Minister for Agriculture and Forestry.
I also welcome the progress made on live exports to Algeria arising from the technical meetings between my Department and Bord Bia and their counterparts in Algiers last week.
I apologise for interrupting the Minister but I must ask him to hold the remainder of his reply until I allow him in again.
The Minister mentioned welfare standards. In regard to the video in the media this week, the mistreatment of animals is unacceptable. It is essential that we adhere to the highest standards of welfare in our live exports. Anyone who is found to be doing otherwise should face the full rigours of the law.
The only way to ensure increased prices in the next six to 12 months is through increased live export of cattle aged six months or over. I am disappointed that Bord Bia has not set targets for individual markets. The Minister mentioned an increase in calf exports. Unfortunately, the increase in exports is not keeping pace with the increase in dairy cow numbers. Approximately 40,000 cattle per week were killed since October. We are unable to sell the product at a viable price. These numbers can only be reduced through live exports. I do not accept that Bord Bia should not set targets for individual markets.
The Minister mentioned that other markets had been opened. We have been hearing that this, that and the other market is open for live cattle for the past two or three years but the reality is there is no significant movement of cattle. The Minister stated that live exports of cattle have increased by 23% but that increase comes from a low base. Without a significant increase in live exports, we face depressed prices for cattle for the foreseeable future.
I disagree with the notion that the Department or Bord Bia should set targets for live exports for any particular market. It is our job to facilitate exports but it is equally, perhaps more importantly in the context of the Deputy's opening remarks, our responsibility and obligation to ensure that live exports are conducted to the highest welfare standards, bearing in mind that our standards are higher than the EU minimum standards.
I welcome that the Deputy condemns the recent video of the mistreatment of Irish calves in a lairage facility, albeit in France. The record will show what I had to say previously in respect of lairage facilities in Cherbourg, which I stand by now. We will insist on the highest standards for animal welfare. The role of the Department is to open up markets and allow the industry to perform its commercial duties within a regulated space. That is critically important to ensuring that this trade continues.
The more markets open, the better, but none of the markets will be opened to facilitate exports of live cattle at a reduced welfare standard. Given the importance of live exports to the agri-economy - the value of which is more than €100 million as confirmed by Bord Bia - it is imperative that all players in the industry operate to the highest welfare standards. Nothing less than that will be condoned or tolerated by the Department.
I was on the board of Bord Bia for a number of years. When a market is opened, a target is set in respect of the tonnage of beef expected to be sold in any given timeframe. The beef sector is in crisis. We have to move cattle out of this country. To secure increased prices, we will have to reduce the number of cattle available for slaughter in the next six to 12 months. The onus is on Bord Bia to set a target for the number of live cattle it expects to be moved. My concern is that insufficient resources are being put in place to establish markets. Factories are good at utilising Bord Bia, which is as it should be. We have worked hard to secure routes to markets in various parts of the EU and across the world. However, I am concerned that there is not a similar emphasis on live exports. They are not getting a fair crack of the whip in terms of resources from Bord Bia.
We have increased stock in the country but there is no competition at the ringside. Competition will only come through live exports. I would like to know the level of resources Bord Bia is putting into live exports. I reiterate the need for a target in respect of the number of cattle expected to be exported live in the remainder of 2019.
I fundamentally disagree. If a State agency or the Department sets a target, then we are chasing a target and the accusation will be that we are compromising on welfare. There will be no compromise on welfare standards.
I never suggested that.
The Department and Bord Bia have adequate resources. We have significantly increased the resources available to Bord Bia in recent years to deal with the Brexit challenge and various opportunities. The market access unit of my Department is making significant progress in restructuring its endeavours in respect of processed beef and live exports. It must be borne in mind that the Department has to engage with competent authorities in other jurisdictions from which it takes terms and conditions in terms of market access, be that in regard to the age of the product that can be exported or the epidemiological background of the herd from which that product comes. We try to secure the most favourable trading relationships but we are engaged with competent authorities of jurisdictions. It would be wrong of us to set a target for live exports because that would leave us open to the charge that we are chasing targets at the expense of standards. There will be no diminution of standards on live exports.
Sea Lice Controls
4. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the actions being taken to control sea lice levels at salmon farm sites which are having an adverse effect on the successful survival of salmon and sea trout smolts or kelts; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20261/19]
My question is straightforward and I would appreciate a straightforward answer. What actions are being taken by the Department to control sea lice levels at salmon farms which are having an adverse effect on the successful survival of salmon and sea trout smolts? I raise this question in the context of the commentary of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment regarding an unprecedented increase in sea lice levels. I am particularly perturbed by the levels at a key time in the bay mentioned by the Department and the overall doubling of sea lice as per inspections from November onwards.
The control protocols for the management of sea lice are operated by the Marine Institute on behalf of the State. All stocks of fish are inspected by institute inspectors on 14 occasions throughout the year. As part of this control strategy, farm operators are required to undertake treatments to control lice infestation levels once certain trigger levels are reached.
Mechanical methods of delousing are currently used in combatting instances of sea lice. In addition, several species of cleaner fish are used in Ireland as a method of controlling sea lice. The cleaner fish supplement their diet by removing and eating the lice. This biological method of control is very effective and can reduce the reliance on medicines to control sea lice.
In certain circumstances, treatments alone may not be the most appropriate strategy and, in a number of limited circumstances, an accelerated harvest may be required.
These protocols are more advanced than those operated in other jurisdictions for the following reasons: the inspection regime is totally independent of the industry, data obtained as a result of inspection is published and made widely available and treatment trigger levels are set at a low level. The sea lice monitoring and control programme in Ireland has been acknowledged by the environment directorate of the European Commission as representing best international practice.
I do not have a copy of the Minister's reply to hand but I asked what I said was a very straight question. What actions is the Department taking with the reporting of an unprecedented increase in levels of sea lice? The Minister's Department has been written to by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, which has pointed out the result of the monitoring system, indicating that orders to treat have repeatedly been given. Notwithstanding that, the levels of sea lice continued to increase and there were then orders to accelerate harvesting, which means all the stock was sold so as to start again.
I have a specific question relating to the unprecedented increase in levels of sea lice. It has doubled and tripled and in some cases salmon have 50 sea lice on them. There are implications for wild salmon and trout so will the Minister please answer the question? What actions are being taken by the Department?
The question asked is written in front of me. It refers to the "actions being taken to control sea lice levels at salmon farm sites" and that is exactly what I answered with respect to the role of the Marine Institute and the actions it takes. It is a critical matter for the industry to control sea lice and I appreciate the concern of the broader fishing industry that sea lice is having an impact on wild salmon and other marine species. We are acutely conscious of the obligation in that regard. The Deputy knows the Marine Institute is headquartered in her constituency and it is the lead agency in dealing with sea lice in aquaculture settings. As I stated, the independent inspectorate publishes its results and its protocols are quite clear and deemed to be very effective.
I do not mean to take the Minister by surprise as this matter is too serious for that. The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has written to the Minister's Department. I asked the actions taken by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and these will clearly include actions taken following input from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and the inspection of the independent Marine Institute. The sea lice levels are unprecedented, although I do not have the time to go into detail on them. It is really not relevant anyway as the relevant part of this relates to the fact that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine was asked to give an urgent update on this by 12 April this year. This followed the concerns raised by the independent assessment and the notice to treat. Following all the orders, the levels of sea lice continued to rise, with the most serious consequences. This rests firmly with the Minister's Department.
Again, I do not wish to put the Minister on the spot but his Department has been aware of this as a response had to be made by 12 April. The Marine Institute has an independent system and if I had time I would go into how it is reliant on the workers on the farms. That is for another day. For the moment, I want to know the action by the Minister's Department on the unprecedented levels of sea lice.
I am aware of the correspondence referred to by the Deputy and the requirement to respond to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The response was submitted by the Marine Institute to the Department on 11 April.
I appreciate that I am not entitled to ask another question but there has been some confusion. Will the Minister clarify if the response went from his Department to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment by the required date?
The Marine Institute is the competent authority and it functions at arm's length from my Department, lest we be seen as compromised because we promote the development of aquaculture. The Marine Institute is independent in the pursuit of its functions and it has replied in the necessary detail to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
That is okay.