The Covid-19 pandemic is a public health crisis first and foremost. My Department, like all Government agencies, is working closely with the Department of Health as part of a whole-of-Government response. The pandemic has also resulted in a profound economic shock across the globe. Its impact is being felt right across the Irish economy, including in the agrifood sector. The impact on the public finances is also profound.
Notwithstanding the unprecedented nature of this crisis, the Government has acted quickly and decisively to ameliorate its worst impacts on those of our citizens who are most affected. Recognising the primacy of public health concerns but also the need to maintain critical food supply chains, I have been working to ensure that food producers and processors continue to operate effectively so that farmers and fishers continue to have an outlet for their produce and consumers continue to have access to safe, high-quality food products. I have also been working to ensure that the Department can continue to provide critical services, including those upon which these critical food supply chains depend. Against this background, I commend essential workers in the food industry, from farmers and fishers, those in processing, transport and logistics, to those keeping retail outlets stocked with food throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. I would also like to thank the staff in my Department for keeping services to the industry operational during this challenging period.
For businesses right across the economy, the past few weeks have been extraordinarily difficult. Many food businesses have been badly affected by the loss of food service outlets and this is having an impact throughout the supply chain. We export 90% of what we produce and a significant proportion of these exports are destined for the food service market. The decline in demand is having an impact on commodity prices, particularly the price of beef. The approach of seasonal production peaks in lamb and dairy against the background of reduced demand is also a concern. My Department is closely monitoring market developments and considering how the impact of any imbalance might be mitigated. In recent weeks, I have been in regular contact with farm leaders, representatives of the processing sectors, fisheries producer organisations, representatives from the forestry sector and State agencies in order to assess challenges and consider the most appropriate response.
A great deal has already been done. The Government is supporting businesses to reorient product in so far as possible towards the retail market. Bord Bia is providing additional marketing supports and training to food companies to help them to transition to online sales. It has also commenced an advertising campaign promoting quality-assured Irish meat, fish and dairy through television advertisements and recipe suggestions online. An additional €1 million has been made available from within Bord Bia's budget to assist with marketing. The Government has also made working capital and investment supports available. The Covid-19 working capital loan scheme co-funded by my Department will provide an additional €250 million in working capital loans for SMEs and mid-cap businesses. Some €100 million of this will be ring-fenced for companies in the agrifood sector. An expanded future growth loan scheme provides an additional €80 million in loan capital for investments in the agrifood sector, including for farmers and fishermen. Microfinance Ireland makes competitive working capital loans available to small businesses and its maximum loan cap has been increased to €50,000 for those impacted by Covid-19. Farmers and fishermen can avail of this funding. I have also spoken directly with representatives of the three pillar banks and they committed to showing flexibility and support for their agrifood and fisheries clients. Access to liquidity, flexibility and forbearance from the banking system will be critically important for many food businesses. Many farmers and fishermen are also eligible for supports from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.
At EU level, I recently led and initiative that resulted in the submission to the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development by all 27 member states of a joint statement seeking a Commission response to Covid-19 impacts on farmers and the wider agrifood sector. In response to this initiative, the Commissioner announced on 22 April a package of measures that includes private storage aid for the dairy and meat sectors. While this support is useful, I am nonetheless continuing to mobilise support for a more comprehensive response at EU level. However, this will be difficult.
This year it will be more important than ever that farm payments are made on time. Conscious of the cash flow pressures on farms at present, I brought forward a €26 million payment under the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, by one month. A new payment run is planned for each week to pick up any outstanding payments. I have also increased funding in the calf welfare investment scheme from €1.5 million to €4 million to assist farmers with extra calves on hand. Targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, payments continue to average at €1.3 million per week to farmers.
The preparations to ensure that €250 million in ANC payments and €1.2 billion in basic payments are made to farmers on time are continuing.
I provided an additional €20 million in supports for the beef sector in budget 2020. The beef environmental efficiency programme will remain open for applications until 15 May. This scheme is up and running and available for suckler farmers right now. It is easy to apply for and the benefits are substantial. I urge all suckler beef farmers to apply. A new information line has been established to assist farmers with their queries about the Covid-19 restrictions in place. The number is 076-1064468.
I have also introduced a range of practical flexibilities to departmental schemes. I want to ease the pressure on farmers where this is possible. For example, I have extended the completion deadlines for TAMS by three months and the submission date for nitrate records to the end of June. Routine inspections have been temporarily deferred. Where possible, inspections are being done by telephone so as not to delay payment. I will keep these arrangements under review.
My Department has also worked closely with marts to develop imaginative solutions to permit trade to continue on a limited basis while the wider restrictions are in place. Standard operating procedures submitted by marts permit sales to proceed without compromising HSE guidelines. Of the 84 licensed marts, 78 have been approved to operate in this way. Any further relaxation of restrictions will be guided by public health advice.
Forestry payments average €700,000 per week and licences continue to issue at an average rate of 80,000 m³ per week. The cessation in construction activity in Ireland and the UK has caused immediate difficulties for the Irish timber sector, but it too is eligible for horizontal liquidity investment and employment support measures.
With regard to the seafood sector, on 2 April the European Commission adopted a proposal to amend the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, EMFF, to create new flexibility in European Union law to permit member states to reorient support for the seafood sector. No additional EU funds have been provided and member states must fund these additional supports from existing unspent EMFF allocations or from national funds. I am currently examining options and considering the best course of action, in consultation with the sector.
In the meantime, there is a range of investment and liquidity support available. I have already mentioned the Covid-19 supports from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I have tasked Bord Iascaigh Mhara, BIM, with working intensively with the catching, processing and retail sectors and to seek engagements so that our supermarkets and shops have a ready supply of fish in their stores. There has been good engagement from all sides and progress on this.
This great challenge has, to date, been characterised by a remarkable level of solidarity and social cohesion. It has been a tremendous collective effort from citizens, the institutions of the State, public representatives, the media, trade unions and sectoral and business representatives of bodies across the board. It has also highlighted the critical importance of the agrifood sector in Ireland, not only to the economy but to the social fabric and food security in Ireland and across the European Union. The challenges facing us are economy-wide, but I assure the House that the agrifood and fisheries sectors will continue to be at the heart of the Government's deliberations as this complex situation evolves. I am happy to take any questions Members may have.