That Dáil Éireann:
— the correct management of Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition 2, GAEC 2, land is vital as they are, in the main, low input managed landscapes and farmland habitats that must continue to be farmed if they are to provide the water quality, biodiversity and carbon capture that we need;
— calling into question the status of GAEC 2 land as eligible hectares is completely counterproductive, given that the definition of eligible hectare is quite broad:
‘is used for an agricultural activity or, where the area is also used for nonagricultural activities, is predominantly used for agricultural activities, and which is at the farmer’s disposal. Where duly justified for environmental reasons, eligible hectares may also include certain areas for agricultural activities only every second year’
it is extremely concerning that the Council of the European Union (the Council) foresee actions that will result in farmers being unable to carry out an ‘agricultural activity’, which itself is not a restrictive definition and to be deemed to have zero agricultural activity on the land (if there was any activity it would be an eligible hectare as a right) would have major implications for farmers in the future, amongst which would be access to:
— Pillar II environmental schemes; and
— the status of the farmer as an ‘active/genuine farmer’;
— the European Union definition of an ‘agricultural activity’ is both:
— the production of agricultural products which includes actions such as raising animals or cultivation including by way of paludiculture, where agricultural products means those listed in Annex I to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) with the exception of fishery products, as well as cotton and short rotation coppice; and
— the maintenance of the agricultural area in a state which makes it suitable for grazing or cultivation, without preparatory action going beyond usual agricultural methods and machineries;
— in the implementation of GAEC 2, a new GAEC in this reform, it is absolutely key that the land remains as ‘agricultural area’ maintained by ‘agricultural activity’ and can qualify as ‘eligible area’; and
— the amendment proposed by the Council, as a result of the implementation of a standard under GAEC standard 2 listed in Annex III of this Regulation, and the positioning of this amendment in the text, implies that the land will fall outside this definition as a result of the management practices that are to be prescribed for it in meeting GAEC 2 and this is unacceptable as if we are to ask more of farmers and raise the bar of what is required of them then the rules and standards governing this must reflect this;
— all GAEC standards should be developed within the context of the European Union Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Strategic Plan with achievable goals for the farmers, and in meeting these targets their land should be eligible for payment as a right, not as some sort of derogation; and
— as this is a new GAEC for changed circumstances, new thinking must come with it, and, if necessary, legislation amended to meet the new goals as the current Council position on this would allow the Member State to abdicate their responsibility to put in place a structure so that farmers can remain fully compliant with new requirements; and
calls on the Government to call for the amendment tabled by the Council of Ministers to the CAP Strategic Plan regulation in Article 4(1)(c) to be withdrawn, in order to maintain and protect the ‘agricultural area’ status of these lands, with the amendment being: ‘as a result of the implementation of a standard under GAEC standard 2 listed in Annex III of this Regulation’.
This motion relates to the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, legislative proposals and specifically the proposed draft of the eligible hectare in Article 4, which is of major concern. There are massive implications for farmers on carbon-rich soils, including peatlands and wetlands. These farmers have managed these environmentally sensitive landscapes for generations, as all Ireland’s uplands and peatlands are managed landscapes and have evolved in harmony with traditional agricultural activity.
In the current proposals for the CAP strategic plan, some areas being addressed are quite positive for farmers on high nature value land with carbon-rich soils. Convergence or flattening of payments is moving forward, with current proposals to set convergence at 85%, at least, of the national average, to give a fairer distribution of payments to all farmers. It is disappointing that the Irish position is still at 75% of the national average given the fact that the majority of farmers would benefit from further convergence of payments. The unfair system of variable greening in the 2013 reform, in which farmers were paid different rates of payment for complying with the same regulations, is being replaced with an eco-scheme payment. It is vital to ensure that the eco-schemes will be paid at an equal rate to all farmers who comply with the regulation.
To counteract these positive moves towards a more equitable CAP, we are faced with an attempt to remove carbon-rich soils from the CAP payment system to undo all the work that has been done to achieve a fairer CAP. Over the past number of months, I have been made aware by some of the farm organisations of the serious implications outlined in these proposals. They have engaged extensively with me at national and EU levels and sought clarity from officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the Council amendment. In assessing the detail, I have major reservations relating to the Council of Ministers amendment of Article 4, which states: "... as a result of the implementation of a standard under GAEC standard 2 listed in Annex 111 of this Regulation”.
This amendment gives the member state the tools to set unrealistically high standards for GAEC 2 and in doing so removes agricultural activity from the land. This leaves farmers carrying out an agricultural activity on these soils in a very precarious and uncertain position.
In the implementation of GAEC 2, a new GAEC in this reform, it is absolutely key that the land remains as agricultural area maintained by agricultural activity and can qualify as an eligible area. The amendment proposed by the Council, and the positioning of this amendment in the text, imply that the land will fall outside this definition as a result of the management practice that is to be prescribed for it in meeting GAEC 2. This is unacceptable. If we are to ask more of farmers and raise the bar of what is required of them, the rules and standards governing this must reflect the new requirements. I believe that all GAEC standards should be developed within the context of the CAP strategic plan with achievable goals for farmers, and in meeting these targets their land should be eligible for payment as a right, not as some sort of derogation as is suggested here.
The correct management of these areas is vital. They are, in the main, low-input managed landscapes, farmland habitats, that must be continued to be farmed if they are to provide the water quality, biodiversity and carbon capture that we need. Calling into question their status as eligible hectares is completely counterproductive. The provisional definition of eligible hectare is quite broad. It states:
...is used for an agricultural activity or, where the area is also used for non-agricultural activities, is predominantly used for agricultural activities, and which is at the farmer's disposal. Where duly justified for environmental reasons, eligible hectares may also include certain areas used for agricultural activities only every second year.
It is extremely concerning that the Council foresees actions that will result in farmers being unable to carry out an agricultural activity, which itself is not a restrictive definition. To be deemed to have zero agricultural activity on the land - if there was any activity it would be an eligible hectare as a right - would have major implications for farmers in the future, among which would be access to eco-schemes, Pillar ll environmental schemes, areas of natural constraint, ANC, payments and the status of farmers as an active or genuine farmer.
The question must be asked and clear answers given. If a member state sees a need for this amendment then it must be visualising the implementation of measures that will remove all agricultural activity from this land. In what scenarios does the Minister see the need for this derogation?
Currently, these lands are predominantly farmed with livestock through low intensity sustainable farming systems. It is my strong opinion that any proposal that removes or eliminates farming activity will have negative implications, both in terms of biodiversity and carbon sequestration, as lands risk becoming unmanaged and overgrown, which will create a fire hazard and other negative environmental outcomes.
I ask that the Minister support the commission’s original proposal and the Parliament mandate as I believe the inclusion of the Council amendment puts the agricultural area status of this land at an unnecessary risk. The farmers who manage these lands have always recognised the importance of the correct management of these valuable farmed ecosystems. The threat they see in the current Council position has motivated them to campaign on this issue and they have brought it to my attention.
Any possibility of this land losing its agricultural status in return for providing this valuable public service is unacceptable to me, especially with the prospect that the sequestration activity could be used to offset unsustainable activity elsewhere. The treatment of farmers here is in stark contrast with the treatment of farmers availing of the derogation of the nitrates directive, whose eligibility status has never been questioned. This planned unequal treatment of farmers, based on soil type, directly contravenes the principle that CAP must be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner and in accordance with the charter of fundamental rights of the European Union.
The final wording on the GAEC 2 is not yet agreed. The Minister will no doubt draw attention to the three existing positions and the importance of these. While they are important, they are not the critical issue. The critical issue is the insertion of the amendment, which would hand the member state much broader powers in the implementation of GAEC 2.
The Minister may well say that it is not his intention that the land will lose its agricultural status but this amendment gives him and future administrations the power to do so. He will no doubt talk about this document protecting farmers and giving Ireland maximum flexibility. However, who are we protecting farmers from? Who is endangering the farmer? Ireland will be setting all the standards so do we need protection from our own authorities?
The EU will not be setting the standards. Brussels will not be telling us what to do here. If we want to protect these lands, the people who will provide protection are the farmers who have managed it for generations, supported by good agricultural policy.
We will also be told we are misrepresenting the facts and that this is not a derogation. I have statements from EU officials, however, who have called it a derogation from baseline eligibility standards and have acknowledged we have legitimate concerns. This needs to be resolved and this House can play a role in that by debating this fully tonight and making sure it supports this amendment.