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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 20 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 4

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Agriculture Industry

Matt Carthy

Question:

1. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if his Department will carry out a comprehensive analysis of the impact of factory owned feedlots on the beef sector including their effect on prices and the environment. [26906/21]

Will the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine ensure that his Department will carry out a comprehensive analysis of the impact of factory-owned feedlots on the beef sector, including on prices and the environment?

I thank the Deputy for his question. It is important to clarify that there is no legal definition of a feedlot herd. The Department defines certain herds as controlled finishing units, CFUs, in the context of the bovine TB eradication programme. This definition is unique to that programme and does not necessarily mirror the use of the term "feedlot" by the public and-or other institutions. CFUs are subject to enhanced biosecurity measures as part of the TB programme and can only sell direct to slaughter.

The Department's statutory responsibility in the context of meat plants is to approve slaughter plants in accordance with the European Union (Food and Feed Hygiene) Regulations 2020 and after that to ensure that its approved plants operate in compliance with the EU's food hygiene legislation and animal health and welfare standards. The Department's remit in regard to finishing units is to ensure that they operate in compliance with the EU's animal health and welfare standards. The Department cannot, in carrying out this process, take into account issues such as the concentration of ownership of inputs to processing as it is outside the scope of this remit.

I have acknowledged the importance of transparency in the market for primary producers. The Department is progressing several initiatives under my ministerial stewardship to increase transparency. Central to my commitment to transparency is the establishment of a new office, to be called the office of the national food ombudsman or something similar. The additional powers to be assigned to the new office by primary legislation, going beyond those in the unfair trading practices directive, are currently the subject of public consultation, which is open until 26 May. This new office will have a specific role in analysing and reporting on price and market data in Ireland. As the Deputy will be aware, the Department and Bord Bia currently publish data in this regard.

The role of the new office will be central in achieving transparency and ultimately ensuring that farmers are getting the best price possible in the market and that their income is maximised.

The only way we can ensure a food ombudsman or any other body will be able to tackle unfair practices within the sector is if we have all the information in the first instance. It is incredible that the Department does not have a definition of "factory feedlot" or of a feedlot in general. We are basing all our information on the controlled finishing units, which serve as a proxy. Even so, we know that 300,000 cattle, or over 15% of the total kill, came from within those units last year. It is inconceivable to suggest they do not have an impact on the prices farmers receive. Therefore, if the people who are paying the farmers and on whom farmers depend, that is, the factories, have sufficient and significant control over the same units, it raises a major issue of accountability and fairness in the system. Will the Minister now ensure a proper analysis of the process?

More than that, I will ensure there is a national office set up not just to assess issues such as this but also to ensure transparency right across the food supply chain. I campaigned for this in opposition and ensured it went into the programme for Government. I am now working to deliver as a Minister in the Government. Central to my mission as Minister is doing all I can to support, underpin and enhance farm incomes. Central to that is ensuring farmers are getting the best return possible in the markets they sell into, and central to that is transparency in the food supply chain.

As the Deputy knows, there is ongoing consultation on how to ensure the proposed office will achieve transparency. I want to hear from the Deputy, other Members, farmers, consumers and all stakeholders on how we can ensure the office is as effective and robust as possible in addressing issues such as this. I look forward to the Deputy's submission on this. I welcome his recent conversion to the idea of and principle behind a national food ombudsman or regulator. I look forward to hearing the substance of his ideas on how to make sure the office is as effective as possible.

I assure the Minister that I have always believed in strong regulation of the beef sector but I am sceptical as to whether the office of the food ombudsman will deliver on it. If it does and the Minister passes legislation that will ensure proper accountability and transparency in the sector, not only will I support it but I will also commend the Minister for introducing it.

This issue has an effect on the wider debate on climate action and the environmental impact of beef production. It is entirely unfair to suggest that suckler farmers in the Minister's county or mine somehow need to reduce their production, as is often suggested, when factories own feedlots in which cattle are being concentrated and which undoubtedly have a greater environmental impact. If we are even to suggest a reduction in beef production, which I do not necessarily agree with, I suggest that the first thing to consider is feedlot production. We need to have the full facts. Will be Minister carry out an analysis to determine exactly how prevalent this element of the industry is?

The idea behind setting up the national food ombudsman office or regulator is to ensure there will be an office in place to assess issues such as this and to ensure all activity in the market and activities that have an impact on the market will be fully delved into and have a light shone on them so we can have the necessary transparency.

I am interested in hearing the Deputy’s developed thoughts and ideas on this, including his definition of a feedlot as opposed to a specialist beef finisher, for example. As he knows, many suckler farmers do not finish their own animals. They are bought and finished by specialists. Some farmers specialise in finishing. There are various degrees and sizes of specialist finishers. A feedlot might be owned by or have a relationship with a factory. I am interested in hearing any ideas the Deputy has in addition to those he is expressing today. The office of the food ombudsman will be ideally placed, when established, to assess this matter and the impact on the market.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Paul Murphy

Question:

2. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if his Department plans to review its handling of the outbreaks of Covid-19 in the meat processing industry over the past year with a view to improving preventative measures in the future. [27379/21]

I am asking this question on behalf of Deputy Paul Murphy. Does the Minister's Department plan to review its handling of the outbreaks of Covid-19 in the meat-processing industry over the past year with a view to improving preventive measures?

I thank Deputy Bríd Smith. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Department, in addition to carrying out its statutory role in meat plants regarding food safety, animal health and animal welfare, is providing to the HSE and Health and Safety Authority, HSA, any support required at local and national levels.

The Department continues to work closely with the relevant health authorities, which are responsible for the public health decisions made on the meat sector. If the public health authorities decided to review the experience of outbreaks in the sector, as suggested by the Deputy, the Department would certainly participate in such a review. It is important to note that the public health advice for meat-processing plants has evolved since the start of the pandemic as the understanding of the risk factors has increased.

Meat plants, particularly boning halls, can be noisy and humid workplaces and for food safety reasons the temperature is kept low through the recirculation of chilled air. The experience internationally has been that because of these factors, the Covid-19 virus can be transmitted relatively easily between workers in meat plants. To address these risk factors, detailed sector-specific public health guidelines were issued to meat processing plants early last summer, and implementation of these continues to be monitored.

As of 14 May 2021, the Department had completed 895 inspections, including unannounced inspections, on behalf of the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, in Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine-approved food premises. These inspections are ongoing and are in addition to the inspections carried out by the Health and Safety Authority itself, and in addition to the 49 premises where the Department has a permanent presence. The Department has also supported the HSE as required in the context of local outbreak teams.

The Department continues to participate on a standing committee established last August to, inter alia, oversee a programme of polymerase chain reaction, PCR, serial testing of workers at larger meat plants and each cycle of PCR testing consists of four week cycles of testing. The first cycle started on 14 September 2020 and a further eight cycles have been completed to date. More than 180,000 tests have been carried out from cycles one to eight, with a positivity rate of 0.77% overall. The ninth cycle of serial testing is currently under way.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The Department has led and encouraged the roll-out of rapid antigen detection testing, RADT, at meat processing plants, as a risk mitigation measure. It is also participating in a Science Foundation Ireland research project on the risk factors and enhanced measures for risk mitigation for Covid-19 in meat processing plants.

Major problems have been exposed in the meat processing industry by the Covid-19 crisis. Under the watch of his Department there have been a total of 108 outbreaks with more than 3,000 cases in meat factories themselves. Some 50 workers were hospitalised and 12 required care in intensive care units. SIPTU estimates that one in four meat workers got Covid-19 and that in turn seeded thousands of cases in the community. That was evidenced by the high level of community transmission in counties and regions where there were numerous meat plants, counties such as Monaghan, Laois and Kildare, where we saw a spike in the level of what they called community transmission, but one has to ask how did the virus get into the community at that high level?

The workers are not to blame. The conditions in which they work and live are the problem. I ask the Minister again if he will call for an investigation into the Covid-19 crisis inside the meat plants.

I thank Deputy Smith for her comments. As I said, meat plants are a high-risk environment because of the nature of the work and, in particular, in the boning halls with the recirculation of air and the fact the air has to stay chilled, which is something we have seen both nationally and internationally over the past period of time throughout the pandemic. That is why we have taken a very particular approach in the meat sector unlike any other sector. The meat sector, for example, is the only sector where the PCR serial testing is being undertaken and that is because of the fact that we recognise the particular risks that are there and we very much value the health and safety of the staff who work in these factories. That is why, at significant cost, it has been provided by the HSE. The most recent overall positivity rate in the PCR testing was 0.77%.

The other initiative I have led with my Department - I recognise the work of our chief inspector in laboratories, Dr. Donal Sammin, with the sector and the HSE - is antigen testing in meat factories, which has also been an important additional tool.

I am very happy to hear the Minister acknowledge that it is a high-risk workplace because when this issue was originally raised in the Dáil by my colleague, Deputy Paul Murphy, he was dismissed by the Government and was accused of trying to smear the work of meat plants. For months there were no inspections whatsoever at the factories and the virus was simply let rip. During the summer, when the virus was finally in decline, the Government turned a blind eye to the meat plants yet again by cutting back on testing and monitoring.

To this day the vast majority of meat factory workers have no entitlement to sick pay and many live in overcrowded accommodation provided by their employers in which they are a tinderbox for viruses. Those in the so-called tied accommodation are even denied basic tenants rights and access to the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB. There are still systemic problems which need to be addressed before another variant or another outbreak of the virus happens.

The Minister has tiptoed around the meat factories in refusing to tackle what is happening in the plants, his Department has consistently overlooked what was going on and serious questions have to be raised on the relationship between the Department and the beef barons.

There has been no tiptoeing whatsoever. Politically, that is what the Deputy and those on the left like to portray. The reality is very different. There has been a recognition at all times of the particular challenges in meat factories. As the Deputy is aware, as with all activity in the food sector, it was designated as essential work and an essential service throughout the pandemic. That brought real challenges to all working in the sector in being able to continue to keep everybody fed throughout that period. There was a strong recognition from the time of my appointment as Minister and, indeed, from the Government right throughout this period of the importance of supporting the sector in every way we can. That is why we have seen the PCR serial testing in meat factories which is not happening anywhere else and which is why, with the tremendous work led by Dr. Donal Sammin in the Department, we have led with the introduction of antigen testing and making that available as an additional tool working under a very strict protocol with the factories. Anything and everything has been done and I commend the work of the staff on ensuring that the food supply chain has kept going during this period.

Organic Farming

Matt Carthy

Question:

3. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his plans to address the low number of applications to the organic farm scheme. [26907/21]

The low number of applications to the organic farm scheme has re-emphasised just how poor our organic strategy is. What does the Minister of State intend to do about that?

I thank the Deputy for his question. Driving the development of the Irish organic sector is a major priority for me and my Department. We have set the highest level of ambition ever for the sector in the programme for Government with an aim to reach the EU average of land farmed organically during the lifetime of this Government. We are also committed to the full implementation of the current Review of Organic Food Sector and Strategy for its Development 2019-2025. A key element in reaching this ambitious target is increasing the number of farmers farming organically. To achieve this, I secured additional funding for this year to reopen the organic farming scheme. I was delighted that 317 farmers have applied to convert to organic farming and perhaps, unlike the Deputy, I considered this quite a strong response given the many alternative scheme options that were available to farmers during this Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, transitional period. If all these applicants are eligible and proceed to convert to organic farming, it will mean an increase of more than 20% in the number of farmers farming this way. Of course, we are still waiting to find out what area of land these applications represent and we should know that shortly as the basic payment scheme, BPS, application window has just closed.

I am satisfied that the current budget allocated to the scheme this year will allow eligible applications successful entry into the scheme. It is my intention to build on the interest shown to date and to drive further growth in organic farming. I will be actively examining a further reopening of the scheme for next year subject to funding. My Department is currently devising a new and ambitious organic farming scheme to be introduced under the new CAP in 2023 which will aim to increase the synergies that exist between organics, agri-environment climate measures and the eco-schemes and thus make organic farming a more attractive farming option.

Ultimately the development of the sector will be driven not just our scheme but by a range of factors. We need to work closely with Bord Bia and indeed Teagasc to deliver on those. I will certainly be trying to leverage as much support from both Bord Bia and Teagasc in this regard. We need to keep the ambition high for organic farming, it is a very significant growth area and I look forward to seeing it grow.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In association with Teagasc, the Department runs the organic farming demonstration programme. Under this programme, a nationwide series of national organic farming open days takes place on selected organic demonstration farms. This provides farmers with an insight into organic farming and is an invaluable tool in showcasing organic farming at a practical level. This programme, by the sharing of knowledge at a local level, will hugely contribute to the conversion to organic farming.

As well as all this however we may need to think even more broadly. Many of our European counterparts use public procurement strategies to support their organic producers. I want to look at whether or not we might do something similar here. In this regard, the programme for government does include commitments to green public procurement, and I believe there is room to see how organic food production might fit with that.

In summary, nobody has shown the level of ambition for the Irish organic sector as this Government. We have hit the ground running by securing extra funding for the reopening of the scheme but this is just the beginning.

There is no ambition in the Minister of State's strategy. It is interesting the Minister of State states that her target is to reach the EU average but she did not actually say what that percentage was because the Department's percentage is 7.5%. That was the EU average in 2018 and that average has already increased. By the time we reach the Minister of State's targets, if we do, we will have reached a target that is seven years out of date.

Some 74 people left the scheme last year. That means that if all 317 applications are accepted, the increase in organic farmer numbers will be 243, which is less than half of what the Minister of State set out as the target of up to 500 additional schemes. This is the difficulty and let us be honest about it.

Of course, it is easy to get a 20% increase when one is starting from almost the lowest rate in Europe. Farmers across the country have said they are interested in organics. If we are serious about climate action, then we have to get interested in expanding the organic farming sector. What is the Minister of State going to do to get real about this particular form of farming which has so much potential if dealt with properly?

We are going to stick to times because there is a list. It is one minute for the question and one minute for the Minister of State. I know it is difficult.

The EU average of 7.5% was the agreed figure we worked off for the programme for Government. That is a significantly ambitious target. I appreciate it is not near the EU's target of 25%. However, the EU currently has an average land area of between 8% and 8.5% given over to organics. Even across the EU, to get from 8.5% to 25% by 2030 is also hugely ambitious. We will work closely with our partners across Europe because if they have to do it, we have to do it. We have to share that knowledge and implement it.

The schemes themselves are not the only route or mechanism for organic farming. These farmers, in all likelihood, will all be accepted into the scheme. There are farmers who operate as organic farmers outside of the scheme, however. It is just one part of the puzzle.

That is another problem. Why are they operating outside of the scheme? What are the flaws in the scheme and what has the Minister of State done to assess this?

The 8.5% figure is the 2019 figure which was a full percentage increase across the European Union level from the year before. We do not have any more updated figures. The rest of Europe is moving ahead of us. We have a strong reputation internationally for a green and environmentally friendly agriculture product. That reputation is going to be important if we are going to be able to maintain the level of support that Ireland has internationally for its agriculture product. We need to get serious about this.

I am disappointed. There are two areas under the Minister of State's control in which she can make a significant difference to Irish farmers in terms of income, as well as delivering for the environment; namely, organics and forestry. In both areas, she is failing miserably to make an impact. She is reading statements prepared by officials which have failed time and time again.

The scheme is not the only mechanism. Many operators can operate without the scheme. They may not need the financial assistance but they are still organic farming and are assessed by the organic certification bodies. The incentive is there to encourage people into it. Some people find they can operate perfectly and profitably without the assistance of the offer of the moneys through the scheme.

I assure the Deputy that my ambitions for organics and forestry are genuine. I will be working hard to ensure they deliver, along with the horticulture sector and any other aspect under my remit, for the environment. That is why I am a politician and want to do this. That is why my party was happy to enter government.

Agriculture Schemes

Denis Naughten

Question:

4. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the sources and value of funding for the results-based environmental agri pilot project; if he will review the number of participants in view of the level of demand for participation under the scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27253/21]

There have been five applications for every place on the pilot environmental scheme, even with restricted access to it and the poor financial return. It clearly shows the demand from farmers for more sustainable farming models. However, this must pay farmers directly for carbon reductions.

I secured an additional €79 million, including €23 million from the carbon tax fund, in budget 2021 to support actions in the area of biodiversity, climate, environment and farm health and safety, while also supporting farm incomes. Part of this is the results-based environment agri pilot, REAP. While it is small, it is innovative, ambitious and farmer friendly.

It is a pilot because we are in a transition period between now and the new CAP kicking off in January 2023. It will pay up to a maximum of €12,600 between now and then. We expect the average payment on 10 ha to be close to €5,000 which is significant in terms of income. Both small and large farmers can benefit fully from the income that it actually generates. It will also allow them to make a contribution in terms of biodiversity and climate change, allowing everybody to contribute equally to that, be they a small or large farmer.

It is five times oversubscribed. We heard lots of criticism in advance of the scheme being published but not a peep of criticism since then. The only criticism is, what I predicted at the outset, that we would have more of the scheme than the pilot terms and conditions would allow. It is five times oversubscribed. I would love to be able to accommodate everyone in it. I have written to the European Commissioner on how we can accommodate more and to see if the potential is there for that. It will contribute significantly to farm incomes and will be an important measure for biodiversity and climate change.

I would have liked if the Minister had responded to my original question. He might come back to me in the supplementary to explain the exact sources of funding for the €10 million set out initially. The previous budget had allocated €3 million directly from the Minister for Finance. That leaves a balance of €7 million that has to be funded.

If the Minister is going cap in hand to the Commission looking for permission, then some of that €7 million is coming from EU funding. How much of the €23 million in carbon taxes that was provided to the Department will go into this scheme as it is currently formulated?

Overall, there is €79 million for new agri-environmental measures this year. Out of that, €23 million is from the carbon tax fund. There is a key programme for Government commitment to introduce a new flagship agri-environmental scheme in the next CAP which will start in January 2023. In funding that scheme, there will be €1.5 billion from the carbon tax between now and 2050.

In the transition period, we are constrained to pilot measures. We are not able to spend money on entirely new schemes because they cannot come in yet. I am very heartened by the response to REAP. The Deputy is right that it shows the appetite among farmers for a scheme that is well structured. They can get a return in terms of income and it will allow them to deliver for the environment. My key objective is to explore the opportunity to ensure as many farmers as possible can be included in that actual scheme.

This pilot scheme is one of the key initiatives in the Department for 2021. We have a greening of government which I welcome. This is a key strand of that with both the initial pilot and the further expansion of it.

In the programme for Government, a clear indication is given that part of the carbon tax fund will go directly to Irish farmers. I asked the Minister in written and oral parliamentary questions about this. On both occasions, he refused to answer how much of the carbon tax is allocated to that €10 million fund under this environmental scheme. Up to €3 million had been allocated in the previous year directly from the Minister for Finance. The Minister has gone cap in hand to the Commission looking for permission which clearly indicates that part of this funding is coming directly from the European Commission. How much of the €23 million is going into this environmental pilot scheme?

In terms of our rural development programme and our measures within that, we have to engage with the European Commission in terms of getting approval for schemes that are part of that. State aid, which is important with this, comes within the rural development programme. That is why I am engaging with Europe and seeking permission to be able to accommodate additional farmers within the terms of the CAP.

Out of €79 million this year for additional new environmental measures, €23 million is coming from the carbon tax. As the Deputy knows, we can only spend so much of it this year and next year because we are in the transition period.

The clear commitment in the programme for Government is that there will be €1.5 billion of it up to 2030. The new flagship agri-environmental scheme will start in January 2023, so it is really positive that we have the funding for the commitment in the programme for Government to help to make it a good and substantial scheme. If less is spent this year from the €1.5 billion carbon tax fund, there will be more funding from the scheme for the flagship agri-environmental scheme that will be in place from 2023.

The Minister never answered the question.

EU Funding

Marian Harkin

Question:

5. Deputy Marian Harkin asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if the proposed reduction to farmers' entitlement values to create the EU eco-schemes fund will be subject to internal convergence. [26984/21]

I want to ask the Minister if the proposed eco-schemes in the new CAP will be subject to internal convergence and if there will be equality of access and opportunities for all farmers to the schemes. Will farmers get paid for what they do, as distinct from the current greening payment, which is linked to historical entitlements from more than 20 years ago?

I thank Deputy Harkin for her question. The exact shape of the various provisions under the next CAP are still under negotiation. Until all of those are complete there is not final certainty with regard to the exact level of convergence that will be applied, or the proportion of the direct payments ceiling allocated to eco-schemes.

The general approach agreed by Council last November would see a minimum of 20% of the direct payments ceiling for Ireland dedicated to eco-schemes, while the Parliament is arguing for a higher allocation, as high as 30%. At this point, the exact nature of how that scheme will work is not clear. Equally, it is not clear whether payments from it would be on a per hectare basis additional to the basic income support for sustainability, BISS, or on the basis of cost incurred or income foregone.

In the proposal, there is a prescribed order in which the direct payments ceiling is administered. I will set out the steps involved. The allocation for eco-schemes is deducted from the ceiling. The allocation for the young farmers scheme is deducted from the ceiling. Any other allocations for other interventions are deducted from the ceiling. The remainder then forms the BISS ceiling. Payment entitlement values are assigned from that. After values are assigned, and the average value is determined, convergence can be applied to the entitlement values from that point forward. The eco-schemes are independent of the payment entitlement value.

There is a super trilogue for three days next year between the Commission, the Council and the Parliament. I know that is a process Deputy Harkin is particularly familiar with, having served as an MEP. That will then set the European plan, which we will have to work through and set our own national plan coming out of that to form our own domestic eco-schemes that are consistent with the wider European plan that will be agreed.

I understand that negotiations are still ongoing, and we have the super trilogues coming up. I am aware of the respective positions of the Council, the Parliament and the Commission. My question to the Minister is about the policy being pursued by the Government. What is Ireland's position in the Council on the eco-schemes? Does he support a flat-rate payment not connected in any way to historical entitlements?

Second, does the Minister expect the eco-schemes to start out at 15% or 20% in the first year and increase perhaps to 25% or even 30% over a number of years? What is his position and that of the Government on those two issues?

My position at the Council of Ministers has been to maintain a 20% minimum threshold in terms of the eco-schemes. The Parliament is pushing for 30%. It is important that we try to ensure we maintain the basic payment scheme farmers get to support them to produce top quality, healthy and safe food, and also to do that in a way that is consistent with good environmental practice. Within the new CAP a minimum of 20% will go to the eco-schemes. I will be trying to frame them in a way that ensures that while we have eco-schemes and farmers must make a contribution in terms of complying with them, they retain the value of the payments they previously received.

Working within Pillar 2, we will look at putting in place programmes that reward farmers for greater environmental ambition and delivering on biodiversity and climate change initiatives, as well as ensuring it delivers new income streams for them.

The Minister mentioned a minimum of 20%. What is his range? The Department issued figures recently on the impact of 85% convergence on Pillar 1 payments. He started out with 100% of the payments, comprising 70% for the basic payment and 30% for the greening. However, the figures used to illustrate the impact of 85% convergence only included 70% for the basic payment and the 30% greening was left out. Those figures were completely misleading. I am not saying anybody set out to mislead, but that was the outcome. We must compare like with like. The Department showed that under 85% convergence, everybody would lose or just barely maintain their payments, but that is mathematically impossible, and the Department knows that. Will the Department compare like with like and give all farmers impartial and accurate figures?

I thank Deputy Harkin. That piece of research was to establish what the value of the entitlement would be. That is what the figures that were set out showed. The value of the entitlement is going to exclude the eco-scheme payment, which will be extracted from the entitlement value in the first place. That is what the research showed.

I agree with Deputy Harkin that it all must be looked at in the round. There will be full and accurate detail and data on this from the Department. There will be full disclosure and full transparency. I accept the point Deputy Harkin makes, but the research was about calculating what the entitlement value would be, which excludes what will happen with the eco-schemes. The eco-schemes payment is to be applied at a flat rate based on compliance with the draft plan on a European level and farmers will apply for that separately. It does have to be looked at in the round and ultimately what counts for farmers is what it means for their income. That is the crucial issue.

That is the end of Priority Questions.

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