Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Animal Diseases

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

6. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the number of bovine animals found to have failed the tuberculosis eradication test in each of the years 2019, 2020 and to date in 2021 in respect of the dairy herd and the beef herd; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51671/21]

What numbers of bovine animals in the beef and dairy herds were found to have failed the TB eradication test in 2019, 2020 and to date in 2021?

I thank the Deputy for the question.

The number of dairy herd reactor animals is 8,837 for 2019, 12,440 for 2020 and 8,402 up to 29 September of this year. The number of suckler herd reactor animals is 5,894 for 2019, 7,275 for 2020 and 4,684 up to 29 September of this year. The number of other herd reactor animals is 347 for 2019, 515 for 2020 and 344 to the end of September of this year. The overall total in respect of reactor numbers is 17,000 for 2019, 22,562 for 2020 and 14,901 up to 29 September of this year.

Herd incidence rose every year between 2016 and 2020, which has been very concerning. This disease causes untold hardship for farmers and farming families, as the Deputy knows. Although the challenge is serious, my Department, working together with stakeholders, is engaging with farmers and is committed to eradicating this disease.

Earlier this year I launched a new bovine tuberculosis eradication strategy for the period from 2021 to 2030. The implementation of this strategy is overseen by the TB stakeholder forum with support from three new working groups on science, implementation and finance to ensure that all aspects of the strategy are addressed. Extensive consultation with the three working groups will develop a shared understanding of how collectively we can reduce TB incidence along with implementing the new TB eradication strategy over that period.

The figures the Minister provided are very concerning and the trend is clear for people to see. It confirms what we hear on the ground, namely, that TB is prevalent again. Many farmers I have contact with have spoken of TB being detected in their herds for the first time in 30 years. This causes monetary and personal distress for these farmers.

Responding to a TB outbreak is particularly onerous. When a TB reactor is found in a herd it imposes significant constraints on the farmer and the way he or she can conduct business. No movement of animals in or out of the herd will be allowed and two consecutive clear tests will be required and this can take a maximum of 120 days.

I ask the Minister to look at the issue of stock retention on the farm while awaiting de-restriction and the requirement for new-born calves to be reared on a farm. These calves can often be sold at seven weeks. Many farms are not set up and simply do not have the space for these extra numbers. This is placing a significant workload and burden on individual farmers. I also ask the Minister to consider allowing contract-reared animals and heifers reared in outside places to return home to the herd and be included in the compensation framework.

I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for his comments and suggestions. As the Deputy knows, when we are dealing with an infectious disease the strategy is not set in stone. The TB strategy I have put together is a living document which will be subject to amendment and refinement on an ongoing basis. The TB stakeholder forum and the three working groups are considering all issues as this matter evolves. They will consider issues such as the suggestions made by the Deputy.

As part of my ongoing commitment to eradicating TB, I have sanctioned an additional €1 million in budget funding for the wildlife programme, which is an integral part of the overall programme. There have been positive indications of progress with the TB situation for 2021. These are likely to represent a necessary improvement compared with 2020. Working together we can build on the momentum we have developed. I am acutely aware of the financial and emotional burden associated with a TB breakdown and we must do everything we can, working together, to tackle this very serious challenge.

It will be interesting to see the final figures for the year. I am giving feedback to the Minister on the lads who are working on the ground eradicating TB. They are highlighting to us that they are facing an uphill battle. That said, I welcome the investment of €6 million in budget 2022 for TB eradication but this money must translate to boots on the ground. An important part of this investment is the wildlife programme, as the Minister said. Increased resources must be targeted in this area. The work is enormous and time-consuming.

I ask that the relocation of the vaccination programme be escalated and that a territory expansion survey be carried out in certain areas for certain species. Roaming stocks are also a contributing factor and need to be curtailed.

I welcome the Department's commitment to a major works analysis and habitat preservation. The impact on wildlife from expansion, deforestation and reclamation is also a contributing factor. These activities should be carefully managed.

I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for raising this very important issue and for his interest in it. I know it arises from his engagement with farmers in his constituency and the concern they have about the growing incidence of TB, certainly in 2020, and the burden this places on the affected farmers and the stress and financial strain associated with it. I assure the Deputy that we will continue to work on this matter. The Deputy's suggestions are being brought to the table by farm organisations, as part of the TB stakeholder forum.

All eyes and brains are being applied to this matter to ensure we are taking a scientific approach with the objective of driving down TB numbers. Getting to a position where we can drive numbers as low as possible and work towards eradication is the best outcome for all farm families.

I thank the Deputy again for his suggestions and for raising the matter. I assure him of our efforts, working with the Deputy and other Oireachtas Members are very keen to make progress on this issue, to set the right course and reverse the challenging increases in TB incidence we have seen in recent years.

Questions No. 7 replied to with Written Answers.

Common Agricultural Policy

Dara Calleary

Question:

8. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his plans to support hill farmers in the next CAP; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51715/21]

Farmers and sheep farmers have been left aside in previous Common Agricultural Policy plans. Given his experience of the sector, what are the Minister's proposals within the new CAP strategic plan to support and sustain this sector and to guarantee and encourage people to go into it?

I thank Deputy Calleary for his question. Hill farming is a very important sector in the Deputy's constituency, as it is in mine. The sheep welfare scheme has been in place for the past while and was continued in 2020, 2021 and again for 2022. In addition, some of the key payments that are very important for hill farmers, such as the areas of natural constraint, ANC, payment, have been maintained for this year, as have environmental schemes.

The Deputy's question relates to the next CAP programme which was announced just yesterday. Overall, it provides for a 50% increase in the national co-financing based on the previous CAP. For this seven-year period, we will see €2.9 billion of national co-financing compared with €1.9 billion in the previous CAP. This is a demonstration of the significant commitment of this Government to supporting farm families. Included in that is support for sheep farmers.

In the proposals, to start in 2023, we will see an increase in the sheep welfare scheme, which will be available at €12 per ewe. Support will also be provided through the ANC payment, which has been available until now, and the young farmer schemes.

What will be particularly significant for sheep farmers will be the significant support available under the new environmental scheme, for which 50% extra funding will be provided. The new scheme will succeed the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, and the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, which preceded the AEOS. There will be the potential for some farmers to avail of landscape options and earn up to a maximum of €10,000, with an average of €7,500, and for other farmers to earn up to a maximum €7,000, with an average payment of €5,000. That will strongly support our hill sheep sector.

I thank the Minister and commend him and his team, including the Ministers of State, Senator Hackett and Deputy Heydon, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, on the new CAP programme. It appears from the early signs that it is very positive and will support farming in our region in particular.

On the extra €2.9 billion, how will the Minister ensure this money gets down to the farm table? There is so much red tape involved in schemes that people will not engage with them. This is particularly the case for hill and sheep farmers, which is an ageing sector. We need to encourage people to engage. In the context of the role of the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, sheep and hill farmers were the original biodiversity farmers, long before the REPS and other schemes. As I said to the Minister last week at Balla mart, hill farming in Mayo goes back 5,000 years.

They were the guardians of the environment and they continue to be. Unless we keep them on sustainably on the hills, that support and guardianship will be gone. This CAP plan, for many, may be the last chance saloon. We want to ensure that it will get right down to them with as little red tape as possible and that it will be easy to apply for.

That is really important and it is why I am engaging closely with farmers on putting together the CAP programme and those schemes. It is also why I visited Mayo with the Deputy last week and have been visiting every county. Indeed, I will be in Carlow this afternoon, and Kilkenny this evening, doing the very same thing.

It is crucial that this funding gets to farm families, in this instance to support hill sheep farming. We will engage further on the structure and composition of the various schemes to ensure they will deliver income for farmers, as well as the environmental and food production benefits. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, has provided for a 500% increase in the budget for organics over the coming years, which is unprecedented. She will engage with all sectors on the options that are available in that regard. That will be of interest to the hill sheep farming sector as well.

I think the target participation rate for the new agri-environmental scheme is 50,000, which equates to the current participation level in the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS. How will we ensure that those who are excluded from GLAS will not be excluded from the new agri-environmental scheme, whatever it will be called? How will we further ensure that the restrictions in the current GLAS scheme will not transfer across to the new scheme and that its benefits will not be lost to many, including many hill sheep farmers?

From memory, the number on the current GLAS programme is about 43,000 or 44,000. The 50,000 figure we have mentioned, therefore, will embrace all farmers. The objective will be to ensure that all farmers who want to participate in the scheme can do so. As for its composition, we will engage closely with farmer organisations to ensure the measures involved will provide options for all farmers to be able to engage.

Question No. 9 replied to with Written Answers.

Agriculture Industry

Denis Naughten

Question:

10. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the engagement he has had with Teagasc and other Ministers on the need for recognition of carbon removal on farms; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49992/21]

Following the passage of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021, we now have to take into account the issue of sequestration. There is great anxiety among the farming community regarding what they will be asked to do as a result of carbon budgeting. We now have reports that agriculture will be asked to reduce emissions by up to one third, which, as the Minister knows, is a monumental task that will not be possible without some account being taken, in a practical way, of sequestration.

I am very much aware of the important role on-farm carbon removals and carbon pool protection will play in meeting the sector's challenging climate change targets going forward. Teagasc, along with private sector agricultural consultants, is an essential component in providing best practice advice to the farming community on measures necessary for the increased sequestration and storage of atmospheric carbon through making better on-farm management decisions.

It is important not only that the increased removal and storage of atmospheric carbon brought about through the activities of our farmers be recognised in the national inventory reporting accounting system but also that farmers receive recognition for their efforts in this area. This recognition, however, needs a solid scientific basis backed up by country-specific data. Towards this end, I recently provided funding through Teagasc for the establishment of a national agricultural soil carbon observatory, with supporting technology for the measurement of greenhouse gas emissions from a range of soil and farm types. This will place Ireland at the forefront of EU carbon sequestration research. This infrastructure, which will be located on a number of Teagasc Signpost farms, is a new initiative that aims to support farmers by acting as a demonstration and research resource for best practice on farms.

In tandem with the soil carbon observatory infrastructure, I also recently launched the pilot soil sampling and analysis programme, which will provide a baseline assessment of soil organic carbon throughout the country. Teagasc also recently commenced a research project called “Farm-Carbon - Farm Hedgerows and Non-forest Woodland Carbon”. This project will provide a deeper understanding of hedgerows and non-forest woodland as carbon stocks in agricultural landscapes and will allow researchers to identify approaches to maintain and enhance this contribution. The knowledge gained from these activities will place Ireland at the forefront of research in this area, while also allowing for the refinement of our reporting to the national inventory, further emphasising the sustainability of the agricultural sector.

I welcome the commitments the Minister gave in respect of scientific research in this area. He is absolutely correct; without having a scientific basis, we have no opportunity to move forward. In 2016, this was made very clear to me, as Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, from my engagement with colleague ministers throughout Europe and my Scottish counterpart. It was clear at that stage that that research should have taken place; we are a decade too late in doing it now. The outputs the Minister is talking about will take a considerable time to filter down to the ground, into the farming community. We need urgent measures that can be taken by farmers and be reflected in their on-farm sequestration. What are we doing and what funding has been ring-fenced in the carbon tax budget to ensure that will happen?

As the Deputy will know, the funding from the carbon tax budget is very specific in that between now and the end of 2030, €1.5 billion will go directly to farmers. It is targeted specifically to get to farmers' pockets through the new agri-environmental scheme, which, as I outlined earlier, will deliver up to €10,000 for 20,000 participants and up to €7,000 for 30,000 participants. That is where the carbon tax is going.

Since my appointment as Minister, I have been working with Teagasc and investing in how we can develop the science and research to contribute to meeting our emissions reductions in the time ahead. Overall, in the context of our emissions reductions, the most important issue is that the targets that are set for us will not only continue to enable us to do what we do really well, namely, be a world leader in producing sustainable and healthy nutritious food, but they will also ensure we can drive down overall emissions in the agricultural sector in as strong a fashion as possible. Ultimately, that will only strengthen our overall agricultural model by delivering to consumers what they want, namely, food that has been sustainably produced.

Let us put this in practical terms. We could be looking at an ask for the agricultural community of between 7 million tonnes and 8 million tonnes of a reduction between now and 2030. Teagasc has in place a roadmap that could achieve 2 million tonnes of that and, with a tailwind behind it, it might get up to 3.5 million tonnes. As an example, delivering on that target, however, would involve the use of protected urea, but protected urea cannot be got for love nor money at the moment.

Parking the issue of forestry, what funding is going into carbon sequestration on farms throughout the country? The research is welcome and it is a positive development, but what does it mean in practical terms between now and 2030? Is it not the case that the vast majority of carbon tax being generated, whether in the Minister's Department or other Departments, is only replacing direct Exchequer funding?

If we are going to reduce carbon emissions, we will obviously have to measure them. One of the many failings of the carbon action plan was that it did not even set out how we were going to measure emissions but rather that the Government will decide how will do so, presumably by way of a statutory instrument. Will either the Minister or his colleague the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, tell me how we are going to measure emissions? Has that been determined by the Government? Whether we use the global warming potential, GWP, measurement criterion of GWP100 or GWP* will have a strong bearing for the purposes of agriculture, given that methane is treated very differently depending on whether one measurement criterion is used rather than another. Methane is a relatively short-lived gas compared with CO2 and how it breaks down. Either way, the environmental lobby will say there is a strong argument for reducing methane because we can get a quick hit with it.

However, the obvious corollary of that is that if one is reducing agricultural methane as a means to get a quick hit, one is not treating the problem.

I concur with other Members. It is vital to measure the carbon sequestration that is taking place in the agriculture sector. It is impossible to say that there is an obligation relating to carbon emissions if we do not also recognise the level of carbon storage. Does the Minister agree that we have to compile a report on a farm-by-farm basis so each individual farm is aware of the carbon that is stored on its land, the carbon sequestration that is taking place and the carbon that is being emitted, so that targets can be set on a farm-by-farm basis and rewards can be achieved for people who can shift the balance on that level? My fear is that if this is done on a State-wide or sector-wide basis the people who are providing the greatest benefit in respect of carbon sequestration and reducing emissions would not get the financial rewards for doing so.

First, in response to Deputy Naughten, the key basis and platform on which we can monetise carbon sequestration and pay farmers for it is by having the measurement tools in place. I am giving significant funding to Teagasc to develop that. With regard to carbon tax replacing direct Exchequer funding, that is certainly not the case. A concern that has been raised over the last year or so by farmers is that they did not want to see it replacing direct Exchequer funding. The massive package I delivered yesterday is an increase, before carbon tax is included, on what was available in the last CAP programme in national co-funding. Indeed, the carbon tax on top of that represents a 60:40 ratio, whereby 60% of Pillar 2 will now be State funded versus 40% coming from Europe. The outgoing CAP was 47% from the State and 53% from Europe. It is additional, therefore, and is seriously delivering income directly to farm families.

Deputy McNamara asked about the measurement of it. Obviously, that will be clarified as part of the climate action plan. The key principle and objective at all times is ensuring that we can continue to produce the food we currently produce while driving down the emissions footprint of its production. That is the bottom line, in my view, with regard to setting feasible targets.

Deputy Carthy spoke about farm-by-farm measurement. The soil sampling scheme that I launched a few weeks ago is doing that farm-by-farm in terms of assessing what the benchmark is in each farm to enable farmers to see their current position and so they can build on and develop that in the years ahead.

Horticulture Sector

Marc Ó Cathasaigh

Question:

11. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if a report (details supplied) will examine the way Ireland can position itself to take advantage of the growing international trend to plant-based diets; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51527/21]

My question is about the KPMG report recently commissioned by the Department, which is to examine the trend towards plant-based diets or increasing the amount of plants in our diets. Will the parameters of that report allow us to examine ways in which Ireland can position itself to take better advantage of that growing market internationally?

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Senator Pippa Hackett)

As Minister of State with responsibility for this sector I recently commissioned KPMG to compile a report on growth opportunities in the horticulture sector, including those opportunities deriving from the global trend towards plant-based diets. The report will form the basis of a roadmap for the sector, which will outline the support and approach required to take advantage of these opportunities, and there are many. The report’s outputs will sit within our new ten-year strategy for the agrifood sector, Food Vision 2030.

Additionally, the prepared consumer food centre located in the Teagasc food research centre in Ashtown is funded by my Department to support research, development and innovation in the prepared consumer food sector. Horticulture certainly feeds into this in a significant way. The centre provides companies with the opportunity to pilot equipment, to scale up their own production and to enable adoption of novel technologies to meet evolving consumer demands and expectations. The services include technical support and advice, new product development, including with regard to plant-based products, laboratory and analytical testing, pilot scale processing and the packing of foods and food ingredients.

My Department also provides supports to help expansion across the horticulture industry in Ireland through the scheme of investment aid for the development of the commercial horticulture sector and the EU producer organisation scheme. My Department has committed an allocation of €9 million in this year’s budget for the scheme of investment aid for the development of the commercial horticulture sector, recognising the sector's importance, as well as confidence in the sector to grow in the years ahead.

One of the things that have driven me mad for years, particularly at this time of the year, is to walk past apple trees laden down with apples only to find New Zealand apples on the shelves of our supermarkets. Mick Kelly had a similar journey with regard to garlic when he set up GIY Ireland Limited. He was looking at Chinese garlic on the shelves when it is so easy to grow it in this climate. By the same token, I visited Grantstown Tomatoes, tomato growers and horticulturists in Waterford, last week. The owner has an outstanding operation. The produce is of the highest quality and he uses biological pest control. All those things are absolutely first rate, but the market makes it incredibly difficult for him to make a margin. It is extremely tight and he finds that he can only aim at the highest end because we are not always prepared to pay for the quality. How can we help horticulture growers from now on to make it a more profitable business for the people involved?

The horticulture sector has been largely ignored over the decades in terms of support. That has increased more recently and it is something we have to build on. There is a role for horticulture, particularly now with the need to shorten supply chains. There is a huge import substitution piece that we are not embracing yet, and there is certainly an intent to do that. In budget 2022, €500,000 has been allocated for examining local food systems and how to connect local growers with local consumers. There are supports available but it is not always easy to navigate access to local foods for either a producer or a consumer. Work is going to occur in that area.

It is a massive opportunity for local and rural jobs, in particular. The horticultural sector is worth approximately €467 million per annum to the economy, and approximately 6,600 people are directly employed in it. There are many different sectors within it, but in field vegetables we have gone from 300 operators in 1999 to 140 operators now. The number has more than halved in that time. While the amount of produce arriving on the shelves is more or less the same, we have fewer producers because profit margins are becoming incredibly tight. Even with regard to soft fruit operations, we know that staffing issues are increasingly difficult. It is a sector that is primed and ready for growth and we have an outstanding quality of produce but the sector needs support to help it become viable.

Garlic can be particularly difficult to grow, but I take the point about the necessity to replace imported horticulture with Irish horticulture. However, it will be difficult to do that when carrots are for sale at 49 cent per bag. There has to be some correlation between the price at which products are sold and the cost of production. I grew up in Clare and there was extensive market gardening in Kinvara, presumably supplying Galway mainly, and in Ogonnelloe, supplying Limerick. That is all gone because who can compete? People think they are doing the world a favour when they are buying organic carrots from Morocco that have been flown in here. Unless there is some type of link between the cost of production and the price at which produce is sold, there will be a difficulty.

A further difficulty is that while it provides an opportunity for more jobs, as Deputy Ó Cathasaigh said, existing producers cannot get labour. I realise it is a matter for the Department of Justice but we really need to look at labour because it is a problem in the horticulture sector and in the general agriculture sector, yet we are deporting people from Ireland. Many of them near my constituency are from Brazil. They came here to work and have family links. They are being deported because there is no work, yet nobody can get workers.

The labour issue is going to continue to be a problem, and I ask myself where it will end. We are spiralling towards a race to the bottom and we have to get off that track. That is in supporting local food producers.

Many wonderful local food producers operate off a handful of acres, maybe employing five or six people supplying a small town with quite a significant number of horticultural projects and making a good living out of it. Therefore, it can be done. It is small scale. I suppose we very much focused on the retail side, the larger commercial growers and the supports tended to go that way, which is fine, but we end up with that conundrum. However, we also need to support people to grow for retail. That may drive us down the road whereby we are always looking for cheaper labour, always struggling with the price at the till. We need to look to other routes to market. Connecting with local growers is the way to go.

Agriculture Schemes

Michael McNamara

Question:

12. Deputy Michael McNamara asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the average value of each basic payment scheme, BPS, entitlement per county in 2019 and 2020, respectively; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51679/21]

I ask the Minister to provide the average value of each BPS entitlement per county in 2019 and 2020, respectively. I do not know if he will list every single county, but perhaps he might list a few counties at the top, a few counties at the middle and a few counties at the bottom. Of course, I have a particular interest in County Clare.

I apologise to Deputy McNamara as while I have some of the overall details, I do not have the full list by county, including County Clare, but it will be forwarded to the Deputy. The variation in the county breakdown of average entitlement values is centred on the country average of approximately €185. That is before greening, which obviously is in addition to that. The minimum value was seen in Leitrim in both years with an average entitlement value of €151 in 2019 and €152 in 2020. The national average is €185 and Leitrim was the lowest at €152 in 2020.

The highest county average value in 2019 was in Kilkenny with an average value of €210 and in 2020 the highest average value was seen in Wexford at almost €210. The national average is €185; the highest was €210 and the lowest was €152 last year. The values varied very little from 2019 to 2020 in each county, with a maximum difference of just over €1 observed.

I refer here to the payment entitlement value only, with the vast majority of farmers also receiving the greening payment in addition to the entitlement value, which is an additional 44% of the entitlement value and obviously it is proportionate to the entitlement value. Grassland farmers are generally green by definition and therefore receive this greening payment automatically. Farmers in some other sectors must meet scheme terms and conditions to receive the greening payment.

A full table with the county breakdown will issue to the Deputy. Variation is from €152 to €210, with €185 being the average.

It is interesting, but not surprising, that the lowest is in the west and the highest is in the south east. I wonder if that is a general trend. I appreciate that the Minister does not have the figures and as I said at the outset, I did not expect him to have them all. Is that a general trend? It is interesting that the greening is a percentage of the entitlement. While agriculture per acre might be more productive in certain parts of the country than in others purely because they are gifted with better land and there is very little that can be done about that, there may be more environmental benefits to the type of farming in other parts of the country but that benefit is not being seen by those farmers. I ask this in the context of the debate on convergence and what we plan to do about greening measures. The information that we have to hand needs to feed into policy.

That was the situation with greening with the outgoing CAP. As the Deputy knows, the eco schemes are being introduced now as part of Pillar 1, accounting for a proposed 25% this time around, which will be totally disconnected from entitlement value and will be paid at a flat rate per hectare.

While I do not have the full table here, the divergence might not be quite as large on a county basis as people might think, even though it is significant. That gap will be closing in the time ahead because we will be moving to 85% convergence over the course of the next CAP. In addition, there is the flattening impact of the eco scheme and the flattening impact of front-loading, with 25% in the eco scheme and an additional 10% in front-loading. That 35% will flatten immediately from the start of the next CAP and the remainder will flatten to 85% over the course of the period.

In counties, such as Clare with more small and medium-sized farms, the front-loading will have a significant impact and that will add an additional €42 per entitlement on the first 30 ha. I know that will affect a number of farmers in the Deputy's county.

The Minister made a point about small and medium-sized farmers, which is a bit of a misnomer. Will the environmental measures be capped at a certain size of farm? Someone could have a large holding of marginal land while someone else might have a much smaller holding of more productive land. If it is capped, it will penalise the person with the marginal land. For example, the Burren is productive and is renowned obviously, but it takes a sizeable acreage to feed a herd of cattle. Similarly, someone might have a large chunk of land in Slieve Aughty which looks fantastic on paper until one actually goes and sees the land. Someone with much smaller acreage could have more productive land. Capping it at a certain acreage or even having a sliding scale could be counterproductive to what the Minister is hoping to achieve.

The objective behind the eco scheme is to achieve an environmental result from it and it is about how the land is managed. There is a flat rate per hectare for that. It is not a straightforward direct payment; it is for how the farmer manages the land. Therefore, it is logical that the eco scheme aspect of it applies to all the land being managed. The proposal is that it will apply to all the land that is being managed in that way under the eco scheme the farmer chooses.

Fishing Industry

Catherine Connolly

Question:

13. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if trawlers over 18 m in length are currently permitted to carry out fishing activities in Irish waters inside of the six-nautical-mile limit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51539/21]

I am returning to a matter that was raised under a priority question earlier. I am asking about the position with boats of over 18 m. I have tried twice to get clarification from the Minister's office. I was forced into submitting this parliamentary question. A Topical Issue was ruled out of order, which I understand as the question was sub judice. There are serious implications here and I wish to return to the matter to tease out what analysis the Department has done since the ban was lifted. What tonnage of sprat is being caught?

I do not have the figures for the tonnage of sprat, but I will see if I can get that. Sprat is a non-quota species. The Marine Institute would probably have figures and may be able to do a general assessment.

As I said to Deputy Cairns earlier, I am awaiting the final judgment from the Court of Appeal at which point I will decide how I proceed. Obviously, I have outlined my commitment to the six-nautical-mile zone and the prioritisation for smaller vessels. When I get the judgment, I will need to reflect on how I will proceed.

I hope I can benefit from the time the Minister has given up. I appreciate the Minister's bona fides and that he is supportive of this. This policy was announced in 2018 and it was to come into effect in 2019 or 2020 with a three-year stay for the bigger trawlers to allow them adjust. The Minister knows more about this than I do. My difficulty is that while the judgment might have been perfected in October, the Minister has known since July 2020. Given the seriousness of this matter, I have no idea how a stay was not applied for in time, applied for months later, refused, appealed, granted for a period of time and then removed.

This policy was a game changer and was backed by almost all of the approximately 800 submissions made and by all the relevant and important organisations on the ground. Sprat may not be bound by quota, but it is a most important source of food for fish and mammals, and vital for the ecosystem. I know the Minister appreciates the importance of this, but the big trawlers are now going back in to remove sprat unsustainably.

The Minister did not use all his time with the previous reply.

When I appealed this in the Court of Appeal I also applied for a stay on the previous decision removing the ban on the six nautical mile zones. The Court of Appeal allowed the stay at that stage. Maybe six weeks or so ago, the Court of Appeal removed that stay but I am still waiting on its final judgment. My commitment to this is clear and it has been very much informed in the latest period by engagement with the court and the court decisions. As it stands, I must wait for the final detail on the outcome of the appeal and reflect on and decide how to proceed.

The answer to my simple question is also simple. It is that the boats are free to go in and fish unsustainably, taking out as much sprat as they possibly can and as quickly as they can. That is our current position despite a policy decision way back indicating that this was unsustainable. It is despite the rising numbers of sprat being caught in an unsustainable manner in 2021.

Why was this process not fast-tracked or explained to the court? I do not want to get into anything substantive that is sub judice. Why was it not explained to the court that the matter is extremely urgent? We fast-track commercial matters and this is absolutely essential with respect to climate change and biodiversity emergencies and the plight of local fishermen. Yet we have a complete lack of clarity in how the stay was lifted.

I wrote to the Minister's office twice. I do not want to personalise this matter but confusion was allowed to persist so we had to raise it in this manner. When will the judgment be given or what indication has been given from the court in this respect?

Deputy Connolly appreciates these are matters for the court and not for my office to decide. Only the court can give an indication in that regard. As a party to the appeal I cannot give such an indication.

I applied to the court for a stay and this was granted, meaning those large vessels were blocked from coming into the six nautical mile zone while the court was adjudicating on its decision. I applied for a further stay a number of weeks ago and the court did not grant it. That is the legal position and I am awaiting the final outcome of the appeal decision. As the Deputy can see from the court process that was undertaken, the banning of vessels over 18 m from that six nautical mile zone involves a complicated consultation process. That was undertaken under the leadership of the previous Minister, Deputy Michael Creed, who was very committed to this. This was contested in the courts and that is the position we are in today.

Agriculture Industry

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

14. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his plans for the future of the beef task force; and the consideration he has given to extending its remit in order to secure a fair price for beef farmers. [51705/21]

What are the Minister's plans for the future of the beef task force and what consideration has been given to extending its remit in order to secure a fair price for beef farmers? Is the Minister satisfied it has achieved the transparency and equity it set out to achieve?

The beef task force was established on foot of the beef sector agreement of 15 September 2019. Its remit as set out in its terms of reference was to monitor the implementation of the actions arising from that agreement. The task force was to meet at least quarterly from October 2019 for a period of one year after which the task force’s progress was to be reviewed. However, progress was delayed in 2020 due to Covid-19.

As the Deputy may be aware, I requested the independent chair of the task force, Mr. Michael Dowling, to provide a report to me on the progress to date of the task force, which he has done. I will complete my analysis of the final report, after which I will make the necessary decision on future strategic engagement with the sector.

The beef sector agreement contained 38 specific actions. Of these 38 actions, 30 were finite actions that had timelines attached for completion. The remaining eight are ongoing actions, which by their nature are long-term and will continue outside of the context of the beef task force. All documents from the task force meetings, including minutes and updated progress reports, are published on the gov.ie website.

It should be noted that the task force was set up in response to the issues that prevailed in the sector in the late summer of 2019 and had specific actions to address. It is conceivable that it may not be the most suitable vehicle for addressing those that exist in 2021 and beyond. I will make a decision on this shortly. Effective strategic engagement across the beef sector is crucial to its development in an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable way that works for all actors in the supply chain and it must work for farmers in particular.

As the Deputy is aware, the determination of price for beef or any other commodity is a commercial matter. However, the Deputy can be assured that my Department and I will continue to support constructive strategic engagement within the sector, as well as measures aimed at strengthening the supply chain, including support for producer organisations and interventions aimed at supporting productive and environmental efficiency for beef farmers in the future. I am also progressing work to deliver the primary legislation required to established the office of the national food ombudsman, which will have a major role in delivering much-needed transparency for the sector.

One of the key tasks that needs to be undertaken is a comprehensive analysis of the impact of factory-owned feedlots in the market, including their impact on the prices and effect on the environment. Figures released by the Department indicate the numbers originating from feedlots has increased drastically. The number of cattle originating from units with feedlot status during the first eight months of 2021 was 224,000, and that puts this year's potential overall kill for animals originating from controlled finishing units well on course to exceed last year's total of 299,000. Last year's figure was, in itself, 10,500 stronger than the figure for 2019, which was 288,500.

When the beef task force was introduced, I predicted it would be a talking shop. I accept I was wrong and it was not even a talking shop. How it could not meet during the Covid-19 pandemic using Skype, Zoom or Microsoft Teams like the rest of us is beyond me.

I completely agree with Deputy Conway-Walsh about feedlots. This growth of cattle coming out of feedlots is very much at odds with the image of Irish beef that the Minister is rightly seeking to portray abroad. It is an idea of cattle happily roaming the pastures green when in fact they may be in feedlots being fed with concentrates.

The 30-month rule was a main item of contention and must be reviewed. It was initially introduced as a measure against bovine spongiform encephalopathy but now we are told it is now an environmental measure. To finish cattle and particularly continental breeds at 30 months, there is a requirement to be fed with concentrates, possibly in a feedlot. Either way those concentrates have a carbon footprint that must be considered. People are seeking to portray the 30-month rule as an environmental measure but it could have the opposite effect.

The task force did valuable work and it was important in bringing all the stakeholders together. The reports were very important, particularly the transparency reports. I am progressing the legislation for the food ombudsman and I can see it carrying out a role there, bringing that much-needed transparency into the food supply chain.

I will reflect on this and it is important we have a structure for engagement over time, working with all stakeholders in the beef sector. I will reflect on how to step forward with the work and outcomes from the task force. I am grateful to Mr. Michael Dowling for the work he carried out. It was challenging and a really difficult time for the sector when it was set up. He drove on the work and I am grateful to him for taking on the role. Transparency is key in this and that is central to my objectives as Minister.

I thank the Minister. Despite the achievements to date, there is still a clear trend for an ever-increasing share of intensive farming driving out the family farms. That is what we are concerned about in the west of Ireland. The other clear trend over the past number of years is for beef prices to get ever lower. The Minister might say for a moment in time, they have increased, but the continued growth of the factory feedlot presents an existential threat to the Irish beef product. Consumers from all over the world buy it because of the image of the cows and farmers in fields, as has been mentioned, and that type of farming.

If the beef produced in this country continues to come from the factory feedlots, so too will that image and that will damage us in the long term.

It is regrettable that cattle coming from feedlots will benefit from the protected geographical indication, PGI, status applied for by the Minister, if his application is accepted. It will mean farmers who produce cattle in a more traditional way, that are never housed and are outdoors, perhaps in the Burren or wherever, during the winter, and are killed off the land must compete with huge feedlot producers. That is what destroyed agriculture throughout North America and we are letting it happen here.

I invite the Minister to consider the 30-months rule and the real impact it has. To finish cattle at 30 months - certainly in the west of Ireland - such as continentals, one must give them concentrate feed. We do not grow soya. It is shipped in and there is a significant carbon footprint associated with that which is not present with grass-finished cattle at 36 months.

I commend Deputy Conway-Walsh on raising this issue. Will the Minister confirm that the suckler scheme in the next CAP will include preventative measures for farmers who want to increase their suckler herds? If so, that would be the second time a scheme would be introduced that seeks to either reduce or limit suckler production in this State, when a similar measure has never been brought in against more environmentally damaging methods, including the factory feedlots referred to? Such a proposition would be counterproductive and prevent the development of what is our most important sector within agriculture.

I disagree with Deputy McNamara in regard to being able to finish animals under 30 months off grass. That practice is done on many farms.

Is it done without concentrates?

It is done with minimal concentrates and without concentrates. The Deputies have seen in their part of the country that many animals are sold in March and, for ten or 12 weeks, are put through a finishing programme that increases their weight and value. That is certainly a common practice and contributes to the overall value of the animal. To qualify for the PGI grass-fed status, animals will have to be fed on 95% grass diets throughout their life, which is an important aspect, and they will have to meet that criteria.

On Deputy Carthy's point in regard to the new beef carbon efficiency scheme, the first ten cows will receive €150 and €120 thereafter, which is an increase from the €90 and €80 available under the beef data and genomics programme, BDGP. There will not be a limit on the number of cows farmers can keep within that scheme.

Can they expand?

I will set a reference in terms of how many will be paid for, but there will not be a limit on farmers increasing their numbers. This is a matter on which I have engaged with farmers throughout the country. My objective is to fully support the suckler farmer to ensure it remains an anchor of our beef sector, to support family farms, and the scheme I put in place will do that.

Question No. 15 replied to with Written Answers.

Organic Farming

Johnny Guirke

Question:

16. Deputy Johnny Guirke asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the measures that were introduced in budget 2022 to support the organic sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51436/21]

We spoke previously about the organic farm scheme and the specific supports for farmers. Will the Minister of State outline the broader measures she intends to introduce in order to expand the organic sector?

I am delighted to have secured the significant increase in the budget for organic farming in 2022. Funding for the organic farming scheme was increased to €21 million, up from €16 million last year, and €2 million was allocated for further organic sector development measures. This increase is welcome and will certainly address the growing demand from both farmers and consumers for this type of production. The €21 million funding is a doubling of the funding for organics since I took office less than two years.

The Deputies will be aware that the programme for Government contains a commitment to aligned Ireland's organic land area with that of the EU average. At the time of the programme for Government formation talks, that figure was 7.5%, although I appreciate it is higher at present. In assisting the delivery of that commitment through the scheme, I will also progress the implementation of the National Organic Strategy 2019-2025, which sets out ambitious growth targets for the sector by aligning with market opportunities. Engagement with Bord Bia in identifying those opportunities and the opening them up for our producers is crucial.

The additional funding allocated to the opening of the organic farming scheme in 2022 could provide for an additional 50,000 ha of land converted to organic production. This would represent an increase in excess of 50% of the area currently farmed organically. It will take us further along the path to the goal of 7.5% land cover. I encourage all farmers from all sectors to engage with my Department and relevant agencies. Advisory boards will be made available to farmers for information.

My difficulty is that the Minister of State refers to significant increases in funding, and such language, yet she keeps reverting to the pathetic target of 7.5% over the course of the next CAP. There is one magic ingredient that will ensure a substantial over-subscription by farmers to the organic farm scheme, that is, the removal of the anomaly that prevents those on the organic farm scheme from also participating in agri-environmental schemes. With a bit of imagination and flexibility on the part of the Department and the EU, that can be resolved. Will the Minister of State ensure farmers can participate in both the organic farm scheme and the agri-environmental scheme? Both schemes would benefit from a show of flexibility.

I, too, welcome the increase in funding but the problems in the market need to be tackled also. In livestock production, organic farming is not attractive. We know there is a monopoly among a couple of big players in the meat business. They offer a pittance more for organic beef compared to non-organic beef, such that it is not economically worthwhile producing organic beef. One can go to independent abattoirs, however they are - pardon the pun - an increasingly endangered species for a variety of reasons. Only the Minister of State can tackle those reasons.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Senator Pippa Hackett)

On the target, I appreciate it is nowhere near the EU target of 25%. We are coming from an incredibly low base level because of low support for this sector in recent decades. I am getting us on the road to improve that. It is my hope, if we hit those targets by the end of this CAP, the door will be open to ramp them up in the next CAP.

Organic farmers are not excluded from agri-environmental schemes. Sometimes the Commission rules and the regulations limit double payments on the same land for essentially the same measures, which is the issue. Organic farmers are invited to apply for and are at the top of the list to get into agri-environmental schemes. It depends on the design of that and is a matter I will consider in the next round of CAP negotiations.

The Minister of State can say the farmers are not prevented from applying to agri-environmental schemes but the reality has been that it has been virtually impossible for them to enter both schemes under the previous CAP and is a matter that needs to be addressed.

The Minister of State referred to Bord Bia. There is a recognition that Bord Bia and Teagasc have a huge role to play in the research and marketing of organic produce, if this sector is to expand and become successful. I am not sure whether I trust either organisation to do that unilaterally. There must be pressure applied and the budgets of both organisations must be ring-fenced to indicate that they need to reflect the level of ambition that the rhetoric suggests is there, in order that specific marketing and research budgets are assigned for organics. Will the Minister of State consider this?

I have engaged closely with Bord Bia and Teagasc. It is my priority to direct those agencies to increase what they do for organics with regards to Teagasc's research and advisory role and Bord Bia's marketing of organic produce, including domestic marketing, which is important.

This relates to the previous comments on market opportunities, particularly for livestock farmers. I know organic producers. Some take the factory route while others look at a more local base and command a very significant price for their animals. With regard to supports for connecting local food producers to local consumers, there is great scope in that area. I would like to see that explored through Bord Bia and in other ways.