Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

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Food Industry

Matt Carthy

Question:

1. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine when he will introduce legislation to establish an enforcement authority as per the unfair trading practices Directive; if the legislation will provide for a meat regulator; and the powers that will be within the remit of the authority.. [60436/21]

When does the Minister intend to bring forward the long-promised legislation to create an enforcement authority, a food ombudsman or a meat regulator, as I would prefer, as per the unfair trading practices directive? Does he have a sense of the powers he intends to confer on that authority?

I am committed to bringing much-needed transparency to the food sector. The Deputy will be aware the programme for Government includes a commitment for a new office of a national food ombudsman or equivalent to enforce the unfair trading practices, UTP, directive and to have a role in analysing and reporting on price and market data in Ireland. The establishment of such an office requires primary legislation, which we are progressing.

The Deputy may also be aware that Directive 2019/633 on unfair trading practices in the agricultural and food supply chain, which involves, as the Deputy noted, the establishment of an enforcement authority, was required to be transposed into national law by 1 May 2021. I am happy to advise him that in April this year, before that deadline, I signed a statutory instrument to transpose the directive directly into Irish law and establish the enforcement authority.

I have established a UTP enforcement authority in my Department as an interim measure pending the finalisation of the primary legislation being prepared to establish the new office. However, I assure the Deputy the enforcement authority has been assigned all of the necessary legal powers to investigate complaints from suppliers, including primary producers, to carry out investigations on its own initiative and to initiate legal proceedings for breaches of the UTPs defined in the directive. The authority is undertaking an awareness-raising campaign on the UTP regulations and is engaging with relevant stakeholders in the agricultural and food products supply chain.

With regard to the establishment of the new office of food ombudsman or regulator, preparations for the general scheme of the Bill for the primary legislation are well advanced, and I hope to bring a memo to the Government on the issue early in the new year. Once the primary legislation has been finalised and the new office established, the enforcement authority functions will transfer to it in line with the programme for Government commitments. In the meantime, it is open to suppliers to engage with the enforcement authority on any concerns they may have in regard to unfair trading practices.

Increasing transparency throughout the supply chain is something I believe is very important. The new office will have a specific role in analysing and reporting on price and market data in Ireland, including, importantly, for the meat sector.

The unfair trading practices legislation and the issue we referred to has been listed in the legislative agenda of the autumn, the spring, the summer and the autumn again, but it does not seem to have been prioritised to the same extent as other legislation that was announced much later but delivered much sooner. In May, in response to a question, the Minister told us the legislation would be before us by the end of this year. He is now saying he plans to bring a heads of Bill to the Government in the early part of 2022. HIs response indicates he recognises the importance of an authority having strong teeth in terms of enforcement powers, but it has to be asked why there has been a delay up to this point. The consultation process was completed several months ago. People are now asking themselves when they are going to see the meat and the bones, if I can put it that way.

There is a tremendous thirst within the agrifood sector, particularly among farmers, to ensure transparency will be brought to the food supply chain. I have taken that very seriously since I was appointed and, as the Deputy pointed out, I completed a consultation process, which he contributed to, at the end of the summer. Over the course of the autumn and into winter, much work has been ongoing within the Department to put in place the framework and the preparatory work for that legislation. I have kept Cabinet updated on progress on it. I plan to go to the Government with a memo at the start of next year, from where I will bring forward the legislation.

In budget 2022, I allocated €4 million in the Estimates for the establishment of the new office. The UTP enforcement authority in place within the Department is an important interim measure but its functions will come under the auspices of the new food ombudsman or regulator once the office has been established on a legal basis. It will be important for the sector in the years ahead.

It would be useful if the Minister could elaborate on the work that enforcement authority is doing. In May, the unit had three full-time equivalent posts, filled by four staff. Progress was being made on appointing a head of unit but by September and through October, it had only two full-time equivalent staff, again with the promise of a head of unit. It has not received, as far as I am aware, or initiated a single case and not €1 has been spent, other than on the staff costs. The €4 million budget allocation is, of course, welcome but it will be meaningless unless it is used with good effect. The Minister referred to our consultation, in which we outlined the need for an independent meat regulator with real teeth to tackle unfair trading practices and other cartel-like behaviours.

Will the Minister elaborate on what the unit is doing and whether, in its current guise, it has the ability to challenge processers for unfair trading practices?

The role of the enforcement authority within my Department, which has been place since May, is to enforce the unfair trading practices directive and other directives that are in place at European level. It has undertaken over recent weeks and months a significant engagement process with those in the food supply chain and those who will be affected by the unfair trading practices directive to inform them of the responsibilities on them to ensure that fair play, proper regulations and structures are in place in their engagement with all suppliers.

In the context of the unfair trading practices directive and any practices that in any way undermine the relationship with suppliers, the authority ensures there is absolute clarity on the responsibilities on all those within the supply chain. Similarly, it ensures suppliers are aware of the opportunity to make a complaint to the enforcement authority too. All of this will be transferred to the new regulator or ombudsman's office once it has been established next year.

Forestry Sector

Seán Sherlock

Question:

2. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the number of afforestation licences that were issued for the entire industry in November 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [60836/21]

I understand Deputy Bacik is taking this question. I have no difficulty with that but I remind Deputies there has to be notification of the change in advance.

I apologise. I am asking this question on behalf of Deputy Sherlock. How many afforestation licences were issued for the entire industry in November of this year and will the Minister of State make a statement on matter? This is in the context of concerns about delays and shortfalls in the issuing of licences for afforestation. There is concern targets will not be met and that this will have an impact on us meeting our ambitious but necessary climate action targets.

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

Tackling the backlog in forestry licences remains a key priority for me and the Department.

I am pleased to report that significant progress has been made in the past year, particularly on felling and roads. However, afforestation is a crucial part of this and we are actively addressing it all the time. Regarding the prioritisation of afforestation licences in recent times, in the month of November, 50 afforestation licences were issued and the total to date for the year stands at 476. We have dedicated more ecologists to deliver afforestation licences. Investment in resources and continued improvements have had a positive impact with a significant increase in licensing output across the board. This has brought our total licensing output this year to 3,718 and my officials tell me that we will meet our target of 4,000 licences by the year end, which will be a 60% increase on last year. Our road licensing output for this year will be double the target set for us in the climate action plan. The volume of timber licensed will be approximately 8 million cu. m this year. This is 60% higher than last year and the highest volume ever licensed in a single year.

There are many issues in the system that still have to be fixed. We are working on that and the establishment of Project Woodland has that as one of its chief aims, as well as looking at the future model for forestry and a fit-for-purpose, multifunctional strategy for forestry for the future.

I thank the Minister of State for the update and the confirmation of figures. The number in November appears to be very low if we are to meet the target of 4,500 licences by the end of this year. She might elaborate on how many she anticipates will be issued this month. The Minister of State also acknowledged that there are still many issues to fix. We are hearing concerns about delays and bureaucratic obstacles, such as applicants being asked for Natura impact statements even though they have already proposed forestry plans. It is welcome to hear that more ecologists have been appointed, but there is still a concern about whether we will meet targets.

The Minister of State referred to Project Woodland. I would like to know more about the nature of the forestry licences that are issued and how that impacts on the biodiversity crisis we are facing along with the climate crisis. Will the preponderance be native woodland and native tree species? Will there be an emphasis on that rather than the emphasis we have seen for far too long on commercial species?

The target is 4,000 licences by the end of the year. It was originally 4,500 at the start of the year, but a statutory instrument introduced for the Department out of the blue in the middle of the year set us back by about two months during the summer. We were on course up to June with a sizeable increase in licensing output. It was low in July and August but we picked up the pace again in September. It has been acknowledged that it put our original target out of reach. We adjusted the target during the summer to 4,000 and we are confident we will meet it.

As regards the future strategy for forestry, we will undertake an extensive public consultation, including having focus groups. That work has started already. Irish Rural Link is engaging with communities, particularly those most affected. We have to examine what the future of forestry looks like, how it fits with communities, how it provides amenities, how it delivers for the timber sector, which is a crucial part, and helps us meet our climate and biodiversity targets.

I welcome the acknowledgement that the target has been reduced to 4,000. As recently as August, it was still being publicly spoken of as 4,500. I also welcome the Minister of State's outline of the public consultation. What has been lacking to date, and the Minister of State has acknowledged this previously, is a co-ordinated, joined-up afforestation policy that fits within our ambitious but necessary climate action targets and within the climate action plan. I have spoken a number of times to the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about the lack, to date, of publication of the detailed annexe with timelines that was to accompany the climate action plan to outline how to meet the targets for forestry, biodiversity and other matters. The latest figures I have from the forestry licensing dashboard show that the total number of afforested hectares is 3,498, but it is over 24,000 for felling. We are cutting down more trees than we are planting. We are felling more trees and granting more licences to fell than we are granting licences to plant. Indeed, Deputy Sherlock told me that for every acre of forestry we plant, we are cutting approximately 6.7 acres, so that has to change if we are to meet those targets.

With regard to the Deputy's last point, any land that is felled is replanted so it is not a net loss of area planted unless there are circumstances in which the land must not be planted, perhaps if it was planted in the wrong location originally. On the whole, the vast majority of lands that are felled are replanted.

I accept and agree with the Deputy that a joined-up policy is needed for forestry for the future. I appreciate her support for a public consultation. We will extend that, and between now and the new year we will hopefully see that activated with much engagement across the country. The annexe to actions on the climate action plan will be due very shortly, before the end of the year. That will give more detail and give people something to check against to see if the Government is delivering in that regard. It will be useful for everyone.

Agriculture Industry

Matt Carthy

Question:

3. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he plans to provide for an audit of the carbon storage and capture of each farm in the State in order to allow farmers to be rewarded for good practice and improvements into the future. [60437/21]

There has been much talk about the role of agriculture in respect of our climate action targets. The most common question farmers ask is what this will mean for them. It would be useful if it were possible to carry out a full audit of the carbon storage and capture that is taking place on every farm in order to reward farmers who are involved in good practices and to encourage others to follow suit. Is that something the Minister intends to pursue?

I thank the Deputy for a very pertinent and relevant question.

As part of the commitments set out in the climate action plan 2021, we are exploring the development of a carbon farming model with the potential for trading and which rewards farmers for emissions reductions and removals, including through potential private sector investment. Such an approach will require the establishment of baseline data, auditing, the development of voluntary carbon codes, leveraging of private financing through public-private partnerships and putting in place governance structures. The development of a carbon farming model of this nature would require the establishment of baselines to ensure that measures taken on farms deliver the additionality required and that farmers are recognised and rewarded for the improvements they have made.

I have provided funding for initiatives such as the establishment of the national agricultural soil carbon observatory, the pilot soil sampling programme and the farm environmental scheme, along with a number of European innovation partnership, EIP, research projects, to provide the required data for the development of future policy options in this area. The approach I am taking is in line with the EU’s policy direction and I will look forward to further direction in the Commission’s communication on sustainable carbon cycles, which is due on 14 December.

Carbon farming is an area that will become a crucial part of the future of farming in this country. This will be an opportunity for farmers to derive a new income stream for their farm and I will drive this very exciting opportunity forward at every turn. I look forward to engagement, co-operation and support across the House for something that can be of tremendous benefit to farmers over the years ahead, as well as being important for our emissions reduction targets.

The Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine held a number of informative hearings on these issues because it is an area in which we all will admit that we are still learning. I asked this specific question regarding the baseline studies as to whether it is possible to carry out a farm-by-farm analysis and audit so each farmer would have a clear view of what sequestration, storage and emission is taking place on his or her farm and the farmer can then trade or be rewarded for improvements in that regard. Essentially, the response from the Department's officials and Teagasc was that this would prove to be incredibly difficult and challenging. We accept that. The Devenish Global Innovation Centre in County Meath indicated that it was very doable if there was the political will.

The value of having something like this can be seen. The issue we need to overcome is the viability of being able to do it in the short term. Farmers are today carrying out measures to reduce emissions, but we need to ensure that is recognised, not only this year but in years to come.

There are two aspects to this, one of which is developing the tools to be able to measure additional sequestration. Teagasc is doing significant research work on how to assess that. I have provided it with the funding to do that. Flux towers across the country are assessing in detail what is happening at farm level, what is going into the soil, what is coming out of it, and developing a toolkit to be able to implement it on a more widespread basis.

Along the lines of what the Deputy is suggesting, I announced the soil sampling scheme some weeks ago. I have invested €10 million in the scheme this year and it will continue next year. That is about having an assessment at farm level to establish the baselines for carbon content in soil and organic matter in soil. It is important for that to happen on all farms in the coming years. Once we have the toolkit to measure how additional sequestration is captured, we can develop the monetisation of that carbon sequestration and provide a return to farmers for it. It is important work with great potential and something we are developing.

One of the great travesties of Irish farming, particularly when we are talking about climate action, is that those farms which are richest in biodiversity, which are doing most on carbon sequestration and which are causing least pollution are also the least profitable farms in the State. We need to ensure we do not repeat our mistakes. I have lost count of the number of people who have pointed out to me things which they were paid to do on their farms and which now they are being paid to undo. The important work farmers are carrying out today, whether that be in afforestation, moving to organics, improving hedgerows, planting trees or reducing nitrate inputs, needs to be recognised for a long time to come. However, we cannot reward something if we cannot measure it. I ask the Minister to prioritise this area to ensure all farmers, those who are carbon neutral - there are some - and those whose emissions are higher than they need to be, are audited and those who change practice for the better are rewarded.

It is important that farms already making a significant contribution to carbon sequestration and biodiversity are recognised and rewarded. The CAP plan this time around is structured to have eco schemes to reward existing good practice. For example, the 7% of space for nature within Pillar 1 in the eco schemes already recognises good practice. Farms that use less chemical nitrogen are also recognised in the eco schemes. Pillar 2 is about rewarding additional actions to build on that. We will have a blend and a balance - rewarding existing good practice and incentivising and monetising measures in the time ahead. The Deputy has made his views on the issue clear today. We can all agree on the importance of this matter over the time ahead.

Bord Bia

Denis Naughten

Question:

4. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine further to Parliamentary Question No. 384 of 4 November 2021, if he will provide the Bord Bia reconciliation figure that it uses to match quality assured at slaughter with quality assured meat sold from plants; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [60434/21]

In a previous reply to me, the Minister said that the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine does not categorise cattle slaughtering by quality assured or non-quality assured, track whether a bonus is paid to farmers or track the tonnage of quality-assured beef exported. As the Minister comes from Donegal, he will know from first-hand, as many of us do, that if something is not monitored it does not happen. Why does he want suckler farmers to sign up to the Bord Bia quality assurance scheme?

While the Department has policy responsibility for Bord Bia, questions on operational issues, such as the matter referenced, should be directed to Bord Bia for response.

My Department does not categorise cattle slaughtering by quality assured or non-quality assured, or track whether a bonus is paid. This is a commercial transaction between the farmer and the meat processor. However, Bord Bia has confirmed that the vast majority of all beef processed in Ireland comes from quality-assured farms.

Overall, there is great value in the quality assurance structure, which enables us to market our beef abroad. It gives assurance to customers as to provenance and how the product is produced. That will become increasingly important in the coming years to maintain the markets we have and develop new ones. Bord Bia will be engaging with processors and farmers on that. The more ways we can show a monetary return to farmers at all levels whether they are selling sucklers or finished cattle to the factory and the more ways it can be directly translated into the price that farmers are getting, the better. We need continuing engagement on and assessment of that.

It helps in selling our product internationally to give assurance to customers about exactly how it was produced and the steps taken at farm level. Having a verification audit of quality assurance strengthens our overall product. It has been an important plank on which we have developed our beef sector over recent years.

In an earlier response this morning, the Minister spoke about transparency in the food chain. I have asked him a very straightforward question. We all know how oral parliamentary questions are compiled. His failure to furnish that information here clearly indicates that he is not being given that information from Bord Bia. It brings into question the whole ethos behind the marketing, promotion and sale of Irish beef once it leaves this country. Clearly, quality assurance is not being prioritised by the meat plants. It is not being prioritised in terms of getting a return to the farmer. It seems to me that the quality assurance bonus that farmers are getting is the base price and those who are not achieving the Bord Bia standards are facing cuts in the prices they are being paid.

We need to recognise the importance of quality assurance. As the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, will attest, in the meetings we have with existing customers for Irish beef we see how important quality assurance and providing verification to their customers are for them in making purchasing decisions. It is an important aspect of the offering we have. That is why it is important we continue to develop it and continue to ensure that as many farmers as possible partake in it and are quality assured. It is also important to get continued acceptance from farmers as to the value of it. It also needs to be worthwhile through a monetary return to farmers. As Minister, I very much understand that. I will continue to engage with all stakeholders in the sector to ensure that the importance of quality assurance is made clear. We also need to look at every option available to ensure that farmers are rewarded for their participation.

I accept the importance of providing that verification to customers. However, the Minister has been asked to provide that verification to Parliament and he cannot do that. There is something fundamentally wrong with the system if he cannot provide Parliament with the figures that he says are being provided to customers. They are being provided to customers but not to the elected representatives of every farmer throughout the country. That is fundamentally flawed.

The Minister is asking suckler farmers to sign up to the Bord Bia quality assurance scheme. As he knows, the vast majority of suckler farmers do not finish cattle. They do not get a quality assurance payment for culled cows which is usually the only animals they bring to a processing facility.

Why then is the Minister asking them to do this now? Will he explain why the Bord Bia quality assurance scheme does not transfer from farm to farm? They have to be left for 60 days. It seems to me that when a carcase spends 60 minutes in the back of a truck, it is quality assured.

On the new carbon suckler beef efficiency scheme, for which I increased funding for participating farmers from €90 to €150 on the first ten animals, I have set a condition regarding participation in the quality assurance scheme. The reason is that it enhances the overall offering and strength of our beef sector. It also enhances its marketability and, thus, its profitability. It takes everyone working together collaboratively to achieve that. I know it can sometimes be hard for individual farmers to see that. Everyone benefits from our sector being strong overall, and from the offering we have being strong and by getting hold of those markets and maximising the value of beef overall. That benefits everyone at farm level, be it a suckler farmer or a finisher, and that is important. I have taken this step to encourage more to go down that avenue because it will add to the overall strength of the sector.

Fishing Industry

Pádraig MacLochlainn

Question:

5. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he will clarify his understanding of the full financial loss to the Irish fishing fleet in 2021 arising from the blocking of access to the fleet to its traditional fishing grounds around Rockall; the status of the negotiations with the British Government to resolve this dispute; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [60587/21]

It is now almost a year since the British authorities blocked fishermen from Ireland from accessing their traditional fishing grounds around Rockall. It is absolutely outrageous that, after almost a year, this has not been resolved. Will the Minister clarify the financial loss to our fleets, including in Greencastle, Killybegs and Castletownbere, from the outrageous ongoing action taken by the British Government?

I thank Deputy Mac Lochlainn for the question. As he knows, this issue is very important to me and is one on which I have worked very hard, with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, to make progress. I know it is an issue for Donegal fishers, particularly those in Greencastle and Killybegs. It has been an important and strategic fishery for many years and one which we value very much and seek to protect.

I received the report of the seafood task force, Navigating Change, in October. The task force estimated that the total squid fishery around Rockall is valued at about €6.6 million based on 2019 landings, and the total impact of the loss of that squid and other fisheries at €7.7 million. I launched a Brexit temporary fleet tie-up scheme in September this year on foot of the task force recommendation. The scheme was established as a targeted measure for certain segments of the fishing fleet to mitigate the loss of income in 2021 arising from the significant quota reductions under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, or Brexit agreement. In line with the task force recommendations, I extended this scheme for an additional month to cover vessels that could not participate in the Rockall squid fishery.

In relation to Rockall, Ireland has never made any claims to Rockall, nor has it ever recognised British sovereignty claims to Rockall. Accordingly, we have not recognised a 12 nautical mile territorial sea around it either. This remains the position of the Government.

The Government has been in contact with the relevant Scottish and UK authorities on Rockall in recent years and intensively so since the beginning of the year. Through this engagement, the Government is seeking to address the issues involved, reflecting the long-standing fisheries tradition we have in this area. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, Deputy Coveney, as well as our respective officials, continue to consider all options for further engagement on the issues involved and are working closely together. While engagement continues, there remains an increased risk of enforcement action being taken by Scottish fisheries control authorities against Irish vessels operating in waters around Rockall at present.

The Minister knows the profound injustice that was delivered on our fleet arising from the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the Brexit agreement. For the British authorities to block fishermen from the North and South of this island from accessing their traditional fishery grounds at the loss of millions of euro is an absolute outrage. I just do not feel the anger from the Government. If this happened to Macron and the French fishermen, there would be serious high-level engagements, threats of sanctions and so on. This must be escalated a year on. I have received repeated responses from the Minister for Foreign Affairs around dialogue and discussions. When the Maritime Jurisdiction Act went through the House earlier this year, I said to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, that we were again conceding Rockall to the British authorities. The fact that this issue has not been resolved is evidence that we have conceded British control over Rockall. Until I see decisive action from the Government, I will not be convinced otherwise.

My commitment to this is absolute. I am working with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, in every way possible to ensure we resolve this issue diplomatically. Access to the fisheries around Rockall is strategically important to the Irish fleet and we are determined to maintain it. It has always been a traditional fishery for us. We continue to work to resolve this. I understand the importance of this to fishermen, our national sector and, in particular, Donegal fishers, be they in Greencastle or Killybegs. In recognition of the income impact of the squid fishery in particular, which is inside the 12-mile zone, I put in place income support for fishers affected by that this year. That is important.

My objective is to ensure we have and maintain access to that area and continue to fish within it in the future. In working with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and his Department, the Department and I are taking every step we possibly can to achieve that. I am also maintaining close contact with the fishers concerned regarding the efforts we are making.

Here are the facts: the British have control of more than 75% of the fish in their waters now. We have been given access to 15% of fish in Irish waters, under the Common Fisheries Policy. The British now have 75% of the fish in their waters. How in the hell can it be justified that they would also keep us out of Rockall, an area with traditional fishing grounds for Donegal fishermen and, indeed, fishermen from Castletownbere? It is sickening that we have allowed this to happen for a year. They have control of 75% of the fish in British waters, while we have 15% of the fish in our waters. How can it be that this continues to be allowed to happen? Why is the Taoiseach not bringing this matter to the level of Boris Johnson? I asked if this would happen with Macron. It would never have happened with France. Why are we allowing this to continue a year on?

As the Deputy knows, throughout the Brexit campaign, one of the reasons Boris Johnson and his colleagues advocated for leaving the EU was to take back control of their waters and fish. Despite the fact that they have now left the European Union, the agreement reallocates 25% of what international fleets catch in their waters in the coming years. Some 75% of what the EU, including Ireland, caught in British waters prior to Brexit will still be caught afterwards, despite the fact that they pressed the nuclear button and left the European Union, and will continue to have access to each other's waters.

There is obviously a particular challenge around Rockall. It continues to be a point of disagreement between us, about which we hold very fast to our traditional rights. We assert those rights strongly and are determined to ensure we maintain them. We are taking every action and intervention possible to ensure the matter is addressed.