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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 10 Feb 2022

Vol. 1017 No. 7

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Questions Nos. 104 and 105 replied to with Written Answers.

Agriculture Schemes

Seán Canney

Question:

107. Deputy Seán Canney asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the reason farmers who make simple errors in online applications are not having their problems rectified within his Department’s appeals process, including, for example, farmers who fail to tick an areas of natural constraint, ANC, box on a basic payment scheme, BPS, application, who are not having this simple matter rectified by the section involved on appeal; if his attention has been drawn to the number of farmers who have lost significant amounts of funding as a result of this inflexibility; if a review will be conducted into the number of such instances; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5968/22]

I raise a very simple but important issue for farmers. When they make an application for their grants and entitlements, they may run into a situation where they make a human error or tick the wrong box and there is no chance to rectify such errors. In some cases, including in my constituency of Galway East, a large number of farmers are being penalised for simple errors.

I thank the Deputy for his question. At the outset, it should be noted that Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, payments are governed by EU regulations and are subject to rigorous audit and control by the European Commission. That is a central aspect of this issue. The basic payment scheme application process has been streamlined over many years to ensure as quick, efficient and responsive a process as possible and, most importantly, prompt payment for farmers. The application process is reviewed annually to make it as clear and straightforward as possible.

Every effort is being made by the Department to improve the quality of applications, with the aim of lowering reductions and administrative penalties, as well as allowing errors to be resolved and payments to be issued in good time. The basic payment system, which is an online application system, usually opens for applications in mid-February and it closes mid-May. The system provides a step-by-step process with warnings to ensure the application is submitted, as much as is possible, free of errors. Farmers can correct errors on their applications online up until the end of May without penalty. Late amendments are also accepted online up to mid-June with a penalty. Farmers are permitted to correct obvious and innocent errors at any time after the end of May. However, it should be noted that amendments are not possible if the farmer has already been informed of irregularities in their application or has been given notice of an upcoming on-the-spot inspection, or if an on-the-spot inspection reveals irregularities in their application. A further process, known as preliminary checks, alerts applicants to errors on land issues such as overclaims, overlaps and dual claims. These preliminary checks allow applicants to amend certain errors quickly, thereby avoiding penalties.

Applicants are requested to tick a box to confirm if they wish to apply for the ANC scheme each year. It is a requirement that the applicant must make a declaration that they are applying for this scheme and will comply with the terms and conditions. If an applicant does not tick the box to apply for ANC initially, and if they received payment under this scheme in the previous scheme year, they are presented with an additional pop-up warning under the heading, “Do you wish to apply for ANC?”. This warning advises that they had received a payment in previous years and requests them to select from one of two options, "I want to apply for ANC" or "I do not want to apply for ANC". The warnings and reminders are to ensure applicants are fully aware of the schemes they are or are not applying for. I will supply a further answer in next my response.

I thank the Minister for the comprehensive response. What is missing here is that some farmers, including some in my own constituency, are not very computer-literate or experienced. They often make a mistake, which may not be rectified or is an obvious mistake that was made in human error. We need flexibility within the Department and from the officials to try to ensure as many farmers as possible who are entitled to their grants and entitlements will get them. We should not say, "we will give it to you if you are correct and if you are not, goodbye to you". Some farmers are trying to appeal these issues, which, again, is cumbersome. I know a farmer who made a mistake but was afraid to tell anybody about it. He went without the entitlements until his accountants saw it on his accounts. Therefore, it is important that we use discretion and flexibility to ensure nobody who is entitled to these grants is left out.

I thank Deputy Canney. I take on board the points that he is making. I appreciate his authenticity in setting out his personal experience of the challenge he has experienced in his role as Deputy in supporting farmers.

The warnings I have described serve as reminders to ensure applicants are aware of the schemes they are applying for. Experience of EU audits has shown it is clear that consideration of mistakes as obvious errors can only apply after an application has been made by the farmer.

The instance outlined in the Deputy’s question, whereby an application has not been made, must be treated as a late application rather than an error within an existing application. If a farmer does not apply for the ANC scheme by the relevant date, it is treated as a late application rather than as an obvious error. Responsibility to apply for the scheme rests with the applicant, who has 25 working days after the closing date to make a late application. A sliding scale of reductions applies through that 25-day period. In limited cases, late applications can be considered under specific force majeure exceptional circumstance grounds. The obligation is on the beneficiary to notify the Department in writing of the occurrence of such an event. We received 106 appeals to the Department in relation to the non-submission of ANC applications for 2021. They are considered on a case-by-case basis.

I reiterate that while the Minister says all of these measures are in place for farmers, many farmers around this country are losing out because they are not competent in the process of submitting applications. They are not given the human support that is required by the Department. It is very much a case of you are right or you are not. If you are not right or you do not tick the box right, you end up being penalised heavily. This is the kernel of it.

I put in a parliamentary question to request that the European auditors who look at this would give a presentation to Deputies to see exactly how they think things could be improved. This is needed to ensure as many farmers as possible throughout the country, including those in my constituency of Galway East, will benefit and get the entitlements they deserve and need in order to survive.

Like the Deputy, I want to avoid farmers losing out because ANC payments are important for them. When farmers miss out on them, it is quite significant for them in that particular year. Every effort is made within the application process and structure to ensure it is clear whether the farmer is applying for this payment and to provide a reminder if the farmer is not applying for it. If a farmer does not apply as part of their BPS application, they have not applied for the ANC scheme. However, a 25-day period is provided afterwards in which to make late application. I will review the process in advance of May of this year. I will consider whether there is any way to look further at prompting farmers. We do not want this situation. We want those who apply for an ANC payment to qualify for it. We want them to apply. We want to use every safeguard we can to ensure they do that and we avoid these situations. I will look at it again. However, the intention is to ensure that the system is as smooth and as easy to use as possible for farmers and, ultimately, that they get paid as quickly as possible afterwards.

We will go back to Question No. 106.

Forestry Sector

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

106. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the number of planting, felling and road licences issued for forestry operations in each of the past five years; the volume of timber licensed for felling; the number of hectares licensed for planting; the length of road granted permission for construction in each year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6339/22]

I apologise to the Minister of State, as I got caught out there. I was watching the television screen and two people did not turn up. I thought I had seen Deputy Sherlock here earlier.

The whole issue of forestry is contentious, given the huge delays in the issuing of licences. I am looking for information that would give me an indication of the trends in relation to planting, felling and the provision of roads. There are many complaints that not enough licences are being issued and there are too many delays. We need to get a grip on this. Licensing should not be the controlling factor in either planting or felling.

Forestry licensing output in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine was seriously affected by court judgments and their interpretation, which led to a much more onerous appropriate assessment procedure, as well as the need for ecological input for the majority of licences. This was reflected in the decreased number of licences that were issued in 2020. In order to address the delays which had arisen due to these changed circumstances, the Department invested heavily in additional resources and in process improvements to increase licence output. This has had the desired effect, with a marked increase in the number of licences issued last year, at 4,050 forestry licences. This figure included 2,877 felling licences, at a volume of nearly 8.5 million cu. m, which was a record volume for a single year.

Forest roads approvals for 264 km are more than double the target set in the 2019 climate action plan. The detailed statistics that the Deputy has asked for have been provided in writing. We are aware of the need to increase the number of afforestation licences. That is why this is the main focus of our 2022 licence plan, whereby we plan to issue 30% more licences overall than last year. In the case of afforestation, output will be over 100% higher than it was last year.

Of more concern to everybody should be the continued decline in afforestation applications. Reversing this trend requires a concerted effort from everyone who has an interest in seeing more trees planted in Ireland. Next year will be an important year for farmers, with the arrival of a new CAP and new forestry programme. It is important that the benefits of afforestation are well understood by them.

My Department is, as always, ready to play its part and to assist in improving communications. We understand that improved licensing output has a role to play, hence the importance attached to improving licence output in 2022. I reiterate that positive messaging around the benefits of afforestation is the responsibility of all, particularly those who have a direct line of communication to farmers and land owners.

I thank the Minister of State for the reply and I look forward to getting the tables. Planting, or afforestation as the Minister of State is calling it, is hugely important. I would divide it into two sectors, one of which is the production of timber for the commercial sector. The Minister of State might give me an indication of what we would have to plant in order to allow us even to continue with the kind of milling industry that we have, which is so important for our exports.

Added to that is the planting that will be required to reach the targets for broadleaves, most of which do not have the same attraction for the timber milling industry. There are two sectors here and it is not a case of one against the other. It should be one plus the other. I ask the Minister of State to outline what must be done now so that in 30 or 40 years we have the supply to ensure that what is a very valuable and thriving timber industry will continue, while also having enough broadleaf trees to achieve our climate targets.

I agree that it is important to have a multi-functioning forestry strategy and system in Ireland. I reassure the Deputy that every felling licence issued comes with a requirement to reforest the land. It is sometimes said we fell more than we plant but felling licences come with a reforestation commitment so the actual area involved can be a little unclear. However, the Deputy can be assured that we are growing our forestry area year on year.

The commercial timber sector is a vital part of what we do, particularly for rural economies, and that is set to continue and to grow. We have made all sorts of commitments I would like to see come to fruition as regards the use of timber in house-building. The future is bright for that sector but we need to get things right so the system is fully functional for those applicants.

I accept what the Minister of State is saying about felling licences and planting but it is not quite that simple. Some of what is being felled, such as Sitka spruce and so on, is being replaced by broadleaves, which have a longer period of growth and are not the timber sought by most of the commercial mills. As the Minister of State has noted, because of the nature of where forests tend to be in this country, most of them require ecological surveys for felling licences. Taking into account those surveys, how long does it take, on average, from when someone applies for a planting or felling licence until he or she gets the actual licence? What is the average length of time? Is that fairly steady? One of the big problems inhibiting planting is uncertainty. People are not going to do something if the process is as long as a piece of string.

We spent a lot of time discussing how the Department would get to the point of issuing 100 licences per week. Around September, the Department started to hit that target on a regular basis. That was never supposed to be the upper limit but it appears it is, as a target has been set for 5,200-odd licences to be issued this year. The lack of ambition and imagination within the Department is frustrating. We need to do much better than we are currently doing. The Minister of State said she is contacting people who have afforestation licences and are not using them. When will those letters be issued? I have raised this on numerous occasions. It is lunacy that those people have not been engaged with. I was under the impression that, based on what both the Minister of State and the Minister have said, that work commenced some time ago. Is the Minister of State saying that has happened or that it is happening? That is an important point of clarification.

On Deputy Ó Cuív's question, I do not have the specific timelines with regard to licensing applications but it is taking longer than we would like. As a ballpark figure, it takes around ten or 11 months for a licence to be issued after someone applies. Some people get them sooner if everything is straightforward and it takes longer for more complex applications. We are working to bring that time down and we have been bringing it down over the past year or so. It is not quite where we want it to be but we are working hard to get there.

On contacting the applicants, we are talking about approximately 450 individuals with licences to afforest. I do not have the details as to when the letters were sent or will be sent but I will find out and let the Deputy know. As a matter of interest, there are about 4,000 ha associated with those licences and those applications so it is a significant amount of land. Again, we urge people to utilise their licences as soon as they can after they get them.

Questions Nos. 108 and 109 replied to with Written Answers.

Common Agricultural Policy

Sorca Clarke

Question:

110. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the proposals within the CAP strategic plan to support women in agriculture. [7002/22]

I am asking this question on behalf of Deputy Clarke. It relates to the proposals within the CAP strategic plan to support women in agriculture. I thank my colleague Deputy Clarke for submitting this question. I commend the women in agriculture stakeholders group, which is relatively new but has clearly had an impact. There have been positive changes with regard to increasing the age limit for support from the enhanced targeted agriculture modernisation scheme, TAMS, and increasing the role of knowledge transfer groups and European innovation partnerships, EIPs. A clarification on how those changes will roll out would be helpful.

I thank Deputies Carthy and Clarke. The programme for Government recognised the need to do more on gender equality and includes a commitment to developing and implementing a new strategy for women and girls. Gender equality is a core principle of the European Union and improving gender balance, gender equality and increasing the participation of women in farming are, for the first time, part of the objectives for CAP strategic plans. The strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, SWOT, analysis in preparation for Ireland’s CAP strategic plan identified gender inequality as a weakness, while the economic benefit of increasing female participation was identified as an opportunity.

The needs assessment for the CAP strategic plan points to the need to increase opportunities for women in agriculture and business development. I have engaged extensively with stakeholders, including the women in agriculture group, on the future of CAP and on issues such as supports to promote gender equality. This has resulted in some innovative proposals to promote gender equality in the draft CAP strategic plan for Ireland. The package of measures includes, for the first time, an increased rate of grant aid of 60% for women farmers aged 40-66 years under the capital investment scheme; women-only knowledge transfer groups; and a call under the EIP initiative for proposals to examine women’s participation in agriculture.

Ireland's CAP strategic plan was submitted for approval to the European Commission on 31 December 2021 with a view to commencing delivery in 2023. Engagement with the CAP consultative committee and through bilateral meetings with the main representative bodies, including the women in agriculture stakeholders group which has been a very positive influence on this, will continue during this time and will provide updates on progress. In addition, the new stakeholder-led strategy for the Irish agrifood sector, Food Vision 2030, recognises the important contribution of women to the sector's long-term sustainability and includes a number of actions to promote and improve gender balance at all levels. This is the first time we have seen real efforts to address this cultural challenge, which has existed in farming for many years, and to help women play their equal part in our agrifood sector, particularly at primary producer and farm-gate level.

I welcome the progress that has been made. I have often said that there are lots of women farmers but the problem is they are not recognised as such. I just want to touch on one aspect, namely, the EIPs. The strategic plan states there will be potential for women-centred EIPs. Considering this is one of the three aspects of the plan in place to support women farmers, can the Minister give us an idea of how many of the operations will be specifically targeted to support women in agriculture? I understand there are 30 in total. What will the criteria be in terms for how those applications are judged? If we are to have only a handful, it is crucial they deliver concrete opportunities for women farmers that can be built and expanded upon.

It will depend on the quality of the applications and projects that come forward. One of the benefits of the European innovation projects is the capacity to promote innovation and new ideas and to pilot programmes. One of the key objectives is to use it as an initiative where we will examine women's participation in agriculture. We will then assess them based on the quality of proposals and their impact.

The Food Vision 2030 strategy recognises the important contribution of women to the sector's long-term sustainability. The strategy supports an enhanced role for women in the sector and recommends the establishment of female farmers' networks and other supports to better understand and meet the needs of Irish women farmers. It also proposes holding a national dialogue on women in agriculture and I have asked my officials to prioritise that action this year.

Working with the Minister of States, Senator Hackett and Deputy Heydon, we have in place initiatives that can result in real progress in the years ahead in women becoming a much stronger proportion at farmer level or primary producer level, as well as the progress we have seen over recent years across the food sector. We hope to see these initiatives, which we will continue to drive on, make real progress. We are proud to be in a position to place a real emphasis on this.

I welcome these positive steps. They are something for which my party has been calling for quite some time.

Moving beyond this part of the CAP process, it would send a strong signal today if the Minister could confirm his commitment to ensuring that the monitoring committee of CAP will have increased representation by women within its membership. The Minister and myself are at one in commending the work of the women in agriculture stakeholder group. It would be valuable if they were recognised for the work that they have done and it was ensured that they have a seat at the table going forward so that in future any deliberations on CAP are informed by a crucially important voice within Irish agriculture that has been silent for too long, that is, our women farmers.

I thank the Deputy. Right across the agrifood sector, and, indeed, State boards and committees that we establish, a real focus of Government is ensuring that we see greater female participation and representation at all levels, and, likewise, with the CAP consultative committees. Certainly, that is something that our focus will be on in the time ahead. It is something we will work with all stakeholders on to see how we can seek to improve representation and women's voices throughout the process.

Horticulture Sector

Matt Carthy

Question:

111. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the progress that has been made in ascertaining the level of horticultural peat stock available to growers; and if his Department has commissioned experts to provide free advice to those wishing to achieve regulatory compliance for extraction of horticultural peat on sub-30 ha bogs for supply to the domestic horticulture industry. [6892/22]

This is an area that we have discussed on many occasions. I recognise that the issue facing the horticulture and mushroom sectors is not necessarily of the Department's making but it has been allowed to develop into a full-blown crisis. This Department, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, all have a role on this. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, responded to me in a parliamentary question stating that oversight for resolving this crisis rests entirely with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I would like to know what will be done about it.

On 17 January this year, my Department, in conjunction with the Departments of the Environment, Climate and Communications and Housing, Local Government and Heritage, set out a working paper to put in place a series of actions to support the horticultural growers who are dependent on peat as a growing medium.

Part of this series of actions includes the commissioning of an independent expert who will work with all peat suppliers to ascertain the volume of horticultural peat stocks available to growers. This is a key action in that working paper.

A second key action that was announced was the commissioning of experts to provide focussed regulatory guidance on planning to assist those wishing to extract peat in the medium term for horticulture growers. This expert guidance will provide a valuable resource to those seeking legal compliance for abstraction.

I acutely understand the importance of delivering these actions quickly. The industry is under pressure in this regard and we are working as quickly as possible to assist it in any and all ways we can.

As the Deputy can appreciate, there are procedures and protocols to be adhered to as part of the process of commissioning such experts. My Department is currently engaged in this process with a view to having the services of these experts available as soon as possible.

The horticultural sector is crucially important. It supports the employment of 17,000 people. It has particular emphasis in a number of geographical areas.

My constituency is heavily dependent on the mushroom sector. The reason for that is farmers did what they were told. They were told to diversify. They were told to move out of beef on smallholdings. They did that and now they are faced with an existential crisis beyond their making.

There has been too much dithering on this issue. We have had working groups, reports and expert commissions; we have had everything. The only thing we have not had is action that will allow the horticulture sector to know that it will have an adequate supply of horticultural peat until an alternative is in place.

There needs to be an alternative found but that has to be a sustainable and management alternative. In the meantime, people do not want to hear what the problems are because they know what they are. They want to know how their jobs will be saved, how the businesses will be saved and how the economy will be protected. What specific actions will be taken by the Department that will allow this sector to have that confidence?

I thank the Deputy.

As addressed in the series of actions we published earlier this year, there are three types of actions. In the short term, it is commissioning those experts, both to ascertain the volume of peat supplies that currently exist and available to growers, and to examine working with extractors to enable and support them to become compliant. We have had decades of non-compliant peat extraction and we are now at this point where that cannot continue anymore with a variety of court cases, etc. It is important that our Department is putting in place those experts to facilitate that in the short term.

In the medium- and longer-term, we are looking at research. My Department has invested quite heavily in research into alternatives, and that continues.

What we are missing are specific answers to the immediate crises that is being faced. The working paper published by the Department in conjunction with the others that I referenced places a significant emphasis on the role of Bord na Móna but there is a lack of clarity on how Bord na Móna will assist. Can the Minister of State confirm that domestic peat producers will be offered first refusal on any overhanging Bord na Móna stocks? Can she confirm whether she has met with the company to discuss the outworkings of the working paper to ensure the company will resolve this? When will she have the figures related to the volume of horticultural peat that is available? In short, we need to know what the engagements are and what is the role of Bord na Móna, which is largely responsible for this crisis in the first place by exporting significant quantities of peat for several years as a State-owned company? It was just as unacceptable as the importation of peat that we now see. How has that engagement been working out?

It is important to qualify that Bord na Móna never supplied peat to the mushroom sector, and only supplied it to the amenity horticulture sector. The company has some supplies, and certainly it has indicated that those supplies will be made available to the amenity horticulture sector if it is determined to be good enough. There seems to be a little disquiet as to whether it is of suitable quality.

My advisers and my officials have met with Bord na Móna on this and the expertise that exists within the company after decades of peat extraction and they have equipment available. Bord na Móna will play a role in this. However, it has categorically stated that it will not return to peat extraction. That is no longer part of their remit. If we are looking at engaging in-----

Has the Minister of State met Bord na Móna?

Has the Minister of State met Bord na Móna?

At different stages, but in relation to this, since the report, my officials and my advisers have met them.

If we are looking at small-scale peat extraction, the independent assessors put in place for that will help engage with those who wish to become compliant. It is important that they become compliant if we are to continue our own domestic supply.

Questions Nos. 112 to 115, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Departmental Funding

Mark Ward

Question:

116. Deputy Mark Ward asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the funding streams and supports within his Department that are open to a club (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6697/22]

Last year, I raised the issue of funding for the Clondalkin Equine Club with the Minister. Unfortunately, I must raise this again. Last year, I asked the Department to provide a multi-annual funding stream for the club. This year, I am asking the Minister to provide any information he has on funding streams or supports within the Department for which the club can apply, including for animal welfare.

In keeping with the programme for Government, my Department is committed to working with local authorities, charities and community stakeholders and supporting urban horse welfare programmes, in particular in the context of facilities and education programmes.

In 2016, my Department committed to provide funding towards an equine facility being developed by the local authority in the Clondalkin area, as outlined by Deputy Carthy. This funding was committed on the understanding that the local authority was satisfied with the rules and governance of the club and that the project, when up and running, would be self-sustaining and would assist in reducing reliance on activities relating to the control of horses and in managing horse control problems in the area. The project also committed to the education of horse owners, particularly young horse owners, in the care and welfare of horses, as well as presenting educational and development opportunities for young people.

Last year, my Department agreed with the local authority to provide additional funding to the club in the context of restrictions associated with Covid-19, on the understanding that it would renew efforts to secure alternative funding and formulate a strategy for the organisation going forward. To date, my Department has provided funding in excess of €500,000 to the club through the local authority, which has been the largest capital commitment by my Department to local authorities in support of an urban horse programme. My Department's commitment extends to providing supports for the capital investment of developing such projects. It does not have a funding mechanism to cover the day-to-day running costs of such facilities. As part of a multi-agency approach, officials in my Department have been in regular contact with the local authority and the club as well as other Departments to secure long-term funding for the club. That work is ongoing.

I do not wish to appear ignorant, but that appears to be a copy and paste of the answer I got last year. The sum of €500,000 was to build the facility, not for the day-to-day running costs. As the Minister will be aware, Covid has impacted on the ability of many clubs and organisations around the country to access funding streams. This club provides stables for 20 youths in the Clondalkin area. It teaches them proper urban horsemanship and provides livery. This is all at a very low cost to the community, which otherwise would not be able to provide it.

The Minister referred to education. Some club members have progressed into careers with horses in a short period, including horse racing. One member has gone into veterinary practices. The club is doing everything possible to keep going. I thank my colleague, Deputy Carthy, for visiting the club recently. As I did last year, I invite the Minister to do the same so he can see it for himself. I would appreciate if he could outline any other supports the club can access.

This is an initiative of which my Department is very supportive. There is a strong role for clubs such as this in working to ensure that horse welfare is prioritised, and that the tradition of horse care and horses in urban communities in particular are fostered and structured and that there is significant engagement in the education of young people in horse welfare and development opportunities.

As I outlined in my initial response, the Department is engaging with Departments and various sectors and bodies. This is the largest single investment the Department has made in any club in the country, as the Deputy indicated, for capital investment. We will continue to work to try to support the club to make a real difference and be effective in the community.

I spoke numerous times, most recently last week, to the local authority on the issue. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the club, it is not able to apply for many of the community funding streams through the local authority. The sum of €56,000 would fund the two staff members for a year and it would keep 20 horses in stables. That amount would allow the club to continue to provide supports for local groups such as youth clubs, children with physical and learning disabilities and young people from socially excluded groups. The Minister signed off on a €52,000 pay increase for the CEO of Horse Racing Ireland only last month. In that context, €56,000 is only pocket change to this Government but would make a real difference not only to the people that use the Clondalkin Equine Club but the Clondalkin area as a whole. This is something that cannot be allowed to stop given the importance of providing the service in the area.

I commend the Deputy Ward's proposal that the Minister would visit the centre. I had an opportunity during the recess to go there. I welcome the investment made by the Department in this fantastic facility. It is one of those initiatives that ticks so many boxes. It is good for animal welfare and it is good for the community but, crucially and above all else, it is good promotion for the Department. I consider any funding for this project to be a good investment on behalf of the Minister and the Department in showing the value of animal husbandry within an urban setting and building on a love for animals. It fits perfectly in that regard. It is not, and should not only be, the responsibility of the Department, but as I said in a recent letter to the Minister, it is important that he and the Department take leadership to bring together all the other stakeholders and support this very worthwhile group.

My Department has made a significant investment in partnership with South Dublin County Council. It was made very clear to the council at that stage that the Department's investment was to get the project going, so there is a real role for the council in that regard.

The Department has also been in close contact with Deputy Gino Kenny, who has made many representations and has been a very strong advocate for this project from the outset. In September 2019, I met with the club board and the Department and support was provided at that stage.

We are committed to investments such as this. We want them to reap rewards and produce dividends. That is the basis on which we made the €500,000 investment in the first place. The clear understanding at that time of South Dublin County Council was that it would be for the capital allocation and not for current expenditure or the day-to-day running of the centre. I have no doubt Deputy Ward will also engage with the county council on the matter. The Department will continue to be helpful and will assist to ensure this capital investment does reap real benefits for the club and the local community and we will continue to engage with South Dublin County Council on it as well.

Questions Nos. 117 to 125, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Climate Action Plan

Matt Carthy

Question:

126. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his proposals to increase the use of low-emission slurry spreading technology as per the climate action plan should the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, grant aid no longer be permissible arising from the draft nitrates action plan. [6890/22]

One would wonder if something else is going on given that so many Members who have asked questions are missing. I have never seen it happen with agriculture questions before.

The Deputy should not look a gift horse in the mouth.

Absolutely not. I welcome the opportunity to raise the issue of low-emission slurry spreading with the Minister. We are all agreed that this has a key role to play both in our emissions targets and in improving water quality. In the context of all of that, could the Minister outline his proposals to expand the use of low-emission slurry spreading and to support farmers in making the change?

Great progress has been made in recent years on the introduction of low emissions slurry spreading and it is having a real impact. Through the on-farm investment scheme, TAMS, we have seen just under €100 million invested in low emissions slurry spreading machines and equipment. There are now approximately 3,500 low emissions slurry spreading machines in the country, from a base of none between five and seven years ago.

Most of the national ammonia emissions come from the agricultural sector, and a significant volume from slurry. The old splash-plate technology where slurry hits the plate and then sprays up in the air before it hits the ground increases ammonia emissions and it increases the loss to the atmosphere. It also leads to less of the organic material going into the ground and growing grass. What low emissions slurry spreading does, either through dribbling or a trailing shoe system, is leave slurry along the ground. The machinery is much more expensive. Machines can cost up to €40,000 but there is a tremendous number of them now. We have seen a significant uptake. It is a requirement now for all farmers in nitrates derogation to spread slurry using low emissions slurry spreading equipment. So far, it has resulted in a reduction of 7% in our national ammonia emissions. We are going to step this up a lot more significantly in the time ahead. It has great potential. It is a win-win.

The capital investment is more expensive but we are putting the grant aid into that to support farmers. Ultimately, it pay offs in the utilisation of nitrogen and other ingredients in the slurry to grow grass and get it into the ground, where we want it to be. It needs to be spread at a rate that is most efficient so the grass grows while minimising in every way possible the impact on the environment around us. I look forward to continuing to step this out to support farmers to adopt this technology over the coming years. I commend the agricultural community on the tremendous work it has done in adapting to this and embracing it.

I agree. This is a great example that shows that when farmers are given the technology and shown the alternative practices that can allow them to reduce emissions and reduce damage to water sources, they will embrace that and move forward. However, they need support. The Minister is correct that TAMS has been very effective in ensuring people have the necessary machinery and can acquire it in an affordable way. However, in the event that this machinery essentially becomes mandatory across the board, TAMS will not be available as a utilisation to ensure other farmers can get that. What are the specific proposals to deliver grant aid to those farmers and farm contractors who want this equipment but need the financial support to be able to get it?

Under EU rules on who can get grants under the programme, farm contractors are not eligible, although farmers are. The Deputy is correct that where it is a requirement and an obligation on farmers to spread using low emissions slurry spreading, we cannot grant aid compliance, even where it is a requirement for a farmer to use something to achieve compliance. What has happened in recent years is that we have made sure to give lead-in periods in advance of something becoming an obligation so farmers can prepare for that. In that advance period, they have been able to avail of grants. There are more than 3,000 low-emissions slurry spreading machines being used by farmers in derogation who would have purchased them in advance and are now making strong use of them. Likewise, in regard to proposed changes to be made to the nitrates derogation, farmers will be given a lead-in time in order that they have advance notice to ensure support is available in advance of it becoming a requirement. We want to support farmers to adopt this. We want to support them with the cost because it is going to make a real impact on farm profitability and better use of nutrients and, very importantly, it is much kinder from an environmental point of view.

I advocate that we have an exclusive scheme on this issue because we know the benefits it brings. Rather than forcing everybody through the TAMS route, which does not cater for everybody, and through a route that excludes a large cohort in the spreading of slurry - that is, farm contractors - we should have an Exchequer-funded scheme for this. I have said this at the agriculture committee. It makes no sense that, at Exchequer level, we have a direct scheme that will allow somebody who lives across the road from a DART station and may have ten public bus route options available to them, to get a grant directly from the Government for the purchase of a new car, yet we do not have a scheme in place to provide a grant directly to those people who we know can make a massive impact simply by changing their slurry spreading machinery. Is the Minister open to that type of concept? Is he willing to discuss with the Department of Finance how it can be delivered?

We have seen massive progress and most contractors are now using low emissions slurry spreading as well. That is where the demand will be from farmers in the years ahead. With regard to TAMS and other grants within the Department, my objective is to ensure we can support the sector and move to low emissions slurry spreading and then advance and accelerate that over the coming years. We are reaching a tipping point where farmers see this being used, they see the value of it and they get feedback from the farmers who are using it in terms of its efficiency, its effectiveness and its cost saving. Speaking to the issue we discussed earlier on Priority Questions regarding the cost of chemical fertilisers this year, farmers are increasingly going to be looking to the potential to efficiently use organic fertiliser and maximise its potential as a growth nutrient through further adoption over the course of the year of low emissions slurry spreading.

Agriculture Industry

Bernard Durkan

Question:

127. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the extent to which he remains satisfied that the future of the dairy sector remains secure and capable of creating and generating employment in the future to the extent needed notwithstanding CAP reform or other issues; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7052/22]

The question relates to the extent to which the Minister recognises the future of the dairy sector and its major role in the economy.

The dairy sector is a tremendously exciting one and a real driver of our agrifood industry and sector, and we have seen that develop further since the removal of quotas in 2015. We have seen significant growth in milk output and what that means in terms of employment in all parts of the country through processing, through added value and through the increase in our national exports, which have grown from approximately €8 billion in 2010 to €14 billion today. In the years up to 2030, the plan under Food Vision is to increase that €14 billion to €21 billion, and the dairy industry will be central to that. We need to continue to add value and to develop it.

A critical point is that we have to do it in a way that is sustainable and that manages and lowers emissions. Last week, I brought together and established the dairy committee under the Food Vision 2030 strategy. One of the first tasks I have provided it is to follow through on one of the commitments all stakeholders committed to in the strategy, which was to consider how we can efficiently manage the footprint of the dairy sector and ensure it stabilises, and then see that footprint reduce. In doing so, it will be about adding value while also ensuring that, in the years ahead, we can make sure new entrants can go into dairying and that those who need to become larger have the capacity to do so and be economically viable. However, we have to manage this in a way that ensures emissions do not go up. If emissions go up, it will challenge the sector overall and diminish the value of what we are producing. That is not the cycle we want. We want to be in a cycle where value is being enhanced and, ultimately, where farm profitability is improving all of the time.

That is a very welcome assessment of the future. To follow up, I ask the extent to which it will remain the Minister's endeavour to ensure emissions continue to be reduced in tandem with, but not damaging, the growth of the agrifood sector, with particular reference to the dairy sector, given that other countries seem to be able to do so to a huge extent.

Every country has the same challenge that we do. In regard to our emissions targets and the climate action plan, I worked very hard on behalf of the sector to ensure that it and its valuable socio-economic role, but also the science around agriculture, are very much respected in terms of setting a target which, while being as ambitious as possible, is also achievable. Overall, between now and 2030, while the economy is going to have to deliver, and our commitment as a Government is to drive on and deliver, a 51% economy-wide reduction in emissions by 2030, the agricultural target will be between 22% and 30%. That is significantly less than what other sectors will have to do but it is very ambitious and will be a real challenge for the sector. I believe the sector can deliver it and I am determined to work with the sector to support it in delivering that.

By doing that and by delivering on our emissions reduction, we will add value to the food we are producing because we can continue to ensure we are the number one choice on plates throughout the world. Consumers want to know not just that their food is nutritious and safe, but also how it is produced and that it is done as sustainably as possible, in sync with the environment around it and with the lowest emissions possible. That is how we ensure that its value is maximised and that farm profits are also maximised in the years ahead.

Is féidir teacht ar Cheisteanna Scríofa ar www.oireachas.ie.
Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
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