I am pleased to be here. Before I respond to the Senator's questions, I should explain briefly that the document submitted consists of a civic response to what the committee requested, particularly in respect of carbon sequestration and leakage. Some press reports are attached to the document concerning green washing and the warning that former EU Agriculture Commissioner, Mr. Phil Hogan, delivered to Ireland and in respect of the situation in the Netherlands. There is also a comprehensive document that was produced by a coalition of 72 civil society organisations, including faith and justice groups and the leading global development organisations involved in Ireland, who have endorsed the document.
Quite rightly, the Senator said that when approaching the issue of agriculture and food sustainability, we must take a global overview. To start with, An Taisce does that as an organisation. Our president is Fr. Sean McDonagh, who is a Columban missionary and has written extensively on ethics in a number of books and was part of the advisory group to Pope Francis on the Laudato Si' encyclical letter on climate, the future of the planet and caring for the earth. An Taisce, as an NGO, is affiliated to 70 international trusts across the world, as well as to coalitions of environmental organisations across Europe.
Environmental NGOs are mandated under the UN Aarhus Convention to work in all areas of environmental advocacy. That extends from being involved in education and public awareness to also being involved in the public participation and consultation process, whatever the planning and appeal processes may be in the individual country concerned. There is also a specific legal mandate under the Aarhus Convention, which has been converted into European law, to give status to environmental organisations, and indeed to concerned citizens in general, to participate in the planning decision and strategic policymaking, whether it is at national, regional or local level and in individual decision making. That includes making submissions to local authorities, appeal bodies and taking judicial actions. All of these are fully commensurate with the role of environmental organisations and have been recognised by the EU.
I should point out that it is often said that when An Taisce makes a submission in a planning application process, which is a legal entitlement to all citizens, that we do so in the form of objections. The word "objections" will not appear in a submission. We will make a submission that will be informed by the sustainable development goals, policies to which the Irish Government has signed up, the Paris Agreement and European directives on the protection of public health, water, air quality and nature, on which we all depend for a living planet.
When we make submissions on an individual planning application relating to agriculture - I note concerns were raised in this regard by one of the farming organisations recently - we often find that something gets reported in the media and then gets circulated with an inaccurate phrase used. Other people then hear and repeat this word, "objections". That is not the case at all. We are raising legitimate concerns that any individual or environmental organisation would be expected to do, particularly focused on public and human health. The strategic environmental assessment directive includes a series of considerations. One overarching element, which has been transcribed into Irish law and regulations, is consideration of human health. It is also an overarching consideration in the UN's sustainable development goals, SDGs.
When we make a planning submission, especially on an agriculture matter, we will raise the issue of how the application will address and mitigate ammonia air pollution issues. As Ireland has exceeded the EU mandatory threshold for ammonia since 2016, we clearly have not had a regulatory regime in place that has addressed that issue. If that had been done, this would not have happened. When we are examining further applications for agricultural intensification, which is 99% caused by ammonia, we will be looking at what management and mitigation measures are in place in that regard, because ammonia is a public health issue. As it has an immediate impact on the area around an intensive agricultural facility, it is an immediate public health concern to people in the area who are directly affected and to neighbours. It is also a wider public health concern in respect of the general receiving environment. Ammonia interacts with other forms of pollution, such as traffic and chimney pollution and that is increasingly showing up in the data and this would be a public health concern.
We also will raise the issue of how an application was addressing water quality and nitrate management to ensure that application was in everybody’s interest, including the applicant. The application might be for a small-scale dairy production unit or a larger processing facility. We simply raise issues and make recommendations as to how public health and other legal protection obligations can be met. We have a major catch-up to do now, as shown by data from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. In our written submission, we have quoted what the director of the EPA said about the state of Irish agriculture, namely, that even if we did not have a climate problem, we would still have a greenhouse gas, GHG, emission problem and these ammonia and water issues to deal with.
It is correct to say that we would welcome the opportunity to engage earlier in the process. Over many years we have sought to engage at a strategic level with the farming organisations. I will not mention any of them in particular but it was disappointing that instead of constructive engagement, we have had greenwashing. I put the details into appendix 1 of our submission. That greenwashing was instead of seeking to engage with independent scientists in Ireland who have internationally-recognised knowledge regarding greenhouse gas abatement, carbon soil management and the issue of carbon sequestration in land. I hope we will be able to talk about those aspects in detail, as well as carbon losses. We would, therefore, have very much welcomed the opportunity to engage with the sector over the years, but that never happened.
Instead, the agricultural sector has been importing so-called experts from the United States - I will not identify any of them - to make dubious claims on carbon sequestration. The sector has also been using this common argument that if we do not continue producing, then somebody else will. First, that is an ethically unsound argument. As a developed country, we should be setting the global lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions at all levels for heating, for energy, for buildings, for transport and just as much for agriculture. No sector should be let off the hook. There is the issue of carbon leakage as well. The European farm to fork strategy, referred to in our written submission, specifically addressed that issue by stating, “It is also clear that we cannot make a change unless we take the rest of the world with us" and "efforts to tighten sustainability requirements in the EU food system should be accompanied by policies that help raise standards globally”.
Senator Paul Daly has quite rightly raised the issue of South America. That is why he will be pleased to hear that the environmental and international development sector is very much at one with the farming bodies in having concerns about the proposed Mercosur trade deal and the potential effect it would have in facilitating the increased export of produce from South America that would not be meeting EU production standards and would be contributing to adverse climate and biodiversity loss and affecting native peoples. I have been attending the international UN climate conferences for the past five years - I have been able to do that by travelling by boat and train - and that provides an extraordinary global overview, including hearing about the plight of people in the Amazon.
Senator Paul Daly will also be very pleased that his colleague in the Dáil, Deputy Jim O’Callaghan, has recently produced and circulated an impressive video, a piece of social media communication, on why, collectively and globally, we must do something about the Amazon rainforest and must campaign for Brazil to sign up fully to the Paris Agreement, to the UN biodiversity convention and to human rights protections for indigenous peoples. The video also called for any future trade agreement with Brazil, or countries in South America in general, to be linked to those obligations. For those who may not have had an opportunity to see that video - I am non-political and not promoting anyone from a political party - Deputy Jim O’Callaghan has produced an excellent communication on this issue. In addition, just today, there was an interview with Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission, advocating for and promoting the European Green Deal.
What is so important about the European Green Deal is that it is focused on Europe taking global leadership and acting co-operatively. No one country is going to be able to do what is required, and quid pro quos will be needed. Some countries will have particular challenges. For example, Poland must face up to its dependence on coal burning, while German and other major automobile manufacturers which have lobbied against emission standards for years and been involved in emissions cheating must face up to the electrification of transport. Equally, however, Ireland and other major agricultural producers need to address the issues of sustainable food production and climate action and ensure that is linked to a global agreement. Commissioner Timmermans made that very clear in his interview.
His message converged with that of Pope Francis. My background is in the history of politics and ethics. We have an ethical responsibility, as individuals, as Irish people, as Europeans and as global citizens, to protect our living planet for the generation ahead and this is the ethical and social message that was communicated by Commissioner Timmermans. It means direct action in energy efficiency, in the electrification of transport and, in something particularly challenging not just for the Irish agricultural sector but globally, reducing meat consumption. That is clearly outlined in the farm to fork strategy and United Nations environment programme documents have been advancing this perspective for the past 20 years as a way of mitigating the climate and global footprint impact of ruminant animal agriculture in particular.
I hope that has given Senator Daly some clarification as to the global perspective with which we are approaching this.
I appreciate that there was no facility to give an introductory statement. The document that has been circulated is a positive vision for the future, setting out ten points on the Paris Agreement alignment and restoration of nature, woodlands and peatlands, but also that agriculture must take its fair share in dealing with the climate emergency and reducing emissions.
The air quality and ammonia issue must be dealt with because potential legal action is shaping up. There is already a legal infringement complaint on Irish ammonia air pollution before the European Commission. That affects people living in rural areas and farm families most. I mention water quality decline, which is a matter for everybody, and then the positive response to that, namely, farm diversification.
There is much in Irish history and heritage showing the range of crops we can grow, particularly in the organic sector, for which there is growing demand and which has more diversified production. In addition, there is the need to meet public health and healthy diet requirements, food security and nutrition.
While we are a major beef and dairy exporter, we are importing animal feed, which is very problematic because of its sourcing. I want to be non-political here, as I have already said. I always make a favourable comment when one is made, regardless of the political source from which it is made, as I was pleased to hear in the case of Deputy Jim O'Callaghan. The European Commissioner, Ms Mairead McGuinness, just a few months ago, expressed very serious concern about the extent of Ireland's dependence on its animal agricultural sector, which is not only cattle but also pig and poultry, and also on imported animal feed. We need to produce more sustainable indigenous feed and diversify with more tillage in general, as we had historically.
I come from the south east. Like many Irish people, I am two feet removed from the farm in terms of grandparents and large extended networks of family members. I spend weekends and summers on farms and I am familiar with all that. What I hope to do over the course of this discussion, apart from talking about these very technical issues, is to advance positive recommendations on how Ireland can take global leadership and enhance food security and sustainability.