Impact of Peat Shortages on the Horticulture Industry: Discussion (Resumed)

Deputy Carthy is attending a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts and will join this meeting at 10 a.m.

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The topic for this meeting with representatives from Growing Media Ireland, GMI, is the impact of peat shortages on the horticulture industry. I welcome Mr. John Neenan, chair of GMI, Mr. Kieran Dunne, Kildare Growers Group, Mr. Mel O'Rourke, Commercial Mushroom Producers, and Ms Anna Kavanagh, independent horticulture consultant, who are all appearing remotely. We have received their opening statement, which has been circulated to members. As we are limited in time due to Covid-19 safety restrictions, the committee has agreed that the opening statement will be taken as read so that we can use the full session for questions and answers. All opening statements are published on the Oireachtas website and are publicly available.

I must give an important notice regarding parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence relating to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Participants in the committee meeting who are in locations outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that the constitutional protections afforded to those participating from within the parliamentary precincts do not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether or the extent to which participation is covered by the absolute privilege of a statutory nature.

This is a very important topic. We discussed it earlier in the year and had a committee meeting on it. We were given assurances at that meeting that there would be an interim report which would be provided to us in early April. The indication was that it would allow home-grown peat to be harvested for the horticulture industry. That has not happened. Members of the committee fully understand the witnesses' anxiety and the financial pressure they must be experiencing. I and the members of the committee are very interested to hear what they have to say this morning. The idea of importing peat into this country is not only financial madness but also environmental madness. Banning peat cutting in this country makes a nonsense of what we are trying to achieve. The witnesses will have the opportunity this morning to make their presentation and answer questions from members. Then the committee will decide what political pressure it can apply to try to help their industry.

I will open the meeting to the floor. Senators Paul Daly and Boyhan have indicated that they wish to speak. Senator Boyhan has a particular interest in horticulture, so I will call him first.

First, I welcome the witnesses. I do not intend to take up too much time because I spent a lot of yesterday being mushroomed out with talking about it. The national newspapers today have covered this issue quite extensively. I am very supportive of the horticulture sector and particularly the witnesses' sector. It is grossly unfair and hypocrisy at its best to talk about bringing in peat or substitute peat from the Baltic states, such as vermiculite, cocoa shells and so forth. We know they simply do not work. We know from the Teagasc representatives who appeared before the committee that there is really no alternative. I have focused on mushrooms but there is also the general horticulture sector. Peat and milled peat are also used in forestry, particularly forestry nursery stock, and also in horticulture stock, including ornamental stock, and salad and vegetable production.

There is a very mixed message from the Government. I am not in government or in a Government party and I am not here to criticise any member of the committee who is in a Government party because every member of the committee is fully committed to agriculture and horticulture. How have the witnesses engaged with the Department? What was the response of the Department to the case they made? I would advocate strongly that there should be a ten-year exemption period. Yes, we all recognise that we must find alternatives, but there are no real alternatives. I realise I am preaching to the converted here but I am very conscious of the jobs in Monaghan, Louth, Wexford and the midlands. We talk about sustainability and we discussed the climate action Bill, but this does not make sense. Basically, we have carbon leakage by importing peat substitutes. I thank the witnesses for attending the meeting and I urge them to keep advocating on behalf of their industry. There are huge implications. I have no doubt that we will see aspects of this issue in the courts; I am quite confident we will. I thank the witnesses for persisting in pursuing this. They should mobilise their industry and mobilise their elected representatives to put pressure on the Government. The reality is that the Green Party is part of the Government. It is part of the problem. It might think it is part of the solution but I do not believe it is at this time. We need to shift and apply political pressure and the industry's pressure on politicians so we can have some sort of practical alternative arrangement to support the horticulture industry in the months and years ahead.

Finally, the witnesses have a great ally in Bord Bia. Bord Bia has done a tremendous amount of work in promoting mushrooms. As I said yesterday in the Seanad, I went to a few supermarkets at the weekend and picked up mushrooms from refrigerators in different stores. I could clearly see the proud Irish brand, Bord Bia, on the food products. That is a very strong link and a strong synergy. It is something the witnesses have to capitalise on in this case because I believe Bord Bia will be their ally. It certainly has vast budgets for promoting organics and particularly for promoting mushrooms across the world. I thank the witnesses for taking the time to engage with the committee on this very important issue.

Mr. John Neenan

I thank the committee for inviting us to the meeting at such short notice. As the Senator said, the industry is in a critical stage. Peat supplies have virtually run out and will be finished by the end of September. That will certainly cause major upheaval, with potentially up to 17,000 people made unemployed. It will also affect the sector and nurseries that have been in business for two and three generations in rural Ireland, which will be devastating in certain areas. We highlighted the situation previously and we are very disappointed that the Department has not taken the opportunity to appear before the committee to explain its actions. Growing Media Ireland and the other representatives with me today have engaged fully with the working group. We had six meetings and we produced an interim report. That went to the Minister almost two months ago. There has been no reaction to that, other than saying the Minister understands the situation. We are in a critical situation. I will ask the mushroom producers and nursery stock representatives to explain in more detail how it is affecting their businesses.

I welcome our guests. Like Senator Boyhan, I condole with them on their plight.

I see the pure ridiculousness and stupidity of it. I know hauliers who are hauling peat from Drogheda down to the south of the country. We have this climate change and climate action debate in these Houses on a regular basis. The one key message is the bringing of people with us and having buy-in from the community. However, people are watching such ridiculous nonsensical activities as the importation of peat from eastern Europe. Harvesting it out there is having the same effect on the environment and climate as doing it here but then the diesel-burning ships and lorries taking it to and from the port must be taken into account. It just does not make sense. We have been putting on political pressure and we will continue to do so. As GMI said in its submission, it seems to have fallen between the cracks by virtue of there being numerous different Departments, which are able to push the blame, for want of a better word, onto each other. Somebody must step up to the plate and make a decision. I have a couple of quick questions.

I am thinking about how we get a resolution to this going forward. The GMI submission is prescriptive on the alternatives being examined or developed at the moment. In this situation, as in others, just transition has gone out the window and we have put the cart before the horse. We have stopped the peat and now we are talking about scientific experiments and the development of alternatives. However, of the ones GMI has listed, aside from composting and green waste, none of them seem to be Irish. It would be an import scenario for all of them even if they were up to scratch.

Will the witnesses elaborate a little on green waste? When I saw the heading I thought this was the solution but there are issues and problems with it that GMI has identified. I would like to hear how we might be able to tweak some of them because it seems to be the only real alternative mentioned, from an Irish perspective.

I would also like to know about a mixture of one or other of the alternatives and peat. If we were going to table saying that going forward, we will only need a percentage of what we did in the past, it might be easier to get a green light. Is there the possibility of using mixtures of any or all of the alternatives GMI has mentioned?

This might be a stupid question but we are here to ask the questions. Is there any possibility of recycling peat between different sector of the industry? Maybe peat that has been used in horticulture could then go to the mushroom industry or vice versa.

I am trying to come up with a strengthened case for minimising the volume of peat that would need to be harvested to keep the sector viable, going forward. As things stand at the moment what percentage of peat is the industry getting from Bord na Móna, from the private sector, or both, when it comes to harvesting? To conclude, it is now July, so even if there was a solution to this issue and the green light was given for peat harvesting by the close of business today, have we missed a harvesting season?

There are a number of very pertinent questions there. Ms Kavanagh is indicating.

Ms Anna Kavanagh

The Senator covered a lot of topics there. I hope I get to all of them. Peat is the best growing medium and that is why we have been using it for decades. Irish peat is the best in the world. We have seen that over the decades because people have wanted it. It is medium-decomposed peat and has the best air and water properties. It has a high lignin content so it is very useful for long-term crops. The other thing about peat is that it is a relatively light material with a low pH and low nutrient. The beauty of that is lime and fertilisers can be added to suit any crop. The other thing is peat is not just one product. Peat is brought in, graded and then blended. Even in my days in Bord na Móna there could be up to 1,000 different recipes for growers in Ireland, so the number of recipes worldwide is much higher than that.

Peat will be needed in the phasing out of peat in favour of alternatives in Ireland. The Senator mentioned the alternatives and asked us to say a bit about green waste. Again, from my experience in Bord na Móna, we had a state-of-the-art facility in Kilberry and green waste was produced to a good quality. The important point is that a very good quality is needed for retail products and is even more important for professional products. I illustrate this by saying that if you go out and by a bag of compost and grow your plants, you probably will not mind if they are different sizes and if one dies you blame yourself before anyone else. On the professional side of the business, if I sent a load of compost to Mr. Dunne and he had variance in his plants and lost plants it is all off the bottom line as they are grown to tight specifications. Thus the need for quality on that side is critical. Green waste is also a very heavy material. It is about 500 g per litre. At the moment, green compost could only be used at about 10% to 15% in a mix because of the weight and everything else. It also has a high conductivity, which is the salts in there. There are concerns with green compost, depending on the source, about contamination by glass or plastic and it can even have needles in it. There is also a concern about whether pesticides have been used on the crops, grass cuttings, hedge cuttings or anything else that goes in there. There are a lot of issues really. On top of that human pathogens must also be considered.

Going forward and looking at alternatives we must take a more holistic approach where we look at the entire system of production of stuff. With, say, the green waste we can ask if there is anything else we can do to it to eliminate some of these issues. Bord na Móna has successfully used green compost in the hobby market for number of years now, going back to 2005, probably. Bord na Móna was the leader in peat reduction in the hobby market in the UK, so it is not as if Ireland has no experience in this area. However, on the professional side of the business it is an entirely different matter. There plant production is in a critical situation and things must be very closely monitored. To use green compost in professional mixes there would need to be a very high standard.

The Senator inquired about other products. Wood fibre is a good product and is seen worldwide as probably one of the leading products that can be used in peat reduction. Wood fibre can be used, although it has issues with possible nitrogen lock-up. It is a light material and has been used successfully up to approximately 35% in mixes. The big problem with wood fibre is the competition from fuel and other wood industries. It is difficult and the price can be sensitive. It may be possible to have schemes going forward - and this should form part of our research and development - where there would be incentives, subsidies or land put aside to grow crops specifically to produce growing media. That would be one option.

Coir is another product that has been mentioned but it comes predominantly from Sri Lanka. Coir is the outer husk of the coconut. We are talking about taking a product like that and transporting it all the way from Sri Lanka, India or somewhere around there. We are talking about taking it from a country where water resources are valuable, even for people's own use, and asking them to use that water to clean the coir, because it contains certain salts and so on, to give us a product for growing media.

It is also used locally in those countries as soil conditioner and as a fuel.

The Senator mentioned pearlite and vermiculite. Many other products are used as additives. There are other products such as anaerobic digestate and waste materials that should be looked at. Any alternative needs to be fit for purpose and sustainable. What criteria are we using to say that it is sustainable? I feel that we should find out what products are locally available in Ireland in sufficient quantities that we could use in future and rate those products on a scale. In the UK, there was a calculator which looked at energy use, water use, social compliance, renewability, habitat biodiversity and other criteria. It scores each material based on those criteria and comes up with a total score. Peat should also be on that because it will be needed for a long time yet.

Another issue that the Senator mentioned was mixtures. Mixtures can be used. It is unlikely that there will be one material that will be used in future. Peat has been a great product. It is foreseen that we will use mixtures of products. When you start research and development on mixtures of products, it is not a matter of adding A, B and C, and adding 1 and 1 to get 2, or 2 and 2 to get 4. When these products are added, their properties need to be categorised and assessed, then you have to look at how they are put together and assess that product all over again. It is not as simple as putting two products together then making it available. That is where much of the research and development work will happen. All of those combinations and their physical, chemical and microbial characteristics need to be assessed.

The Senator asked about the possibility of recycling peat. That has been done a bit in the past. It is a possibility. With the new technologies, those things are all possible. It is a good recommendation. To my knowledge, Bord na Móna has ceased supply of peat for horticulture at this point, so whatever is available is coming from other producers or from abroad. I agree with the Senator and I cannot believe that we would talk about importing peat. If we are really concerned about climate action, kicking the ball down the road is not the answer. If we are talking about global climate action, then buying peat from abroad is only adding to our environmental issues and it is not helping in any way. As I said earlier, that peat is not even of the same quality as the peat in our own country. It will decompose faster, which would contribute more to carbon dioxide emissions.

The Senator said that it is now July. I agree and have raised this several times in our working group. The main peat harvesting season is from May until September. We have missed May and June and we do not know what the weather will bring in the next couple of months. We need immediate action. The working group and its industry members have been patient. We have contributed and worked hard in six meetings over four months. There has been much behind the scenes work to contribute to those meetings. We need an answer for the industry at this stage. It is at crisis point, as the Senator pointed out.

Those were comprehensive answers.

I thank the witnesses for coming in. I have a couple of questions. Ms Kavanagh spoke about research and development. Will that take five years or ten years? She has been on the working group. I am a bog man. I made it clear from the start when both Ms Kavanagh's group and the Department were in that I wanted to know how they would get over the European legislation and do screening for appropriate assessments and so on. Did the working group find a solution to that European legislation and the habitats directive that our now President signed in? Has the working group agreed on a solution that was put to the Minister? We know how much is coming in from other countries. If there is not the will for legislation from the Department, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, which is being blocked by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, it will not happen. It is my experience that when one Minister is talking in the Dáil, another Minister is sitting behind. We need honesty from politicians about where this is going for the whole peat sector. In the witnesses' opinion, was a solution agreed? They can do all the reports they want and have all the meetings, working groups and BS, to be quite frank about it, but if someone does not make a decision, people will be left where they are. I have seen all this happen before. People will wind down to September and end up missing a year of production, which would be a disaster for many jobs around the country.

Mr. Mel O'Rourke

I will go back to the questions from Senators Boyhan and Daly about peat for the mushroom industry and alternatives. The mushroom industry is based on having a high-quality compost and a thin layer of peat on top of that compost to grow the mushrooms. The industry has been successful. People talk about the horticulture industry in general when it should be divided into subsectors. The mushroom industry is a subsector which exports €120 million worth of product to the UK. We depend on high quality casing material, which is a blend of peat and sugar beet lime or ground limestone. It is different from what is used in the amenity sector in that it is deep black peat that never dries out until it goes onto the bed to grow the mushrooms. The mushrooms absorb moisture from that peat. The peat requirement is only 20% of the growing substrate. For each cubic metre, which is equivalent to a tonne of meat, we grow about 5 tonnes of mushrooms. In a nutshell, the mushroom industry depends on deep-dug peat. There is no alternative in the short or medium term.

Research has been carried out in Israel, South Africa and Holland to find alternatives because they have to import peat. We are a net producer of peat and an exporter to most of those countries. In the short to medium term there is no alternative. To return to the point made by Senator Daly, the growing medium that we use in mushroom production can be taken out and used as a growing medium in another area of horticulture or it can be spread on the land for cereal production. It is widely accepted that it is a valuable product for the cereal growing industry, where it is spread on the land. We get a double use from that material.

I thank Mr. O'Rourke and I call Deputy Michael Collins.

I did not get answers to my questions.

I will come back to the witnesses in a moment and they can answer them then. I call Deputy Michael Collins.

I am conscious of the difficulties experienced in the past couple of months by nurseries all over west Cork and throughout the country as well which could, probably, lead to a loss of jobs. I am disappointed that there are no departmental officials before us today. While the witnesses are welcome, we are speaking to the converted. The horticulture industry, in particular the nursery stock industry, is in crisis, with raw material prices having increased by more than €1,000 per load. In light of the 30% to 50% increase in costs and reduced quality, many growers believe that will go out of business. There is no transition plan for the industry.

I ask the witnesses to explain why peat is being exported from Ireland while Irish growers have to purchase raw material from abroad at huge additional carbon footprint, which puts the Irish grower, especially small enterprises, at a disadvantage? Is there a plan for transition for the replacement of peat for the horticulture industry in this country? What about the peat in the bogs that can never be rewetted and returned to habitat? Why can a licence not be given to those sites instead of leaving the peat there while Irish growers have to bring in peat from as far away as Estonia and so on?

I note Mr. Dunne is waiting to come in. Deputy Fitzmaurice asked a few specific questions that were not answered. I ask Mr. Dunne to respond to Deputy Fitzmaurice's questions as well as the questions posed by Deputy Collins.

Mr. Kieran Dunne

I will try. Deputy Fitzmaurice asked if the working group had come up with a solution and, if so, what it is and if there was general agreement in that regard. There is a general consensus that there needs to be a harvesting of peat in Ireland. That was the view across the working group from Friends of the Irish Environment to An Taisce and from the experienced horticulturists around the table. The short-term solution is agreed. There is general consensus that sub 30 ha. would be possible as a short-term solution and that it would be sufficient to supply the Irish horticultural industry until the medium and long-term solution is put in place.

The experience of the working group was very valuable. A great deal of work has been done since our last meeting with the committee on 16 February. Behind the scenes, the working group and the industry have put in a huge amount of effort to try to resolve this issue. Up to seven months ago, we stated that by June we would be in a crisis situation. We waited months for the working group to be put in place. We submitted the interim report in sufficient time to allow for a resolution of the situation. That was two months ago. We have received little by way of solid reaction from the Government. I know that various Departments are doing their best behind the scenes to try to resolve the situation, which is not an easy one to resolve. There is need for fair play and common sense in this process.

Deputy Fitzmaurice spoke openly and honestly about being a bog man. I live in the middle of the Bog of Allen. We are proud of what we have done and what we have built. We are proud of our achievements, people and industry. We are a close-knit community within the horticultural industry. We are also very proud of our output, professionalism, exports, employment for local people and our local product for the local market, one that is suitable for the Irish weather and conditions. We are extremely hardworking and provide good paying quality jobs in rural communities throughout the country. This can be turned into a good news story. Instead, we are in crisis. We have survived -18oC frost. We have worked our way through Brexit and survived it with the help of the Departments. Throughout the pandemic, we have remained open and kept all of our people employed. We have put our shoulder to the wheel and put on the green jersey. We cannot be asked to do more. We survived the recession, which was not easy in terms of the banks, overdrafts and loans. We survived all of this. We are very proud of what we do. We are hardworking people throughout rural communities in Ireland.

Bord Bia was mentioned earlier. We are proud of what we have achieved with Bord Bia and the Bloom festival over the last 15 years. We are proud of our horticulture and food industry and the promotion of that through Bloom. We are proud of the new green cities initiative and we are supporting it financially. Who will support Bloom and the green cities initiative into the future? Will it be European produce? If we do not have peat, there will be no produce to support Bloom, which is a fantastic festival and celebration of food and horticulture. We have done our part. I am bitterly disappointed with the lack of process, progress and timeframe in relation to resolution of this issue. There is no real common sense and there are three Departments battling about whose problem it is. We had an exceptionally good, raw meeting with the Minister with responsibility for horticulture. It was an engaging meeting attended by Kildare growers and a number of other consultations. It was honest, fair and raw and we got some reaction, but there is still no progress being made.

With the permission of the Chair, I would like to ask a question. Mr. Dunne mentioned sub 30 ha, which is in reference to the High Court case that under 30 ha. does not require planning or appropriate assessment and so on. That relates to the people who could always work. Up to now, they have not been stopped, in my opinion. Is there a solution? If somebody has a bigger area, say 60 or 70 ha. - this is the matter I am trying to have clarified by the working committee - is there an agreement that they can take 30 ha. out or is it strictly an island of 30 ha. that is agreed? Mr. Dunne referenced the Minister with responsibility for horticulture. Is he referencing the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan?

Mr. Kieran Dunne

No. It is the Minister of State, Senator Hackett.

She is the Minister with responsibility for horticulture.

Mr. Kieran Dunne

Correct.

That goes to the Deputy's point on the sub 30 ha. If someone has sub 30 ha, that is, 75 acres, is it not a good news story that the rest of his or her peatland would be reinstated and he or she could harvest that area? Is that not common sense? We have removed more than 90% of harvesting through Bord na Móna exiting the industry.

A comment was made about exporting peat. No professionally harvested horticultural peat is being exported at this time. Bord na Móna closed its mixing plant last Friday. It is supplying no further peat and is not moving any more peat in the country. We have one professional mixing plant left, which is Klassman Deilmann in Westmeath. If it goes, there will be no professional mixing plant left.

I thank Mr. Dunne for his passionate answers. He has outlined the significant difficulties that are coming down the tracks. We were on Bord Bia when the decision on Bloom was made, and that was a success story for the horticulture industry. I understand his point that its concept would be undermined and made a mockery of if it could not be supported by Irish industries.

Mr. Kieran Dunne

The value of the promotion of Bloom to the horticulture, food and amenity sectors is significant.

A number of members have indicated they wish to speak. I call Senator Lombard.

I am in the conference centre.

I welcome the contributions, which have been informative and given us a great view of the crisis in the industry. The timelines are frightening. By next September, we could be out of peat, which would have an impact on many parts of the horticulture industry.

We have spoken about the working group and the long-term goal of moving the industry in a slightly different direction, but I am lost as to what is happening in respect of ministerial involvement. This is probably one of the main issues I wish to raise. There was an interdepartmental meeting of three or four senior officials. Is there any knowledge of what happened at that meeting and where the game stands in trying to find a solution? Three Departments have a role in solving this issue. Due to that interdepartmental mix, though, there seems to be little movement. My understanding is that the remaining number of weeks are crucial. It is unfortunate that we do not have officials from all three Departments before us so that we might try to get movement on this. We have to reconsider doing so if possible. I am at a loss as to why the three Departments are not present and why we have not received answers to key questions about the timeline for delivering a suitable short-term plan. From speaking to officials and others over the past 48 hours, the next six weeks will be crucial. There will be a major confidence issue within the industry, due to which the amazing number of people involved in it could be affected. Given that it accounts for 17,000 jobs and more than €500 million, this is a significant issue.

My understanding is that 90% of our peat imports are of water-based materials, so we are effectively paying to import water. Is there a more effective way of importing peat from the Balkans or Poland?

I have more questions than answers, but I hope that we can get some movement in a short time.

Regarding the officials, this meeting was called at short notice at the request of the horticulture industry and no officials were available to us this morning. On my way down to the committee room, I saw that the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, was taking Commencement matters in the Seanad. It is not that officials refused; rather, it was the time factor.

Have they given us an indication of when they will appear before us?

When we finish this meeting, we will make a number of decisions about how we as a committee will proceed to try to progress this matter.

As Mr. Dunne mentioned, one of the difficulties is down to the fact that there are three Departments involved - Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Environment, Climate and Communications, and Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Has any of them been more forthcoming in trying to address the witnesses' concerns or are they being ignored equally by all three?

Last month, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, stated that the working group had submitted the interim report to the Department and that the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, subsequently wrote back to the working group. According to GMI's submission to us, the working group was still awaiting a detailed response to the report. Has there been progress towards the urgent action required? Had the Minister of State any light to shed on the report's contents or was his just a letter of acknowledgement? What can the working group tell the Government that GMI or the rest of the sector has not told it? GMI has told us of the impact of the peat ban, what growers need and the outlook for the sector.

Mr. John Neenan

I will deal with a number of questions, starting with Deputy Fitzmaurice's on whether we had given a solution. We have. The working group had an interim report, but it was not unanimous. NGOs such as Friends of the Irish Environment, An Taisce and one or two more basically wrote their own report. The interim report effectively recommended that peat harvesting continue throughout 2021 under emergency legislation and that legislation on a single system from 2022 onwards be introduced. I am not a legal eagle, but our legal people have advised us that, in the short term, an Act of the Oireachtas could exempt large-scale harvesting for a limited period, facilitate screening for an environmental impact assessment, EIA, or an appropriate assessment, AA, instead of a full EIA, and release the industry from the requirement of a licence for a limited time, that is, 2021. That is a short-term solution. Primary legislation would facilitate a long-term solution exempting large-scale peat harvesting from planning requirements once a licence had been granted or an EIA report had been submitted. The Minister could then amend the Environmental Protection Agency Act to deal explicitly with a retrospective use of peatlands and to cover any planning element that was not included in the Act. We submitted to the working group, which submitted to the Departments, the heads of a Bill that would probably sort out this issue. We had previously submitted them to the Departments last March. We have heard nothing back through the working group.

Senator Lombard asked about the three Departments and the meeting of senior officials. Officially, we have not heard anything about that. Unofficially, we have. Obviously, however, we have received no response.

Regarding Deputy Browne's question on whether all of the Departments were acting the same, it was felt by officials at the initial working group meeting and the previous meeting of the Oireachtas committee that some action could be taken in the short term and that legislation could be passed within two or three months. By the second meeting of the working group meeting, though, that view had changed completely and we were back to three to four years. Even if we had a single system, it was stated that legislation on it could take three years.

Members have asked what this committee can do.

Our feeling is that Government Departments do not accept that there is an emergency. They believe there are sufficient alternatives available. That is clearly not the case. The Departments do not appear to understand this. They do not understand what it is like to have a nursery and try to get supplies. What do we tell our employees? It is the same in the mushroom industry. Those Departments and the Ministers concerned do not understand that there is a real crisis just around the corner at the end of September. Mr. Dunne mentioned this, but I believe it is even worse than he has said. One of the companies that have supplies and bought some from Bord na Móna has now been threatened with legal action that it cannot take those supplies from stockpiles, which were purchased previously. That is ongoing also. This is a disaster for the horticultural industry, an industry that we need to build up.

Last week I attended a webinar about plants, the health of plants, and the dangers involved in importing plants and peat into Ireland. That does not seem to be taken into account either. The situation is that the Departments do not understand or want to accept that there is an emergency going to happen. For some unknown reason they believe that there are alternatives.

At the working group it was mentioned by one of the NGOs that in the short-term coir is almost essential. I respectfully suggest that anybody who advocates for this has read absolutely nothing about coir. As Ms Kavanagh mentioned, we do need to get a life cycle analysis of all the materials that are being used. It certainly appears to be a case of anything but peat. What has happened is unbelievable, that this is not understood.

I have remarks to make rather than questions. First, I must compliment the industry on the way they have approached this over the past number of months. I am aware that the Chairman has stated that the officials were not available. I was a Minister of State for more than nine years and no matter how short the notice the Department had of a meeting, some officials in the Department were found to come in to bring some sort of clarity to the situation. I will not say that our meeting today is a worthless exercise but the people we need in front of us today are the Department officials. I know exactly what our representatives from the industry are going through. Last Thursday I spoke with a Minister - it would be wrong of me to put names on who I spoke with - and I was told, and the contributors were told, that Department officials and Ministers were meeting last Thursday. I looked for an update on that meeting on Thursday evening and I was told yesterday that a solution would be found. If a solution is to be found I believe it is right and proper that Department officials would come before the committee and tell us exactly how they are going to approach the issue.

My background is in the horticultural sector and I studied it in college, so I understand the industry fairly well. It is an absolutely ludicrous situation. We talk about climate change and greenhouse gases but when the witnesses before us today bring a solution to climate change and greenhouse gases the Department and the Ministers say to them "You are doing a great job" while at the same time giving them a kick up the behind. Normally I am very slow to criticise officials because they are the pillar heads in any Department, but they should be coming before the committee here no matter how short the notice.

Mr. Neenan referred to Klasmann, which was mentioned to me also by somebody in my constituency. I want to be very careful on this because I do not want to complicate any legal case but is it true that legal action could now be taken or is being taken whereby Klasmann has stockpiles that will bring the industry through over the next 12 months or even longer, but they are not allowed to travel across the bog to draw in these stockpiles?

Reference was also made to the importance of Bloom. I would like to see Bord Bia taking a more proactive approach on this, in talking to the Departments of agriculture and the environment, on the importance of the sector. Bloom is not only European renowned; it is a world renowned showcase that occurs in the Phoenix Park annually. It attracts thousands of overseas visitors, trade stands and so on. I am sure they are laughing at us when we talk about some people who are trying to stop the industry in its tracks in doing what it does best.

Perhaps the witnesses could let the committee know about the Klasmann issue. I am not sure if they can say too much about it. I compliment Mr. Dunne on his approach to this. I have spoken with people who were on that group over the past months and I am aware that they have approached this in a very professional manner. It is up to the Ministers of State, Senator Hackett and Deputy Noonan, and the Department officials, to step up to the plate and to bring some clarity to this issue. I am in government and I will do whatever I can, as I have been doing over the last months, to bring some solution here. I understand there are environmental issues but I really do believe that a solution can be found here.

Deputy Kehoe asked a very specific question about a particular company and a legal case. If a witness can answer that without landing us in bother we would appreciate it. The point Deputy Kehoe made about the officials is extremely important. When this meeting finishes today the committee will have to discuss how we can progress this. We will discuss this when we finish this morning.

Mr. Kieran Dunne

Deputy Kehoe is well-informed on Klasmann.

I thank Mr. Dunne.

That is an experienced answer Mr. Dunne and, as Chairman, I appreciate it.

I thank Mr. Dunne very much for clarifying that. It is an absolute scandal. I am infuriated by having that fully confirmed. I absolutely believe the person who told me the story to be absolutely 100% right. Mr. Dunne has confirmed this now. It is a scandal that Department officials and Ministers would stand idly by while we have thousands of tonnes of peat stockpiled ready to be used and people are not allowed to cross the bog to access it. I find it ludicrous. Maybe if they used helicopters they might be able to bring it in or perhaps they would bring the Army in to do it, and stop people crossing the bog.

Mr. Kieran Dunne

I go back to Deputy Browne's question on the Departments. We as a group, and I personally, have been in touch the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and the horticulture sections within that Department, and with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on a daily and weekly basis. We started out on this issue four or five months ago and we have been fair, experienced, understanding and professional. I must say that all of the Departments have been equal to that. They have not ignored us. The situation is so difficult. They have not ignored us, but we have not made progress. We have not made one ounce of progress moving forward. To be fair, it is not easy to resolve this situation. We have resolved so many other difficult issues that it is not impossible to resolve it. It was mentioned earlier that where there is a will there is a way. All we want is the will.

We as an industry have bought into all aspects of government by way of policy, support and working on all aspects of growing our industry, both locally and on the export market, so there is a will on the part of our industry to work together. I work very closely with the Department, and as of 8.40 a.m. - we were on our test call at 8.45 a.m. - there was no further update from the three different Departments, or will we call them the three musketeers? At this point in time there is no progress. I think someone mentioned earlier urgency. There was urgency five months ago, so this is certainly urgent at this point in time.

I thank Mr. O'Rourke, Mr. Dunne, Ms Kavanagh and Mr. Neenan for an informative and pragmatic overview of the situation in which they find themselves. As a Government representative on the committee, I am both disappointed and somewhat embarrassed that there has been no progress. When we last met the witnesses, we met departmental officials as well, and maybe I was naive at the time but I felt the working group would arrive at a solution. I thank the Chairman for allowing the witnesses to come before the committee at short notice. Everyone on the committee will agree it is imperative that we get these three Departments in before the committee as a matter of urgency. We will discuss this later, but our work schedule for the remaining days of this Dáil session needs to be set aside until we deal with this issue. As was rightly said, two months of the sector's harvest have been lost, and unless we get a breakthrough in a matter of days or weeks, the sector will not get any significant harvest this year. Mr. Neenan set out that the sector has put forward its own solution. It sounds workable and pragmatic. I am still not sure whether the working group has fact-checked that proposal or whether it has an opinion on it. We will have to get that from the Departments when we get them in before us because, in the absence of the Departments coming with another viable plan, that seems to be the only plan open to us at the moment.

As for replacements for peat for the horticultural sector, we talk about all the various options but there is no proven option out there. It seems ludicrous, given the strong horticultural sector we have, to suddenly stop supplying peat in the hope that something will magically appear overnight to replace it. There is simply nothing out there, and no business or PLC would make such a decision. For three Departments to procrastinate on this issue in the hope that somehow a replacement product will magically appear seems nonsensical.

I have one question for Mr. Dunne. His view is that Bord na Móna has stopped producing peat. I am based in Longford, and over the past four to five days, I have had numerous calls about Bord na Móna stockpiling large quantities of peat. I am just looking back on my notes on this. Tonnes of peat are being stockpiled in embankments of 100 m to 150 m at Clooneeny bog on the outskirts of Killashee. The plan is to continue stockpiling it, and over time it will be moved by lorries and sold on. However, it will take months to move the peat that is there and Bord na Móna continues to stockpile it. Clearly, therefore, the company is continuing to operate regardless of what has been said, and that is worrying. It is also worrying that the horticulture industry is basically being held to ransom while Bord na Móna, it would appear, continues to operate. If Mr. Dunne could shed any light on that, I would appreciate it.

Mr. Kieran Dunne

I certainly can. It is not my view that Bord na Móna is not moving any peat. That statement came from Bord na Móna at an IFA meeting. The only peat Bord na Móna has at the moment is for briquettes. It is fuel peat, not horticultural-grade peat. I know this from walking the bogs and from the officials in Bord na Móna. Horticultural peat can be stockpiled for a maximum of 18 months or it is not usable. Ms Kavanagh might like to come in on this, but that is what I know from being on the ground. I have hundreds of acres of Bord na Móna bog pretty close to me with same stockpiles but I could not use it. It is purely fuel peat and is not suitable for horticulture.

Ms Anna Kavanagh

I agree with Mr. Dunne. Even the bog he mentioned would not be used for horticulture. I am pretty confident that Bord na Móna has finished the supply of horticultural peat.

Deputy Fitzmaurice asked about research and development and whether it would take five to ten years or whatever else. It is difficult to answer that question. Going on my experience in the UK, where I spent 20 years, it was at the forefront of not using peat and examining peat alternatives and has been doing so since the early 1990s but it has not come up with alternatives to peat. The UK is using a lot of alternatives along with peat in both the retail and the professional market but it has not replaced its more than 5 million cu. m of peat used with alternatives, so there is not a quick fix and we need to see what sustainable, responsibly resourced materials we have. As Mr. Neenan and I said earlier, we need to do life cycle analyses on those materials and need to know whether any of them seem to be as bad as people perceive peat to be, which is not necessarily our view, to judge it from there and then to test and research those products. It is difficult to put an exact year on it. Furthermore, going back to the properties of alternatives, there is no better diluent for those alternatives than Irish peat because Irish peat has the best buffering capacity. It will kind of buffer the inadequacies of some of those alternatives. It is crazy that we are importing peat.

I wish to refer briefly to an article published in the Baltic Business Quarterly magazine on 29 June. It states that Latvia has reported a 35% increase in exports of its peat in the past four years. It is giving Latvia its highest export potential, and 31% of what is used in the EU comes from Latvia. It is also stated in the article that 1 cu. m of peat grows 6,000 young trees, enough to cover 3 ha of land and grow 7,000 seedling plants. That is enough to grow 16 tonnes of cucumbers or 32 tonnes of tomatoes. Latvia produces 2 million tonnes, which is 10 million cu. m to 12 million cu. m, of peat. Estonia and Lithuania produce the same amount. The distinction is made between use for power, energy and fuel and use for horticulture. That has been missed here, and I would like to point out that the use of horticultural peat in Ireland represents only 0.12% of Irish peatlands. That contributes to food production and plant production, which is for the well-being of our citizens. There can be an inaccurate accounting of greenhouse gases as well. Peat is part of a circular economy. It does not go to waste when it is finished. The peat that is used to grow plants eventually probably ends up in the soil so it is used in that way. Mr. O'Rourke also pointed out that in the mushroom industry it is used on land to condition soil for cereal growing. We should appreciate that.

I have others who want to come in. I thank Ms. Kavanagh.

A Chathaoirligh, I know you have to be diplomatic to a point, but I have to agree with other speakers that it is scandalous that representatives of the Department are not here. I know you have cited the short notice, but any Minister who hears of an industry coming before an Oireachtas committee to report that 17,000 jobs are at risk will make sure that either he or she or senior officials are in attendance if that opportunity is available to them.

I already gave the Deputy the answer I was given.

I know, I appreciate that, but the very fact the Department is not here means it does not understand the subject, it does not appreciate the catastrophic situation we potentially face or it does not care. People have been talking about relevant Ministers. It is time the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine takes a hands-on approach to this issue because this is an agricultural issue. It deals with farms and farms that need our support. The sector I am most familiar with is mushrooms because it is a key component of agriculture in my own county, Monaghan. It is important that people recognise where it came from. The mushroom farmers of Monaghan generally come from small holdings, historically unprofitable, who did what they were asked and diversified. They found an alternative product which meant they moved from being unsustainable and unprofitable holdings to being key economic drivers for a whole region. Now they are telling us and the Minister that they face an existential crisis.

I do not take any industry verbatim when it comes to outline the issues it faces; one always has to balance that with alternative facts that are available. The difficulty the Government has here is that no alternative facts have been presented. There are only those presented by Growing Media and the others here before us. No one has disputed what they have said to the degree that when the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, was challenged by me and others in the Dáil on the solution, he volunteered that it was the importation of peat from third countries. That is a lunatic position. It is lunacy in economic terms for the operation of the farms I mentioned but even from an environmental perspective, if environmental and climate action concerns were your driving motivator, why would you not take the opportunity to ensure that we have robust environmental rules around the extraction of horticultural peat and ensure that those rules are enforced and monitored in a way that you simply cannot do when a product is imported?

I will reiterate a point that was just made. This goes to the lack of understanding among Ministers in Departments which conflate the use of peat extraction for the use of fuel and energy with that of horticultural peat. We are talking about horticultural peat mass being 0.1% of the overall peat mass in this country. The position that has been adopted is tokenism at its worst. It is doing a huge disservice to those of us who are ambitious and who want to see a robust climate action agenda adopted by the State. It is setting out that our Government's priority is tokenistic measures that do nothing for the environment but put people out of jobs and farms and companies out of business.

I think emergency legislation is necessary to allow peat extraction to take place this year and next year. What would the timeframe need to be for that to happen? There has been some discussion on alternatives. As well as the Minister's much-lauded importation of peat, we have heard of composted green waste as an alternative. Coir, the extract from coconuts, and also products such as perlite and vermiculite which are sourced from open cast mines. Can our delegates outline the challenges that these alternatives present.

Sorry, I know Deputy Carthy was late joining the meeting. The delegation went through the alternatives in detail earlier.

I will get them from the transcript. Thank you. What about the emergency legislation?

Mr. Kieran Dunne

It has to be a fast-tracked approach. The seriousness of the situation is that what happens over the next six weeks will either mean we have secured peat product of our production for 2021 and 2022. It is not just about this season or this month and next month. That will secure our 2022 production. That is a very serious situation. I am told by the Department that it is trying to get a fast track approach which means that it will not end up in the High Court or in trouble with the EPA or An Taisce. It is trying to pull everybody together to try and resolve this situation. As was said earlier, it is not an easy fix but there has to be a great willingness to drive on and get the job done.

Can Ms Kavanagh respond to Deputy Carthy? Is it possible to do this with a statutory instrument or must it be legislation?

Ms Anna Kavanagh

I would not really know exactly about the legislation. What we have asked for in the last four months is some way of fast-tracking it. We thought that might be possible by using the less than 30 ha. where one did not need planning or an EPA licence. Whether one needs an environmental impact assessment or appropriate assessment, etc., depends on each individual bog and the conditions around it. The time is running out. That is the concern. People say we have six weeks but by the time something gets up and running and people get out harvesting that time will be lost at this stage. The urgency of this is paramount. It just needs to be done and done now.

We will discuss actions afterwards but the committee needs clarity on whether it is legislation or a statutory instrument that can do this. I hope the committee will agree when we discuss this afterwards that we will get legal advice, as a committee, on what measures are in the Government's power to do in a very short time frame.

I thought the environment was a world problem. Whether peat is got in Latvia or any other country, does it make any difference? Why should we import a product that we have in plentiful supply in this country? I have listened to this debate and I listened to other debates. The guests are welcome. Their industry has been attacked, like a lot of other industries around this country, because of decisions being made by politicians. Deputy Kehoe spoke earlier about officials and the Chairman mentioned officials coming in at short notice. The reason the officials do not want to come in today is because there is no political leadership in this. The political leadership in this is that they do not want peat to be produced in this country. We have a daft situation where we are bringing in peat from Latvia. I fell over a bale of briquettes the other day that came in from another country, and us with more peat in this country than any place else in the world. If it is going to be taken out of some place else in the world, would we not be well to take it out in Ireland? We will have to make political decisions today when this meeting is over. We are going to have to talk. This is a political issue that needs to be dealt with because we will have more problems down the line if this continues. I am getting sick and tired of the direction we are going in. I was not that in favour of voting for the Bill last week. It was either do that or get out of the party and that may have to come at that stage as well.

The detail in that has not yet been produced but when it is, it will hurt the Chairman and many other Members. There may come a time when we have to say enough is enough. Enough is enough with peat. Peat should be harvested in Ireland, sold in Ireland and produced in Ireland. Our guests from GMI do not ask the State for anything. They employ 17,000 people nationally in jobs we need in rural Ireland.

I did some canvassing in Dublin over the past two weeks and learned that there are two different Irelands. The city Ireland does not really understand rural Ireland and never will. Too many people in government now are from city Ireland and do not understand rural Ireland.

I thank the Deputy. I think that was more of a statement than a question. Senator Gallagher, who is not a member of the committee but comes from Monaghan, raised this issue with me over the weekend and has been working hard on it. Deputy Leddin has joined the meeting late, so I will let him in first, followed by Senator Gallagher.

I thank the Chairman. I formally joined the meeting late but I was in transit and was listening throughout. Some of my questions have been answered but for the most urgent one, I do not think there has been a clear answer. It concerns what legislation would need to be amended or what new legislation might be needed. I acknowledge Mr. Dunne 's point that this is not an easy fix, although it is nonetheless urgent.

This was signalled perhaps two years ago, when Bord na Móna, for commercial reasons, ended horticultural peat extract. Might more have been done then in order that we would not find ourselves in this position now? I am open to being educated by the witnesses. Is it simply the case that the industry and the operators within would need to apply for planning permission and go through the formal processes of appropriate environmental impact assessment reports and so on? Was that not done and are we now in a situation where that would take too long, given that planning permission cannot be granted quickly?

I might make a point in response to Deputy Ring. I do not think the climate Bill has any bearing whatsoever on this and we should not leave anyone watching proceedings with the impression it has.

Finally, what proportion of harvested horticultural peat was exported in 2019? Can our guests confirm that we are looking for a solution purely for domestic horticultural peat and that we are not seeking to open up export potential as well?

Mr. John Neenan

A number of questions have been raised. Deputy Flaherty asked whether the legislation that GMI submitted to the Government was fact-checked. The working group submitted it to each of the Departments, namely, the Departments of the Environment, Climate and Communications and Housing, Local Government and Heritage, in order that their legal representatives could check it. That was probably at the end of April or early May and there has been no response to that.

Deputy Carthy and the Chairman asked about a timeframe for primary or secondary legislation. Emergency legislation can be prepared in a very short period by way of secondary legislation., although ideally, the longer-term solution should be by way of primary legislation. Our legal advisers have submitted heads of those two Bills to both Departments, and we have no difficulty submitting them to the committee after this meeting as well, if members wish.

To respond to Deputy Leddin, the situation has been ongoing since 2012 or 2013. It came to a head in February 2018, when operators first learned of a difficulty with the long-standing exemption from planning. GMI and many others believe it was an unintended consequence of an Act of 2011. In December 2018, operators learned that this difficulty would not be resolved by an appeal to the Court of Appeal. In January 2019, they learned the State had resolved the difficulty by removing peat harvesting from planning control and transferring the responsibility to the Environmental Protection Agency. In October 2019, the court ruled that the legislation was not correct and that there were issues with it and in July 2020, operators learned they could not lawfully resolve the issue within the substitute consent process, which was another problem. In December 2020, operators learned the State had passed a law to remedy the public participation defect in the process. One of our members has had an application in with An Bord Pleanála for more than 14 months, seeking leave to apply for substitute consent, and that has not been dealt with. Another member got leave to apply but that is likely to be challenged in the courts.

I listen to these issues as a member of the working group. The company I work for, Klasmann-Deilmann, was offered grant aid by the State to develop the bogs in Rathowen, County Westmeath. Part of the grant aid was given on the basis that the company could not sell its product in Ireland or the UK but rather in Europe. Questions are now being asked as to why the State fulfilled that. It was the same with Bord na Móna. People do not know the history of these issues. The board was set up to develop the boglands and create much-needed employment in those rural areas, and to supply energy peat as well. Things move on, and we seem to forget all those aspects and they need to be pointed out. There was nothing wrong with companies exporting peat. As I said, they were encouraged by the State to do so. Klasmann-Deilmann was funded to improve our facilities and our training for all our employees, which we availed of. Now, some companies have commitments to supplying peat, having entered into contracts with some of the multiples. They have to continue with that but it will finish soon.

Deputy Fitzmaurice knows more about the sub-30 ha provision than I do. My understanding is that the point about the sub-30 ha provision was raised in the context of moving some turf cutters from one bog to another and they were brought to areas of under 30 ha. The sub-30 ha provision, as Mr. Dunne said, will be a very short-term solution. Imagine the dairy farmers of Ireland were told they could operate with their dairy herd only on 30 ha or less. Would Avonmore, Kerry Group, Lakeland or whatever remain in Ireland doing that? It is crazy when we consider that just over one tenth of 1% of boglands in Ireland are for horticulture.

I am not a legal expert but we are happy enough with the legislation. I would respectfully suggest that it is not Growing Media Ireland that should be providing to the State the solution for a problem. However, we have offered a solution, as well as outlining it.

I call Senator Gallagher.

I will call Deputy Leddin again in a minute.

I will be very quick. We are here to try to solve the domestic issue. We are not discussing opening markets for export. I want to get clarity on that.

Mr. John Neenan

It is clear from what is going on here today that our primary concern is the Irish horticultural industry. The Deputy said that he was listening and he may have heard Ms Kavanagh and Mr. Dunne explain it is not all the same type of peat from all types of bogs. Some people may export some peat for the hobby market or they may export primarily to the North of Ireland. Some of the peat that goes to the latter comes back into the hobby market here. Today's discussion is primarily about ensuring that we have sufficient peat for the Irish horticultural market.

I thank the Chairman and other members of the committee for affording me the opportunity to say a few words. Deputy Carthy outlined how critical the mushroom industry is to County Monaghan. It is vital, particularly to the economy in north County Monaghan where I live. Many families and communities are totally dependent on the mushroom industry. The word "crisis" has been used regarding this situation; I would use the word "emergency". It is unforgivable that we are a matter of weeks away from a doomsday cliff-edge situation where the economy of County Monaghan will be severely damaged as a result of this.

I have listened to the contributions of the witnesses and the members of the committee which I have found very informative. I would use the term "environmental showmanship", not just on this issue but in respect of food production in this country, because we do not mind moving the problem so that it is anywhere but here. We are turning a blind eye to carbon footprints and carbon emissions in other countries at the expense of production there and in the context of the issue in question in this country. That is something that needs to be addressed. Unless we get a global response to the problem of carbon footprints and carbon emissions, as Deputy Ring outlined, I am afraid we will be banging our heads against a brick wall. This is a serious issue.

I will confine the remainder of my contribution to questions. The problem, as I see it, is that the matter seems to straddle the areas of responsibility of three different Departments. Is part of the problem that no one is taking ownership of it? The Chairman outlined his efforts in trying to get the three Departments together. Have we reached the stage where we need to get the three Department heads - the three Ministers - together to find a solution to this problem?

Regarding regulations and legislation, how do we compare with other EU states on planning permission, environmental assessments, etc., in respect of peat production? Is Ireland alone in that regard or are we in line with other EU states? I again thank the Chairman for affording me the opportunity to address the committee.

Mr. Kieran Dunne

The Senator asked about getting the three Ministers involved. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, met last Monday week, partly as a result of a meeting with County Kildare growers. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, outlined our serious concerns based on the "raw meeting" - her words - she had with the Kildare growers. The outcome was that three assistant secretaries are dealing with the issue. As of this morning, however there has been no outcome from those meetings.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to ask a question. Mr. Neenan said that no Department or office of the State has come back to him with their consideration of his submission on the heads of the Bill to counteract the court decision made in 2019. I ask him to provide more detail about the application for leave for substitute consent which spent 14 months with An Bord Pleanála awaiting decision. Again, we see impact of the lack of a statutory time limit for An Bord Pleanála to make decisions. We see this in the context of housing, in the commercial sector and now in this sector, which is under immense pressure. Even with the limited options that remain open for application, it is not good enough that an arm of the State has been dealing with this application for 14 months. The Government has committed to a planning reform Bill in the autumn. I call on this committee and others to offer their support to ensure that An Bord Pleanála will be subject to a statutory time period in which to make decisions on planning applications.

I refer to the working group and its consideration of the just transition. Notwithstanding the difficulties associated with the national just transition programme, to date at least, the latter has failed to help the workforce and communities in the regions impacted by the acceleration of decarbonisation and the sectors such as the one represented today. The European Commission is devising a just transition programme and up to €80 million will be available. Different stakeholders, including regions, local authorities and regional transition boards have made submissions to that. The Government is in the process of submitting a territorial plan to the Commission; it may have already done so. We have not had sight of that. I ask the committee to contact the relevant Departments with a view to making that public in order to ensure that we have an input into it. It needs to have the full support of all representatives who will be impacted by such a territorial plan, irrespective of whether it is accepted, rejected or amended. It should not be submitted without our knowledge of its contents. I ask the committee to raise that matter also.

Mr. John Neenan

Let me first deal with Senator Gallagher's question. In the other European countries, there is only a single system; it is either for licensing or for planning. Under EU law, there is no necessity for both. Ireland is an outlier there.

I said the application had been with An Bord Pleanála for 14 months. It has actually been with it for 13 months.

An Bord Pleanála is not making the decision because it will be challenged in the courts when it does so.

Deputy Cowen had a question about the heads of the agreement and the lack of a response in that regard. We have received no response from any of the Departments. A request was made to pass it on to the legal officials in the Department and we gave that permission. If they thought it was okay, it was to go to the Office of the Attorney General but we have heard nothing back since.

On that point, Mr. Neenan said there was a high-level meeting between representatives of the sector and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan in recent weeks. Was this issue not on the agenda of that meeting? If it was, was a response forthcoming?

Mr. John Neenan

I will ask Mr. Dunne to answer that question.

Mr. Kieran Dunne

We are aware the meeting happened but not of the outcome. We have had little response, other than being told that work is actively being done on this issue and on the serious situation in which we find ourselves. That is generally the information which has come back to us.

Fair enough. I also asked a question on the just transition and territorial plans.

Who wishes to take that query?

Did the witnesses state there has been no discussion concerning alternatives or assistance in respect of the working group? I refer to compensation, alternative products and means by which the industry might survive without this product.

The witnesses went through the alternative products and problems in that regard at the start of the meeting and Deputy Cowen will find the details he requires in the Official Record.

I believe Ms Kavanagh will address the just transition aspect but the witnesses went into the detail at the outset on the various alternative products and the issues with them.

Ms Anna Kavanagh

On the just transition, that has been mentioned at meetings because of the extra costs and everything else that will be faced in this regard by growers, peat producers and everyone involved in the industry. Therefore, this aspect has been taken on board and one of our suggestions is that a just transition fund should be made available. We asked that the Minister with special responsibility for the just transition be allowed to come and address our meeting as well but I think he was seen to be involved in other areas. However, the whole issue of a just transition has been mentioned several times and we believe that a fund must be made available as part of the solution. I hope that answers the question for the Deputy.

I thank Ms Kavanagh and all the witnesses for appearing before the committee today. They have outlined this issue for us in great detail. Nothing that has been said is new to us. As a committee, however, it is good for us to get a kick up the rear regarding this being not a problem but an emergency for the horticulture sector, as someone said a few minutes ago. I suggest to members that we now close this public session of the meeting. I thank the members for their attendance and I propose that we continue in private session to discuss what this committee can do to try to achieve progress on this issue for the horticulture industry. The clock is chiming at 12 midnight for the sector and this issue must be resolved. If members are agreeable, then, we will close this public session and continue in private session to discuss what action this committee can take on foot of this public session. Is that agreed? Agreed. I thank the witnesses and we appreciate their attendance and the stark information they provided to us.

The joint committee went into private session at 11.15 a.m., suspended at 11.40 a.m. and resumed in public session at 3.30 p.m.