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Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine debate -
Tuesday, 21 Sep 2021

Impact of Peat Shortages on the Horticultural Industry: Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage

The first session of today's meeting is on the impact of peat shortages on the horticultural industry. I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage and electoral reform at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Noonan. He is joining us from a witness room in Kildare House. He is joined from the Department by Mr. Brian Lucas, who is joining remotely. They are both very welcome to the meeting. We have received the Minister of State's opening statement which has been circulated to members and will be published on the Oireachtas website. The Minister of State will be given ten minutes to make his opening statement before we go into questions and answers.

Before we begin, I have an important notice on parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter in these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that where possible they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I now call on the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to make his opening statement. On the previous occasion we discussed the peat issue and the problems the horticultural sector had, I and other committee members were very disappointed that a senior official at the Department said part of the solution to the peat shortage in this country was the importation of peat. I cannot see how that makes any environmental or economic sense. That statement took a lot of us very much aback at the previous meeting we had on this issue. I now ask the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to address the committee.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an gcoiste. I thank the committee for its time this afternoon. Peatlands have been one of the most abiding features of the Irish landscape since the last ice age. They cover a large area of the land surface, occurring as raised bogs, blanket bogs and fens. Peatlands have a key biodiversity value and provide a range of ecosystem services. They are considered among the most important ecosystems of the world because of their huge carbon stores and their ability, when growing, to capture carbon and thus help to regulate climate. Irish peatlands are a significant carbon store, containing up to 75% of all the national soil organic carbon. On average, peatlands are estimated to contain between 30 kg and 70 kg of soil carbon per cubic metre. This is about ten times as much as a typical mineral soil.

Over the centuries, peatlands have been naturally cooling the atmosphere, the opposite to human-induced warming caused by the emission of carbon dioxide, by removing CO2 from the atmosphere. When peatlands are drained or damaged, the peat oxidises and the carbon is released back to the atmosphere. Peat oxidation can be stopped or reduced through the restoration of sites and hydrological management measures. A restored bog can actively sequester carbon, and once restored it becomes a carbon store. It is essential to keep the carbon stored in the ground and restore and rehabilitate the hydrological balance. This means water must be maintained close to the peatland surface over most of the year to return degraded peatlands to sinks or carbon neutral systems.

Action 5 of the national peatlands strategy provides for a review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. To undertake this review, the former Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht established a working group comprising representatives from that Department, which chaired the working group, from the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, and from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The working group produced an issues paper on the review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. This paper was published on 9 October 2019 and submissions were invited on the paper by 31 January 2020. Thirty-four submissions were received from industry stakeholders, environmental non-governmental organisations and the public and all of these are available to view online. A report on the review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry was prepared by the inter-agency working group on the basis of the submissions received. I published this report in September 2020.

The review report concludes there are significant positives and negatives arising from ending the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. There are complexities in terms of the environmental benefits of ending horticultural peat extraction set against the economic consequences for the industry, food security, the lack of an effective alternative to peat and the economic and cultural impact on the local communities that would be affected.

Based on the recommendations in the report, I set up a working group comprised of representatives of the relevant Departments, State bodies, environmental non-governmental organisations and various sectors within the horticultural industry. This group, under an independent chairman, Dr. Munoo Prasad, has had 11 meetings to date. As well as discussing the current situation the horticultural industry finds itself in, the working group has focused on the potential of alternatives to the use of peat in the horticultural industry. It has had a number of presentations from, for example, the chair of the UK Growing Media Association, an associate professor at the school of agriculture and food science in UCD, Teagasc, and from growing media producers and horticultural industry growers.

In Ireland, large-scale peat extraction is subject to a dual consent regime of both planning permission and integrated pollution control licensing by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. Under the Planning and Development Act 2000, all development, unless specifically exempted under the Act or associated regulations, requires planning permission. Under the planning and development regulations of 2001, peat extraction in a new or extended area of less than 10 ha or in a new or extended area of 10 ha or more where the drainage of the bogland commenced prior to 21 January 2002 is exempted development. This exemption is subject to a restriction in section 4(4) of the 2000 Act whereby that exempted development status is lost if an environmental impact assessment under the EU environmental impact assessment directive or appropriate assessment under the habitats directive is required in respect of that development.

Peat extraction involving a new or extended area of 30 ha or more requires an environmental impact assessment and, therefore, planning permission. Peat extraction below that threshold may require an environmental impact assessment if it is considered it would be likely to have significant effects on the environment. Any peat extraction that would be likely to have significant effects on a European site, such as a special area of conservation or a special protection area, requires an appropriate assessment and, therefore, planning permission.

The environmental impact assessment directive is a European Union law which requires that consent for development for certain public and private projects likely to have significant environmental effects should be granted only after an assessment of those effects has been carried out by a competent authority. The first iteration of the directive was adopted in 1985. The directive is broadly transposed into Irish legislation through several development and activity consent systems covering, for example, land use planning, waste permitting, integrated pollution control licensing, roads and motorway construction, and foreshore development.

Peat extraction of an area greater than 50 ha requires planning consent from a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála as well as integrated pollution control licensing from the EPA, with reference to the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992, as amended, both of which regimes require environmental impact assessments to be carried out by the respective competent authorities, which are the planning authority and the EPA, and appropriate assessment if relevant.

The planning system includes the availability of the substitute consent process set out in Part XA of the Planning and Development Act 2000, under which regularisation of any development requiring retrospective environmental impact assessment or appropriate assessment under the planning side of the dual consent regime may be sought.

If a proposal for peat harvesting requires retrospective regularisation of historic peat extraction that should have been subject to environmental impact assessment or appropriate assessment but was not, then the proposed activity would require both substitute consent approval as well as a prospective planning permission under the planning regime, in addition to relevant consents under the Environmental Protection Agency’s integrated pollution control licensing regime. Irrespective of whether an alternative consent regime could be put in place, there can be no derogation from the need to comply with the environmental impact assessment and habitats directives.

The horticultural industry makes a significant contribution to economic output and employment in Ireland. The productive potential of the sector has relied on peat-based growing media and peat casing. The sector is divided into subsectors, each having unique requirements in terms of peat harvesting. Harvesting of peat by growing media and mushroom casing manufacturers in recent years has been challenging from a legal and regulatory point of view in the context of planning permission and integrated pollution control licensing requirements. Consequently, the working group first examined this issue. Arising from deliberations within the group, the chairman submitted an interim report to me last May. The interim report sets out the biodiversity value of peatlands, which also provide a range of ecosystem services, information on peatlands used for the production of peat for horticulture in Ireland and on the horticultural industry in Ireland, the reliance on peat in the Irish horticultural industry, the challenges in securing alternative growing media to peat, the proposed alternatives to peat, information on the importation of peat, the current legislative provisions for large-scale peat extraction and a series of proposals relating to the current position the horticultural industry finds itself in.

The interim report also indicates there is general agreement among the members of the working group that peat for the professional horticulture sector should be available until a target date of 2030 and a maximum target date of 2035, with the amount of peat being used by the sector being phased out over that time. There should be strict monitoring of the reduction by an independent body. The level of reduction would depend on the success of research and development on peat alternatives.

It is clear a solution to this issue requires a multi-departmental and multi-agency response in co-operation with the industry and academia. In that regard, and following on from the receipt of the interim report, the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, of the Environment, Climate and Communications, and of Housing, Local Government and Heritage are working on a suite of measures as regards the situation in the horticultural industry. I understand that Dr. Prasad, the chairman of the working group, is preparing his final report, which will focus on the potential of alternatives to the use of peat in the horticultural industry. This report will be presented to the working group before being sent to me. Currently, we hope the final report will be submitted to me by the end of September.

I worked in the horticultural sector in the past. It is a very important sector to Ireland. We are working collaboratively and, working together, we can find a solution to the significant challenge currently faced by the sector.

There is huge frustration out there and people are worried about the economic viability of the sector. That is where the committee will be coming from. We want to get a satisfactory economic and environmental solution to this issue.

Many members are looking to speak and we have limited time so I will take speakers in groups of three. I will go back to the Minister of State after each group of speakers because otherwise I do not think I will be able to give everyone an opportunity.

I thank the Minister for coming in. I am aware our peatlands are an important ecosystem. I was lucky enough to grow up in the bog and I am lucky enough to still live on the edge of the bog. I value and appreciate what the bog did for us as a young family when we were growing up. I am appreciative of the people who worked on the bogs of Ireland over the years.

We were warned time and again that we would end up importing peat. We were warned time and again that just transition was going to fail the midlands. My phone was pinging from early this morning. The Irish Times is not widely circulated in Longford but the story quickly made the rounds. Former Bord na Móna employees and peat producers were aghast to learn of the massive importation of peat into County Louth at the weekend. Some 3,600 tonnes of peat travelled 3,000 km from Latvia. Similar if not better quality peat could have been extracted from bogland no more than ten to 15 miles away and could have been brought on 10 km journeys. We are now being told by Growing Media Ireland, which represents the peat producers, that we are going to need at least two shipments the size of what arrived into the country last Saturday to meet Ireland's peat demands for the foreseeable future. As I say, there is great anger out there, not only with the Department Housing, Local Government and Heritage but also with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan. We have had 11 meetings of the working group at this stage and yet we have seen no actions emanating from the interim report that was submitted in May.

Peat producers are aghast, disillusioned and disappointed. They looked for a fair, equitable and workable licensing system that would have enabled them to extract peat. Everybody within the sector accepts there is a short lifespan left for the sector. As the Minister of State rightly said, that lifespan may end in 2030 or may extend to 2035. I appreciate the Minister of State is only here for a short while but we need to see some message of hope and positivity, and some degree of certainty, going out to these peat producers because the midlands, the heart of Ireland in terms of bogland and energy production over the past 60 years, has lost faith in the just transition process. Bord na Móna and the ESB have ridden roughshod over the region at this stage. It must be said we are rapidly losing faith in the Minister of State's Department and, as I said earlier, in the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan.

I have three questions to ask before I hand over to my colleagues. What hope can the Minister of State give us today that I can relay to the peat producers, many of whom are logged in and watching his contribution? What reassurance can I give those producers, their families and employees that their sector is not going to be written off, that it is going to get a lifeline that will enable them to continue producing to 2030 or 2035? Will the Minister of State tell us definitively whether there will be a route forward for the sector?

Bord na Móna withdrew its seven applications from An Bord Pleanála at the start of the year, leaving two live applications, both of which are from a local producer, Klasmann Deilmann, which is just up the road from me in Rathowen. There is surely an opportunity there for some of the Department officials to liaise with An Bord Pleanála and to prioritise and, it is hoped, get those two applications over the line to allow the producer to start extracting that peat to try to head off the absolute folly whereby we imported more than 200 truckloads into our country last Saturday, something we are going to repeat twice every month.

I thank the Minister of State for his presentation. I, too, want to reference today's edition of The Irish Times. There were two articles relating to these matters. My phone was hopping at 9 o'clock in response to those articles. The timescale to find a practical and ecological alternative to peat must be reasonable and realistic. I am not sure the times the Minister of State has set out to 2030 or 2035 are realistic, sustainable or appropriate given the difficulties faced by the mushroom industry and horticultural propagation sector, with which I know the Minister of State is familiar.

The Minister of State referred to the target date of 2030 with a maximum target date of 2035. That means ten to 14 years to phase out the use of peat in the Irish horticultural industry. We are, in effect, going to importing peat for the next 14 years, according to the logic the Minister of State has set out, while research is done on replacing peat with an alternative. Of the 3,600 tonnes of peat imported from Latvia last week, what purification, if any, was carried out on this important product? That is an important question. What controls are being put in place for the by-product of this imported peat? That is particularly relevant if we have not addressed the issue of purification. The cost of importing peat could be up to three times that of sourcing it domestically. Consumers will have to absorb that cost in their pockets and that is a concern.

What about the countries that are exporting their peat and their carbon stores? We live in the European Union. We have heard time and again in recent debates on climate action and the challenges around all that about solidarity with our neighbours in the European Union and how we are all in this together. We have to address that. It is not good enough to say we have a different requirement. We have our neighbours in the European Union. The Minister of State has his fellow activists and party members across many of the states of the European Union. We need to address those issues.

I would like to hear the Minister of State's response. I do not doubt his commitment to biodiversity and peatlands conservation and restoration - I share those ambitions and concerns with him - but we have to be realistic about timelines for the phasing out of peat and we have to have a successful, viable and commercial alternative, and we simply have no idea when that will happen.

I welcome the Minister of State and his officials. I do not want to repeat some of what the other speakers have stated but I fully concur with their thoughts on this issue. I know we are all very interested in the green agenda, but I can tell the Minister of State that it is getting a huge amount of negativity since we are not able to sort out what I believe is a small issue but a major issue to an awful lot of people out there in the indigenous horticulture and nursery sectors. A short-term measure is needed to look after the horticulture and nursery sectors because of the sudden end of harvesting here. What is needed is for us to have a practical approach to this and to be able to harvest a small amount of peat that is needed for a huge industry but a very minor industry in the scheme of things. It is a very important industry to all of us.

As an island nation, Ireland is exposed to a huge number of risks, including disease, by importing peat. We have seen that with ash dieback. I am not sure whether the Minister of State and his Department and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have taken this into consideration. I understand there is a suggestion that there is a need for a change to legislation for a very common-sense solution here. I do not want to finger-point - I understand the Green Party is in government and that my party is in government with the Green Party - but I would suggest there is an unwillingness on the part of the Minister of State as a member of the Green Party and on the Green Party as members of the Government to have this practical change to legislation. We see the green agenda coming down the tracks and fast approaching us. If we were to do something small for this sector, I assure the Minister of State that the Government would get a huge amount of goodwill from other sectors. A common-sense approach is needed.

We hear that 4,000 tonnes arrived into Ireland on Saturday morning, involving 200 trucks travelling 3,000 km. What does that do for carbon emissions? If we try to sell peat, it is almost like selling sand to the Arabs. We can sell peat to everybody, but importing it does not make sense on this occasion. I have great respect for and support the green agenda, but we have a very small agenda here that we have to look after as well. I know the Minister of State will probably ask what else will come down the tracks if we look after this small industry. I think most people understand carbon credits and the green agenda that faces us.

I was contacted by the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, about Kelly's Nursery, in Streamstown, near Mullingar. Some other Deputies from the midlands might be very well aware of Kelly's. It had a recent inspection, there was a positive result for a disease and plants within an exclusion zone of 2 m around all the plants that were found to be positive had to be destroyed. If a disease comes in with the imported peat, what sort of financial package will be available for that? We have seen this with ash dieback and in other areas. I feel there is a common-sense approach to be taken, and Deputy Noonan is a common-sense Minister of State. I have known him for many years. He and his officials, along with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, have to see a common-sense approach here.

I will take those three members' questions together if that is okay, Chairman. I will make an initial comment to address Deputy Flaherty, Senator Boyhan and Deputy Kehoe about this being the green agenda. It is not the green agenda; it is the law. That is the reality of this. My Department, which has responsibility for heritage, has no role in this except in the sense that the peatlands strategy, specifically recommendation No. 5 of the strategy, was to establish this working group to look at alternatives. We took up that challenge in September 2020 and acted very swiftly to do that not long after forming the Government. We tasked Dr. Prasad and the working group to look at alternatives. I assure the committee members they are working flat out to try to achieve that and to look at those alternatives.

Excuse me if I am skipping some of the questions. Senator Boyhan raised the issue of my stating that the timeframe for finding a solution is 2030 to 2035. That is the recommendation of the interim report, not my recommendation. I said at the outset of this that my preferred option was not to import peat. I saw the report in The Irish Times today and it is disheartening. Peat has been imported but, historically, there have also been significant quantities of peat exported from this country. The reality is that it is a commodity. I am taking on board the issue of a biohazard and the challenges surrounding importation of peat.

I will go through the other questions quickly because I want to try to allow in all the members. In response to Deputy Flaherty's comments on hope, I am saying the whole of the Government is putting all its effort into this. I spoke to the Taoiseach about this last week and he is very concerned and wants to seek a resolution, but we have to act within the law. Even moving towards a single consent regime will not get us there any faster because it will require primary legislation. As for a route forward, we are trying to seek a short-term and medium-term solution. In my view, a longer term solution around alternatives has to be brought about more quickly than 2030 because of the significant challenges surrounding climate and biodiversity but also to provide assurance to the sector. I hope I have addressed that.

As for the imported peat, I have addressed the point Senator Boyhan raised. As I said, there is a significant carbon impact of importation of peat and the vehicles required to transport it. There is no doubt about that. As I said, however, peat is imported and exported, and one of the solutions that had been put forward is importation. It would have been much easier to seek a solution in Ireland and to be able to use Irish peat but, as I said, we are locked within the existing law. If Mr. Brian Lucas is with us, and I thank him because I know he has been before the committee on a number of occasions and has been a great asset in trying to steer us through the legal challenges, he might address specifically the issue of the current dual consent and moving towards a possible single consent regime. The committee has probably heard about that already. The challenges in that regard are significant as well. I will hand over to Mr. Lucas on that.

Mr. Brian Lucas

This came up the last day I was before the committee with officials from two other Departments. An assistant secretary from the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications indicated then that, as the Minister of State has said, a new consent regime would require primary legislation and would take time to prepare and present to the Oireachtas. There would also be a need to introduce new systems and processes by whatever statutory body was given responsibility for such a new system.

Only at that point could the regulation process begin under a new consent system which we have talked about before, namely, leave to apply followed by substitute consent, an application for planning permission and, if necessary, an integrated pollution control licence from the EPA. That is why the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications indicated to the committee that following the route of a single consent regime would not allow for an earlier resumption of large-scale or commercial peat extraction than through engaging with the current dual consent system.

Deputy Kehoe referred to harvesting a small amount of peat. I ask what we mean by "a small amount of peat". The previous day I was before the committee, I referred to the regime for the exempt development provisions for sites under 30 ha, which the Minister of State also talked about in his opening statement. As he said, there is no way around derogating from the environmental impact assessment directive and the appropriate assessment directive. Screening for both of these directives would have to be part of any new alternative consent regime and there is no way around that.

If I may, Chairman, I raised the purification issue in a question to the Minister of State. Maybe he could address it later on if he cannot do it now.

Unfortunately I cannot because the importation is, I think, a matter for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We can come back with a response on that. I absolutely take on board the Senator's point on the potential for importing biohazards or hazardous material.

I thank the Minister of State and Mr. Lucas for coming in. I am fully aware that at the time no Department would take it up and they and their Department were essentially lumped with it. There is a serious concern here for a simple reason. We had a person in from the Department with responsibility for climate and they were the most arrogant person ever to come before a committee. They basically said straight out that part of the solution is going to be importing peat. Anyone with any environmental brain in their head will know bringing peat 200 km to a boat, 3,000 km on the boat and then having 200 lorry loads of it going up and down the country is complete lunacy. I know everyone wants to get in questions fairly quickly. We need clarity on this. We are dancing from report to report. It is not the Minister of State's fault. Earlier Deputy Kehoe mentioned the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke. He is in the Department with responsibility for the environment. He has the authority to bring planning forward if need be and it would be helpful if that was done. Substitute consent in the quarries has been a disaster.

I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, whether there is a commitment one way or the other in Government on harvesting next April. Nobody is going to harvest it now for the winter; there is no point. The Government now has a window of seven months to get this solved. As Deputy Flaherty asked earlier, will the Government give a commitment to the people who need to harvest this by next April? I understand from the working group that everyone is in agreement we must do it until 2030 or maybe 2035, as the Minister of State has outlined. Is there a commitment from Government that for the harvest season starting April next year, people will be able to go out to save this industry? That is my first question.

Mr. Lucas will be familiar with my second question. I have worked with him for years and, as the man says, I cannot commend him well enough, in fairness to him. We did a system for certain bogs where we picked areas out - Mr. Lucas will be able to give me an answer on this - and you looked at the up-welling and did all the scientific work. Mr. Ray Flynn, who all the witnesses probably know, was involved in it. You basically showed there was an area of the bog that would not be worth restoring, to put it simply. Is there a process like that which could be brought in? To Mr. Lucas specifically, what if these people picked out, say, a 50 ha plot and said they were going to do that 50 ha this year, keep men in there and then go to another place and revamp that? Are there not solutions like that which can be done to ensure we keep the consistency of supply to resolve this problem?

My third question is for the Minister of State. It is not associated with this and he may not know about it. I raise the issue of the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, where natural heritage areas, NHAs, were to be in category 2. Many farmers who want to plant trees are held up at the moment because of a Bill that fell in the previous Dáil that was to come in before Christmas of this year, I think. Is getting that resolved on the agenda?

There are thousands of jobs at risk. In his opening remarks the Minister of State indicated he recognised the importance of these jobs to the rural economy and rural communities. He also said he was disappointed at the importation witnessed today.

Does the Minister of State accept that, at present, there is no alternative to the extraction of peat for many sectors of the horticultural industry? I refer, as I have done on multiple occasions, to the mushroom industry which is of particular importance in my constituency. Stockpiles are close to exhausted. There is sub-30 ha harvesting under what can only be described as confused structures that even those harvesting do not believe can meet demand. Alternatives do not exist. Even where there are limited options like coir from India and Sri Lanka, they themselves create environmental concerns. Take it as a given we want to protect our bogs, the biodiversity they have and we want to see an alternative to peat use. On the other hand we also want to see viable rural communities and economies based on them.

We should bear in mind this is the seventh ship entering the island of Ireland because there have been others to Belfast and that product has made its way down. We now have a situation where huge shiploads are being imported into Ireland. Each of these shiploads involve 200 trucks transporting peat from where it is harvested in the Baltic to a port there, then a 3,000 km sea journey to Ireland where a further 200 trucks meet the ship to unload the peat and deliver it to Irish plants to be processed. We can compare that to journeys in Ireland for peat production, which were as short as 10 km on average. Does the Minister of State accept this is an absolute failure on his part and on the part of his Department and the Government?

The first three people who uttered, in my presence, that importation was to be the alternative were the Minister of State himself, the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett. This was not just an accident we should all be surprised about. This was the strategy. We would eliminate the extraction of peat in Ireland to create the facade we were doing something on environmental protection but we would, on the most hypocritical basis, then allow these shipments to arrive.

I agree with the Minister of State on one point. It is nothing short of a scandal that a State-owned company, Bord na Móna, was for over two decades exporting hundreds and thousands of tonnes of peat, knowing as it did that this crisis was likely to emerge. Nobody said "Stop" when that was happening and now we have a situation where for the next decade or so we will see the importation of what is primarily water. The shipments coming in are 80% water because the peat must be wet for sectors like mushroom production.

My two questions are as follows. How is it that Latvia, Lithuania, Germany and other countries are able to put in place legislative frameworks allowing for the extraction of peat in those countries while remaining in line with EU law while we are not? The Minister of State as mentioned the second issue. The only viable alternative to the importation of peat is for Government to introduce a single-stage application process that would allow the harvesting of horticultural peat to meet the domestic needs of the sector in a sustainable way. This would allow us to manage, monitor and enforce the environmental regulations. The Minister of State has acknowledged the need for legislation, which would need to be primary legislation. What steps have been taken within his Department to prepare that legislation? Considering the number of emergency laws that have been passed over the last 18 months, surely it is not beyond our capabilities to prepare such legislation quickly, speedily and efficiently so that we can protect core jobs for rural economies that have very few others.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan. I will use my time to counter this hyperbolic narrative I am hearing from my colleagues on the committee which suggests that this is somehow related to the green agenda. I am glad that the Minister of State has said very clearly that this is not the green agenda but law, legislation and planning. This is what we are dealing with. A message should go out from this committee today that this is absolutely unrelated to the Green Party's agenda or the general green or environmental agenda. As the Minister of State said at the very outset, he is committed to the survival of the horticultural industry. There are very strong reasons for him, and the rest of us, to be so committed. I will use my time to say that. Will the Minister of State and Mr. Lucas, who has been before the committee a few times and who has been very helpful, elaborate further on the legislative bind we are in? That is what it is. This is not politics but a legislative bind and we have to work together to solve it. It is quite disingenuous of colleagues to label this as a case of the green agenda at play when it absolutely is not.

I will try to address the questions in sequence, with the help of Mr. Lucas. To address Deputy Fitzmaurice's question on that commitment of the Government, as I have said, I am giving a wholehearted commitment. The Taoiseach and all of the Government are concerned about that. My Department has limited responsibility with regard to heritage and no responsibility with regard to the planning side of things or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

We will absolutely use those six months wisely. We have used the time to date wisely. We have given every single consideration to how we could deal with this in an Irish context. In saying this, I address Deputy Carthy as well. It was never my preference for importation to be an option. It is certainly a less favourable option environmentally when quality peat exists in this country but the law is the law. We have to try to figure out a solution that works in an Irish context. We have spoken about the issue Deputy Fitzmaurice raised, that of degraded bogs, before. I may ask Mr. Lucas to come in on that point.

With regard to the Deputy's third question, the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill is back on the Order Paper. We are determined to get it through. We are working on that along with a biodiversity Bill. I give the Deputy my assurance on that.

With regard to the Deputy Carthy's specific question on other countries, these countries have a different consent system, a single consent system. With regard to the steps my Department, which has responsibility for heritage, is taking, we do not have competence in this area. Our task in respect of the peatlands strategy has been to consider alternatives.

I am of the view that 2030 is too far out. I know the interim report stated 2030 to 2035 but solutions exist. There has been quite a lot of research done. I have been liaising with the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Heydon, with regard to putting in place a research fund to look at those alternatives. I will await Dr. Prasad's report to see what recommendations are put to me. Dr. Prasad himself has a significant background in the area of composting and the use of organic materials. There are solutions there and we could get to them sooner than we think. I am determined to see that through. I will receive that report and we will seek those solutions.

I agree with Deputy Leddin that we should not politicise this matter. We should work together to find a solution that works for the sector. We are deeply concerned about those thousands of jobs and maintaining a vibrant horticultural sector in Ireland. I may have addressed the issue Deputy Leddin raised with regard to the legislative bind but I will ask Mr. Lucas to come in on that specific point and on the point Deputy Fitzmaurice raised regarding degraded bogs.

Mr. Brian Lucas

We have a legislative framework in place in accordance with EU law. The Minister of State outlined this in his opening statement and I have outlined it in previous meetings with the committee. This legislation has been in place since 2011 under the Planning and Development Act 2000, so it is not new legislation. With regard to the legislative bind we are in, we have to have a system in place that allows for environmental impact assessment and appropriate assessment.

Deputy Fitzmaurice referred to the work we did regarding raised bogs and relocation to non-designated bogs. In those cases, we would have done environmental impact assessment screening for appropriate assessment and full environmental impact assessments, as necessary. With regard to the work we did on the raised bogs, we used the existing legislation that is already in place under the Planning and Development Act. One of the difficulties with regard to the bind the industry finds itself in is that an environmental impact assessment is compulsory on sites of 30 ha and greater. Once that is the case, you are into the area of planning permission. The law is in place and has been since 2011, so it is not new legislation.

As I said earlier, at the previous meeting with the committee, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications indicated that legislating for a new single consent system that would also properly respect the environmental impact assessment directive and provide for a substitute consent process would not deliver decisions any more quickly than the existing dual consent system. When I was before the committee in July, I also referred to a provision in section 172(3) of the Planning Development Act 2000 which transposes Article 2(4) of the environmental impact assessment directive. This provides for limited exemptions to the full requirements of the directive. A request for such an exemption would have to be made to An Bord Pleanála by an applicant for planning permission or a person intending to apply for planning permission. I believe I have covered those points.

Four more Members wish to contribute: Deputy Michael Collins, Senator Daly, Deputy Browne and Deputy Danny Healy-Rae.

Some of the questions I am asking have already been asked. Deputy Leddin said this is not a matter of the green agenda, but it is certainly an extraordinary situation we find ourselves in with regard to both forestry and peat and the Green Party is at the helm. We see the disaster that is unfolding. Some Minister somewhere along the line is unable to resolve this unfolding disaster for many people in the horticulture sector and the nurseries. When will the limited peat harvest start again, as was indicated by the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, some time back?

Do the witnesses think it is a good picture to see eastern European peat being transported to Ireland with huge carbon footprints instead of using peat in bogs that can never be returned to functioning big habitats and that exist in Ireland? When will a fund for private entities to undertake research on alternatives to grow nursery stock and mushrooms be started to ensure fast solutions for our industry? Does the Minister of State acknowledge and take responsibility for a complete lack of knowledge and of any planning or forward thinking before destroying Irish horticulture jobs and families?

I welcome the Minister of State and Mr. Lucas. As Deputy Collins said, coming into the fray so late in the game, a lot of what I had intended to ask has already been asked. That is not to say I would be over the moon about the answers that were given to some of the questions. I have lost count of how many meetings we have had on this issue. The submissions we received from guests on each occasion, irrespective of what Department or area they are from, are a rehash of working group and interim reports. All the time, there is an industry on its knees and there is the contradiction of the carbon leakage that is the importation of peat when we have peat here.

Irrespective of your political allegiance or feelings on the environment, we are all well intentioned in that regard and we all have the same agenda, including the electorate and the man and woman on the street. Day by day, we are frustrating and losing them more and more. This issue is another example of that. Any of the people in the horticulture industry who are going to try to stay in the game and work with this imported peat will have excessive costs placed on them as opposed to what they previously had. Where will those costs end up other than on their product which will end up on the shelves. It is the ordinary man and woman on the street who will pay through the nose for this lunacy or else they will not be able to get Irish vegetables on their shelves at all. It is the vegetables, if not the peat, that will then be imported.

We have talked about whether it is a Green Party agenda or whose baby it is but there is a line in the second last paragraph of the Minister of State's submission that refers to the working group and interim report. It states:

In that regard, and following on from the receipt of the interim report, the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, of the Environment, Climate and Communications, and of Housing, Local Government and Heritage are working on a suite of measures as regards the situation in the horticultural industry.

I want to know what that suite of measures is. What is the Government proposing? Will a workable solution be put in place, as Deputy Fitzmaurice has asked, before the peat harvesting season commences next April?

As Senator Daly pointed out, many of the questions have been asked already. To see a shipment of just under 4,000 tonnes of peat come into the country at the weekend was crazy. As Deputy Carthy said, it is not just about 200 trucks in Ireland because another 200 trucks had to load that product over in Latvia and it also travelled 3,000 miles by sea.

All sectors of Irish horticulture will be affected, including the mushroom industry and small fruit and vegetable growers in north Dublin and throughout rural Ireland. They will be severely affected. It is not only the growers themselves who will be impacted by the increased cost from importing this into the country, as was said. This will work its way down to consumers having to pay extra. We all saw the news about increases in electricity prices and so on. It is the consumer again who will get hit hard by this. We have been talking to John Neenan from Growing Media Ireland. That organisation is saying the cost of importing horticultural peat from Latvia and so on could be up to three times the cost of sourcing the same product in Ireland. The importation of peat has considerable consequences for the environment, with considerable emissions of carbon to transport that 3,000 miles by sea.

Senator Daly mentioned as well, and we need to recognise, that 17,000 jobs are at risk from these kinds of decisions. Some 17,000 families can be affected by this. We have also spoken to Frank Alley, who the Cathaoirleach knows, in my parish of Dundrum. He has told us they have been wasting their time and it is totally unfair on growers like him and others throughout the country. This is the kind of suspicion they have of that working group the Minister of State keeps talking about.

Before he goes, I thank the Minister of State and his officials for coming. It is ludicrous to think that we are in a situation where peat is being imported from Latvia into this country. If one of us said 30 years ago we would start importing peat into the country, we would be locked up. It is the Minister of State's Department that is saying this represents progress in reducing emissions. It is unbelievable. As has been said, a lot of the growers are trying to mix stuff and source stuff in the country, but that is putting extra cost on them, and with the cost of equipment and all that it will just not be feasible for them.

If the Minister of State was working in an industry that was being destroyed in this manner, would he be happy with a Department that seems to have shown no urgency and that has done nothing to help it? This is not a personal attack on the Minister of State but there are so many jobs at risk and he is only coming to the committee for one hour. I know he might have other commitments but it is unbelievable we are only with him for one hour and I hope he will be back because there are loads more questions that I, other members and people in the industry want to ask. Would the Minister of State take comfort in waiting for a working group to meet and for reports to be published while at the same time his livelihood was taking a nosedive and it looked as if he was going out of business? Aside from referring to the report of the working group, will the Minister of State specify what other options his Department and the other three Departments involved in this have been actively looking at to avert the ruination of this sector?

I thank the Minister of State and his Department official, Mr. Lucas, for attending this important meeting. There is no doubt about it, and I am not being personal towards either the Minister of State or Deputy Leddin - they are fine people and I have nothing personal against them at all - but it is clear to me they are pulling the strings in government. They ensured Bord na Móna was closed down six years before it was destined to close down. There was moss peat left behind in Bord na Móna in the middle of the country. The Government is saying there are alternatives for nurseries in Kerry and for the horticulture sector. We are not even being told what the alternatives are. Will we lose those jobs? It is the same as the briquettes. It is no bother to import moss peat and briquettes into the country and, at the same time, our bogs are lying idle. We have no gold, diamond or oil deposits but we had a few bogs here and there. It is galling to think that in China they are building new power generation stations to produce electricity to burn coal. We are all under the same sky, or so I think. I have not travelled all over the world but we are told we are all under the same sky. People in Ireland do not want to hurt any part of the world.

This is affecting rural areas more than urban areas. As I said, we can bring in boats full of moss peat and there is no problem with bringing briquettes from Germany. People need these things and there are no alternatives for many people to having a bit of a fire to keep themselves warm from now until 1 May next year if it is a cold winter.

The Minister of State says there are planning issues. Will the Government bring legislation forward to deal with these issues? We have the peat and it can be harvested in the same way it was harvested in Latvia. That legislation should also include the production of briquettes.

Will the Government ensure jobs will not be lost in this massive industry? When you go round Killarney and see what flowers are in window boxes and all around the Ring of Kerry, how is that beautiful situation going to be kept up if we do not have moss peat? Will the Government ensure we will not lose jobs in the horticulture industry?

The Government must spell out what the alternatives are to the people who are wondering where they will get the money to pay their employees. That has to be sorted out. The most sensible thing to do would be to bring forward legislation to ensure peat can be harvested.

I will try to address the last four questions, and I apologise that I have to depart shortly on Dáil business. I might ask Mr. Lucas to come in specifically on the options.

With regard to the continued assertion that this is the green agenda, who would accept we would attempt or try to move to undermine an industry? Our collective job as legislators is responsibility towards those people, the staff, the workers and the families, and we have exhausted and will continue to exhaust every option possible to try to secure a viable alternative and interim, medium- and long-term solutions for the sector. I am giving that commitment to the members. I am happy to come back to the committee at later stages to update it once I receive Dr. Prasad's report.

As has been said by others, we are caught in a legislative bind. To address Deputy Healy-Rae's point on legislating, we will not get there any quicker by moving primary legislation on this. Mr. Lucas has already updated the Deputy on that. It will take a significant amount of time regardless. I give our commitment and that of the Government that we will continue to work collectively to try to move towards those alternatives. There are nurseries out there using peat alternatives, and there nurseries throughout the world and growers in other areas that are able to use peat alternatives. There are options.

I reiterate the point raised by Deputy Browne on importation. It was certainly never my preferred option. There is no doubt it is environmentally more damaging to put it all onto fleets of lorries, load it onto shipments and then unload it onto fleets of lorries, but this is, unfortunately, the situation in which we are. We were a country that exported our horticultural peat for many years. As I said early on in this meeting, it has been a commodity, but unfortunately that situation has changed and drastically so. We have to work within the law and a changed environment to try to seek a solution.

I hope I have addressed, while not specifically touching on, all of the points raised by members. I will ask Mr. Lucas to come in quickly on the specific issue of other options which we have been exploring over recent months.

Mr. Brian Lucas

As the Minister of State said in his opening statement, the three Departments have been looking at a suite of measures for the situation in the industry. I know it was said the previous day and my understanding is the paper and the suite of measures have not yet been signed off by party leaders. Obviously then, I am limited in the kind of detail I can go into, but the type of thing in the paper would include looking at whether stocks of peat are available which may not have been looked at up to now and could be made suitable for use by the industry; the potential to make equipment, mixing plants and expertise available to assist the industry, if that would be helpful; and using the expertise in various organisations, in terms of their supply chains, to see if peat could be sourced.

The Department has been asked by the chair of the working group to see if it would be possible to make funding available to a student to undertake research on the hydrothermal carbonisation of green waste and spent mushroom compost to produce a substrate which could be used as peat replacement in growing media. The Department is looking at that. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine issued a research call and one of the areas within that is research on peat growing media for horticulture production. My understanding is this call is to be approved and successful applicants will be made known in November next about the research expected to start early next year.

On behalf of the committee, I thank Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and Mr. Lucas for engaging with us on this important issue. The message from the committee is very clear. The importation of peat into this country is both environmental and financial lunacy. Before the next peat harvesting season starts, we need to be able to harvest peat here for our horticulture and nursery industries. That is environmentally and economically sensible. There is a danger in that the cost base of these industries is being threatened and they could relocate, especially the mushroom industry, which is a very tight margin industry. We have huge concerns about not being able to keep its cost base in check. Importation of peat obviously puts huge financial pressure on those companies. I ask the Minister of State to use the best influence of his office to ensure when the next harvesting season starts, we are able to home harvest peat for our native industries.

Sitting suspended at 4.38 p.m. and resumed at 4.40 p.m.