I wish to welcome the Minister. My last engagement as Minister for Agriculture was in Germany in October 1991 where I had discussions with buyers from prominent German supermarkets. The supermarkets, especially those in Berlin, pay a higher price for Irish beef than any other buyers not just in Europe but throughout the world. Berlin probably has the highest level of income in Europe. One of the buyers from Berlin informed me that he could not conclude contracts for Irish beef because he could not compete with intervention prices. This is an appalling indictment of a system on which Ireland and other European countries have been too reliant.
We have many advantages in Ireland such as the tradition, culture, suitable climate and grass and the reputation which should help us reach those markets and command premium prices. Reform of the intervention system is long overdue although it may cause short term problems. When I was Minister for Agriculture for four and a half years I argued constantly with my EC colleague that the beef industry was of such importance to Ireland that not only could we not accept sudden and dramatic changes to intervention arrangements but we needed special arrangements which recognised this importance. We succeeded in obtaining these special arrangements. However, I always pointed out to producers that while I was happy to obtain such arrangements to maintain price stability they should never see this as a justification for not concentrating on the market.
Some of the habits and practices which have developed in Ireland, and elsewhere, relating to the overuse of hormones and, even more insidiously, clenbuterol, commonly known as angel dust, were directly associated with qualification for intervention at a price level above a certain norm. There is no point overlooking the fact that farmers were sometimes encouraged by buyers from factories to use substances to up-grade their cattle in order to qualify for higher intervention prices. This certainly did not improve the quality of meat sold on the home market. This was one of the adverse consequences of a system which served us well in many ways.
Although intervention is a fail-safe mechanism, and probably has been more availed of by me than any other Minister in recent times, I do not wish to have it on the record that I saw intervention as being the way forward for us. I am happy that the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, which we are now discussing, involves less dependence on intervention. I regret that the European Council of Agriculture Ministers in its recent decision, probably for the first time, did not recognise the special position of Ireland. It is proposed that the qualifying weights should be reduced. This may pose problems for us. However, it is the long term to which we should be looking. Other countries which are unable to compete with us in the markets also rely on intervention. The intervention system does not exist solely for Ireland's benefit. Now is the time to take a positive, vigorous view that short term loss can be turned to long term advantage.
My second point is in regard to the set aside scheme which is not directly linked to Common Agricultural Policy reform but is related to it. I vigorously opposed this scheme when it was introduced and said that as a concept it would not be acceptable in Ireland. When the scheme was introduced it was not compulsory on individual producers but it was compulsory on member states to have a scheme which could be availed of by producers.
This scheme, which involves taking land used for growing cereals out of production, is contradictory in a world which is short of food. In many parts of the world cereals are used for dietary purposes in ways which beef cannot. All the indications now suggest—these were not as clear three or four years ago when the scheme was introduced—that the effects of global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer will result in major cereal growing areas of the world being unable to achieve anywhere near their existing levels of production. Instead of encouraging the continued growth of cereals which can be used to alleviate famine throughout the world, we are introducing a policy which involves saying to producers that not all land can be used and providing incentives for them to take land out of use. It is not surprising that there is a problem in Ireland in regard to qualification for the scheme. I will not regret it for one minute when the words "set aside" no longer exist in the vocabulary of farming, particularly in view of the need for food in regions of the world where people are starving.
Policing an intervention system makes great demands on any Department and Ministers have many other positive things to do. They are not policemen, chief superintendents or police commissioners; neither was I during my period as Minister for Agriculture. Some 99 per cent of my time as Minister for Agriculture was devoted to the role of a Minister and involved the development of agriculture and the agri-food industry in all its forms. The maximum amount of time spent on the policing role was 1 per cent.
Before I left the Department of Agriculture I asked that consideration be given to the establishment of a separate intervention unit. It is not part of the ministerial role to be linked to an intervention unit. As in other countries, there is a strong case for this unit as long as intervention exists. I made this point before the beef tribunal. If we have an intervention unit it will not be possible to accuse Ministers of involvement in certain matters. As a Minister who was subjected to unfair criticism, I would like to think that none of my successors would be subjected to the same criticism.