"That Seanad Eireann:
—commends the Government for continuing to prioritise agriculture and providing leadership in meeting any challenges to our most important natural resource-based industry;
—maintains a strong agrifood sector as a vital part of a strong Irish economy and the cornerstone of a vibrant rural community;
—in particular, congratulates the Minister for Agriculture and Food, on the recent publication of a plan for the future of the agrifood sector;
—notes that the action plan is the response to the report of the Agri-Vision 2015 committee and also takes account of the material from a wide variety of other reports and sources such as the enterprise strategy group;
—affirms this plan is based on the sound conviction that the Irish agrifood sector can compete with the best in the world and sets out a new vision for the future of the sector in the light of new changes impacting on it such as the change to a decoupled payments regime, a more liberalised trade policy, changes in lifestyle, the clear emergence of technology and research and development as significant market drivers and major changes in the structures of farming and retailing;
—notes that the plan focuses on three key requirements in the sector for success: competitiveness, innovation and consumer-focused marketing;
—welcomes the fact the plan presents not only the broad vision for the future of the sector but also contains 166 specific actions to be implemented in the near future; and
—commends the Minister's commitment to prioritise increased Exchequer funding for research and development in the National Development Plan 2007-2013, and welcomes the increase in research and development funding this year.
I welcome the Minister for Agriculture and Food, who has had a tough afternoon in the Dáil where she handled herself exemplarily. I congratulate Deputy Mary Wallace on her appointment as Minister of State at the Department while I acknowledge the work of her predecessor, Deputy John Browne, who served well, and I wish him well in his new ministerial role. The Minister for Agriculture and Food and the Minister of State at the Department, Deputy Brendan Smith, are also doing excellent work.
I am pleased to move the motion and, in doing so, I acknowledge the Government's commitment to the agriculture sector. I congratulate the Taoiseach on his efforts in securing €10 billion in CAP payments at the European Council meeting last December for the years 2007-13 and EU rural development funding amounting to €19 billion over the same period. The British Prime Minister was EU President at the time and he did his best to undermine CAP funding. We should all say "well done" to the Taoiseach for overcoming his tenacious efforts to scrap the funding. I also congratulate the Minister for her strong defence of the CAP and the European model of agriculture at the WTO negotiations in Hong Kong last December.
I will concentrate on three issues, namely, the WTO, bio-energy and the new action plan for the agrifood sector. With regard to bio-energy, last week's European Council meeting rightly focused on energy policy. This debate was timely in light of recent developments in energy markets. Increasing oil prices and the dispute earlier this year between Russia and the Ukraine regarding gas supplies have given fresh impetus to the need to promote alternative energy sources to meet our future energy needs. I will not dwell on this but I hope we will debate this issue at a later date. I supported the call for the Minister to come to the House for the debate for two reasons, one of which related to alternative land use. When I previously raised this issue, I referred to land for food and land for energy.
l have a particular interest in seeking to develop the biofuel sector. Agriculture and forestry supply most of the raw materials needed by the bio-energy sector. Oilseed rape, wheat and sugar beet have the potential to be used for the manufacture of liquid transport biofuels, while forestry by-products can be used for energy-heat generation. I noted the Minister's reply to a parliamentary question in the Dáil earlier regarding sugar beet and how it should be developed. Factors such as the increasing cost of oil, the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and the opportunity for farmers to explore alternative land uses following CAP reform mean that the potential of this area must be fully explored. Research and development is urgent and I urge the Minister and other Departments to take that on board.
In general, the production of energy crops for biofuels will be demand led. Production by farmers will only occur if the economic returns are greater than those offered by traditional crop enterprises. In the absence of fiscal incentives, the production of liquid biofuels from energy crops is not economic at current oil price levels. The budget announcement by the Minister for Finance of a major extension of the mineral oil tax relief scheme to cover, when fully operational, some 163 million litres of biofuels per year should further stimulate the production of crops for the manufacture of these fuels. This initiative will benefit the environment in terms of a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, will enhance security of supply of fuels, and create jobs and outlets for the agricultural sector.
From an external perspective, the negotiations on the next WTO agreement, which are due to conclude this year, represent a significant threat to our and the European position. The negotiations are aimed at increasing trade liberalisation and at achieving substantial reductions in the levels of support and protection which can be provided for agriculture. The CAP reform and WTO negotiations are closely interlinked. Successive reforms have taken place to prepare or position the CAP for the negotiations.
The Government is committed to securing a new WTO agreement. However, I welcome the determination of the Taoiseach and Ministers that this will not prevent the EU and Ireland from enjoying the benefits of an active and supportive CAP and a rural development policy that protects farmers' livelihoods and ensures the continuation of vibrant rural communities.
The Government's overall objective is to ensure that any new WTO agreement can be accommodated within the terms of the 2003 CAP reforms and that further reform will not be required. This corresponds with the EU negotiating position as agreed in the Council of Ministers to which I subscribe. The European Union's agricultural policy should be decided primarily on the basis of a European judgment on what is needed for European agriculture. We should not be unduly influenced by others who, for their own reasons, pursue a different agenda. If I have time I will return to that agenda, but that will be up to the Cathaoirleach.