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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 29 Mar 2006

Vol. 183 No. 5

Agrifood Sector: Motion.

I move:

"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.

It is up to the Senator himself.

There must be a balanced outcome to the negotiations. Agriculture is an important element of an overall agreement but not the only element. l do not accept that agriculture or farmers should pay a disproportionate price for a new agreement.

Specific areas of the negotiations are of critical importance to us and we take a particular interest in those areas. We want to ensure that the European Union's system of decoupled direct payments, which make a major contribution to farm incomes in Ireland, continue to qualify as non-trade-distorting payments under the so-called "Green Box" and remain exempt from reductions under a new agreement. With regard to export subsidies, we will continue to insist on equal treatment for all forms of subsidy and on flexible phasing-out arrangements.

Market access will be a critical issue in the negotiations and the Government's aim is to retain the maximum possible level of protection for our producers and exporters from increased imports. We will seek to achieve this through a combination of tariff cuts and other mechanisms, including the designation of products of particular interest as "sensitive products".

I will support the Minister for Agriculture and Food as she continues to take an active role in the negotiations to achieve the most beneficial outcome for the Irish and European agriculture sector. Commissioner Mandelson must acknowledge the special role of the family farm in the Irish and European agriculture system. Equally, he must ensure there is no sell-out to the ranchers of the southern hemisphere.

The CAP was set up to ensure a stable food supply for Europe. Following changes, up to 600,000 tonnes of beef rights have been given to non-EU countries in recent times to allow them access to our market. Commissioner Mandelson proposes that this should be extended to over 1.3 million tonnes of beef. This is unacceptable. If Commissioner Mandelson must walk the plank, let him do so.

He is used to walking it.

Shoot the messenger.

With regard to the new action plan, I welcome ICOS back into the partnership talks. I am glad it has made the decision to return. I encourage the other two farming organisations to follow suit. It is important they should be there now that we have a new action plan.

Agriculture and the agrifood sector are in a period of major change. While the broad policy framework is in place, I am pleased the Minister has now finalised an action plan for the future development of the sector. Agriculture can and should encompass strong commercial farming as well as part-time farming as part of the innovative market-oriented and multidimensional agrifood sector which serves consumers and markets worldwide.

The recently launched action plan sets out a series of measures to drive the development of the sector in its new market-oriented circumstances. It reflects recent developments, both national and international, and details future plans and strategies for all commodities. It will enable the Department of Agriculture and Food and State agencies to work in tandem with farmers and the food sector to develop the full potential of this important industry over the coming years. I urge the Minister to develop a new approach for the beef sector where producers and processors can work in tandem to give consumers a reliable and stable product.

I am not flattering the Minister when I tell her she is a great person. I know she has the capacity to do what I will ask her to do. The Government should appoint an envoy to a small country in Africa. I shudder at the thought of men, women and children in Africa going to bed hungry or dying of starvation when we could produce the food to feed them. I ask the Minister to take on board the proposal to send an envoy to a small country and to urge other European countries to do likewise. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his indulgence.

I second the motion. I welcome the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, and her officials to the House.

Agriculture is in a place in the broader political agenda today where it has not been seen for many years. This is due to the challenges that have arisen in the sector, the CAP reform, decoupling of payments, avian flu, the beef industry, the nitrates directive, biofuels and diversity. These issues are everyday issues for us because of the link between agriculture and many consumer and health issues. However, they also reflect the seriousness of the challenges faced by farms and farming families in today's open economy.

This motion and our discussion on the agrifood sector see agriculture as a key element of our economy and a cornerstone of our rural communities. It is evidence of the priority the Progressive Democrats and this Government assign to agriculture. The agrifood sector deserves the leadership the Government provides, in concert with the representations of the various dedicated farming groups that work in its interests on a daily basis.

I commend the Minister for her commitment to meet the challenges facing our most important natural resource-based industry. It is right that this motion and this House recognises that. We must also acknowledge the work of many of the farming groups which help farmers in difficult times. Such groups are often only in the news when a challenge arises and the agricultural sector faces a problem or when their members need them most. We must commend them for making the case on behalf of farmers and consumers.

The recent publication of the plan for the future of the agrifood sector is a most welcome and important development. The three elements at the heart of the plan, competitiveness, innovation and consumer-focused marketing, are synonymous with the policy approach of my party on these issues and will serve the agricultural sector well as it moves forward through the choppy waters arising from changes in farming and agrifood enforcement. These elements also underpinned our recent party seminar, chaired by Deputy Parlon, on biofuels as an alternative for Irish farmers. Approximately 400 people attended a lively discussion on the feasibility of crop production for the biofuel industry, given that Ireland needs to find alternative forms of energy production. The question posed was whether crop production for the biofuel industry offers a financially viable alternative for Irish farmers.

The same elements also informed the relevant section of the Progressive Democrats' energy policy discussion paper, launched earlier this month by Deputy Fiona O'Malley. This document makes specific proposals in light of the competitive difficulties now faced by Irish farmers in finding profitable outlets for traditional farm enterprises, including the development of energy crops.

The plan for the future of the agrifood sector also refers to a belief that has been central to my party's ethos on this sector, namely, that the Irish agrifood sector can and should compete with the best in the world. The plan comprises 166 specific actions to be implemented in the near future, in response to the report of the Agri-Vision 2015 committee.

Certain aspects of the plan are very welcome, particularly the consideration of a broad selection of reports and sources of information, including the work of the energy strategy group. However, I am concerned that the boast that the plan contains 166 recommendations could hold a hidden challenge. I am aware of another plan that boasts of 90 recommendations for a particular sector and its key stakeholders. In recent times, the large number of actions have become part of an explanation as to why it is taking so long for that plan to be implemented. I ask the Minister to try to ensure that expectations and timeliness are managed and realistic. If not, the plan could move from being a source of optimism and vision to one of frustration and impatience.

Successful operations in successful sectors have always been willing and able to embrace and exploit changes impacting on them. Changes in Irish consumer lifestyles and needs are often sought by innovative operators to allow them to exploit their talents. That is what the Progressive Democrats wish for the Irish agrifood sector, that it be confident to embrace change and talented enough to adapt to it.

The Progressive Democrats have, for 20 years, stressed the importance of technology and research and development as significant drivers of enterprise, innovation and progress in all areas of our economy. It is an ethos that has served Ireland well in the information technology, pharmaceutical and software industries in particular. It is also one that will help Ireland's agricultural sector to prosper, despite the major changes in the structure of farming and retailing.

In that context, I congratulate the Government and the Minister for Agriculture and Food on prioritising increased funding for research and development this year and also under the National Development Plan 2007-2013. The agrifood sector is facing change and enormous challenges. The motion before us recognises this and sets out clearly the Government's vision as to how Ireland's agrifood sector can succeed, rather than struggle with enforcement. I commend the motion to the House.

I call on Senator Coonan to move the amendment.

I welcome the Minister and her officials to the House. I feel sorry for the Minister this evening because her colleagues on the opposite side of the House have not done her any service by introducing this motion at this particular time. The tone, the tenor and the timing seem to be ——

It is a Rolls Royce job that is being done.

I did not interrupt the Senator when he spoke and I would appreciate if he would show me the same courtesy. The timing of the motion is questionable, given that farming has gone through a very critical phase and is now trying to come out of that. We should all be positive in that regard, in trying to help the farming community, rather than indulging in craw thumping, breast beating and self-congratulatory remarks.

Has Senator Coonan moved the amendment?

I will do so now. I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:

—condemns the Government for its failure to address the crisis in Irish farming:

—notes the damaging role played by the Government and the Minister for Agriculture and Food in the demise of the Irish sugar beet industry; the willingness by the Minister for Agriculture and Food to support proposals at the WTO negotiations, which will be hugely damaging for farmers and her failure to halt the flight from the land which results in seven farmers leaving the land each day;

—condemns the Minister's failure to publish an action plan in response to the Agri-Vision 2015 committee report for 16 months and the failure of the enterprise strategy group action plan to set out any recommendations for the agriculture sector;

—notes the lack of funding commitments in the plan, which will render the plan ineffective and unworkable;

calls on the Minister:

—to immediately address the huge decline in Irish farming by moving to implement the recommendations contained in the Agri-Vision action plan as a priority and to ensure that any agreement reached at the WTO talks does not further undermine Irish farming;

—to set out and fund at once the critical enablers under which the recommendations contained in the action plan will be delivered and to accompany these with set deadlines under which they must be achieved;

—to ensure that sugar beet farmers receive the maximum of compensation permitted under EU regulations and to develop a strategy to ensure a future for sugar beet farmers, including new initiatives to encourage the growth of crops for alternative energy; and

—to ensure that the action plan of the enterprise strategy group is amended to include specific recommendations for the growth of the agrifood sector in Ireland which the Minister must implement for agriculture and other relevant bodies.

I reject the motion proposed by Senator Callanan. I commend the Fine Gael amendment to the House and urge the Minister to take on board its recommendations.

In November 2004, the Agri-Vision 2015 committee, under the chairmanship of Mr. Alan Dukes, produced a report. Had Mr. Dukes been in charge over the past number of years, agriculture would not be in its current crisis. I mean nothing personal by that remark but would say "Welcome back, Alan, all is forgiven."

The committee made 53 recommendations, covering all aspects of the agrifood industry. It reiterated the point that Ireland is in a weak competitive position when full economic costs are considered and the rate of productivity growth in agriculture is low in comparison with other EU countries. That is a reflection on the performance of the Government.

The Agri-Vision report took only ten months to compile, with part-time staff. It took the Minister and her mighty bunch of officials 16 months to respond to the report. She came up with 166 actions, although whether one could call them actions or rhetoric is open to question.

It is not very helpful that the Government parties and Senator Callanan did not provide the Opposition with a copy of the report. We had to chase it up ourselves.

Had the Senator asked me, I would have provided him with a copy.

While the Minister was compiling her plan, what was happening in agriculture? The Minister launched a glossy plan with three lovely glossy pictures of three lovely Ministers ——

Five Ministers.

It seems to be a matter of self-promotion, but what was happening while all of that was going on in that 16-month period? I will tell the Minister what was happening. The sugar industry was wiped out, we had the debacle of the nitrates directive and the closure of Teagasc stations. We have heard much about research and development but research stations and Teagasc offices were closed across the country. We had a decline in the growth in forestry, serious continued threats arising from the WTO trade talks proposals and seven farmers a day leaving agriculture, which adds up to 2,500 per annum. That is what was happening.

We have an early retirement scheme that is not working and to which amendments were not introduced. We have anti-farmer tax laws which are impacting on farmers' ability to consolidate their holdings. A penalty of 29% applies, comprising 20% capital gains tax plus 9% stamp duty. That is the penalty imposed by this Government and demonstrates its commitment to farmers.

The motion proposed by Senator Callanan is all about leadership and commitment to the agricultural community. I have not seen any such commitment from the opposite side of the House in the last 16 months. If one takes the sugar industry, 3,700 growers were gobbled up by greedy Greencore. Who is responsible for that? The Minister, the Department and Greencore.

What about the WTO?

The Minister is responsible for the closure of the sugar factory. She put ——

That is an infantile and egocentric viewpoint, typical of the Fine Gael Party which could have done no better.

The facts are there to see. The sugar factory has closed. The closure of the Carlow plant directly led to the demise of the Mallow plant. During the closure of the Carlow factory, the Minister for Agriculture and Food claimed it would not affect its Mallow counterpart. How wrong she was. Where is the Mallow sugar plant now? Is that what we call commitment and leadership?

The €145 million compensation package is not adequate for the destruction of the entire sugar industry. It is now emerging from media reports that a much larger package was on offer had the Minister not chosen to fight to keep production.

That is factually incorrect.

She can refute it later. She fought the battle and lost.

Which is it: that she fought to keep it open or fought to close it?

Order. Senator Coonan has one minute remaining so he must be allowed to speak without interruption.

Due to the nitrates directive, many pig and poultry producers will follow the fate of sugar beet producers. They require large investments in their businesses to implement the directive's conditions. During that debate the Minister went to ground, forgetting about her flock, the farming community. She left it in the hands of the abrasive Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche. Not only did he ride roughshod over the pig and poultry producers, he also succeeded in humiliating Teagasc scientists and management. He refused to accept their advice and questioned their scientific evidence. Teagasc is now the cornerstone of the research and development plans of the Minister for Agriculture and Food. Yet in the past several years the Government has slashed its funding, resulting in the closure of research stations and offices.

Senator Callanan's motion is a negative one. At a time when we all should be working together in the interests of farmers, it is regrettable that he comes along crawthumping and backslapping. The action plan is geared for the next election but there is no funding for it.

The Senator has exceeded his time.

The Minister claims the funding will be introduced between 2007 and 2013. That is designed to attract votes but she will not get away with it.

I call on Senator Bradford. Senator Coonan has exceeded his time.

On what planet is Senator Coonan living?

I second the amendment to the motion, presented so forcibly by Senator Coonan. I wish to share my time with Senator John Paul Phelan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Last week, I called for a debate on the agriculture industry, particularly the tillage industry. In the immediate aftermath of the decision to close the Mallow sugar factory, the main focus was on the disappearance of the sugar production sector and the compensation package. The bigger picture of the tillage industry must be considered. As I said to the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the Taoiseach at a meeting last week, the future of the industry is at grave risk unless real leadership is shown in developing it. Alternative tillage crops such as those for biofuels must be considered. Sugar was a valuable crop both financially and in crop rotation practice. The majority of 4,000 sugar beet farmers will not be able to continue in the industry unless some aid is given to them.

Senator Coonan spoke about leadership. Agriculture needs leadership, not just from the farming organisations and Teagasc but also from politicians, more than ever before. In most debates in the House, the Government mantra is always "since 1997". However, it is never used in debates on agriculture. Since 1997, thousands of farmers have left the land. Hope in the future viability of agriculture has diminished. The debate is taking place at a time of the greatest uncertainty regarding the future viability of agriculture. Sadly, fewer young people see a future in agriculture. The political challenge for the Government is to provide leadership. We will take on board the published reports but we want action.

It is imperative that those who worked in the Mallow sugar plant will receive proper redundancy payments. It is also important that the bulk of the €145 million compensation package will go to the sugar beet producers and affected hauliers and contractors. The Minister claims advertisements will be placed in the national press advising people on how to claim compensation. I look forward to learning more about the scheme.

I welcome the introduction of the farm pollution control grants. From the point of view of planning permission, etc., a quick and easy system of application must be established. As the forms must be processed quickly, I ask the Minister to ensure sufficient staff numbers are in place for inspections. As the nitrates directive is frightening the farming community, hope must be offered through the farm pollution control grants.

I concur with Senators Bradford and Coonan on the complete shutdown of the domestic sugar sector. Like Senator Bradford, I know many people involved in sugar beet production and who worked in the Carlow sugar factory. As much of the compensation package as possible must be directed to the producers rather than to Greencore's pockets. I urge the Minister to use whatever influence she has in that regard. The drawing up of the compensation scheme will be in her hands. On the balance of all that is moral and equitable, the package should go to those involved in production rather than into the hands of Greencore.

In the part of County Kilkenny I come from, many farmers' sons and daughters have no intention of becoming involved in agriculture. They are disillusioned with its prospects. It is important in any sector that young people enter an industry. It is important in politics to have new people coming through, although incumbents may not agree with that.

We will not tell Deputy Hogan.

Young people are simply not entering agriculture. I urge the Minister to take whatever measures she can to encourage more young people into farming.

The farm retirement scheme is not working. People entered the scheme ten years ago but their incomes have been greatly eroded. There needs to be a complete review of the scheme.

Senator Bradford correctly referred to the importance of sugar beet production for the tillage sector. The Department of Agriculture and Food needs to seriously examine the future of tillage farming. Beet was a vital rotation crop but other options may emerge in future, including the production of beet or other crops for biofuels. Earlier today, during the debate on the Finance Bill, the Minister for Finance spoke about his hopes that by 2008 some 2% of all fuels would be biofuels. That figure is entirely realisable but we should aim for something higher in order to provide an alternative for people involved in tillage farming in particular.

Were it not for the situation concerning disease in South America, Irish beef production would be in a serious situation. We are in the happy position in that beef prices are pretty strong at the moment. That will not continue indefinitely into the future, however, so we must ensure we can market our products in the years ahead. We must also corner our niche to ensure that Irish farmers will continue to obtain fair payment for their products.

I agree with Senator Bradford's comments on the farm grant scheme, which is a welcome initiative. I also wish to raise the issue of avian flu. It is not directly related to the motion before the House but I would like to know what measures the Minister's Department has put in place to combat a potential outbreak of avian flu in Ireland. The infection is quite close to Ireland, although it has not spread in the past couple of weeks and there have been fewer outbreaks across Europe. If avian flu came here, however, it would have devastating consequences for certain agricultural sectors. I am anxious to hear the Minister's views on that matter.

I welcome the Minister and her officials to the House. I also welcome the comprehensive action plan for the future of the agrifood business, which was announced recently. The action plan is a response to the report of the Agri-Vision 2015 committee, which was chaired by Mr. Alan Dukes. I do not know whether Senator Coonan was in favour of Mr. Dukes going on that committee, or against it.

He was in favour.

I am still not sure but as a former Minister for Agriculture, Mr. Dukes has vast experience in that sector and has much to offer. The committee comprised some of the most senior figures in the sector, including leaders from farming organisations and the agricultural industry. It also took into account a wide variety of other reports and sources, including the enterprise strategy group.

This plan is based on a well-founded belief that the Irish agrifood sector, including farmers and food and drink manufacturers, can compete with the best in the world when that objective is pursued with significant focus, determination and skill. The plan sets out a new vision for the future of the sector in light of new changes impacting upon it, such as the change to a decoupled payment regime, a more liberalised trade policy, lifestyle changes, the clear emergence of new technology, research and development, significant market changes, and major changes in the structure of farming and retailing.

The plan focuses on three requirements for success in the light of these challenges, namely, competitiveness, innovation and consumer-focus marketing. Competitiveness is not optional for such an export-oriented sector and it is the primary objective on which this plan is based. In the modern high-tech food industry, technological progress and product innovation are unremitting and vital to the future of the sector. Meeting consumer demands on product presentation and price is also critical to our continuing success.

The plan presents not only a broad vision for the future of the sector but also contains 166 specific actions to be implemented in the near future. Action will be taken under a series of headings which, as the Minister emphasises, are focused on the objective of ensuring that the Irish agrifood sector compares with the best in the EU and beyond in terms of knowledge-based competitiveness, innovation and marketing.

As regards building the knowledge base and innovation, the Minister will prioritise increased Exchequer funding for research and development in the National Development Plan 2007-13. She has already shown her intent in this area by increasing research and development funding this year. The Minister has emphasised that competitiveness is literally a life or death issue for food firms and ultimately for the commercial future of our farms. For this reason, the longest chapter in the plan is on competitiveness, covering over 93 actions. One of the most important actions was announced last week — a substantial change in the milk quota system, which will commence in 2007. Arrangements are being made to introduce an open market system of transferring quotas designed to facilitate the consolidation of holdings, increase efficiency and contribute to more competitive milk production. This is an important development for commercial dairy farmers.

Many actions are also to be taken in other areas, such as small-scale enterprises, horticulture, the organic sector, forestry, renewable energy and rural development. I congratulate the Government and the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, for yesterday's announcement of grants for wood-burners. There has been a good reaction across the country to that announcement. It is the first time that people have been able to obtain a grant of up to €4,200 for installing such boilers.

The action plan for the future of the agrifood business sets out a positive vision for the future of the sector. It underlines the fact that delivering safe, high-quality and nutritious food produced in a sustainable manner to well-informed consumers and high-value markets is the optimum route for the future of the Irish food industry and therefore for the future of farmers in Ireland. It sets out 166 actions that are being, or will be, taken to fulfil this vision.

The large range of activities outlined in the plan makes it clear that the State and the taxpayer are doing their bit. It is vitally important that all private interests in the sector should also participate. I am convinced they will and I look forward to the establishment of the agrivision forum announced in chapter 7 of the report, which will bring all the relevant interests together to focus on the achievement of a common aim. The sooner that happens the better.

It is the Minister's intention to introduce country of origin labelling this year. It will be a crucial step, particularly for the beef industry, and should be introduced as quickly as possible. Consumers should know the origin of food they are eating, which is the case in every other sector. One can purchase bottles of wine for €3.99, as Senator Quinn is aware. Other wines, which are also popular, are selling quite well at €8.99 per bottle. If people have a choice and know exactly what they are buying, including the country of origin, they will pay the upper market price for Irish products which they can be assured are the best in the world.

Senator Coonan referred to the nitrates directive and, in fairness, we have heard a lot about this issue. It is important to be honest with people, particularly the farming community. In 1996, the then Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, and the Minister for Agriculture, the former Deputy Ivan Yates, together with the IFA, signed up to a document on good farming practice. I am not saying this because Fine Gael was in Government at that time.

That is what the Senator just said though.

I am saying that if Fianna Fáil had been in Government at that time it would have done the same thing. There was no choice in the matter.

The Senator did not say that at the time.

This country was being taken to the European Court and convicted. If action had not been taken somebody would have been obliged to pay serious fines. Who would have paid them? Ultimately, the farmers would have had to, so that action had to be taken as there was no other option.

The Minister has applied for a derogation on the nitrates directive to increase the limit from 170 kg of nitrogen per hectare to 210 kg. Will the Minister inform the House if there have been any developments concerning that derogation? I realise that the derogation could not be applied for until the nitrates directive was implemented.

I wish the Minister and her officials well. There is a lot of work to be done.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I also welcome the new plan for agriculture and the agrifood industry. I wish it every success. I have had a bias for years, which is a concern that agriculture and food need to be divided. I have confidence in the current Minister who is showing us the future in this plan. I ran into trouble some years ago. In 1994, shortly after I entered the House, I was on a committee called the expert food group, which became Bord Bia. We produced a good report and I am big-headed to speak about being on an expert food group. However, I produced a minority report on the one point with which I disagreed, namely, that the food business should be removed from the remit of the Department of Agriculture and Food. I shouted it loudly because I believed the agriculture lobby was always so strong that it weakened the food business. The future is in food business and when I read these plans I am delighted to see words such as "competitiveness" and a list of 166 actions. I do not know how we can disagree with the motion and I am sorry an amendment has been put forward.

Having said that, I am in some difficulty as to where we will go next. I confess that the temptation to say "I told you so" is strong, but I will do my best to resist, having just stated it. The difficulty I have in restraining myself comes from the fact that for more than 30 years I have sung only one song about the agrifood sector in Ireland——

The Senator would.

Senator Quinn, without interruption.

I could not resist.

Senator Burke could not resist. He should hear the song. He has not heard me sing.

The agrifood business must focus on serving the customer instead of trying to squeeze more and more supports from the State or Europe in defiance of marketplace needs. The words "competitiveness", "consumer focus" and "innovation", all buzz-words of this new approach, have been part of my songbook for many years. I must admit that my efforts fell mostly on deaf ears, even though Ministers and Departments were anxious to succeed.

Regardless of how many times farmers were told they could not go on living in the past, how often it was pointed out to people who believed they were owed a living independently of the marketplace that the lavishness of State spending must be limited, or how frequently we tried to confront the farming community with reality, farmers kept coming back for more. Mine is a lone voice on this issue, particularly in this House.

The farming community was successful in its efforts. For more than 30 years, farmers succeeded in holding back the forward march of progress. For much longer than 30 years, I do not remember what happened before that, they carved out a privileged lifestyle at the expense of the majority of this country's citizens. For as long as any of us can remember, the farming lobby held successive Governments to ransom, and in doing so they also held the people of this country to ransom. They are tough words but it happened and I see changes.

If we take this new plan at face value, the game is up. The only way forward in the long term is the one I championed all along, namely, the way of the marketplace. From now on, the farmers of Ireland must become customer-centred and driven by customers and the market. Will this happen? That brings me to the nub of my question. Normally, when people are confronted with unwelcome change, they are persuaded into it by the dire consequences of the alternative. When one is presented with the alternatives of either changing one's approach or going out of business, the instinct for survival usually wins out. However, when it comes to agriculture nothing happens in the same way as in the real world.

We now have a situation where farmers are guaranteed a living if they do absolutely nothing.

Stop. That is nonsense.

It is correct. They now live under a——

We must censure this immediately.

Let us examine it.

The Senator should check his facts.

When I was chairman of An Post 20 years ago, I was told the biggest threat to farmers would be a postal strike because the cheques would not be delivered.

That type of comment is a disgrace.

Senator Quinn, without interruption.

Farmers now live in a regime where we pay them for being farmers and not for farming. On top of this guaranteed living, they also have the freedom to engage in market-related activity, if they so choose. Unlike most business people and entrepreneurs——

They sell an animal for €5 and Senator Quinn gets €15.

——they can count on a fairly luxurious cushion to rest on if their business ventures fail. Their up side, if we are to believe this plan, is virtually unlimited. Their down side is extremely limited, because it is guaranteed by the State or Europe. This plan spells out the only viable future for the agrifood industry in Ireland.

I have always believed the sector potentially has a bright future which is why I welcome this plan. We have great natural advantages, acenturies-old tradition in farming and a world reputation as a green and pleasant land which is probably more than we deserve.

It was interesting to hear Senator Scanlon speaking about marketing. I remember going to the United States at the time of the threats of foot-and-mouth disease and BSE and listening to European farmers at a food marketing institute. I spoke about how good Irish meat was. The farmers told me French housewives and customers only wanted to buy French meat and Germans only wanted to buy German meat. They did not want to buy meat from anywhere else. It was not a question of identifying that we had better meat. Let us not fool ourselves that we have done a marvellous job in convincing the rest of the world that Irish meat is better than that which comes from elsewhere.

This is a splendid foundation on which to build a world-class agrifood sector, dedicated to top quality and producing goods fully in line with the tastes and preferences of international customers. An example is the new organisation CAIS, which represents 30 or 40 farmhouse cheese producers. There is virtually no limit to the value we can add to the natural advantages we enjoy.

For the first time in many years, the Minister for Agriculture and Food and my humble self are on the same page.

The Senator did not do badly out of it.

Welcome aboard.

We are dutifully warbling together the same hymn. This should, by any standards, be a cause for celebration, as long as no one has to listen to me sing. Why, therefore, do I still harbour a nagging doubt about it all? Is it because I somehow question the ability of members of the farming sector to get off their armchairs and grasp this opportunity? I sincerely hope that is not the case.

It is a long time since the Senator took a trip down to a farm.

After all, we have seen the Department of Agriculture and Food change before our very eyes. Is it too much to believe that the Department can bring its client farmers along with it in this total transformation? I wish the Minister and her Department well and I hope they will be able to lead this revolution to success. If they do, I will be the first to applaud, even if they do not applaud my singing.

I welcome a former Member of the House, Deputy Wall, and his visiting group to the gallery. Does the Minister wish to speak at this stage?

How many minutes do I have to speak?

The Minister has 15 minutes.

Tá lúcháir orm a bheith ar ais sa Seanad aríst agus páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht seo. Gabhaim mo bhuíochas as ucht an mhéid a bhí le rá ag na Seanadóirí, is cuma cén áit a bhfuil siad ina suí.

I will deflect from my script on a number of issues if Senators do not mind. Agriculture is central to the economic and social life of this country. By and large, the Common Agricultural Policy has had a positive impact on Irish farming. Apart from the support and market opportunities it provides, it encapsulates a vision of agriculture that the Government, the farming sector and society in general share strongly. This is centred on sustainable family farming, protecting the rural environment and providing safe food. This is the basis on which the sector merits strong public support.

The agrivision plan of action is based on a well-founded belief that the Irish agrifood sector, including our farmers and food and drinks manufacturers, can compete with the best in the world when that objective is pursued with sufficient focus, determination and skill. The plan is, in part, our response to the report of the Agri-Vision 2015 committee, chaired by Alan Dukes, which comprised some of the most senior figures in the sector, including leaders of the farming and industry organisations. It also takes account of material from a wide variety of other reports and sources including the enterprise strategy group.

The plan sets out a view for the future of the sector in light of the major changes now impacting on it. These changes arise from a number of sources, including significant shift over the past 15 years in EU policy from market supports to coupled payment and now to decoupled payments. The Senator is referring to decoupling.

Changes in EU and international trade policy have increased competition on EU and world markets. Lifestyle changes have shifted the focus of people in developed markets to food products with greater quality, nutritional and convenience value. The emergence of technology and research and development are significant factors driving innovation and competitive advantage in increasingly sophisticated food and drinks markets. The major changes in Ireland due to our rising prosperity have transformed the labour market and led to significant changes in food preferences and in the structures of farming and retailing.

These are important changes and they contain major challenges for the sector, but they also create market opportunities for producers and firms which can identify and take advantage of them. The question arises of how to respond to these changes in order to take advantage of those opportunities. This plan directs us to focus on three key points: competitiveness, innovation and consumer-focused marketing. The agrifood sector exports most of its products, therefore competitiveness is not optional but is the primary objective on which this plan is based.

Innovation is also important. The modern food industry is a sophisticated knowledge-based sector in which technological progress and product innovation are unremitting. Meeting the consumer's expectations on product, presentation and price is critical to continuing success.

Our vision for success is therefore focused on the objective of ensuring that the agrifood sector compares with the best in the EU and in the world in terms of knowledge base, competitiveness, innovation and marketing. Actions are required under each of these headings. There are over 160 such actions, a few of which I will mention this evening. The future of the sector will be decided by its capacity to meet the demands of modern European consumers.

Consumers require guarantees on food safety. State agencies provide world class, effective food safety systems backed up by robust traceability systems. Food safety standards are the responsibility of everybody in the food chain, private and public. There is now an increased consumer focus on food quality, nutritional value and ethical production and we must move our production systems to meet that demand. We will ensure that consumers will have "country of origin" information on beef products and, as soon as possible, on other meat products. We will also revamp and relaunch the school milk scheme. The operation of the consumer panel will be reviewed and strengthened to ensure that an up-to-date consumer viewpoint is available on all Department activities.

The food industry spends only 0.3% of sales on research and development. This must change. The food industry is a high-tech sector and we must recognise this change in our investment patterns. The enterprise strategy group also identified this issue. Ireland has built up considerable research and development capability in functional foods. The consumer emphasis on health and nutrition will encourage growth in the functional food and ingredients sector. I have increased, not reduced, the amount of funding provided to Teagasc by 10%.

How then does the Minister account for all the cuts in Teagasc?

The State is playing its part, both through the direct research effort of Teagasc and the universities and through its competitive research funding programmes such as the food institutional research measure, FIRM, the research stimulus fund, RSF, and the forestry measure, COFORD. Funding of food industry applied research is also available through Enterprise Ireland.

These developments must be further strengthened and the expertise gained rapidly disseminated to underpin a competitive and profitable agrifood sector. I will prioritise increased Exchequer funding for research and development in the National Development Plan 2007-13. I have already shown my intent in this area by increasing research and development funding this year. It is vital that we ensure that we are as competitive as we can possibly be at every point in the value chain from the farm to the fork.

At farm level, land mobility and flexible quota management are important aspects of facilitating structural change. A combination of State taxation incentives and schemes such as installation aid and early retirement, as well as market pressures, has resulted in some structural change but at a relatively low level. The pace of structural change will need to accelerate in order to ensure farm viability and to meet the challenges arising from increased market access from third countries. Structural change is necessary to increase productivity levels, improve economies of scale and maximise income earning potential.

It will be possible to maintain a core of commercially viable full-time farmers with good incomes while at the same time giving part-time farmers the opportunity to supplement their farm incomes through off-farm work.

There will be no core soon.

They will be forklift drivers.

Competitiveness is literally a life and death issue for our food firms, and ultimately for farm incomes and the commercial future of farming. This is the longest chapter of this plan, covering over 90 specific actions including a substantial change in the milk quota scheme which will commence in 2007. The new arrangements will facilitate consolidation of holdings, increase sufficiency and contribute to more competitive milk production. There will also be a strategic plan for the competitive development of the sheepmeat sector. A high-level group of CEOs of the food agencies, chaired by the Minister of State at my Department, Deputy Brendan Smith, will be established to ensure and implement a fully consolidated approach towards the development of the food sector. I will also establish a food industry committee, again chaired by Deputy Brendan Smith, comprised of senior representatives of the industry to identify issues impeding the development of the sector.

We will support Bord Bia in providing assistance to companies developing value-added business in continental EU markets and overseas. We aim to double the value of food and drink exports to Asia over three years.

What is the Minister doing about beef imports? They rose by 60% last year.

Some of us on this side of the House wish to be positive about the industry. Consolidation has taken place at dairy processing level in line with prospectus recommendations but its main recommendations remain to be implemented. This is primarily the responsibility of the processing sector. We will continue to engage with the processors to achieve the optimum configuration within the sector, especially in terms of scale.

This is an opportune time to encourage the growth of rural-based food enterprises, specialising in artisan and speciality foods with a strong regional identity. The market for speciality food is valued at over €6 billion in the UK and in Ireland it is forecast to grow to €7.5 billion in three years. Several proposals in this plan specifically promote this area: Bord Bia will establish a centre of excellence focused on servicing the market development-related needs of small business, through a series of local and international specialist forums.

Farmers' markets, modelled on the Farmleigh experience, will be rolled out in co-operation with the Office of Public Works.

That is when the prices will really go up.

Teagasc will put in place a specific programme to support people wishing to set up artisan and speciality food businesses. Grant support will be strategically provided for horticultural projects and aimed at improving the overall development and competitiveness of the sector. There will be direct support for organic farmers and grant aid for investment, both on-farm and off-farm, will be used to develop the critical mass of the organic sector.

When will the Minister introduce the food labelling requirement?

I intend to strengthen the processing and retail representation in this sector.

Apart from providing inputs for the agrifood industry, agriculture and forestry have a significant role to play in producing a variety of what are called "public goods". Exchequer and EU support for the agricultural sector is increasingly focused on paying for the production of public goods, which would otherwise be underprovided. Public acceptance of this role for the CAP requires continually assuring the consumer and the taxpayer of the real benefits it delivers. The Department of Agriculture and Food will publish, in conjunction with the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, a national rural development strategy in mid-2006, following extensive consultation with stakeholders. This will set the principles for rural development support until 2013, including REPS, forestry, disadvantaged areas, early retirement, installation aid and on-farm investment measures. It is vital to ensure value for public money in all the measures included in the programme, and that public good benefits are clear and measurable.

It has taken a long time to bring this vision document together because it was done by consultation and took a measured approach with targets set appropriate to the sector's ability to develop. We must create a vision and give an optimism to the sector on the basis of change; instead of lying under the challenges of change we must take the opportunities presented and develop within the policy framework set out.

There are internal and external issues causing difficulties at farm level. With regard to the nitrates directive, if we had progressed further on the decisions of 1996 and had accepted proposals put forward by several previous Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, we might not be in the current impasse. We are dealing with a water quality directive and must address it. Deciding how we do so and how we reduce the expense to the farmer is my job. I have done that in a new farm waste management scheme accepted across all sides of the House, which is vital. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and I are, under my instructions to Teagasc, bringing forward new science which Teagasc has advised us is available in order to reduce the current impact of the nitrates directive on farmers.

That was available the first time around.

Those meetings are taking place. Additional information has been sought by the European Commission. That has been prepared and we hope to bring this matter to an end. We must do so for many reasons. The most specific is that we need a derogation and we will apply for it as quickly as possible.

I deny the Fine Gael assertion that I am the person responsible for wiping out the sugar industry.

Who else takes responsibility? Is the Deputy not the Minister for Agriculture and Food?

I will take responsibility for my decisions. I make the decisions. There are a number of factors which nobody wants to appreciate. First, a WTO panel decision was taken against us. Second, we never reformed the sector. Third, we have major difficulties with regard to imports of cheap sugar, and the European Community had a much higher supported sugar price than the world sugar price.

All in this House know I fully supported the notion that we did not have to introduce reform prior to the WTO decisions, and that we had worked together and formed a blocking minority at the time on the basis that the proposals being put forward were unacceptable. I was advised by the farming sector that it would not grow sugar beet in any circumstances at a certain price. As a consequence I had to try to get a fair price in order to encourage people to grow sugar beet. That was not possible on the basis of a decision made at 2 a.m. on the day of the final discussions when a number of my colleagues who were part of the blocking minority removed themselves from that minority, and I did not have the political wherewithal to stop this.

I could either sit on my hands and go home or do something about it, which I did. We increased the diversification fund to €44 million and we will need to look at further opportunities in the tillage sector in order to address the rotational aspect of sugar beet. There is also an overall package of €310 million, with single farm payments giving the differential between the loss and what the cost of the sugar beet would be. The third item is a restructuring fund which is being paid for by the sugar companies now remaining in sugar.

I will make those decisions to the best of my ability in the context of the legal text available to me, in consultation with all the stakeholders, with independent advice being made available to me.

What about Greencore?

It will be as balanced as possible on the basis of the legalities within which I must work. I would prefer if we could come together on the basis of an agreement. That may be difficult. I want us to have agreement as soon as possible and do not want us to end up in court. That would be a complete waste of everyone's time and energy. I have taken independent advice on the matter and will reflect it on the basis of the parameters set down by me. I cannot go outside them, but I appreciate that everyone has a view on the issue and is entitled to put it forward, to have it listened to and to be consulted.

That is why the issue of biofuels and looking to the non-food use of land is most appropriate. That is appreciated on all sides of the House. There are opportunities in the context of the sugar reform but particularly in the context of a new energy policy which has been accepted at the spring Council meeting — especially an acceptance by the Commission that €45 per hectare is inadequate — we should be able to develop and work towards a more prosperous energy biofuel sector. We have the potential for that.

We are at a crossroads — CAP reform, WTO talks, competition and the availability and ability of the sector, be it farmers or agrifood producers to compete. It is my job to provide the policy framework so that this can happen. This will be done in consultation with all stakeholders. In the end it is the stakeholders who will move forward. We must give direction and hope, and must afford people the possibility to progress and develop, be it from the farm to the fork or otherwise. I hope that in the policy framework I am putting forward, we will give direction and will stress the consumer and market-orientated way in which CAP reform is now reflected. We must drive research and development. In the context of primary processing, manufacturing in the agrifood sector is crucially important to the Irish economy. Though we may be led by the Lisbon Agenda and the knowledge-based economy, all of which is very much part of the sector, we must appreciate the vitally important role of the primary processor within the agrifood sector.

I see opportunities. I see the current need to give direction and support. That support is not necessarily money. It is direction, access to information, working together and a greater support mechanism involving all the stakeholders. Against that challenge, I intend we will provide a vision for agriculture. That vision is the only way forward. We must look at sustainability, competitiveness, innovation, nutrition and especially the ability of an export-orientated country to export at a viable price.

There will be challenges in all sectors but we must face them and provide opportunities. I will do all I can to ensure we have the most dynamic indigenous sector in this country. We can all throw political punches at each other but for the public good and the development of rural Ireland we need to work with a vision for agriculture, food and forestry. I intend that we will develop the 160 actions of the vision document, that we will work together to assure people and ensure it works. It is clear that the State and the taxpayer are continuing to do their bit but it is also important that the private interests in the sector step up to the mark. I am convinced that through the establishment of the agrivision forum, which I propose in chapter 7 of this report, we will bring all the relevant interests together and focus on our common aim. It will be on that basis that we can achieve it.

I thank the Seanad for the opportunity to put forward a number of proposals. This is a fabulous sector, our most important indigenous one. It is not always appreciated for its role, for what it does in this country and abroad, and for the reputation that we could and should have as a nation to be the food island of the world. We are well equipped to get that reputation, but must work a little harder. I hope this provides food for thought and that we will work at the further development of this vital cog in the economic wheel of this country.

I could probably speak for two hours on agriculture and the astonishing case history of this country's inability to think or be led strategically. I was told I was a left-wing extremist of all sorts of manifestations 30 years ago — I am still quite happy to have that appellation hung around my neck — when I and others suggested that fishing and fisheries had been sold out in return for the Common Agricultural Policy and that we were imagining things.

I never got a degree in economics but I was able to see even then something that, for some reason had to do with the possibility of lucrative consultancies, evaded most Irish economists for about 25 years after we joined the EU, namely, that any area of the economy that is based on a guaranteed price for limitless production will inevitably hit a wall. What I did not anticipate was that the wall was 30 years away. I thought it would be less.

It is astonishing the way the comfort blanket of the CAP survived two oil crises, a couple of recessions and the astonishing public revulsion at what it saw as vast amounts of food being wasted. It became an enormous political taboo. If one thinks that changing policy about the Irish language is difficult one should try talking about the possible limitations of the Common Agricultural Policy for 15 years as I did occasionally here and was told I did not understand. I understood very well.

I do not understand the intricacies of farming but I understand the intricacies of trying to run a business while pretending the market does not matter. By contrast with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Irish farming organisations appear to wrap a comfort blanket around themselves also.

The beginnings of Thatcherism in Britain galvanised the Irish trade union movement into recognising it needed to adjust its role and way of doing things to ensure it was still part of the equation as Ireland changed. At the same time my understanding of the farming organisations was that they stood like King Canute and told the tide it must stay out and were somewhat surprised when they got wet three or four times. While the Department, ably enough headed by the Minister and her predecessors, would have privately recognised it was an unsustainable position, the public view was that nothing would change. All of a sudden everything changes and people are shattered. When it changes again people are further shattered.

If I was a farmer in Ireland today, which is unlikely, I would be extremely wary of direct payments. There is not a scrap of evidence anywhere in any society in the world where direct payments which are not related to people's work last indefinitely, however generously they are made.

I remember when a former Taoiseach promised the workers in Clondalkin Paper Mills they would be paid their wages indefinitely after the factory closed. I remember some officials in the Minister's Department in the Land Commission being paid salaries for a function that was long gone. They were regarded as scandals.

If I was a farmer I would be very worried if my future was dependent on a cheque in the post based on what I used to do ten years ago. If we are going to behave strategically we have to see those direct payments as an assistance to transition, not as a permanent guarantee. I am not persuaded the matter has been dealt with strategically.

I am glad the Minister made considerable reference to food. I am pleasantly surprised at the scale of food production from micro companies. I was in Harrods in London recently and walked through its magnificent food halls and saw a wonderful display of cheeses from all over the world. There were a significant number of Irish cheeses on display. Without having checked, my recollection is that every one of the Irish cheeses I could see in Harrods was a product of a small if not a micro company. There was not a single product there from any of the big companies that would claim to "dominate" the Irish food market. That is a good showpiece of all the food quality of the world and in it one finds that the only Irish cheeses there are those that people produced in spite of, not because of, the Common Agricultural Policy.

I make no apologies for referring again to a meeting of the Joint Committee on European Affairs, of which I was a member, in or about 1998 when the IFA was in attendance and spoke for 45 minutes on what had to be done for farming. I remember asking the then president of the IFA, who is now a colleague of the Minister, how he could speak for 45 minutes about the future of agriculture and not mention consumers or the marketplace. We had an interesting dialogue. That was the reality. It is astonishing to me as a reasonably numerate, economically-literate individual that in 2006 I am reading that the plan must focus on three key points, namely, competitiveness, innovation and consumer-focused marketing. Thanks be to God we have noticed but it is astonishing that it took 30 years. That I why I want to ask a few questions.

I heard at a World Trade Organisation parliamentary assembly in Geneva in 2002 that the sugar regime was going to change and yet when I came back here literally nobody said anything. I have a question for the Minister. Why is it that Finland is retaining its sugar beet industry? A number of people have asked that question. There must be a reason and I would like to know it. No one I know is aware of the reason.

Why is it that we cannot emulate a country such as Sweden which has decided that in 15 years it will phase out oil dependency and will use biofuel to power its cars? What is the obstacle to us dramatically moving in that direction? Given that we have some of the most fertile land in Europe which people are paid not to use, what is the problem? I think I know the reason. The problem is the Department of Finance has never had the imagination to see where the world might be and does not understand environmental issues. I could speak for a long time on this subject.

There is one question I want to ask the Minister that I ask every Minister. There are multiple thousands of farmers involved in REPS. Will somebody tell me what proportion of agricultural output is produced on REPS farms? Only where there is a REPS can one say that agricultural output is based on the best environmental standards. If that is what we want to achieve, most of our agricultural output ought to be from REPS-based farms. I believe it is not and that it is mostly from a large number of farmers in small scale production in peripheral areas. That is not the same as having a sustainable agricultural industry.

I am delighted to speak on the motion. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, and her team on the good work that is being done. I particularly congratulate them on the new action plan for agriculture for the years ahead.

Agriculture faces many challenges in the years ahead but working together, Governments and the farming sector can meet those challenges. As the Taoiseach commented recently, the agrifood sector has been and will remain the single most important contributor to the economic well-being of rural communities. Agriculture continues to represent the main options for rural economic activity. It continues to play a vital role in the Irish economy, with almost 10% of GDP coming from agriculture.

The Common Agricultural Policy has been reformed to take account of changing circumstances over the years. It is now better structured to meet the needs of the wider European Union. It now faces further challenges in the coming years, both internally and externally. A good outcome for Ireland at EU level was secured at the European Council last December where agreement was reached on the financing of the Union for the period 2007 to 2013. Ireland should receive over €10 billion in CAP payments and market supports over the next seven years.

Irish farmers deserve the maximum possible certainty on the level of direct payments in the years to come if they are to take full advantage of new opportunities and markets and to develop new products. Rural Ireland will also receive a special additional allocation of €500 million. The decision on the financial perspective still has to be finalised in consultation with the European Parliament but I understand our total rural development receipts will be in the order of €1.9 billion.

The December agreement includes a review clause and we can be sure that again there will be demands to adjust CAP expenditure but unanimity will be required for any decision taken under the review and I believe funding is secure for Irish farmers up to 2013. To ensure we are able to meet the challenges that face us in the future, the Government has put in place an ambitious plan for Irish farming and the agrifood sector.

There can be no doubt that agriculture and the agrifood sector are in a period of major change. Agriculture can and should encompass strong commercial farming as well as part-time farming, serving consumers and markets worldwide with pride and distinction. The success of our indigenous food industry must be built upon. That will help to strengthen Irish farming and secure jobs growth in the agrifood sector.

The Minister, Deputy Coughlan, is right to say that this plan sets out a positive vision for the future of the sector. It underlines the fact that delivering safe, high-quality, nutritious food produced in a sustainable manner to well informed customers in high-value markets is the right road for the future of the Irish food industry and therefore for our farmers.

A total of 166 actions are being taken to meet this vision. It is clear that the State and the taxpayer are doing their bit. I endorse the Minister's call for all private interests in the sector to step up to the plate, although she used the term "step up to the mark".

I congratulate the Minister. I welcome the new action plan and I support the motion. As Senator Quinn said, this action plan for agriculture will be a landmark in the future. I commend the motion and wish the Minister and her team well in the future.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, and her officials to the House. Most people throughout the country would warmly welcome the Minister's farm waste management plan. Of all the plans we have had in past years, this is the first to have flexibility with regard to anyone who wants to spend money in developing and managing their farms, whether it be for environmental or purely economic reasons. That is welcome. There is a "but", however, and that concerns the 10% differential between certain regions in the west, namely, Cavan, Monaghan and Leitrim, and other areas, particularly those that are disadvantaged, that need that additional support because of farm size and so on. That 10% might not be much to some people but it means a great deal to many others.

There are 166 points in the plan, 93 of which essentially deal with competitiveness. Some people cited the Minister as saying that the plan concerns competitiveness which is the life or death issue for farmers. Senator Quinn spoke essentially for those involved in the end product. My interpretation of what he said is that he had no regard for the efforts and endeavours of the farming community, that is, the producers. Everything he said concerned his own area, the end product that he could sell. It is a pity he is not present because I could remind him that a few years ago a farmer would have sold an Irish beef heifer for €500 or €600 at the farm gate yet at the other end that animal was worth the equivalent of €1,500 or €1,800.

The Minister mentioned the concept of "from farm to fork". Senator Quinn was talking about the fork and had little regard for the other. If his vision of the agricultural plan is one of the farmer sitting in his armchair and that it is time for him to get up, he should take a trip to see where some of the food he sells originates. The people who claim they are talking about Irish quality product do not know its origins on the farm, where the Senator thinks farmers are sitting on their chairs. It was unbelievable, unacceptable and a gross insult to the farming community for a person who has benefited from it so much and for so long to have such a vision.

The Minister has given Teagasc a strategic position in this plan. I query that, for many reasons. Look at Teagasc's record over the years with regard to development in farming. Teagasc had research farms which were charged with the delivery of research and development, as well as trials, in agriculture. Teagasc sold the farms. It also sold the communications centres in many towns. Now, Teagasc is being reinvented and being brought centre stage in this plan. The Minister used the phrase "life and death". Teagasc had effectively died in the eyes of the farming community. I query its ability to drive the plan in a positive way because it is not seen in a positive light in the farming community at present.

Bord Bia, Féile Bia and labelling must also be discussed. The Minister referred to farmers' markets modelled on the Farmleigh experience and said they would be rolled out with the co-operation of the Office of Public Works. If there was ever a death knell for Irish farming, it is the idea of co-operating with the Office of Public Works.

That is only for sites.

Yes. However, it was not long ago that food inspectors travelled the country closing down small enterprising food ventures on farms. If housewives, to supplement the family's income, were producing bread, cheese or other foods, they were told they could not do it because of EU rules, regulations and food directives.

Poor old Dinny had to give up selling the free range eggs.

Now, the wheel is turning again with the arrival of farmers' markets where farmers can sell their produce in the open air. It is happening all over Europe and now we have decided we can do it here once more. Many people, some now gone from farming, attempted previously to be innovative but they were stymied in their efforts by over-enthusiastic regulators.

One of my constituents runs a top-class restaurant. He was approached approximately 18 months ago by a person who told him that to get accreditation under the Féile Bia scheme he would have to get his meat from a particular source. I raised this previously in the House with one of the Ministers of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food. My constituent was already getting his meat from local farmers and knew the quality of his product. However, this person, who was representing Féile Bia, was forcing him into a situation where he would have to buy his meat from a particular wholesaler. It was well known that the wholesaler was importing South American beef and relabelling it as Irish.

My constituent refused to get accreditation from Féile Bia if that was what it involved. He reported it to the appropriate authorities and the person disappeared. There was no more about accreditation.

What is the name of the restaurant?

The Minister can have it later.

That is not the ethos of the Féile Bia.

It should not be but that is the reality. The man would appreciate a conversation with the Minister about the matter.

The Minister referred to forestry. The recently appointed Minister of State said in a statement that she was concerned there had been such a fall off in the development of forestry. Was there a change by the Department with regard to what happened last year with the cutbacks? We were told there would be a reduction from 20% to 10% and the Department was openly embracing the fact that we had held 10% and that the premia would be reduced accordingly.

Many people had accepted the idea that there was greater profitability in forestry in marginal areas, particularly in the west of Ireland, but they could not proceed. There are 500 applications in the Department awaiting approval and the farmers cannot proceed. The planting season will be over.

It is the new computer.

The computer is sorted.

If the applications were manually accepted, the people who intend to go ahead with forestry should be given an opportunity to do so. There should be some relaxation of the procedure to allow them to proceed. This is a productive possibility that is again being stymied. I ask the Minister to deal with this.

When I attended the Fianna Fáil agricultural conference in Birr a number of weeks ago——

Parlon country.

——it was packed. It was hard to get parking that morning. I look on it as Cowen country. The Minister outlined the plan for the future of the agrifood sector. I was delighted the plan was published last week and I welcome its proposals. The reason a new plan is necessary is the changing circumstances now being faced in Ireland with regard to agriculture and food production. There is a fully decoupled payment scheme, trade is more open and less restricted and there are major changes in our lifestyles and those of our farmers and growers. We therefore must use the benefits of technology, research and development to continue to improve all aspects of our food production, whether it is for the home or the export markets.

There is great emphasis in the report on the need for the agrifood sector to remain competitive in the cost of production and the cost to consumers. Ireland has an export-driven food sector and if we price ourselves out of the range of consumers across Europe and elsewhere, we will be in serious trouble. Competitiveness is a major part of the plan because it will ultimately decide the future of the food sector in Ireland. The plan proposes 93 actions, one of which was announced last week with regard to milk quotas. By 2007, a milk quota system will be in place which will allow for the transfer of quotas. This is an important measure for commercial dairy farmers.

The Fianna Fáil motion before the House is not a report or a statement of what it would like to happen. The motion correctly refers to the fact that the plan contains 166 specific actions to be implemented in the near future.

The Fine Gael amendment is innocent stuff. It states that it notes the lack of funding commitments in the plan which will render the plan ineffective and unworkable. At every opportunity, we hear Members of the Opposition tell us that the Government should have more long-term plans before granting funding. The Minister and her team now have a great long-term plan but we are now being told that the plan is doomed because funding details are not provided.

It is a great plan with no funding.

The Minister for Finance will honour his word and will provide the necessary funding for this long-term plan.

He will if he is there.

He will be there. The Senator need not worry about that.

As someone from a rural constituency, I am aware of the importance and the success of the Irish agrifood sector. This is why I am delighted with the work of the Minister at European and international levels in sourcing new markets for our quality exports.

Looking through the plan, I was surprised to see the amount of opportunities available for the agriculture sector. The Irish market is worth €7 billion, but there is a potential €250 billion market in the UK and a wider EU market worth more than €1,000 billion. I have not even considered the emerging markets in Asia and the US. I am very confident for the future of the agrifood sector in Ireland. I compliment the individual farmers and the co-operatives that have brought forward a great deal of change in the sector. The food and drink industry employs 50,000 people in direct jobs and much more when we consider those employed on farms and in related services. This plan is very important for the future of our economy and I wish the Minister and her colleagues well in their work to push it forward.

The new waste management grant-aid plan announced yesterday has been widely welcomed. It will be of great benefit to many farmers. Senator Coonan is very relaxed this evening. While he said a few negative things, his body language would indicate that he would prefer to have the current Minister in power rather than Deputy Sargent of the Green Party.

We always like to hear what Senator Bannon has to say on agriculture, so I would like to share my time with him.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I congratulate her on the work she has been doing in the Department. I hope she looks at the remarks on this side of the House as further encouragement.

We must instil in our children the importance of agriculture and horticulture in Ireland. They must learn about where their food comes from. We have been bad about this for some time and children have been eating the most appalling rubbish with no knowledge of what it contains and from where it came. Jamie Oliver made a great effort to improve school dinners in England and I give him credit for that. We should instil in our children a better understanding of the food they eat and why it should be nutritious.

We just did a launch this morning with AgriAware.

That is a wonderful organisation and I applaud it for having made the effort to come to St. Stephen's Green with chickens, hens, a cow and a few sheep. Some city children have little notion of where food comes from. Leaflets are being sent out to the various schools about this and it is a worthwhile effort. There is a plague of obesity in this country which did not exist ten or 15 years ago. We have to make the connection between the production of good food and what people are eating. This has been done in French schools for a very long time and we noticed how fit those young people looked when rioting on the streets of Paris. Very few of them were fat and were well able to run from the water cannon. We must make an effort to ensure that our children do not suffer from obesity. That is much worse for their health than running around the streets.

Farmers' markets were mentioned and they are very important. However, we must make sure that we know the source of food in our restaurants. Some 70% of the poultry used in our restaurants, fast food outlets, etc., comes from outside the EU. Many people want to know the source of the food they consume and I hope the Minister can do more about that.

I welcome the Minister to the House. She always comes in here smiling even though she has all agricultural enterprises in a very depressed state. In her short term in office, she has dismantled several sectors of the agricultural industry.

If I smile, the Senator smiles too.

Every recent Fianna Fáil Private Members' motion has loudly sounded the bells of the next general election. Each toll has heightened despite——

The Senator has been nominated.

—— the attempts of this lame-duck Government to convince by self-praise, by spin, waffle and lies, all calculated to cover what will be the order of the day, weeks and months ahead. The Government has been completely inept in running the agricultural sector, which has suffered from ten years of wilful Government mismanagement.

Since this Government took office, an average of seven farmers per day have been leaving agriculture. The Government would have us believe that all is rosy in the sector. The motion states that Fianna Fáil commends the Government on continuing to prioritise agriculture and on providing leadership in meeting any challenges to our most important natural resource based industry. That is merely empty words and the desperate rant of a drowning Government.

We can all swim.

They should be thrown a lifeline.

What has the Government done to merit this self-praise? It relaunched a report which had been gathering dust on the shelf for the last 15 months. The Taoiseach recently announced, with some fanfare, a blueprint for agriculture beyond 2015, an effort on which the Government is now lavishing inordinate praise. Something needed to be pulled from the hat to cover the large, white elephant the Taoiseach mistook for a rabbit when he proudly produced the Agri-Vision 2015 blueprint, which had already been conjured by the Minister 15 months earlier.

In a comedy of errors, the Minister published the initial report on 15 December 2004 and stated that she would produce her response to that report in the new year. On 27 January 2005, in a reply to a parliamentary question, the Minister stated that an implementation plan based on the Agri-Vision report would be forthcoming shortly. On 15 November 2005, in a further reply to a parliamentary question, it was stated that the action plan for agriculture, based on the Agri-Vision 2015 report, would be launched early in 2006. The Taoiseach, oblivious to all this and waking up to the crisis in agriculture, produced a report out of the hat which was another rehash. In a great spirit of enthusiasm and realising that agriculture was on its knees, the Taoiseach launched a 15 month-old report that was produced by a committee chaired by our former leader, Mr. Alan Dukes. I am glad the Minister acknowledged that.

I said that I wanted an independent view.

The Government sat on the report all that time, in spite of major threats to the Irish farming industry.

The average Irish farmer lost €3,899 in 2005. The average annual income to each farmer in Ireland——

Farmers increased their income considerably last year.

—— is €15,557, which included the single farm payment. When import costs of €15,478, Government stealth taxes and other charges totalling €3,978 are taken into account, farmers are losing over €3,000 per annum. The average farming family is operating at a loss of €75 per week and this has revealed that the crisis in farming is worse now than ever. Farming incomes are lower now than ever, and the Minister cannot deny that she has presided over that. Irish farmers are being driven off the land and their livelihoods destroyed by this anti-farming Government. However, the day of reckoning is coming very soon for the Minister, her party's Deputies and the Government.

I strongly condemn what the Minister has had the cheek to put before the House this evening, when all agricultural enterprises are on their knees. Shame on Fianna Fáil for the manner in which it has dismantled agriculture in this country.

Perhaps I might start where I left off, having run out of time.

Before I do so, I pay tribute to the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, also acknowledging the staff of the Department, who have served this country and the interests of agriculture well, no matter who was in Government.

Earlier I made a special plea to the Minister that I hope both she and the House will endorse. I know of her compassion, leadership and strength of character. I could go on in such a vein, but I have a special plea to make. Those of us who watch television and see poverty, misery and death through hunger in Africa——

The Senator should know that there is a great deal of poverty here too.

I make a special appeal to the Minister to secure the Government's agreement that a special envoy with an understanding of people's needs be appointed to a small African state that we might adopt, dealing with health, education and food. If Senator Quinn were here, he would say that if one gives a person a fish, one will feed him for a day, but if one teaches a person to fish, one will feed him for a lifetime. However, we see children dying of starvation where there is only sand and desert, and one will never get food from such land. It breaks my heart to see that happen, as it must touch everyone. I ask the Minister——

The Government did not acknowledge its commitment to overseas aid. It would not spend the money.

The Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Conor Lenihan, agreed €760 million for those countries, and he serves them well.

It refused food. The only area in which the Government could agree cutbacks was in overseas aid.

Senator Callanan without interruption, please.

I thought that it would have touched even Senator Coonan's heart, but that is obviously not the case. I am sorry to say that.

The Senator should not be sorry.

The appeal that I made was for unanimity on this issue.

The Senator should save his own soul; I will look after mine.

Senator Coonan's is lost.

Perhaps the Minister might take that appeal to Europe. Commissioner Mandelson must be stopped in his tracks regarding what he is doing to European agriculture, the purpose of which is to feed people. It is the bread of life.

The Commissioner's accomplice is beside the Senator.

The Minister has stood against Commissioner Mandelson in the past and held the line. However, if he is allowed his own way, manipulating the WTO talks, he could be responsible for bringing 1.3 million tonnes of meat products into Europe thus decimating the Continent's agriculture and food production.

Is the Senator suggesting that the Minister for Agriculture and Food is a shrinking violet?

I hope that you will not interrupt me on this matter.

The Senator should address his remarks through the Chair.

I beg the Cathaoirleach's protection.

It is not for Mr. Mandelson to decimate European agriculture, of which Irish agriculture is part. Europe should adopt the same policy of continuing food production as we are doing. Any food allowed into Europe should meet the same standards as what we produce, with no doctoring, no messing around, no packaging with breadcrumbs or anything else, and no pretence that it is a European or Irish product. Imported food must meet the standard of what we produce in Europe, but we should let in only a certain amount, since if we allow too much to be imported, it will decimate European agriculture. Equally, Europe should play its role in famine-stricken Africa. That is my appeal.

I congratulate the Minister on her presentation and excellent work, which I would describe as "Rolls Royce", and I know that Senator Coonan is cognisant of that too, never mind Senator Bannon.

Let us not get carried away.

I thank Senator Coonan for his participation and for mentioning my name five times, which was very kind of him.

I thank Senator Callanan for returning the compliment and mentioning my name seven times.

Every Senator did his or her best, and we had a good debate. On everyone's behalf, I express our appreciation to the Minister and acknowledge her officials.

One good turn deserves another.

Amendment put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 17; Níl, 30.

  • Bannon, James.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Browne, Fergal.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Burke, Ulick.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Coonan, Noel.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Finucane, Michael.
  • Hayes, Brian.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • O’Meara, Kathleen.
  • Phelan, John.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • Terry, Sheila.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.


  • Brady, Cyprian.
  • Brennan, Michael.
  • Callanan, Peter.
  • Cox, Margaret.
  • Feeney, Geraldine.
  • Fitzgerald, Liam.
  • Glynn, Camillus.
  • Hanafin, John.
  • Henry, Mary.
  • Kenneally, Brendan.
  • Kitt, Michael P.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • Lydon, Donal J.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • Mansergh, Martin.
  • Minihan, John.
  • Mooney, Paschal C.
  • Morrissey, Tom.
  • Moylan, Pat.
  • Norris, David.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O’Brien, Francis.
  • O’Toole, Joe.
  • Ormonde, Ann.
  • Phelan, Kieran.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Scanlon, Eamon.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • Walsh, Kate.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Coonan and Cummins; Níl, Senators Minihan and Moylan.
Amendment declared lost.
Question, "That the motion be agreed to", put and declared carried.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.