It is a pleasure to be back in the House to discuss agriculture, food safety and related matters. Over the past three or four months, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I have been given the opportunity to promote agriculture and to work in conjunction with our Department and everybody in the industry. It is an exciting industry to be involved in, given the opportunities presented by the great demand for food and energy. I am glad to be in the House to hear the views of Senators and to share my views on horticulture and forestry. The greyhound industry is also under my remit but everything comes back to jobs.
On several occasions I have been asked by the Minister to attend functions relating to the dairy, sheep, beef or pig industries and food safety is important. I left school at 15 to be a farmer at the time we joined the EEC. The agriculture industry expanded to produce food on a massive scale. It was always exciting to be involved and to get paid until the mid-1990s but now the door has opened again. If one's daughter was getting married to a farmer 15 years ago, the question everyone asked was how much road frontage he had whereas ten years ago it was different but now they are talking about road frontage again. That is a sign of the times. There is a significant difference between the time we joined the EU and now in that Ireland has become a serious food exporter. This is where the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, comes in. Farmers do not like to be led in certain ways but the farming community and producers of all types of food have worked with the FSAI. Regulations must be in place for everything related to eating and it is a pleasure to know that it is an independent body. It has no vested interests and its members have called the shots in the interests of the consumer from day one. We are in a fantastic position. I ask Senators for their views and I do not want everybody to be nice to me. If Members do not think something is right, I expect them to point that out.
We must not alone sell our food but also our technology. The most interesting meeting I had since taking office was with the Minister for agriculture from China. He arrived in Ireland having visited many other countries. He was amazed by our environment, food traceability standards, the manner in which we ran our herds and the manner in which every ounce of food produced met various standards. We must work as a team. Every Member comes from a different area, which is engaged in some aspect of the food industry. We have a responsibility to promote it. At the end of the year, we will show the EU that we are good at producing food and we have the capacity to feed at least 40 million people and to export our technology. Our technology has been rated through the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the farming and food producing communities. We have the required technology for all types of food production and it has been recognised that it is the best in the world.
I am pleased to address the Seanad on the Government's commitment to developing the agriculture, agrifood and related sectors and, in particular, to deal with the specific areas for which I have ministerial responsibility. Together with the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, I am determined to ensure that the sector fully realises its potential and maximises its economic and social contribution to the country. In my first few months in office, I have travelled widely throughout the country and have met thousands of stakeholders. I have been very impressed by their enthusiasm and optimism.
The Government has fully embraced the Food Harvest 2020 strategy and we intend to drive the strategy to significantly grow the sector in the next ten years. We are all aware of the headline targets set out in the strategy which the Government believes are achievable. There is an increasing recognition that our economic recovery will be export-led and, in that regard, agriculture and the agrifood sector has a particularly important part to play.
The value of agricultural and agrifood exports increased to €8 billion in 2010 and recent CSO figures suggest that the trend will continue this year. The Food Harvest 2020 strategy targets an increase in dairy production of 50% by 2020. When one considers that approximately 85% of Irish dairy produce is exported, an increasing proportion to emerging markets in the Middle East and Far East, one can see the enormous contribution that the Irish dairy sector can make through a significant increase in exports.
Similarly, the Food Harvest 2020 strategy targeted an increase in the output value of Irish beef of 20% by the end of the decade. However, last week, the Beef Activation Group revised the figure upwards to 40%. Given the sector's strong export focus, with approximately 98% of Irish beef exports going to high-value EU markets, and the fact that it is employment intensive, that is vitally important in terms of economic recovery, job retention and creation.
Irish agriculture and the wider agrifood sector are uniquely positioned to benefit from a rapidly increasing global population, increasing urbanisation and the westernisation of diets in developing economies. Those factors will lead to an increase of 50% in demand for food globally by 2030, rising to 70% by 2050. Given that background, I welcome the new, ambitious growth target for the Irish beef sector and, with my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, I wish to work with all the stakeholders in the agriculture and agrifood sector to ensure that the targets are met and the sector delivers on its undoubted potential.
This country, rightly, has an international reputation as a clean, green, high quality, innovative producer of excellent food and drink. A critical part of the reputation arises from the emphasis we continue to place on food safety. Food safety is the cornerstone of our international reputation for food production. The production of food to the highest standards of safety within sustainable farming systems is the very foundation on which the agrifood sector is built and is one of the major goals and objectives of the Department, which it pursues through monitoring, surveillance and inspection services along the links of the food chain within its area of responsibility through the enforcement of strict regulatory standards on animal identification and traceability, farm inputs, animal health, animal welfare, veterinary hygiene, animal remedies, plant health and pesticides. In addition, there is the enforcement of EU and national rules relating to transport, marketing centres, processing plants, storage and distribution operations. The import and export of animals and plant products is controlled. The network of veterinary research laboratories, dairy science laboratories, the pesticides laboratory and private laboratories all work in close co-operation with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, and other Government agencies on food safety issues.
My Department also enforces food safety controls under the single payments scheme, through cross-compliance with environmental, animal welfare and food and feed hygiene regulations. With such attributes as animal welfare and traceability, Irish food products have a valuable edge in the international marketplace. My Department has responsibility for the food safety standards of approximately 650 food premises, primary producers of milk, dairy and eggs, large meat producers and premises producing food of non-animal origin. It is also responsible for the safety of imports of food of animal origin from outside the EU and for residue monitoring. Standards across the food production sector are subject to regulation under the hygiene package for food and feed, a system introduced to regulate food business operatives. Primary responsibility for the safety of food to consumers continues to rest with individual food business operators.
My Department works closely with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. The FSAI was established in 1999 as an independent regulatory agency and my Department, along with other agencies including the HSE, local authority veterinary services and the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority operates under contract to the FSAI in so far as food safety is concerned. The FSAI, through its service contract mechanism, ensures overarching co-ordination of food safety controls and the application of controls across the food chain based on risk and in a proportionate manner. Ireland was one of the first countries to set up a national food safety authority. It is fair to say and generally acknowledged that it has gained both national and international credibility and adds to the level of assurance for both domestic and international consumers in the food safety control infrastructure which underpins the safety of Irish food products.
Safety of the food chain can never be taken for granted as food production continues to evolve with new processes and products rapidly emerging. Major food incidents, both in this country and abroad, have brought home in no uncertain manner the importance of being prepared to deal swiftly and effectively with new challenges. This country has established a reputation as a producer of safe food but there is no room for complacency. The food and feed hygiene legislation clearly places responsibility on food and feed business operators whether as producers, processors, distributors, retailers or caterers to ensure that the food chain is safe. At the end of the day, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and the Government will continue to give priority to the maintenance of the highest standards of food safety.
A critical part of Irish agriculture and agrifood is the horticulture and potato sector which has an output value at farm gate of approximately €350 million. That figure includes both the food and amenity sectors of horticulture which make up 80% and 20% respectively of the output value. A Bord Bia review of labour in the horticulture sector in 2007 showed that full-time employment in primary production activity was estimated at 6,000. That does not include employment upstream or downstream of the primary production process on which the horticultural sector impacts, for example, preparing and packing produce, garden design and landscaping and retail, which generates upwards of a further 10,000 jobs.
The key market for the horticultural industry is the domestic market. The two main areas of export are mushrooms to the UK where we have 62% of the market and amenity horticultural products worth approximately €10 million annually. The majority of horticultural production is sold on the home market and the key outlets are the retail market, which is valued at €1.2 billion per annum.
The other important outlet for produce is the food service or catering sector. Since my appointment, I have visited a large number of producers and marketing companies. I have been most impressed by the knowledge and professionalism of growers and the consumer-orientated focus of their business. Growers are much attuned to the changes in the markets and have responded accordingly. One grower indicated to me that ten years ago 90% of his production was based on loose tomatoes but today it is less than 10%. He has now diversified into many different speciality tomato lines, adding value all the time. That is a reflection of both the dynamism and evolution of the industry.
The Food Harvest 2020 strategy identified "potential for further development in the sector". I wish to ensure that the potential is fully realised. Despite short-term difficulties, it is vital for the industry to continue investment in order to meet the competitive pressures the industry currently faces. The pressures arise, in particular, from high input costs, competitively priced imports, lack of scale and limited development in innovation. To that end, I was particularly pleased to have been in a position last month to announce a grant aid package of €4.1 million under the 2011 scheme of investment aid for the development of the commercial horticulture sector. The package will provide grants for 157 horticultural producers to assist in funding capital investments in specialist new equipment and facilities. The grant aid covers all areas of the horticultural industry including field vegetables, mushrooms, protected crops, nursery crops, soft fruits and apples, cut foliage and bee-keeping — and will assist in funding investments of approximately €10.2 million between now and the end of the year.
In the past decade the industry has consolidated with fewer but significantly larger producers. Growers have become more specialised and have invested considerably in recent years thanks in no small way to grant aid from my Department under the national development plan. Over the past decade the Department has provided grant aid of just under €30 million to horticulture projects, which supported investment of almost €78 million by the industry itself.
The extent of the competitive environment within which the Irish horticulture industry operates was illustrated clearly just a couple of weeks ago in a report from the Horticulture Action Group, which pointed out that the cost of hiring labour in this country is 26% higher than it is in the UK, given the labour-intensive nature of picking and harvesting fresh produce. The report also emphasised that the Irish retail and catering markets are the most important outlets for fresh Irish horticulture produce. Growers of potatoes, vegetables and fruit are extremely concerned at the dominant role of supermarkets in controlling the prices and quantities of produce marketed. I agree entirely with the conclusion and recommendations of the action group with regard to creating a more level playing field in the retail sector. I have written to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, to emphasise the importance of greater statutory oversight on retail multiples because of their negative impact on the industry, and I have asked him to give serious consideration to the issues raised by the action group in this regard.
I am supportive of the group's emphasis on the urgency of promoting and facilitating more collaborative initiatives within horticulture. This is something I feel strongly about and will be working to promote. Collaboration and co-operation between producers increases their purchasing power for inputs as well as their selling power to the big supermarket chains. In addition, growers who come together have the opportunity to form EU-recognised producer organisations. We currently have three such organisations, which received almost €6 million in funding from the EU in 2010. I am anxious to see further developments and I know that both Bord Bia and officials from my own Department are talking to producers about this.
The organic sector, although relatively small, also represents an opportunity for growth. Organic production, unlike the industry as a whole, is particularly suited to small-scale production. The Food Harvest 2020 strategy identified the potential for significant growth by focusing on two areas: import substitution in areas in which Ireland is under-producing at present; and large export markets such as the UK and Germany. I again emphasise my positive impressions of the horticulture sector and my belief that if we can successfully address the issues I have highlighted, horticulture operators will expand and contribute to the ambitious targets set for the agricultural industry as a whole in Food Harvest 2020.
Shortly after my appointment as Minister of State, I stated:
Forestry provides a welcome income stream for owners, the majority of whom are farmers. ... Forestry, as an indigenous industry, also provides a wider ranging, long term economic return in that it provides jobs, both directly and indirectly, and contributes to our export performance. It also provides benefits to the environment and recreation and amenity value to society in general.
The programme for Government includes a commitment to invest in a 14,700 ha. per annum afforestation programme. The private timber resource is becoming a significant element of our timber supply, with privately owned forests now accounting for about 46% of Ireland's forest resource. Significantly, these are mainly owned by farmers, and the afforestation programme is driven largely by farm forestry, with farmers now responsible for more than 90% of new forestry. The Government has made a significant investment in the development of forestry over the years in order to ensure there is a critical mass of timber coming on stream to sustain the timber and timber products sector. For example, just over €72 million was paid in premiums in 2010 to both farmer and non-farmer forestry owners, which gives a good idea of the ongoing investment in this area. I am not sure about this if we cannot maintain this level of investment.
The forestry sector is an important one, which has given rise to a vibrant and export-oriented forest products sector. The primary products produced by the Irish sawmill sector include construction and structural timber, pallet and packaging timber, and fencing products. While construction lumber is largely sold on the home market, pallet and fencing products make up the bulk of sawn timber exports. In 2010, exports totalled €286 million, which was up from €243 million in 2009. Given the number of elements within the sector, the forestry sector overall makes a significant contribution to the economy, both nationally and at a local level, through direct and indirect employment. The output of the forest industry in 2008, comprising the growing, harvesting and processing sectors, was around €1.89 billion, or just under 1% of GDP, with some 16,000 jobs dependent on it. If we are to reap the immense benefits that a healthy and vibrant forest sector can bring to our society, our forests must be managed in a sustainable way.
Forestry also makes a significant contribution as a means to displace fossil fuel, particularly in the generation of heat in industrial, commercial, domestic and institutional markets. Wood energy, which is energy produced from wood or wood by-products, is a home-grown, renewable, sustainable, carbon-neutral and secure source of heat, electricity and bio-fuel. The increasing focus on renewable energy highlights the potential of wood energy for heat and power generation. Our forests are estimated to absorb 4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, or about 6% of our total greenhouse gas emissions, which is a significant contribution to our efforts to ameliorate climate change. In complying with our Kyoto targets, the annual contribution from eligible forests will be around 2.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. This represents a projected annual saving to the taxpayer of €44 million.
Just 12 months ago, in response to a spate of forest fires, my Department established the land and forest fires working group. It was deeply regrettable and indeed distressing to see the devastating impact of the recent series of forest fires, which caused millions of euro of damage to the national forestry estate. However, despite the current economic situation, that is only money. I condemn in the strongest terms those, albeit a small minority, who showed such flagrant disregard for the law, property and people's lives, due to their highly irresponsible and criminal behaviour of starting fires around the country. I also reiterate my appreciation and that of the Government to all those who were involved in fighting recent forest and land fires. Those people, many of them members of the emergency services, demonstrated a tremendous commitment to their task and no small courage. It is quite frankly mind-boggling and totally incomprehensible that there are those in our society who willingly and knowingly embark on actions that risk the safety and lives of emergency service personnel, landowners, forest owners and fellow members of the public. The perpetrators of these acts of criminal damage can be assured that, if they are identified, they will face the possibility of prosecution, fines and imprisonment.
I am particularly pleased to have responsibility for the greyhound industry, which is responsible for sustaining 11,000 full and part-time jobs and providing an estimated €500 million into local economies throughout the country. The greyhound breeding industry has also been very successful; over 75% of greyhounds now running in the UK are Irish-bred. There is considerable scope for further development of the industry, particularly if we can encourage tourists to enjoy a night at the dogs. I want to work with all stakeholders to ensure the industry continues to develop and that its full potential is realised.
The greyhound industry, like most other industries, has not been immune from the effects of the economic downturn, and I want to work to ensure the industry has a sustainable funding model into the future. As Senators will be aware, the then Minister for Finance announced in budget 2011 that he would be making the necessary arrangements to ensure that all forms of betting, including remote betting — that is, telephone, internet and exchange betting — will be subject to betting tax, and provision has been made in the Finance Act to deal with the taxation issues. The next step will be the publication by the Minister for Finance of legislation amending the Betting Act 1932 to deal with issues relating to the regulation of remote betting.
Central to the success and reputation of the greyhound industry has been a long-standing and genuine concern for greyhound welfare. This House has already debated and passed the Welfare of Greyhounds Bill and I acknowledge the constructive and positive nature of the debate during its passage through this House. Just last week, the Dáil passed Second Stage of the Bill, and I look forward to further constructive debate during the remaining Stages. I appreciate the concerns of those who advocate the need for robust animal welfare legislation and I want to reassure them, and all those interested in this issue, that the Welfare of Greyhounds Bill is a rigorous piece of legislation and contains a number of provisions that are, in fact, more onerous than those contained in the Dog Breeding Establishments Act 2010.
With 17 racing tracks throughout the country and greyhound owners, breeders and trainers in every county, the economic benefit of the industry is well spread throughout the country, with employment quite often being provided in rural areas where alternative employment opportunities are at best in short supply. It is important, therefore, that the industry is consolidated, and this is my firm ambition and intention. When I said I wanted to work with all stakeholders, that includes Members of the House, all of whom, as legislators, are stakeholders in this industry. I invite them to contribute fully to the debate on the future direction of the greyhound industry in whatever way they consider appropriate.
In recent months, there has been an increasing and welcome public acknowledgement of the importance of agriculture and the agrifood sector and the critical role it will play in the country's economic recovery. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, and I are leading a team in our Department that wants to develop and grow the sector, ensure it becomes a core economic Department and that its vitality is fully recognised. What I have detected from my engagement throughout the particular sectors is a tremendous energy, enthusiasm and positivity. I want to harness that to ensure it is properly focused.
I welcome this debate and appreciate the invitation to attend the Seanad this evening to discuss the particular areas for which I have ministerial responsibility. When agriculture and the agrifood sector is discussed, much of the debate tends to focus on the large dairy and livestock sectors. This is entirely understandable, given the enormous economic contribution they make both nationally and locally in rural communities. This debate also includes three other areas, although perhaps less prominent, which are no less important. Horticulture, forestry and the greyhound industries are, directly and indirectly, responsible for sustaining more than 40,000 full-time and part-time jobs. Between them, they are worth €2.5 billion to the economy.
That is to say nothing of the absolutely essential role that food safety plays in underpinning the entire agrifood sector, which supports 185,000 jobs and has an annual output value of some €22 billion. Due to the extent to which the sector is embedded in the economy, its economic footprint is even larger than these figures suggest. The Taoiseach said recently, "Ireland's success depends on our ability to develop and grow in areas where we have real and tangible competitive advantages. The food industry is one such area." I want to work with the industry and other policymakers to ensure we build on and improve those competitive advantages. I share the commitment of the Taoiseach and the Government to work with the industry, helping it to meet the ambitious goals that it has set for itself.
I have spent the past several months engaging actively and constructively with the stakeholders in those sectors for which I have responsibility. I have some clear ideas about the direction in which I would like those sectors to go. I want to raise their profile and emphasise the critical role those less prominent sectors have to play in developing and growing the wider agrifood industry. That said, I accept that I do not have a monopoly on wisdom and I look forward to engaging with Members, as key policymakers, in this debate.
It is important to get across the importance of our food sector. We must encourage young people to take up courses in horticulture and other agrifood areas because it is the one sector with huge job potential. We must also encourage people to buy local food produce. It must be remembered that the conditions in this industry – be it in processing, picking or growing – are not what they were 40 years ago. I would be proud to work in many of the food processing factories I have visited recently. We are not all going to be Einsteins so we must divert our young people to take up horticultural and other agrifood courses.
Forestry development must also go hand in hand with other agricultural sectors. At a recent Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations meeting in Rome, it was stated that if a country wanted to develop its beef or dairy sector, it would need to develop its forestry to assist the environment.
I hope Members will be as critical as they can in this debate. There is no doubt that our young people will depend on the agriculture and food production industries to grow to provide employment. This is one area of job creation that will help us get out of this economic mess.