The matter I raise today relates to the importance of the horticultural peat industry to the Irish economy and the threat arising from unprecedented legal and planning problems facing the industry. As we know, peat is used in horticulture, particularly as a growing medium by both amateur and professional gardeners, professional growers and the mushroom, forestry and soft fruit industry. At one point my family was in the mushroom farming business so I certainly have experience of the importance of peat and the impact that is currently being felt with respect to other countries both within and soon to be outside Europe.
The Minister of State knows the Irish horticultural industry makes a very significant contribution to the Irish economy, with a farm gate value of €437 million in 2018, an employment value of €497 million and exports of €239 million. An estimated 6,600 people work within the industry and there are another 11,000 jobs in ancillary employment. It is very important.
We are not talking about a huge amount of peatland, as it is under 5% of the Irish peatlands under production, equating to 0.4% of the total Irish peatlands. The current legal position is that horticultural peat harvesting requires planning permission and a licence from the Environmental Protection Agency. This process can take between four and six years and it is unnecessarily burdensome and disproportionate. We could have a situation where many businesses could close when the horticultural industry runs out of peat, which will happen in July next year.
This would be a very regrettable and would have major detrimental employment and economic effects on the industry that I mentioned. Without an indigenous supply of horticultural peat, many of our growers would have to look abroad, particularly to Lithuania or to Holland. The costs would be four times what the costs are here. Apart from that, we need only reflect on the higher environmental cost as peat production would be shifted from one part of the EU to another, resulting in Irish growers adding thousands of kilometres of a carbon footprint to what is happening at the moment. It is unacceptable and hypocritical to ban the use of peat in Ireland for horticultural products and then import it from another EU member state or a third country. What could happen, and as happened in the mushroom industry many years ago, is that those growing mushrooms, plants, strawberries and other produce here would be at a competitive disadvantage. They could lose much of the domestic market because of cheaper imports. On behalf of all of those currently employed in the sector, I ask the Minister of State to revisit this issue with his colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and ensure some compromise can be made.