Thursday, 4 May 2017

Questions (7)

Mick Wallace

Question:

7. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the environmental assessments that his Department carried out into the environmental impacts of Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025 (details supplied); his views on the plans' aims to increase the State's output of beef and milk; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20868/17]

View answer

Oral answers (23 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

Very often when the Minister is talking about agriculture, he uses the phrase carbon neutrality and the word "sustainable". According to kildarestreet.com, he has used the word sustainable 328 times in the Dáil in the last year alone, surpassed only by the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney. The Minister, Deputy Michael Creed, is in third place for the use of the phrase "carbon neutrality". He is doing well. In December, I asked the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, to define both terms, and he could not. The definition ultimately approved for carbon neutrality with regard to agriculture will have to be robust on scientific, technical and environmental grounds. In his explanation of the phrase "sustainable food production means", he used the word sustainable to define it. I would appreciate it if the Minister, Deputy Michael Creed, could answer my question without using either of the terms this time.

If I use the term as frequently as the Deputy attributes it to me, and I do not doubt that - I have no doubt his researchers do great work, and kildarestreet.com is such a reputable source of information - I would say to the farming industry outside to take a bow, because it very seldom gets the credit for the work that it puts in and its commitment to reaching the new standards and measures that will be required of it in delivering a more sustainable agricultural product.

My Department is committed to ensuring that the agriculture sector continues to grow sustainably so that Ireland can play its part in meeting the increasing global food demand while having regard to Ireland’s environmental obligations. It is independently and internationally recognised that Ireland’s grass-based systems are very resource-efficient food production systems. As our largest indigenous industry, it is hugely important that we ensure the continued development of our agrifood sector. Notwithstanding, there are background challenges to producing more sustainably while safeguarding our biodiversity, maintaining water quality and mitigating our emissions.

Food Wise 2025, which has superseded Food Harvest 2020, sets out a cohesive, strategic plan for the sustainable development of the agrifood sector over the next decade. Food Wise includes more than 400 specific recommendations, spread across the cross-cutting themes of sustainability, innovation, human capital, market development and competitiveness, as well as specific sectoral recommendations.  Sustainability was the brief for one of the five core subgroups of the Food Wise 2025 committee. The projections in the report focus on the value of exports and production, rather than simply production increases and were developed giving full recognition that there is increasing pressure on global agricultural resources and the environment.  Food Wise 2025 includes clear and comprehensive commitments to managing the projected growth in the sector in a sustainable way. There are 60 individual actions related to sustainability which aim to allow the sector to reach its growth potential, while protecting and improving the environment, by managing finite resources in the most efficient and effective manner.

In order to ensure that environmental considerations were at the heart of Food Wise 2025, an environmental analysis, which represented both a strategic environmental assessment and an appropriate assessment, was conducted in tandem with the development of the Food Wise 2025 strategy. This analysis was carried out by an independent team of consultants and involved stakeholder and public consultation throughout the process and my Department chaired a steering group with representatives from Teagasc, the EPA and Bord Bia to oversee the process.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The analysis included a particular focus on environmental parameters, biodiversity, climate change and water quality and sets out a range of mitigating actions.

There is a strong commitment in the report to measurement and monitoring the sustainability credentials of the sector. As part of the implementation phase of Food Wise, the environmental sustainability committee was established. My Department is working closely with relevant actors to ensure appropriate monitoring across all sectors of the agrifood industry on the environmental impacts of the strategy. This implementation process includes evaluation and assessment of the delivery of sustainability and the mitigation actions.

Meeting annual mitigation targets in the second half of the 2013 to 2020 compliance period under the 2009 EU Effort Sharing Decision, which does not take into account the limited cost-effective mitigation options available in the sector, will be one of the more significant challenges for the sector. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has projected that Ireland will fall short of its 2020 target.

The extent of the challenge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in line with our EU commitments, is understood by Government, as reflected in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2015 and the national mitigation plan, which is currently being prepared.

Ireland has adopted a whole of Government approach to developing climate policy. Officials from my Department continue to work with other Departments and have extensively engaged with the Commission in order to ensure that EU climate and food policies to 2030 and beyond recognise the reality of these global challenges.

The Minister said there is a strong commitment in Food Wise 2025 to measure and monitor the sustainability credentials of the sector. He used the words "sustainable" and "carbon neutral", even though he never defined them with regard food production. He regularly uses the words "sustainable growth" but this is not defined either. A chapter of the national mitigation plan, entitled An Approach to Carbon Neutrality for Agriculture, Forest and Land Use Sectors, refers to the need to focus on balancing the control of agricultural emissions with the economic and social objective of promoting the sustainable development of a rural economy. It states also that in aiming to achieve this balance, and in keeping with the high level objective set out in the National Policy Position on Climate Action and Low Carbon Development, sustainable food production should not be compromised. In plain English, does this not mean that the Minister knows that emissions will increase but that he is putting short-term economic objectives before the preservation of the future of the human race? Is that not true?

That is not true. We have few natural resources and one of the great natural resources we have is grass. A grass-based production system is the most carbon-efficient way to produce dairy or beef. If one looks at those two sectors in particular, we are the most carbon-efficient producer of dairy on the planet. New Zealand and Ireland are the most carbon-efficient. In the European Union, we are the fifth most carbon-efficient producer of beef. The logic of what the Deputy is saying is that we should dismantle our natural advantages in having a sustainable production system, and bear this in mind with regard to our competitor countries on the market. I know the Deputy has a jaundiced view of the market but he was in it himself once upon a time. In the Netherlands, for example, a premium is paid for cows that are outside for a couple of hours a day. Ours are outside 24-7, for almost 365 days a year.

That is because our system is sustainable.

Deputy Wallace made reference to Food Wise 2025. I chair the implementation committee of that on a monthly basis, and in fact I chaired a session of it today, when we had the dairy industry in to discuss the area of infant formula. One of the critical elements of that industry is its badge of sustainability. It is fully signed up members of the orange and green project, for example, which is committed to meeting the highest standards of sustainability because that is what the consumer and retailers want and what Irish farmers are responding to. I appreciate that Deputy Wallace and I engage in what may be called a "dialogue of the deaf" but I am anxious that people know the bone fides of Irish agriculture, what it has achieved to date and what it is committed to achieving. It is unfair to our agricultural industry to repeatedly, and without foundation, point the finger at it as if it was a blackguard in terms of the environmental challenge we face. It is up for the battle. It has done an awful lot to date and is committed to meeting the requirements that we face. The challenges that we face are two-fold, as recognised in the Paris Accord. They include a growing global population and climate change and reducing our carbon. We have a food production system that is carbon efficient and will become more efficient.

I think the Deputy is right to talk about the dialogue of the deaf, because when I call time here very many people do not hear.

I am looking forward to getting as much time as the Minister got.

Can you hear us, Deputy Wallace?

I can hear both the Ceann Comhairle and the Minister, and I am looking forward to getting the same amount of time as the Minister got.

Methane from cows and other animals is problematic. I do not want to demolish farming in Ireland. I, as much as anyone else here, have argued that we should be investing in sustainable industry in Ireland more than anything else. I come from a farming background, in case it is forgotten, and I know a bit about farming.

The Deputy is something of an urban cowboy these days.

I know more about farming than one might think. We have a problem in the area. I disagree with serious expansion, and I do not agree with increasing the dairy herd by 50%, which will lead to an increase in the beef herd. We cannot have milk without calves. Forgetting about the environment for a moment, from an economic point of view we know for a fact that Britain will import more cheap beef from Brazil. It is not as good as ours but it will be very cheap. The harvest will be gone. We are looking for trouble in over producing beef. I am not seeking to diminish, but I want us to stop increasing production and causing extra problems, especially around emissions.

What is the Minister's response to An Taisce's statement on this? It states:

Like Food Wise 2025, the strategic environmental assessment is extremely lacking in quantification of baseline data or of any projections compared to a baseline. Specifically, no baseline emission data to air or water was provided for the agricultural sector, which would be essential for proper assessment of the cumulative pollutant impacts on the atmosphere and waterways resulting from the greatly increased ruminant production and fertilizer use.

I have said in my response that in the context of compiling Food Wise 2025 that we appointed consultants in the area of environmental analysis. Our objective is sustainable intensification and to increase our output because we have a natural advantage. The Deputy stumbled when he said that beef with a far higher carbon footprint would displace us on the UK market shelf.

I am not arguing about what the Brazilians do.

If there is a market demand that our farmers can meet, but in so meeting can do so in the most carbon efficient way, it is defensible, in the context of meeting the challenge to meet a growing global population, to do it in the most carbon efficient way.

(Interruptions).

It could be argued theoretically that if we want the lowest carbon footprint that we should have no bovines at all. That is pie in the sky. We could have carbon efficient dairy and carbon efficient beef.

We are increasing meat production----

Please, restrain yourself.

Of course we are, because our ambition is to displace beef production with a far higher carbon footprint, because that is what the consumer is increasingly looking for.

What about cereal?

Cereal opens up the ground and releases carbon----

Cereal is not as problematic as animal production.

We can abandon the rules altogether and have a free-for-all if the Deputies want to, but-----

That is not a bad idea.

It probably is not but I am afraid I do not have authorisation to do that.