Thursday, 9 May 2019

Questions (1)

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

I welcome back the Deputies and wish the Minister a good morning.

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

1. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine when a compensation package will be introduced for beef farmers in view of the significant decrease in prices and incomes since autumn 2018 from the impact of Brexit; and if a formal application been submitted to the EU Commission for exceptional or market disturbance aid. [20275/19]

View answer

Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. This is to ask the Minister when a compensation package will be introduced for beef farmers, considering the significant decrease in prices and incomes since last autumn from the impact of Brexit. I also ask the Minister to clarify whether a formal application has been submitted to the European Commission for exceptional or market disturbance aid. There appear to be conflicting stories as to exactly what the Minister has applied for and when he applied for it. More importantly, when will aid come to the beef sector, which is crying out for it and in desperate need of it? I hope the Minister will be able to take this opportunity to give an assurance that aid will be forthcoming promptly and to give clarity as to what is being applied for.

I thank the Deputy. The agrifood sector is of critical importance to the Irish economy and its regional spread means it underpins the socioeconomic development of rural areas in particular. Brexit has the potential to have a very significant impact on the sector, given its unique exposure to the UK market, which accounted for 38%, or €5.2 billion of agrifood exports last year. There are ongoing discussions with the Commission regarding the difficulties which would face Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit and the assistance that might be required for its agriculture, food and fishery sectors. Avoiding a no-deal Brexit continues to be the Government’s overriding policy priority. I have held a number of discussions with Commissioner Hogan regarding the potential impact of a disorderly Brexit on the sector. I have stressed the need for the Commission to be ready to deploy a range of measures to mitigate the potential impacts on agrifood and fisheries, including through traditional market supports and exceptional aid under the CAP's single Common Market organisation, CMO, regulation, as well as increased flexibility under state aid regulations.

However, it is also important to acknowledge that the past few months have been very difficult for beef farmers in particular, following a difficult year in 2018 due to weather conditions. There has been a prolonged and exceptional period of depressed prices since last autumn, with the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the outcome of Brexit, among other factors, contributing to this market disturbance. In light of the ongoing depressed market prices, in discussions with Commissioner Hogan and my EU counterparts I have stated I believe the deployment of exceptional measures under the CMO regulation to provide targeted aid to farm families who have suffered a sustained reduction in returns from the market is now required. I made an intervention to this effect at the April meeting of the Council of agriculture ministers, and my officials have followed this up with a detailed submission, which is under consideration by Commission officials.

There is very little detail from the Minister as to when exactly farmers can expect to receive the support they need. As the Minister should know, farmers needed this support months ago, not in the next number of weeks or months, because Brexit has been happening and impacting on the beef sector over the last period. Unfortunately, the Minister and the Government have not been recognising or acting on this. Despite the grave threat posed by Brexit, the Minister has not used that opportunity and that difficulty to ensure that we are drawing down funds from the EU Commission to support our beef farmers. The performance of both the Minister and the Government has simply been unacceptable and has been neglectful of the farming community and the massive pressure it is under. A report from Professor Michael Wallace of UCD in today's edition of the Irish Farmers' Journal outlines that if action is not taken, the suckler herd will be reduced by approximately 140,000 cows over the next ten years. We also will see 14,000 suckler farmers leaving the sector and an impact on the approximately 52,000 jobs in rural Ireland that are underpinned by it. It is essential that this funding comes immediately. Can the Minister give an assurance to the many farmers who are desperately in need of it today, as to when it will come and the extent of the funding that will be available?

A Chathaoirligh, I do not accept the Deputy's charge that we have not been doing anything. There is a two-stranded approach to this. One is at an EU level, and one is what the Government itself can do. In terms of the latter, there has been a significant level of Government commitment in the areas of market access, live exports, supporting producer organisations, the beef environmental efficiency programme and restoring payments in the areas of natural constraints, ANC, scheme.

At the level at which the Deputy's question is pitched, the Government also works at a Commission level to try to ensure we get the best possible deal for Irish agriculture. Our overwhelming focus, understandably in the context of Brexit, has been to ensure that farmers would be supported in the event of a crash-out. I understand the view that we are dealing with Brexit already. There is market sentiment, as well as the sterling issue, and compounding those is the issue of bad weather. We have been making the case in recent times that, apart from the supports that would have been necessary in the context of Brexit, there is a case for the Commission to respond now to the difficulties the industry is facing.

The Minister states it is not correct that the Government has not done anything. He states there are two strands to his response, namely, the European Commission's response and the Government's response. I put to the Minister that neither strand has delivered a response in support of the agrifood sector and of the beef sector in particular. The Minister mentioned the ANC scheme but all that has happened in that regard is that the payments have been restored to the previous levels of a number of years ago. While I acknowledge we have the beef scheme, between that and the beef data and genomics programme, BDGP, neither add up to what would have been available under the previous suckler cow welfare programme.

We have heard the Minister talking for two years about introducing a Brexit loan scheme and how that was going to be the big ticket response to assist the farming community. It was only last month that he finally introduced it, after two years of talking. As far as the European Commission goes, we have seen no funding come from it yet, despite two years of Brexit negotiations. No funding is coming to support the Irish agrifood sector, which has been under massive distress. It is past time that the Minister got his act together and recognised the massive pressure the farming community is under. It should not take protests outside the cabinet meeting in Cork last week to draw some type of response from the Government in this regard. I am asking the Minister this morning to give a guarantee that there will be funding in this regard and to guarantee that it will happen promptly. What we have seen before now has been absolutely unacceptable and an entire neglect of our farming sector from the Minister and from the Government.

I do not agree with the Deputy but I do not expect the Deputy to agree with me either. Our responses have been comprehensive and I never presented the Brexit loan scheme as the panacea for all Brexit challenges; far from it. The Deputy may have elevated it to that status himself. It is the third of three financial products that we have developed for the agrifood, farming and fisheries sectors. It is an important part of the jigsaw that is necessary to support the industry in all its manifestations. There are things the Government can do and has done in terms of market access, live exports and the other things I mentioned earlier such as the ANC scheme and beef producer organisations. We also have made the case at an European Union level. The response initially in terms of Brexit was to make sure that should the UK crash out, there would be supports available from the European Commission and should the UK crash out, the Commission has stated that those supports will be available. Those supports are different from the supports we are looking for now in the context of current market difficulties.