Thursday, 15 July 2021

Questions (3)

Matt Carthy

Question:

3. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his plans to address the emergency situation in the horticulture and mushroom sector due to peat shortages. [38154/21]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

The Minister will be aware that the horticulture sector, particularly the mushroom sector, is potentially facing an emergency situation due to peat shortages. Unfortunately, this issue crosses several Departments, but there is a role for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to pull all those Departments together and ensure this situation is resolved before it reaches crisis point.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has no involvement in the regulation of peat extraction. As the Deputy outlined, this issue crosses several Departments. My Department does not have an involvement in the regulation of peat extraction. This is a planning process under the remit of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and an integrated pollution control, IPC, licence process under the remit of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

As regards the future use of peat moss in the horticulture sector, which is of significant importance to us in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, on 7 September 2020, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Noonan, published a report on the review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. The review report was prepared by an inter-agency working group following on from submissions from stakeholders. After the publication of this report, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, proposed the establishment of a working group to include representatives from relevant Departments and State agencies, environmental non-governmental organisations and industry stakeholders under an independent chairperson to examine the issues identified during the review. In this respect, the working group will address the key issues raised in the report, including future use of peat by the horticulture sector. The independent working group sent an interim report to the Minister of State at the end of May for his consideration. The Minister of State and his officials are currently examining the report.

In addition to these developments, I, as Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with responsibility for research and development, along with my ministerial colleagues, am actively looking at alternatives to peat. I have overseen the funding of two research projects to date and recently sought to ensure further research is conducted here to explore alternatives to peat-based growing media for horticultural production in this area in our latest research call for 2021. These alternatives must be available, affordable and sustainable and meet quality as well as environmental requirements, as I am sure the Deputy will agree.

It is an important issue for us. It is of huge concern to everyone in both the amenity horticulture and mushroom farming sectors. I have no doubt but that it is an issue of great concern in the Deputy's constituency, as it is in mine. It is one on which we are all determined to work together to find a solution.

Herein lies part of the difficulty. As I mentioned, we already have had interactions with the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett. The reason I submitted this as a priority question was to appeal to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, as the lead Minister in his Department to recognise that the issue is putting farms at risk. As the Minister of State recognises, mushroom farming makes up a substantial part of the economy in County Monaghan, as in many other counties.

County Monaghan, in particular, is a good test case. The farmers who changed to farming mushrooms did so because they were encouraged to do so. They had smaller holdings that were unprofitable and the farmers diversified. They did exactly what they were asked to do. They moved into an area and turned small, unprofitable holdings into an economic driver for the entire region. Now they are at crisis point. They are at crisis point because of tokenism and inaction across three Departments. Those farmers deserve to know what will be done to ensure that peat can be extracted this year.

I would like to take the opportunity to reassure the Deputy that the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and I are united in our determination to support the horticulture sector. As such, our Department provides support to the horticulture industry through the scheme of investment aid for the development of the horticulture sector. Financial support is available to assist growers and businesses through grant aid for capital investments in specialised plant and equipment including renewable energy, as well as technology adoption specific to commercial horticulture production. A 50% budget increase to €9 million has been secured for 2021, reflecting the importance of the sector. The scheme is 100% funded by the Irish Government. In addition, our Department administers the EU producer organisation scheme for fruit and vegetables, which allows growers to jointly market their production to strengthen the position of producers in the marketplace.

There is no question but that we see the importance of the horticulture sector. We understand the challenges it faces. We are determined to work very closely with those in the sector to support them through the current challenges and to ensure that the industry is in a robust position heading into the future.

The problem is that the question was not answered. There are no credible, sustainable alternatives at present. As for research and development, Teagasc has stated that it will take up to a decade before that is available. What is being proposed as the alternative by Ministers such as the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is that we import peat from third countries. That is nonsensical. It is tokenism and hypocrisy of the highest order. It does nothing for the environment or the Irish economy. It could mean, in the medium term, that we lose vital sectors such as mushroom and strawberry farming, as well as other key components of our rural economy.

Why has there been such a delay? I believe that some Ministers are quite happy to frustrate the matter. I again ask, what is being done to ensure that peat can be extracted this year for the sector?

As a Member of this House from County Kildare, I can assure the Deputy that the importance of the horticulture industry is something of which I am acutely aware. I have worked closely with what is a very strong amenity horticulture sector in my area. We are all aware of the importance of the sector. We should be mindful of the fact that the challenges we face now came about as a result of a recent decision of Bord na Móna to cease harvesting peat earlier. The impact of that on the peat supply has been felt by the industry earlier than had been anticipated.

It is clear there is a need for a short-term solution and a longer-term solution. Indeed, the Deputy has touched upon the point himself. In terms of our role in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and my role in the area of research and development, we are working on and investing in research into the longer term solutions. There is a need for short-term solutions, not all of which are within the gift of our Department. We are working very closely with our colleagues in government to find those solutions.

I can reassure the Deputy and am happy to put on the record of the House that nobody wants to see peat being imported into this country. That is why the short-term solutions, with the other Departments and all players and stakeholders in the sector, need to be examined. We look forward to working closely with everybody to ensure that those short-term solutions are found to support what is a really important industry for our agriculture sector.