I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this important Bill. We are all familiar with the saying that one cannot shove a round peg into a square hole, but that is what we are witnessing with the amalgamation of Bord Bia and Bord Glas. We oppose the amalgamation because we believe that Bord Glas, with a budget of only €4 million per year, will be severely limited in its ability to represent the horticulture industry, which is undergoing a difficult period at present. Amalgamating Bord Glas with the larger Bord Bia, with an annual budget of over €20 million, will place the former in extreme danger of losing its identity and having its agenda dictated by individuals who are not concerned with horticulture.
I acknowledge the great work Bord Bia does on behalf of the Irish food and drinks industry on the world market. It is represented at every food fair in Europe and throughout the world. However, Bord Glas can stand alone and do a better job to promote the declining produce market in Ireland which is faced with ever-increasing competition from other countries such as Poland and Holland, which produce mushrooms, and Spain and Israel, which are encroaching on Ireland's share of the potato market.
Bord Bia and Bord Glas have different identities and serve different areas of the agriculture industry, and have done so well during the past ten years. Bord Glas is concerned with a niche area of food development and I was delighted it won the best e-government website award for 2003. Over 260 websites were rigorously examined but Bord Glas's came out on top, which is an indication of the professional job done by the company. The board is to be congratulated on that award.
The horticulture industry is divided into two main concerns, namely, the production of fruit and vegetables and the growing of flowers, shrubs and trees. In terms of sheer gross agricultural commodity output, the industry is located third behind cattle and milk production. Bord Glas should be commended on the way it has promoted the horticulture industry and developed it into a strong market valued at €2.3 billion, with produce accounting for €1.9 billion. It has also done well in picking up the trends in the food market. In its most recent annual report it highlighted the immense changes the horticulture industry will face during the next decade. The habits of Irish consumers are changing and the tendency is to eat out more often or to order more take-away foods. There has also been an increase in demand for prepared organic food.
Members will recall that the Mid-Western Health Board recently objected to an application by an international fast food chain for a fast food outlet in Ennis. As everybody knows, every town and village has been taken over by the fast food culture and the board objected to the type of food served by the chain in question. It would be more appropriate, however, if health boards were to persuade these food chains to sell fruit, as this would promote awareness of fruit as a healthy diet. I heard on the news this morning that the chain in question has decided to introduce vegetables and low calorie options on its menu and phase out super-sized portions, which is a welcome development.
I was also delighted to learn yesterday that the Irish food and drinks industry has acknowledged that it has a major role to play in tackling the increasing prevalence of obesity, a worrying trend which needs to be addressed. Promoting Irish produced fruit and vegetables on television and in newspapers is important for the international and home markets. We have all seen advertisements promoted by the soft drinks companies using major sports stars to sell their products. These influence the type of diet our children choose. When a new board is established, it will be important that it promotes the value to our diet of fruit and vegetables.
Next week, the Minister for Health and Children will announce the composition of a new task force to deal with obesity. I welcome this group and hope the necessary finance will be made available to it.
Traditional staple Irish diet such as potatoes and vegetables face intense competition from non-traditional foods such as rice and pasta. While these commodities have health benefits, they are imported and, therefore, affect domestic production of foods such as potatoes. Foreign imports of vegetables, including cabbage from the Netherlands, carrots from Spain and potatoes from Israel, also present problems.
I was delighted that my colleagues on Clare County Council's strategic policy committee on the environment decided to abolish by-laws, part of the casual trading laws adopted by the council in 1998, which made vendors of vegetables liable to fines of up to €1,275 for selling unwashed vegetables or failing to trim greens. It is a general belief that consumers prefer vegetables with earth on them to washed vegetables because they look much fresher and many housewives now prefer to buy vegetables in markets rather than in supermarkets. As Deputies Kehoe and Sargent pointed out, the profit margins of producers are much higher if no middle man is involved and the consumer gets better value for money.
Fruit and vegetable markets in County Clare continue to thrive and have a long tradition. Many towns have market streets or squares and the Friday and Saturday market in the county town of Ennis is always buzzing as housewives and other consumers buy fresh vegetables.
I commend EIRÍ Corca Baiscinn in Kilkee for it efforts to try to bring back traditional farmers' markets. Last year, it successfully introduced a market in the square in Kilrush in west Clare, which has attracted local producers to the town to sell their produce directly to consumers. This is a welcome trend which is also emerging in other areas.
As Deputies will be aware, potato yields in 2003 were exceptional due to favourable weather conditions. There are about 832 commercial growers here but, as with all industries, the market has its ups and downs, with prices falling when the market is flooded with potatoes. I note that growers are being advised by Bord Glas to reduce production by 15% to realign supply. In many cases, potatoes are being fed to livestock and large stocks remain in cold storage.
It is sad that the market for potato chips and wedges is being supplied by potato imports when we have an abundant supply here. I read recently, however, that a group of farmers in Ballymoney in County Antrim — the Minister of State may be aware of this development — bought out a large plant manufacturing potato chips. It is hoped the plant will use Irish potatoes in its production process and bring some relief to the potato sector. I hope similar developments will take place around the country, thus improving the position of potato growers. It is also important that supermarkets choose Irish products for their consumers on the basis of quality, a key factor which Irish growers can offer, and price.
I will now address the unacceptable circumstances facing mushroom growers, of which the Minister of State will be aware. There are approximately 400 mushroom growers here, with the industry centred mainly in counties Cavan, Monaghan, Kildare, Wexford, Tipperary, Roscommon, Mayo and Donegal. Last year, the Irish Mushroom Growers Association ran a major promotional campaign to highlight the benefits of eating more mushrooms. It was launched by the then Miss Ireland who later went on to even greater things.
The mushroom business is under severe pressure. While 80% of households eat mushrooms and spend an average of €26 on the product each year, growers receive little benefit. During a recent visit to one of about four mushroom growers in County Clare, I was astonished to see the amount of hard work involved in mushroom production. The grower in question employs his sons and 22 others in his unit, which consists of 15 tunnels, a pack house an a large refrigeration unit. He incurs significant costs and were it not for the quantities of mushrooms he and other growers sell directly to supermarkets and local shops on the domestic market, they would have gone out of business long ago.
More than 70% of production is destined for the export market to Britain which is controlled by two major companies. Most of the growers are concerned about the manner in which mushrooms are graded by these companies. Sometimes as much as half their produce is not graded and is returned to them, which means they must try to find another market to dispose of their mushrooms. This is wrong and I call on the Minister to establish an independent grading system for mushrooms to ensure proper grading and acceptable prices for growers. The mushroom business is difficult and costly and many growers face financial ruin unless the Government acts quickly. Moreover, it is virtually impossible for producers to get out of the industry because of their current financial commitments.
Although the Minister established a mushroom industry task force last year, more action is required to protect growers and ensure they receive a fair price and have access to a proper grading system. I hope the task force will report to the Minister in the near future in order that we can deal with the crisis facing the industry. An illustration of its volatile nature, is that last January heavy snows in Poland, a leading producer of mushrooms, led to the price of mushroom seed here rocketing. Such volatility pressurises growers, who already face difficulties trying to secure new business. The sterling-euro exchange rate and Internet auctioning by multiples place small producers under further pressure.
Farmers in general face major challenges arising from the accession to the European Union in May of ten new member states, many of which are largely dependent on agriculture. Fear and uncertainty are widespread among the farming community. West Clare, from where I come, has experienced significant erosion of the number of young farmers, many of whom are leaving the land because they see no future in farming.
We should be trying to protect these farmers. Many young dairy farmers who attend my clinics say their temporary quotas are very low and that they will be selling milk from now to next April for almost nothing. The problem is further compounded by the nitrate directives and slurry storage. I hope the new committee, in conjunction with Teagasc, will put forward sensible proposals to deal with the problem of slurry on our land and that the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, will negotiate with the EU a good package to ease the proposed restrictions.
I would like to refer briefly to the live export of cattle to international markets. The IFA has organised a meeting in Ennis on Monday next to discuss the issue of animal welfare during long distance travel. Live cattle exports are important to the beef industry in Ireland in the context of maintaining essential cattle prices. I, like many of my colleagues, including some on the Government benches, are anxious that cattle be transported to overseas markets in supervised and humane conditions. Having spoken to many people about this, it is my understanding that current arrangements governing the transit of cattle are good. While those who raise concerns in this area mean well, it is important such exports are not interrupted.
Bord Bia and Bord Glas come from different traditions. Bord Bia deals with the drinks industry, cattle, lamb, sheep and pig products and Bord Glas traditionally deals with small farmers involved in the production of trees, shrubs and flowers. Bord Bia's finances are dependent upon levies paid to it by producers while Bord Glas receives its funding from Government. What will this amalgamation mean to the producers who have traditionally worked for Bord Glas? The following illustrates the different focuses of the two organisations: Bord Bia deals with large producers and their markets and Bord Glas deals with small producers and their markets.
The type of product promoted by the two organisations comes from producers working on different scales and with different concerns. Bord Bia does not focus on products with which Bord Glas deals. Bord Bia is in a market on the brink of overflowing while Bord Glas stands on the threshold of a growing market. With increased demand for its products and other healthier foods, Bord Glas needs a strong independent voice to pitch its products. It needs to be able to stand on its own and to address the issues facing it in the future. There are many issues with which Irish agriculture and horticulture will be faced in the future, not least the addition of ten new countries traditionally dependent on agriculture into the EU. The Bill provides no guarantee that Bord Glas will be allowed independence in terms of preparing to face these issues. There are no guidelines for its board members and staff in terms of their role in Bord Bia.
The Bill includes measures to ensure Bord Glas will have a place in Bord Bia. I welcome the stipulation that membership of the board will include at least two people with horticultural experience. However, one must be concerned about whether that is sufficient and with the dangers this merger can bring about. I do not believe there is a need to amalgamate the two boards. The Bill states there will be no significant financial implications in doing so. Why then are we shaking up a good and proven organisation like Bord Glas?
I welcome the announcement yesterday by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government regarding the easing of planning restrictions for one-off housing in rural areas. It is a step in the right direction. I hope we are beginning the process of easing housing restrictions. I would like to know how the Minster intends proceeding in this regard? Will he engage in discussions with senior planners regarding changes to county development plans? I hope the process commences immediately so that we can build up rural areas which have been eroded down through the years.
I thank the House for the opportunity to speak on this Bill.