Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Food Exports to Iran

Mick Wallace


59. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he or his officials have had discussions with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or with Iranian officials regarding the possible resumption of exports of beef and lamb to Iran; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13956/19]

Have the Minister or his officials had any discussions with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or spoken to Iranian representatives with a view to reopening markets for beef and lamb sales? As has been discussed here at length, there is more beef in cold storage plants currently than we would like and not selling it to the likes of the Iranians does not make a great deal of sense.

In February 2019, officials from my Department met the Iranian ambassador to Ireland, H.E. Dr. Masoud Eslami, accompanied by his economic counsellor. A range of subjects, including agrifood exports to Iran, were addressed at the meeting. I also met the ambassador personally on 21 September 2017. Total Irish agrifood exports to Iran in 2017 were approximately €11.5 million, the majority of which, or €10.25 million, was accounted for by dairy exports. According to the CSO, 26 tonnes of beef were exported to Iran in 2017, but there have been no exports of sheepmeat to date. The role of my Department is to open up markets for the industry and it is then up to the industry, with the support of my Department and Bord Bia, to avail of these opportunities. However, the actual levels of exports will depend on a range of factors, including global supply and demand dynamics, currency fluctuations and individual customer requirements.

A veterinary health certificate for the export of beef from Ireland to Iran was agreed in March 2013 and officials from my Department participated in a successful trade mission to Iran and Turkey in April 2016. While the trade mission was primarily dairy-focused, officials had the opportunity to meet with their Iranian counterparts in order to progress and ultimately agree sheepmeat access to the Iranian market and to explore other common areas of interest. Access for sheepmeat was officially announced in October 2016. Therefore, these markets are open at present but the resumption of exports is a matter for the industry. Limited or no exports to Iran can be explained by a combination of unfavourable trading conditions, cheaper supplies of beef from Brazil and of lamb from Australia to the Iranian market and financial barriers. Work is ongoing within the EU to devise measures to overcome financial barriers to trade between the EU and Iran.

I realise that Iran is buying a great deal of meat from Australia, New Zealand and Brazil, as well as from Romania. It is buying a lot of meat from Romania. Only recently, the Iranians purchased 50,000 lamb carcasses. In 2018, they imported 160,000 tonnes of meat. It is a huge market which would like to trade with us. They have made it very obvious that they want to do business with us. Other countries are doing business with them and the Europeans are getting around the so-called US sanctions to sell all kinds of stuff. There is no logic to us not doing it. Surely, given the current situation, it would be a great boost to the agriculture sector if we developed a better relationship with Iran. It would be helpful to open the embassy in Tehran. I acknowledge that is a foreign affairs matter and not the Minister's responsibility but he should push for it. All the western European states that left, except Luxembourg, have put their embassies back in Iran. Lately, we have opened new embassies elsewhere and it is mad that we have not done so in Tehran.

We are very anxious to have trade there. From recollection, it is a market of 80 million people and quite an affluent, middle-class one. It is also a gateway to a market of perhaps 250 million people through neighbouring countries. As such, it is significant. I have spoken to people in industry here directly and I have met the ambassador, who was very anxious that we would have trade. We open markets and engage on the terms and conditions under which trade can happen.

My conversations indicate that there are issues, other than regulatory ones, which are a hindrance to doing trade. The function of the Department is to open and facilitate trade. We have been on trade missions there with regard to the terms and conditions on which it can happen, but we cannot compel the industry to trade with the people concerned. One issue is how rewarding is that market relative to others. Another issue I encountered in conversations I had with agribusinesses previously was how easy was it to get payments out of the country. Issues aside from regulation and the wish to trade still present a difficulty. As I mentioned, there are negotiations taking place at EU level also to facilitate greater trade and interaction.

The US sanctions on financial transactions are an issue, but one can get around them. Between March 2018 and March 2019 we sold them approximately €140 million worth of goods. How was it managed? It can be done and if there is a will, there is a way. It is not just down to the regulations either. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has an issue in that it does not want to upset the US sanctions. However, the Europeans are getting around them and doing a great deal of business with Iran, but we are not. Consider the example of when we ran into problems in selling aluminium to the Russians because the United States had it on its list. There were many jobs at risk in Ireland and, rightly, we protected them. We got around the sanctions and reopened the sale of aluminium to Russia, despite the fact that it was on the US sanctions list. Where there is a will, there is a way. The State must facilitate the industry in selling to the Iranians. The blockage is not being caused by the Minister but is at foreign affairs level. The Minister should play a stronger hand to resolve the issue.

I am glad to hear the Minister's strong statement that this is a significant market, one that he would like to open. That must be said. However, he appears to be suggesting the problem lies with the farming organisations. Is it not the case that they, too, are very keen to ensure the important Iranian market is seen as part of the solution to the problem of overproduction here? The situation has moved on. Most European countries are trading substantially with Iran, but, unlike us, they have embassies there. I presume that in the Minister's meetings with the ambassador the ambassador would have made it clear that this was an important issue for Iran too. One can understand this, given that every other country in Europe has an embassy there. When one has the information on the ground, it is much more verifiable and open when it comes to trade. Has the Minister had discussions with the IFA on the practical steps we could take to facilitate what he says he wants - I believe he does want it - the opening of this market? In addition, has he had discussions with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the need to open an embassy in Iran, given that it is a key part of this issue? The previous Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, said a number of years ago that he was willing to consider it. Every other country in Europe has an embassy there. Unless we do the same, we will lose important markets for farmers.

It is not a question of opening the market. It is open. In 2017, we exported €11.5 million worth of goods to it. It is open for our main dairy products - beef and sheepmeat. It is a question of what it delivers in terms of profitability relative to any other market. If it is more profitable to be in another market, it is not in the interests of primary producers or the agriculture sector to send products there just for the sake of it. This is about ensuring whatever markets we are operating in are delivering maximum profitability and returns for the agriculture sector in general.

The opening of an embassy is an obvious issue. We are increasing our global footprint and I have spoken previously to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade about the issue because we see it not just as a market but also as a gateway to a significant region that has potential. However, that market is being supplied with beef from South America and sheepmeat substantially from Australia and at a price, particularly in the case of South American beef, with which we cannot compete. The point we make in the context of these markets is that it is not wise to have all of one's eggs in one basket in having a diverse range of suppliers. We are anxious to explore the possibility of supplying more to that market, but it must be on the basis that it is more rewarding than being in other markets. Ultimately, that is a call for businesses to make.

As I mentioned, there are other factors that make it difficult to trade there which are not related to regulations imposed by the State.

Ports Facilities

James Browne


60. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the position on his submission to the European Commission seeking the designation of Rosslare Europort as a border inspection post; when a response will be received from the European Union on the matter; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13394/19]

What is the position on the Minister's submission to the European Commission seeking the designation of Rosslare Europort as a border inspection post, although I understand such posts are now called border control posts? When will a response be received from the European Union on the matter?

The dossier requesting the approval of facilities located around Rosslare Europort as a border inspection post, BIP, was sent to the European Commission by my Department on 14 February. The Commission has subsequently communicated to my Department that it has approved the facilities to be designated as a BIP for the importation of products of animal origin for human consumption and products of animal origin not for human consumption, excluding bulk products and non-containerised liquids and oils. Officials from my Department are continuing to liaise with the Commission on the designation of Rosslare Europort facilities for the importation of live animals and that approval is still pending. We expect to receive an update on the application shortly.

If the United Kingdom takes third country status in the event that there is a hard Brexit, agrifood and fish products coming into this country will have to be inspected. The only port with such facilities is Dublin Port. A site was purchased or leased by the State approximately 2 km from Rosslare Europort. I raised the issue of the suitability of that site with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, a couple of weeks ago. It is located 2 km from the port and I asked how we would manage to protect the integrity of goods in moving from one place to the other. Did the European Union have a comment to make on the appropriateness of that facility? Does the Minister still believe it will be available on 29 March or 11 April, as the case may be, if there is a hard Brexit? If not, will all of the products coming to Rosslare Europort have to be diverted to Dublin Port until such time as the facilities are available at Rosslare Europort?

The procurement of the site is not a function of my Department. The Office of Public Works, OPW, would have been involved. I understand builders have been on the site since early February and we are satisfied that, although it may not be the Taj Mahal, it will be ready to function in the event that there is a hard Brexit. We were planning for a deadline of 29 March, but it will function from any date thereafter, if necessary. All of the infrastructural requirements have been met and staff appointments made, while the necessary back-up staffing arrangements are in place.

For the sake of clarity, the Minister is satisfied that the border control post will be up and running in a few weeks, with full approval from the European Union for goods to pass through that border control post at Rosslare Europort.

Brexit Preparations

Jackie Cahill


61. Deputy Jackie Cahill asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the EU mechanisms in place to ensure adequate price supports will be introduced for all Brexit scenarios, including a hard exit. [13914/19]

We have heard a great deal about the price supports that will be put in place for the beef and dairy sectors in the event that thereis a hard Brexit, but we would now like to see meat on the bones in order that we will know exactly what the supports will be. The current uncertainty is causing great anxiety in the agrifood sector. What plans are in place in the European Union to support incomes in the event that there is a hard Brexit?

My officials and I have been working very hard for quite some time to sensitise other member states and the European Commission to the potentially very severe impacts of a no-deal Brexit on the Irish agrifood and fisheries sectors. It has included a detailed analysis of the possible impact of the proposed UK tariff schedule in the event that there is a no-deal Brexit, as announced by the UK Government on 13 March. The schedule announced by the United Kingdom provides for zero-rated tariffs in a range of areas, including fruit and vegetables, live animals and all products exported to Northern Ireland. However, the United Kingdom has indicated that it will impose tariffs on sensitive products, including beef. I have emphasised that specific supports will be required to deal with these negative impacts.

The threat faced by the Irish agrifood and fisheries sectors is explicitly recognised in the Commission's communication on contingency planning.

I have held a series of bilateral discussions with Commissioner Hogan on this issue, including at the European Council of agriculture ministers in Brussels last week. I stressed the need to be ready to deploy a range of measures to mitigate the potential impacts on farmers and processors, including through traditional market supports and the exceptional aid provisions under the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, single Common Market organisation regulation, as well as increased flexibility under state aid regulations. Commissioner Hogan has reiterated the EU's readiness to respond and support Ireland and we will remain in contact on these issues as the situation evolves. The terms and conditions of any aid package will be announced in due course in the event that a disorderly Brexit occurs. I very much hope that this outcome, with all its associated negative impacts for Ireland, the EU and the UK, will be avoided by the acceptance of the UK Parliament of the withdrawal agreement.

Farmers' confidence in the Commission getting up to the mark is not high. For two years in a row it reneged on its commitments on price supports for skimmed milk powder. Also, the support agreed in the previous CAP was withdrawn for two years running.

The Minister said that a pause button has been pressed by many in the agrifood sector. Unfortunately, this option is not available to the dairy sector, where volumes are increasing. Owing to a good spring, the volume of milk produced this year will be up significantly on 2018. I am aware that the Minister visited a processor in my county yesterday, which has plans in place for significant investment. Another co-operative in the county is doing likewise. As I said, the pause button is not an option in this sector.

The Minister also spoke about damage limitation. Damage limitation is not good enough. The beef sector is in crisis. The proposed intervention supports for beef will be inadequate. It will be a doomsday scenario if we have to rely on these intervention price supports. References to pause buttons and damage limitation is not good enough. We need to know what financial assistance will be put in place and at what price level the intervention will be set. The critical question is at what price level will the intervention be set in these scenarios?

I did have the privilege of visiting Tipperary yesterday, where I saw first-hand the €30 million investment being carried out by Arrabawn Co-operative and I am aware of the investment at Tipperary Co-op. I appreciate that Tipperary is one of the engines of the agrifood and rural economy. Notwithstanding the uncertainty around Brexit, these investments are a signal of confidence. I am somewhat surprised that Deputy Cahill would hark back to the Commission's handling of the skimmed milk powder issue because what underpins the performance of the dairy markets is the fact that the overhang of skimmed milk powder in global dairy markets, in EU intervention stores, has been removed. As a result of the Commission's skilful handling of that, substantial commodities of skimmed milk powder were removed from the equation and this allowed the market to trade more freely without that depressant hanging over it. The Deputy's remark was an unusual starting point in the context of the dairy industry. I am sure dairy processors around the country would confirm to him that this has been a welcome development insofar as managing a difficult situation in the dairy industry is concerned. The Commission deserves some credit in that regard.

The range of interventions will be across the commodity areas, beef included, and will include the traditional ones of intervention and aids to private storage. I take the Deputy's point about intervention not being of much value in the context of beef. Our ambition in the context of what might happen in a worst-case scenario in the UK is to keep our product on the supermarket shelves there, and to do that will require exceptional aid.

There will be Members deprived of a question.

I do not propose to get into an argument with the Minister about skimmed milk powder. The point I was making, which I think the Minister ignored, was that the European Commission reneged on a written commitment on price supports. While it did remove the volume of powder that was in intervention, for 18 months skimmed milk powder traded well below the intervention price agreed.

The reality is that beef farmers are in crisis and we face serious challenges in the markets for our cheddar cheese. We need to know what price supports will be in place. Currently at cattle sales throughout the country store cattle are coming out in large numbers. The buyers of those cattle need to know what supports will be put in place. As I stated in my previous supplementary, existing intervention supports for beef are inadequate. We need to know what will be put place. We need flesh on the bones in terms of what level of price supports will be put in place, which for cheddar cheese and intervention beef are essential.

As I said, intervention and aids to private storage, APS, would not be, I believe, of much benefit in the context of the beef sector. They are instruments that are available under the CMO regulations that could be of benefit in other commodity areas, perhaps the cheddar cheese area or on the pork side, for example. I do not want to rule anything out. In my opinion, intervention is not the best way to deal with what could be a very challenging sector for beef. The challenge for us, in the context of the UK market, is to keep our product there while we get to a situation where we negotiate a comprehensive free trading agreement. We hope that this will happen in an orderly way, but in the event of a crash out, exceptional aid will be required. This has been provided for as well and has been deployed previously by the Commission in the context of the Russian market and the Baltic states, for example. There is some experience but this situation is of a scale that is much different and much more significant than that incident. For this reason, I believe exceptional aid will be necessary in the context of the beef industry. This aid, as I have always said, will be a combination of exceptional aid, APS, intervention mechanisms available under the Common Market regulations and Exchequer funding.

Brexit Preparations

Thomas Byrne


62. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the contingency steps being taken to limit the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the agriculture sector here. [13994/19]

Will the Minister outline the contingency planning of his Department in the context of a no-deal Brexit? We have had very little detail from the Government as to its plans for the agriculture sector in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Some 35% of Irish food exports, worth billions of euros, go to the UK. This is crucially important. It is only right that farmers and consumers would know what the plans are for a no-deal Brexit.

The Government has taken a number of contingency steps to help mitigate the impacts of Brexit on the agrifood sector. For example, I have introduced a number of budgetary measures aimed at improving competitiveness and developing market and product diversification. These have included low-cost loan schemes to assist in on-farm and agri-business cost effectiveness, additional supports to Bord Bia and Teagasc to support market and product diversification and, in budget 2019, a €78 million package to support farmers, fishermen and food SMEs.

I have also held discussions with Commissioner Hogan on the impact of Brexit, most recently at the European Council of agriculture ministers in Brussels. I have stressed the need to be ready to deploy a range of measures to mitigate the impact on the sector, particularly on the beef sector, which would be severely affected by, for example, recent UK proposals on tariffs. Such measures could include traditional market supports and exceptional aid provisions under the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, single Common Market organisation regulation, as well as increased flexibility under state aid regulations. Commissioner Hogan has reiterated the EU's readiness to respond and we will remain in contact on these issues as the situation evolves.

While ratification of the withdrawal agreement is still the Government's objective, preparations are under way for a no-deal Brexit. On preparedness for import controls, we have been working with other Departments and agencies to have the necessary arrangements in place at our ports and airports to allow the Department to fulfil its legal obligations as efficiently as possible while also ensuring the minimum possible disruption to trading arrangements. The Department has also sharpened its Brexit communications strategy, which now includes an enhanced Brexit page on the Department's website, the circulation of focused trader notices to the relevant sectors, the establishment of a Brexit call centre and central email address, and increased use of social media and communications.

The Minister spoke about the discussions he had with Commissioner Hogan, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine website, and discussions on our ports and airports in terms of legal responsibilities, but he did not set out any plans for the agriculture sector in the event of a no-deal Brexit. He also did not provide any information for exporters in regard to what might or could reasonably be expected in terms of what is required.

Neither has the Department given any guarantees to consumers that our food chain and farmers will not be adversely affected by imports of dodgy food because of reduced standards in the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit, where our farmers would have to compete with food of lower standards and our consumers might have to purchase food of a lower standard. Has that come into the Department's preparation for a no-deal Brexit? We must bear in mind jobs, incomes and the impact there will be throughout rural Ireland if the Government does not prepare properly for such an event.

The Government and I are fully aware that the agrifood sector is the most exposed sector in the context of Brexit. The premise of the Deputy's question appears to be that if we were adequately prepared, the world would continue unchanged in the event of Brexit either through the withdrawal agreement with a transition period or in the context of a crash out, but that is simply not the case. The world will change when the UK leaves but what we can do is prepare as well as possible. The trading environment with the UK will be changed irreversibly, given that it will move from having been in the Single Market and customs union to either being a third country in the event of a crash out or, following a transition period, to being a country with a comprehensive future trading relationship.

Even in the latter event, which we hope for, the trading environment will not be as good as what we currently enjoy. We have tried, therefore, to build resilience within the sector to prepare for the challenges that lie ahead by working in all the commodity areas, such as beef and dairy, and the processing industry to foster market diversification. More resources are being given to Bord Bia, there are product diversification incentives, farmers are being assisted with financial products and so on. The response, therefore, has been comprehensive, but no response will enable the industry to continue as though life has not changed significantly, which is the unfortunate reality of Brexit.

To be clear, I do not blame the Government for Brexit but we can hold it to account for the lack of preparation, the lack of communication of the preparation, the lack of a plan for what will happen and the hoping against hope that everything will be all right on the night. While we know that Brexit will be bad whatever way it happens, all we can ask the Government to do is to be fully prepared and answer questions that arise as to what checks would be on animals and food products at our borders. The Minister has previously refused to answer that question, as have other Ministers. We always speak in terms of discussions, negotiations and correspondence, but what will actually happen if Britain crashes out in a no-deal Brexit? Nobody knows whether that will happen but it is no good for the Government to hope that it will not happen. I hope it will not happen but if I were in the Minister's seat, I would ensure we were fully prepared and would do everything we could to ensure our farmers, food industry, consumers and we were best prepared for it.

I assure the Deputy that as one of the remaining member states, we will be fully compliant with our obligations when dealing with imports from a third country, which involves the preparations to which I referred earlier in the context of border inspection post facilities at Dublin Port, Dublin Airport, Rosslare, etc. There will be no question of consumers here being subjected to dodgy foodstuffs. We will apply the regulations and certification requirements to products that are imported from the UK. I do not expect significant changes on day one, day two or day ten, because we have operated in the same regulatory environment. Over a period, however, as there may well be regulatory misalignment, and as the UK diverges in its regulations and food production systems, our regulation and protection of the integrity of the Single Market will ensure our consumers are protected in the east-west flow of goods.

In the comments of the Deputy and his colleagues, there almost seems to be a sense of disappointment that we are not preparing for hard Border infrastructure. We are not preparing such infrastructure at all.

Brexit Preparations

Aindrias Moynihan


63. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the uptake of the Brexit loan scheme by firms in the agriculture sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13990/19]

The report published by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, this morning was stark and blunt in respect of the threat of a no-deal Brexit hitting anything up to 80,000 jobs. While we have known for some time that there is a heavyweight threat, and while a large suite of measures has been taken, such as loans, conferences and grants, the take-up seems to be low and I am not sure there is a realisation of the urgency of the matter or the need to prepare. Will the Minister outline the level of take-up for those schemes?

The €300 million Brexit loan scheme was developed in co-operation with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, to provide working capital support to enable eligible businesses to implement the necessary changes to address the challenges posed by Brexit. The scheme was opened for applications on 28 March 2018 and will remain open until 31 March 2020. It provides for loans of between €25,000 and €1.5 million per eligible enterprise at a maximum interest rate of 4%, ranging from one year to three years, with unsecured loans up to €500,000. The loans can be used for future working capital requirements or to fund innovation, change or adaptation of the business to mitigate the impact of Brexit. Applications for eligibility assessment must be made to the SBCI which, on approval, assigns an eligibility reference number. The reference number, along with the loan application, may be then provided to a participating lender.

On 15 March, 523 eligibility applications had been received, of which 472 were approved and 9 were ineligible. The total number of loans which had been progressed to sanction at bank level was 89, at a value of €19.34 million, 18 of which related to food businesses with a total value of €5.7 million. While the number of loans progressed to sanction level is relatively low, it reflects the current uncertainty regarding the outcome of Brexit. The number of eligibility applications approved, however, indicates a good level of interest in the scheme and is a good indicator of businesses engaging in Brexit preparedness.

In addition to the Brexit loan scheme, the future growth loan scheme has been developed by my Department and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation in partnership with the Department of Finance, the SBCI and the European Investment Fund, EIF. It will be delivered through participating finance providers and will make up to €300 million of investment loans available to eligible businesses, including farmers and the agrifood and seafood sectors. The loans will be competitively priced, will be for terms of between eight and ten years and will support strategic long-term investment in a post-Brexit environment. This is a long-awaited source of finance for young and new entrant farmers, especially the cohort who do not have high levels of security. It will also serve smaller-scale farmers, who often do not have the leverage to negotiate for more favourable terms with their banking institution. Food companies have identified long-term investment finance of up to ten years as a critical need which is unavailable in Ireland. I am pleased that the Government has been able to deliver this product and its effects will be felt throughout the food production chain, from primary producer to processor.

The SBCI held an open call earlier this year inviting banks and other lenders to become lending partners. It advises that a period of due diligence, including by the EIF, is nearing completion. I have urged the SBCI to operationalise the scheme as soon as possible. It will run for three years from its launch date and I expect to make further announcements in this regard soon.

The Minister outlined the figures for the Brexit loan scheme and acknowledged that a take-up of less than €20 million is low, which is correct. He also outlined other demands but he did not provide the figure in that regard. Will he outline the number of businesses which applied for that scheme?

On the Brexit loan scheme for farmers, which was announced one year and a half ago, when will farmers be able to draw funds from it?

The Taoiseach outlined earlier a further suite of measures to be announced later in the week. Along with the figures which the Minister has provided, is that not an acknowledgement that the schemes in place are not adequate, working or delivering for people on the ground?

As outlined in my initial reply to the Deputy's question, there have been 523 applications for the loan scheme, of which 472 have been approved. That a number of businesses which have had their applications approved have not proceeded to draw down the loan is a reflection of the uncertainty that exists in the business environment. People require certainty before they make investment decisions, which is understandable. The loan scheme is expected to last until 2020 and, therefore, quite a period of time remains.

It is one of three schemes that we have run. We have run the €150 million working capital scheme, this €300 million loan scheme and there will be a third scheme, as the Taoiseach mentioned earlier, details of which will be made available later this week. There has been a comprehensive response to provide access to finance. The loan scheme is just one part of a comprehensive strategy in the context of business needs, particularly agrifood, which are firmly rooted in the context of the environment in which they operate, Brexit, exposure to the UK market and so on. It has been a substantial, coherent response and, as the Taoiseach indicated, there will be further developments on the other loan scheme soon.

There are funds which the Minister has said are not drawn down but he has not given an indication about what level of funding is involved in that. We know approximately €20 million is approved. What is the other amount that has not been drawn down yet because of the uncertainty about whether it will go ahead? What value is there on that? When will farmers be able to draw down funding from that scheme that was announced a year and a half ago?

We saw when the euro was introduced that people had money in hand, there was a long lead-in time, people had certainty, understood it and were comfortable with it. When there was foot and mouth, people rowed in behind because they had information and understood what it meant, and there was great goodwill behind it. There is a significant gap here with the Brexit schemes. Is the Minister putting out enough information for those companies to be able to access and adequately draw down from those schemes? Is the fact that the Minister has had to come with a third tranche that we understand will be announced later in the week not an acknowledgement that the schemes that are there have not delivered or been adequate? Was it misunderstood that there was a large vulnerability there?

I do not think so. The three schemes are all somewhat different. The first €150 million was a working capital scheme. It has stimulated competition in the marketplace to such an extent that the product that we introduced at 2.95% is close to what is currently available in the marketplace. That initiative has triggered greater competition for working capital. Details will be announced later for capital investments for longer than seven years, primarily in the area of agricultural investment or the fishing industry, which I would be concerned with. Most of the money available from financial institutions for capital investment is secured land and it is up to seven years, whereas the gap in the market is for unsecured money over seven years at very competitive prices. The third product we are bringing in is to drive capital investment. The one which we are talking about in this question is not targeted at primary producers but at the business community and has complemented the one which will shortly be added and the one which was done previously.

Bovine Disease Controls

Willie Penrose


64. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on whether the role of deer in the spread of tuberculosis needs to be taken seriously and investigated in a comprehensive scientific manner. [13961/19]

We have spent approximately €7 billion since the mid-1950s to try to eliminate TB in the TB eradication programme. Another €1 billion is promised by this aspirational date of 2030. The Minister has a better chance of winning the lotto than of eradicating TB. Has he any views on the possible role of deer in the spread of TB in cattle?

The role played by deer in the spread of bovine TB is the subject of a detailed scientific investigation being carried out by officials from my Department in collaboration with UCD, focusing on the genetic relationship between strains of bovine TB isolated from cattle, deer and badgers in County Wicklow. Previous work carried out by my officials in this area had demonstrated that the same strains were circulating in the three species in the Calary area of Wicklow. A related investigation carried out by the Calary deer steering group, which involves my officials, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Coillte and the Irish Farmers' Association, IFA, is continuing to conduct a survey of the level of TB in culled deer in that area.

In other parts of the country, there is little or no evidence of deer playing a significant role in the spread of TB in cattle, although they may be a spillover species. In any area where there are local concerns about deer and TB, my officials are willing to test culled deer for TB free of charge through the regional veterinary laboratories. In this way, if there are areas where deer may play a role locally, this can be detected.

I am glad that the Department will play a positive role in testing any culled deer with regard to this possibility. I agree that deer are considered to be spillover hosts as opposed to maintenance hosts. Professor Simon More was before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine and we had an intensive discussion on the epidemiology of it. No conclusive scientific connection is believed to exist between deer and the spread of TB, notwithstanding that they are localised areas. This is the problem and this is apparently prevalent in New Zealand, North America and parts of the UK. Nevertheless, I urge the Minister to focus on it, especially in the area of Wicklow that he referred to. Other areas in the country are sporadically affected. Notwithstanding that there is not scientific evidence, there is anecdotal evidence from people that deer can act as a host in the spread of TB. That may just be somebody speculating but I am glad that the Department is on top of it and that it is running that study in conjunction with Professor More from UCD.

In his opening remarks, the Deputy alluded to the cost of the TB eradication scheme since its introduction in the 1950s. It is a staggering amount. My own figure is in the region of €5.5 billion in today's money to take out approximately 2.5 million reactors in that period. It is a devastation that visits farmers if their herds go down with it. If we continue to do the same thing that we have been doing by and large since we introduced the TB scheme, we will be here in 2050 and will have the same level. I note the Deputy's observations about the stated ambition to get rid of it by 2030. If we keep doing the same things that we are doing by 2030, we will not get rid of it. That is why the challenge for the TB forum is maybe to step out of its comfort zone and see what steps we could take, difficult though they may be to contemplate, that would drive us to meet that ambition. That ambition will deliver for all farmers if we achieve it and it is a significant task to have set that TB forum. I welcome the work that it is doing and await its reply with interest.

I agree with the Minister. The definition of foolishness is repeating the same thing and expecting a different result. The taxpayers must be bewildered and bemused by this. In our area, we used to talk about draining the Shannon. Of course, it never happened. There is a better chance of draining the Shannon than getting rid of TB. I say that confidently. I will be leaving here in five or 12 months. I hope I will live for a few years and look back and the Dáil will still be talking about TB eradication. It is frightening that we are not able to get to it. It has been done in New Zealand. It is down to such a low level that it has virtually been eliminated. We have to target areas and engage in risk targeting and such things that Professor More spoke about. It will be difficult and hard to sell and there is already resistance in the TB forum from some farm organisations. At the end of the day, the question will be whether the taxpayer will continue to fund it.

I listened with interest to the professor's contribution at the committee. It was interesting, challenging and thought-provoking. I have deliberately refrained from public commentary on what has been in public media about the deliberations of the TB committee. It was tasked with a job and I would like to see it present its report. The Deputy is right that if we continue to do the same things as we have been doing, we will not get to that situation. We need to turn the tables around. Some 97% of herds are currently TB free. The challenge is to keep those 97% TB free and to make progress with the 3%. I acknowledge it is a significant problem for herds that go down. The 3% sometimes dominate the debate and we are not sufficiently concerned about how we keep the 97% and get to 100% TB free. That is the challenge between now and 2030. To do that, we will have to do things differently from how we are doing them.

Beef Industry

Martin Kenny


65. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the initiatives he plans to put in place to protect the future of the beef sector from Brexit and future trade deals such as the Mercosur deal in view of the decline in the beef sector here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13988/19]

We only have a few minutes left so I suggest that Deputy Martin Kenny forfeits his introduction, the Minister replies and there is one supplementary.

There is no doubt that the beef sector faces considerable challenges in the form of Brexit and the potential outcome from the EU-Mercosur trade negotiations. However, the Government is doing everything it can to ameliorate the potential impacts, including raising the cumulative effect of these developments in its ongoing engagement with member states and the European Commission.

On Brexit, in addition to the range of measures that I have deployed over the past three budgets, including low-cost loan schemes and supports for product and market diversification, I and my officials have been in ongoing discussions with the European Commission about the potential supports that may be required for the beef sector in particular in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Most recently, I met Commissioner Hogan on the margins of last week's Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels to discuss potential options and we will remain in contact as the situation evolves.

With regard to free trade agreements, we must acknowledge that these are very important to Ireland, given our status as a small, open economy. However, our approach to negotiations is informed by the need to make progress in areas where we have offensive interests, and to strongly defend those areas where threats may arise. We are therefore adopting a pragmatic, balanced approach, consistent with overall Government policy.

This approach is evident in our handling of the Mercosur negotiations, where we continue to urge the utmost vigilance, and insist that they are handled in a manner that safeguards the interests of the Irish and European beef sector. I also continue to stress that full account must be taken of the findings of the Commission's own assessment of the cumulative impact of trade deals on the agrifood sector and at the Council of Agriculture Ministers on 18 March, I specifically drew the attention of the Council to the very clear linkage between the inclusion of a beef tariffable quota in any Mercosur deal, and the potentially very damaging impact of Brexit on an already delicately-balanced EU beef market.

The issue of Brexit is complicated further by the EU's insistence on carrying out trade deals particularly in places such as Latin America and Mercosur. There is an irony in this because great pressure is coming on the production of beef and other meat from a climate change and greenhouse gas perspective, mainly from the European Union, which may fine us for our greenhouse gas emissions. One of the ways it is pushing us to deal with that is by a reduction in the number of cattle and in beef production yet it is talking about doing a trade deal with Latin America to produce beef where there used to be rainforest. It will then be transported halfway around the world. Somebody somewhere needs to make the connection and see this does not work from an environmental or trade point of view, and from the point of view of the farmers in Ireland who produce beef - as the Minister and others have acknowledged - in almost the most environment-friendly manner in the world. There are serious issues to be dealt with.

While I acknowledge the Minister's words that as an open economy we need to have trade deals with other countries, we need to also recognise the damage those trade deals can do, if they are handled badly. There will be damage here if we continue to insist on bringing beef from regions on the far side of the world, such as Latin America.

I appreciate the Deputy's points. We have been extremely vigilant in our engagements with the Commission and the Commissioner on Mercosur in particular. The flip side of that, however, is that as a small economy that exports to over 180 countries, we benefit from those trade deals in reverse because we would not be in those markets were it not for our membership of the European Union and the clout it has when it knocks on doors to conclude trade deals. Consequently, wherever I have gone on trade missions I have been following the Commission, which has opened doors by concluding or improving upon trade deals such as between the EU and Mexico, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, with Canada, between the EU and Japan and between the EU and Korea. They are very interesting because they align perfectly with Food Wise 2025, which has identified that area, in particular the south-east Asian economies, as providing opportunities for our agrifood exports.

It is imperative in contrast with others where we have defensive interests in trade agreements, particularly in Mercosur, that our product is in those markets, not just because it is safe and nutritious and traceable but increasingly because to get inside the door, we must be able to prove our sustainability credentials.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.