Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Beef Industry

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

58. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to outline the steps he is taking to implement the agriculture motion adopted by Dáil Éireann on 26 September 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41796/19]

It is unacceptable that ABP Food Group has effectively stalled the beef task force through its failure to lift legal threats. I accept there is no silver bullet to the issues that are before us but the four measures I put forward in a recent Private Members' motion would fundamentally shift power from meat processors and supermarkets to beef farmers. While this will not solve the problem overnight, if such effective steps had been taken five years ago, we would be in a very different situation today.

There have been a series of formal negotiations with beef sector stakeholders facilitated by my Department since early August. This culminated in an agreement being reached between stakeholders on Sunday, 15 September. This agreement covers the types of issues raised in the Dáil motion of 26 September.

The full text of the agreement between beef sector stakeholders is on my Department website. The agreement involves a number of interventions which will provide immediate benefit for beef farmers as well as a range of strategic measures which seek to address structural imbalances in the sector. Beef producers will benefit from an immediate increase in a range of bonuses. This will increase the level of bonus being paid on certain animals as well as significantly increasing the number of animals which are eligible for a bonus. The cumulative effect is that over 70% of all steer and heifers slaughtered will now be eligible for a bonus on top of the basic price paid. A number of actions in the area of market transparency, beef promotion and strengthening the position of the farmer in the supply chain are included in the agreement. These measures set a course towards greater clarity for all stakeholders involved in the beef supply chain, primarily farmers. My Department is also proactively engaging with several potential beef producer organisations, which have the potential to strengthen the bargaining power of beef farmers in the supply chain. Two beef producer organisations have been formally recognised by my Department in recent weeks.

I have established a beef market task force to provide the leadership to develop a sustainable pathway for the future of the beef sector in terms of economic, environmental and social sustainability. The task force will provide a robust implementation structure for commitments entered into in the agreement, with timelines and stakeholder engagement. Furthermore, the task force will offer a suitable platform for strategic engagement with key stakeholders, including retailers and regulatory authorities. The task force is also the appropriate forum for considering issues such as the potential of blockchain in the sector. I have appointed Michael Dowling as chairperson of the task force. Members include representatives from my Department, State agencies, farm organisations and the meat industry. As Deputy Naughten is aware, the task force was supposed to meet yesterday but that meeting did not proceed. I expect he shares my view that this was entirely regrettable. The remit of the task force is to monitor the implementation of the actions arising from the agreement of 15 September. It offers the most viable platform for strategic engagement with key stakeholders.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I call on him to take two specific measures in the short term. Pending the establishment of the task force, and even if the task force is established, these measures can provide progress in this area. The Ministers for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Business, Enterprise, and Innovation have the power to ask the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission to carry out a market study of the beef industry here. Such a study should not be left to the task force and should be carried out now. It should be used as a vehicle to provide assistance and support to the beef task force and to identify where there are weaknesses within the competition beef sector.

Will the Minister explain the position as regards efforts to secure protected geographical indication status for grass-fed suckler beef? I note from a reply the Minister provided last week that an application will be submitted for Irish grass-fed beef but that suckler beef has been left out. As he is aware, the former Commissioner for Agriculture, Mr. Hogan, has made it clear that the application should be for suckler beef and not only grass-fed beef.

I will address the latter point first. We are informed by what resonates with consumers. All of the advice is that the concept of suckler beef does not have a high degree of resonance but there is, across a range of agrifood products, a resonance with consumers about grass-based production systems as opposed to more intensive indoor rearing of cattle, etc. Seeking geographical indication status is important. We have seen in Irish whiskey what it can do for the drinks industry. There is geographical indication status for a range of other products as well. Pursuing this status in a way that delivers something tangible for farmers is our motivation.

I would have expected suckler beef to resonate but all of the advice is that grass-based production systems are what resonate with consumers. We are informed in this respect by market research engagement with Bord Bia and through pursuing the matter with the European Commission.

As I said, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission has looked at this sector on several occasions. Continued vigilance by the commission to ensure there is no abuse of a dominant position in the sector is important in instilling confidence among farmers. More critically, we need the task force up and running. It must be enabled to pursue the agenda agreed by its members in the recent talks and to develop other issues it may wish to address.

I am disappointed that the Minister is not taking the advice of the former Commissioner for Agriculture, Mr. Hogan, that we should seek designation for suckler beef. That is where we have a crisis. We need a distinctive marketing tool for Irish suckler beef. I am disappointed too that the Minister does not intend to consider my proposal in respect of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. Certain tools available to the Government could help to provide transparency. These are preferable to expecting farmers to come forward with documentary evidence on the lack of competition.

As we all know, serious concerns have been expressed regarding lack of competition and control of the offal sector. I put it to the Minister that the future bottleneck in getting product to market will be determined on the basis of who owns the beef blockchain.

That will be the offal of the future and the State must control it. I ask the Minister to provide assurances that the State will develop a beef block chain, will control and own it and that it will not be left to a processor or group of processors to control it, thereby effectively controlling access to both the market and the consumer.

In terms of promotion, we have provided substantial additional resources to Bord Bia in recent years. This year, despite the difficult budgetary situation, we again increased the resources available to Bord Bia for promotion and, in particular, we ring-fenced promotion of beef and sheep meat. I do not accept the Deputy's criticism in that regard. We have never spent more on looking for new market opportunities or promoting the qualities of Irish beef and its grass-based credentials. That is a critical part of what we do.

I accept that block chain is the technology of the future. We have a lot of the data about our herd, including its movements and quality, already available in digital format. However, the reality is that the most demographically challenged sector in Irish agrifood is the beef sector because it has the highest age profile. We need to encourage everybody to embrace new technologies. There is potential for further developing block chain as an instrument to deliver information to farmers and primary producers. It can make information from the consumer as to the demands in the market place available to the primary producer, which is really important. There is a lot of potential in that area. It is already being investigated by big accountancy houses and researched by Bord Bia. It is something that will play an increasing part in the beef industry in the future.

Animal Welfare

Maureen O'Sullivan

Ceist:

59. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine further to Parliamentary Question No. 47 of 2 October 2019, the way in which he, as Minister with responsibility for animal welfare, can address the issue of horse-drawn carriages from the welfare perspective as highlighted by many groups that care for horses; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41886/19]

This question follows on from one I submitted earlier this month to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. As the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is responsible for animal welfare, I ask him to address the issue of horse-drawn carriages from the perspective of the welfare of the horses involved. This issue has been highlighted by many animal welfare groups.

Licensing of horse-drawn carriages comes under the remit of the local authority concerned. The welfare issues relating to horses involved in drawing carriages continue to be carefully monitored by my Department and the relevant local authorities.

My Department devotes considerable resources to protecting animal welfare and dealing with breaches of animal welfare legislation. The Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 has modernised the legal framework relating to the welfare of animals. Sections 11 and 12 of that Act contain the main provisions relating to the welfare of and cruelty to animals. Section 11 provides that a person having an animal in his or her possession or control must safeguard and not threaten the health and welfare of that animal. Section 12 provides that it is an offence for a person to cause unnecessary suffering, endanger, neglect or be reckless regarding the health or welfare of any animal.

In order to ensure its effectiveness, the legislation provides for increased levels of penalties for offences committed under the Act. For major cases taken on indictment, the maximum penalty has been increased from €100,000 to €250,000, with a maximum custodial sentence of five years imprisonment. Section 58 also provides that a person convicted of an offence under the Act may be disqualified from keeping, owning or working with an animal.

My Department's work on animal welfare is further underpinned by the operation of the animal welfare helpline, along with a dedicated email address. The hotline exists for the reporting of specific incidents relating to animal welfare which come to the attention of members of the public. All calls received are treated in confidence and all complaints are investigated and followed up. Persons having concerns about the welfare of any animal may report their concerns in this way or directly to any of my Department's regional offices. There have been 89 successful prosecutions taken nationally since enactment. Summonses have issued in a further 21 cases which remain before the courts.

In terms of resources devoted to the enforcement of the Animal Health and Welfare Act, in addition to staff employed by my own Department and by local authorities, a number of officers of certain NGOs have been given authorised officer status under the Act and this has facilitated the more effective enforcement of the legislation. Under the Act, departmental staff, members of An Garda Síochána and 13 officers of the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, DSPCA, and the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, ISPCA, are authorised.

I thank the Minister for his reply. A couple of months ago, Deputy Joan Collins and I met a delegation of horse-drawn carriage drivers and their animals on Merrion Square. They brought to our attention a number of outstanding issues, one of which is the licensing system, which does not come within the remit of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. They spoke about a vacuum in terms of who is responsible for what, the fact that a number of Departments are involved as well as the local authority, and that the welfare of horses is being neglected. Where is the system for inspecting these horses in order to ensure that they are suitable for drawing carriages? We know that children are operating some of these carriages and that some of the horses are not licensed. I understand that Dublin City Council, DCC, has a vet on contract to assist with horse licence inspections but this does not involve a health check of the horse or a check of its suitability for drawing a carriage. Some horses are brought to Dublin from the countryside so the DCC vet does not know anything about them or from where they have come. While the Act is on the Statute Book and restrictions are in place, this area is not being carefully monitored. We know from animal welfare groups that some horses are being neglected. Under the Control of Horses Act, how much engagement is there between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and An Garda Síochána, particularly the officers at Pearse Street and Kevin Street stations who are responsible for the horse-drawn carriages that operate in Dublin city centre?

I am not sure that the welfare of the horse is impacted upon by the identity of the licensing authority. On Saturday, 12 October last, an inspection was conducted by a veterinary inspector of my Department on eight horses attached to carriages close to the Guinness Storehouse at St. James' Gate. These horse-drawn carriages are part of the landscape of Dublin and they enhance the tourist experience, provided they are properly regulated and monitored. The inspection of the horses and carriages parked outside the Guinness Storehouse found that all eight horses had passports. All of the horses were well groomed, well presented and shod. They appeared in excellent condition and were well cared for. The people in charge of the horses were reported as capable, knowledgeable and in control of their horses. The veterinary inspector reported that a number of such visits had taken place in the previous 18 months, adding that the general welfare of the animals had been good, with no welfare concerns identified.

The Deputy spoke about issues brought to the attention of herself and Deputy Joan Collins. As already stated, any incidents giving rise to concern can be reported via a hotline in my Department. Staff will be happy to follow up on any specific inquiries. The most recent inspection carried out by staff from my Department found that one particular group of urban horse-drawn carriages reported well on horse welfare grounds, which is welcome.

We met very responsible drivers who were concerned that because of the vacuum caused by the licensing issue, the other issues relating to welfare were being neglected. I accept and welcome what the Minister said about staff of his Department inspecting the horses outside the Guinness Storehouse. It was brought to my attention that an individual phoned the Department and reported concerns about a very underweight, underfed horse, giving the animal's location. A few days later, the same individual received a phone call from someone in the Department who wanted to know the location of the horse, even though all the details had been given previously. That said, it is good to know that the inspection to which the Minister referred took place.

These horse-drawn carriages are a tourist attraction but tourists getting into the carriages do not know if their drivers are licensed or if there are animal welfare concerns arising. If they do have animal welfare concerns, to whom should they directed them? The DSPCA and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine only operate on a Monday-to-Friday basis. The Minister referenced a helpline but the problem is that his Department and the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Justice and Equality, An Garda Síochána and the local authorities are all involved. When that happens in any area, it is a disaster.

I acknowledge that there is some legal confusion as to who is responsible for licensing but I am pretty certain it is not my Department. However, I accept that we have the primary responsibility for animal welfare. As I said already, I do not think that the horses are too preoccupied about who is the licensing authority as long as any welfare issues are dealt with properly. That is the job of departmental officials and under the legislation, of authorised officers, including members of An Garda Síochána, the DSPCA and the ISPCA. The resolution of the issue regarding the appropriate licensing authority is a matter for the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and DCC.

The confusion stems from Victorian legislation dating back to before the foundation of the State. I understand that an effort is being made to resolve the issue but that it may take time. It is important that we remain focused on the here and now and the welfare of the animals. My departmental officials will continue to be vigilant on the matter. I am reassured in that regard by the most recent inspection. It is critical that members of the public become the eyes and ears of the Department on the issue. I know they are very active in that regard, based on the number of representations I receive on this issue and animal welfare issues generally. Our officers authorised under the legislation will respond to any issues raised.

Beef Industry

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

60. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the status of discussions with the beef industry regarding the creation of a base price for beef; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41990/19]

I listened to the earlier discussion on the plight of beef farmers and the responses of the Government on the matter. I am not an expert in this area but I have spoken at length to farmers and members of the Beef Plan Movement. According to the Central Statistics Office, there was €2.8 billion in the beef sector in 2018, but the vast-----

There was €2.8 billion in the Irish beef processing sector.

Yes. The vast majority of farmers are not getting those profits - they would not be protesting if they were - so the profits must be going elsewhere. Is the Minister considering how the profits being made could be redistributed in favour of the farmers?

As the Deputy will be aware, neither I nor my Department may legally have any role in determining a price for beef or any other commodity. He will be aware, however, that a series of formal negotiations took place between beef sector stakeholders, beginning in early August and culminating in the agreement reached on Sunday, 15 September, the text of which is available on my Department's website. The agreement involves a number of interventions that will provide immediate benefit for beef producers as well as a range of strategic measures that seek to address structural imbalances in the sector. Beef producers will benefit from an immediate increase in a range of bonuses. This will increase the level of bonus being paid on certain animals as well as significantly increasing the number of animals that are eligible for a bonus. The cumulative effect is that over 70% of steers and heifers slaughtered will be eligible for a bonus on top of the base price paid. A number of actions in the areas of market transparency, beef promotion and strengthening the position of the farmer in the supply chain are included in the agreement. These measures set a course towards greater clarity for all stakeholders involved in the beef supply chain, primarily farmers.

My Department is proactively engaging with several potential beef producer organisations, which have the potential to strengthen the bargaining power of beef farmers in the supply chain. A constant refrain, of which I am sure Members are aware, is that farmers are price takers. Beef producer organisations enable farmers to work collaboratively together, control supply of a significant volume of beef and, from that position of strength, negotiate with processors on the basis of an agreed price and sharing some of the risk involved in rearing cattle over a prolonged period. Two beef producer organisations have been formally recognised by my Department in recent weeks.

A beef market task force has been established to provide the leadership to develop a sustainable pathway for the future of the beef sector in terms of economic, environmental and social sustainability. The task force will provide a robust implementation structure for commitments entered into in the agreement, with timelines and stakeholder engagement. Furthermore, it will offer a suitable platform for strategic engagement with key stakeholders, including retailers and regulatory authorities. It is chaired by Michael Dowling. It was scheduled to meet yesterday but the meeting was adjourned because members of the task force were prevented from attending it. It is in the interests of everyone involved in the beef industry that the work of the task force goes ahead. Its remit is to monitor the implementation of the actions arising from the agreement reached on 15 September and it offers the most viable platform for strategic engagement with key stakeholders. It was a great pity that farm representatives were not in a position to air the legitimate concerns of farmers at the task force.

The plight of beef farmers has come centre stage as a result of protests and people power. I commend the Beef Plan Movement and farmers on their protests, which have forced this issue to the top of the agenda and engendered some of the progress that now seems to be taking place. I qualify my remarks by pointing out that I am not an expert on this issue. We know that certain people, such as Larry Goodman - I do not mind mentioning names; we know who they are - dominate this sector.

One of the points made to me by farmers is that in Canada and possibly also the United States, those who own processing plants may not also own feedlots and rendering plants. A person may not control all parts of the chain because that would allow him or her to dominate and control the market and have small farmers over a barrel. The farmers suggest that a simple measure that could provide a big part of the answer would be for the Minister to signal that he is willing to introduce legislation similar to that in Canada such that the dominance of the big players cannot persist and they cannot control all parts of the chain.

I appreciate the point made by the Deputy and acknowledge that the supply chain is complex. The task force is empowered to consider best practice, legal frameworks, etc., among other matters. The Deputy's point on ruling out ownership of certain enterprises by processors is an interesting one. Although I have not taken formal legal advice on it, I suspect it may not be legally possible to state that one may not own a particular enterprise here. The task force is in a position to consider the issue of feedlot ownership. However, feedlots controlled by beef processors do not control the overwhelming majority of cattle that are slaughtered. To some extent, it depends on what one defines as significant. The definition of "feedlot" also deserves consideration. Some feedlots are owned by farmers who trade independently. It is an area in which we must maintain constant vigilance.

As the task force will comprise representatives of all stakeholders, it is a very welcome development that can look at all of these issues and build trust and understanding on issues about which there has been too much mystique, such as what is happening in the marketplace or who is getting what in the market. It may build a relationship, therefore, between both sectors, particularly primary producers and processors. The current relationship cannot continue as it is a recipe for a faltering industry in the future.

Nobody wants to see angry scenes. Farmers are not out protesting for the good of their health. Rather, they are doing so because their income levels are not sustainable. It is very provocative for C&D Foods and Mr. Goodman and so on to have injunctions hanging over farmers if they are serious about building trust and engagement. The Government should clearly state that the injunctions and threats of legal action against farmers fighting for their livelihood should be lifted. I urge the Minister to look seriously at the issue because what we are talking about is a financial connection between the processors who dominate the market and the feedlots that essentially allow them to put goods onto the market and, as such, depress the price. It is a little similar to how OPEC operates in the Gulf states. If one producer threatens to raise the price, another turns on the taps to keep the price down. The people who lose out in this case are the small farmers, whose incomes are pitiful, although people such as Mr. Goodman are making very significant profits.

The interventions by the State should not be and have not been about interfering in terms of establishing a base price. Rather, they have been about supporting incomes, as has been the case under the Common Agricultural Policy for many years. These measures include the basic payment that every farmer receives as well as other supports such as the areas of natural constraint payment - 70% of the country is classified as ANC disadvantaged lands - or specific programmes under the rural development programme for beef farmers, for suckler farmers and organics. More recent initiatives have seen targeted interventions to respond to the income crisis, including a €100 million fund for beef exceptional aid measures and the beef environmental efficiency programme. There is an extra €120 million available this year for schemes specifically targeted to support incomes.

The consequences of previous support for product prices were butter mountains, wine lakes and so on. We have moved away from that and towards supporting incomes for farmers when the market does not function adequately, as is clearly currently the case.

Common Agricultural Policy Negotiations

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

61. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the plans he intends to propose at the EU Agriculture Council meeting regarding the need to protect the CAP budget post 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41952/19]

As we all know, payments under CAP are the backbone of Irish farming. They are important for the farming community, the rural economy and the overall national economy. Farm families are very concerned about the present proposal to reduce the post-2020 CAP budget by 5%. When a low level of inflation is factored in, this reduction will equate to a 15% reduction over a seven-year period, which is not sustainable. The Irish agriculture community would be very concerned about any such proposed reduction in an essential income support for this sector.

As part of multi-annual financial framework, MFF, for the period 2021 to 2027 the European Commission has proposed a reduction of approximately 5% in the CAP budget post 2020. As this proposed reduction is unacceptable for Ireland, during discussions on the post-2020 CAP at EU Agriculture Council meetings I have taken every opportunity to call for the CAP budget to be maintained.

Yesterday, I joined 16 ministerial counterparts in reiterating the call we made in mid-2018 for the post-2020 CAP budget to be maintained at current levels. While I acknowledge that many people believe this degree of ambition is not overwhelming, it reflects the reality that there are insufficient levels of support for increasing the budget. That is why we are seeking to have it maintained at current levels. During a discussion on potential CAP measures to support carbon sequestration at an informal Council meeting in Helsinki at the end of September, I made the point that higher levels of climate ambition must be matched by a strong CAP budget post 2020. We cannot keep asking our farmers to do more for less money. At previous Council meetings, I called for an adequate CAP budget to meet the increasing demands being placed on Irish and European farmers.

I have held a large number of bilateral meetings with my ministerial counterparts on this issue. I have participated in joint initiatives with other member states, such as the joint memorandum that was agreed in Madrid in May 2018. I have discussed the matter with Commissioner Hogan on a number of occasions. These efforts will continue over the coming months as negotiations on the post-2020 CAP and the future budget intensify.

I am glad the Minister has reiterated that the current proposals are unacceptable. I understand that there are 15 or 16 like-minded member states. I hope the Heads of Government or Heads of State of those member states are of the same opinion as their Agriculture Ministers. Perhaps the Minister will let us know the Taoiseach's opinion on adequate funding for CAP. As the Minister quite rightly stated, it is not acceptable that a greater onus is being placed on farmers to do more for less money. We are all very conscious of the significant income pressures being faced by people in all sectors of farming community. Does the Minister think that an urgency is being attached to finalising the budget by the end of the year? Under a contingency that was put in place by Commissioner Hogan, the budget might be rolled over by a year if the MFF is not complete. What is the outlook at present? What is the likely timescale for the completion of the MFF level of funding and the CAP budget? Are we likely to see those issues being prioritised and finalised in early in the lifetime of the new Commission?

The existing CAP is going to roll over for a period of 12 months. I raised the necessary delegated acts to facilitate that with the Commission yesterday during a bilateral meeting. I hope that will happen quite shortly. We need to ensure that the systems within the Departments are prepared as quickly as possible in order that payments can continue to be made. The position of the Taoiseach and the Government on the funding of the EU is very clear. When the Taoiseach addressed the European Parliament, he made it very clear that we are willing to pay more to support projects that are really important to us, including CAP. We are making this commitment from our position as one of the highest per capita net contributors in the entire EU. It is not simply a case of calling for more money. We put more into the EU than we get out of it. Much of what we get out of it comes through CAP. I agree strongly with the Deputy's point that farmers are being asked to do more and more. It appears that almost on a daily basis, nearly every one of this country's 5 million citizens tells farmers what they should do and how they should do it. Farmers seem to be admonished if they do not do things to the highest standard. It is the same right across Europe, where every day of the week 450 million citizens seem to tell farmers what to do. We need to be careful not to have a kickback against that. Farmers are operating to very high standards by international and global comparison. If we are asking them to do more, we need to given them the necessary resources to help them to do more.

I accept the final remarks made by the Minister. CAP, which was established in 1962, is important not only as a means of supporting the farming community, but also as a means of ensuring the citizens of Europe can access a secure supply of safe food. It supports 22 million farmers across the EU, as well as 44 million people in the overall food industry. It is important to keep emphasising the partnership that has existed between CAP and European society as we seek to ensure that the CAP budget is prioritised at all times. It is not just about transferring funds to the farming sector - it is also about ensuring we have a vibrant rural community. When people suggest that a greater onus and additional demands should be placed on the farming community, they should bear in mind that if we are not careful to ensure proper supports continue to be given directly to the farming community, we run the risk of land not being farmed and land being abandoned. If those supports are provided, all of society will benefit accordingly.

I agree entirely with the Deputy's analysis. The point is well made. It is not just about supporting farmers - it is also about supporting rural communities. I think CAP has worked really well for us across Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 in terms of the supports it gives. The challenge is that not everybody shares the Deputy's view. As he knows, unanimity is required for an EU budget. We have to convince some other member states that have differing views on how Europe, and new challenges in Europe, should be funded. Our view is that Europe should not be funded by raiding CAP, which has been a successful common policy in the area of agriculture. The obvious challenges that need to be addressed collectively in other areas, including migration and security, which are readily recognised as important challenges we need to face together, should not be used as a reason to rob the budget for CAP, which is working really well to deliver safe food and many other public goods that are demanded by society in respect of matters such as biodiversity and water quality. The policy needs to reflect the fact that farmers are the solution rather than the problem here. Given the demographic challenges being faced in the agriculture sector, it is not inconceivable that in a very short space of time we could be outsourcing our food requirements. Our food security could be compromised in that context if we do not support agriculture in the way that is needed.

Forestry Sector

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

62. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the extent to which he has identified the degree to which a specific area of forestry can offset carbon emissions by way of sequestration; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28581/19]

I am seeking to ascertain the extent to which various tree species can assist in carbon sequestration, thereby contributing in a positive way to efforts to deal with climate change without destroying the incomes of people in rural Ireland, particularly members of the farming community.

Forests play an important role in climate change mitigation by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. This process is known as sequestration. The ability of forests to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere depends on a range of site parameters, including the species of the trees, the age of the forest and the type of soil.

The national forest inventory, which is compiled by my Department, collects a range of data on our national forests, including data on carbon. According to the most recent inventory, Ireland's forests removed or sequestered an average of 3.8 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere each year between 2007 and 2016.

The total carbon stock in Irish forests is approximately 312 million tonnes. This carbon is stored in trees, soils, leaf litter, dead wood and roots. It is important to note that the national forest inventory provides a statistical sample of a proportion of Ireland's forests and does not estimate carbon stocks in individual forests.

However, based on the results from the last survey and the total size of the forest estate, which measures 770,020 ha, we can say that approximately 5 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year, on average, is sequestered. This is an average figure and takes into account all different types of tree species and ages growing on a range of different soil types.

Sustainable forest management and the protection of forests from disease are important to ensure that forests continue to sequester and store carbon. Harvested wood products are also an important store of carbon and recent changes to accounting rules now mean that the carbon stored in wood products is to be included when determining overall net emissions. This change will help to promote the increased use of wood and allow the mitigation effect of carbon storage to be accounted for.

Considerable scope now exists for further expansion in wood use and processing. The all-Ireland wood production forecast anticipates that production on the island will increase from 4 million cu. m to nearly 8 million cu. m by 2035. This doubling of output is set to come, in the main, from privately-owned, grant-aided forests in the Republic.

I thank the Minister of State for his interesting reply. I have carried out some experiments in this area. For example, much of the focus has been on native deciduous species which are, of course, not the best at sequestering carbon. In fact, Sitka spruce is one of the most efficient in that area probably because of its growing lifespan. Interestingly, the Sequoia, which is a fairly large tree with huge capacity and which grows quite rapidly at up to 60 ft over 25 years, is not to be sniffed at. We have an opportunity to be able to illustrate to everyone in urban and rural Ireland that this is an area where we can double or quadruple our capacity in terms of carbon sequestering.

There are various debates on the best species of tree to grow in order to sequester carbon. The more appropriate approach is to have the right tree in the right place being properly managed, taking into account all aspects. There are 12 different grant and premium categories under the afforestation programme. These range from basic conifer, which will include 15% broadleaves, right through to native woodland and woodland improvement. We also have a range of new measures, including continuous cover forestry, tending and thinning programmes and fencing to protect valuable crops from deer and rabbit damage. The motto should be that we have the right tree in the right place being properly managed, rather than focusing on specific species. Every tree, properly managed, can contribute.

I agree with the Minister of State up to a point. An argument has been ongoing for some time as to which species are native. The Caledonian pine, as evidenced by Professor Seamus Caulfield's work in the Céide Fields, was here 5,000 years ago. I am not certain whether it is a native species, but it has lived its time and I suggest it is a native species.

I believe there is a significant difference in the extent to which the various varieties can contribute to carbon sequestration. There is an issue in Europe and North America regarding Sitka spruce type trees, which we are told are bad for the fishing industry. However, these types of trees are grown in North America and its fishing has never been better. It has no difficulty with them.

We need to remember that when any wood is burned the only carbon which escapes is that which was sequestered in the first place. Timber is carbon neutral and I ask that everything possible be done to continue research in that area with a view to maximising its potential.

Fish Quotas

Pat the Cope Gallagher

Ceist:

63. Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on the recent International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, ICES, mackerel advice which shows a further increase on its revised ICES scientific advice given in May 2019 for the mackerel total allowable catch, TAC, for 2020; if assurance will be given to the marine sector that this new advice of 922,064 tonnes will be fully incorporated in the overall TAC quotas for 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41761/19]

Deputy Charlie McConalogue is taking Question No. 63 on behalf of Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher.

I ask the Minister for his views on the recent ICES mackerel advice which shows a further increase in the revised scientific advice given in May 2019 for the mackerel TAC for 2020. I also ask whether he will give an assurance to the marine sector that this new advice of 922,000 tonnes will be fully incorporated into the overall TAC quotas for 2020.

Mackerel is Ireland’s most important fishery economically and a healthy mackerel stock is essential for the Irish pelagic fleet and pelagic processing industry. The ICES catch advice for mackerel stock for 2020 was published on 1 October 2019. ICES has advised that the catches for 2020 by all parties, including those which operate outside the 2014 mackerel agreement, should not exceed 922,064 tonnes. This would equate to a 41% increase on the 2019 TAC of 653,438 tonnes agreed by the parties to the 2014 agreement, that is, the European Union, Norway and the Faroe Islands.

The 2019 TAC was set following a precautionary approach in applying the scientific advice available at the time. This was a 20% reduction compared with 2018 and the decision was taken in light of an ICES decision to undertake a complete review of the assessment methodology used to calculate the advice. That review resulted in new advice for 2019 being issued by ICES in May 2019. Following the publication of this new advice, two further coastal states meetings were organised. Ireland, along with most other EU member states, sought to revise the 2019 mackerel TAC. Unfortunately, it did not prove possible to achieve agreement between the coastal states on a mid-year upward revision of the TAC.

It is important to remember that overall catches have exceeded the scientific advice for the stock in recent years due to the unilateral actions of certain parties. If this situation continues, the long-term sustainability of the stock will be at risk. Representatives of the mackerel coastal states, namely, the EU, Norway, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland, are scheduled to meet from the 15 to 17 October in London. The ICES advice for 2020 will form the basis for these discussions.

In my view, there is absolutely no reason for the full advice not to be applied and this is the position that we will be arguing for at the consultations in London. Ireland, as always, will be represented by officials from my Department with scientific support from the Marine Institute.

It is very concerning that ICES is getting its advice so wrong. The advice it gave last year, which contributed to the formulation of the 2019 TAC, was off the mark by 50% in respect of mackerel. The decision in May to revise the TAC advice from ICES to 20%, as the Minister stated, was not incorporated into the TAC for the Irish fishing fleet. It is now essential that we see the full advice from ICES for this year, which refers to catches of 922,000 tonnes for mackerel, and that should be the mark used to determine the TAC for the Irish fleet for this year. It is essential that the baseline for the 20% increase recommended by ICES is the revised position it gave in May and not the 2019 TAC, as agreed and set at the end of last year.

The Minister indicated his position on ensuring that the total catch is 922,000 tonnes, which is the correct one and one which we support. Can he enlighten us on his engagement so far with other states as to the likelihood of that being the TAC at European level with partner states for the coming year?

It would be unfortunate if the impression was to go out that ICES science is wayward or not reliable. Broadly speaking that is not the case, but there was an acceptance that it would review the methodology applied to mackerel last year. That has resulted in advice that would facilitate an increase, even if it did not issue until mid-year.

I have spoken to my officials, who will be in these negotiations, which are taking place in London. They will pursue the new level of advice. Obviously, the ICES advice will detail individual allocations. In many respects, it is every state for itself and its respective industries so we will be trying to extract the best possible deal for our pelagic fleet in the context of the scientific advice available to us, which is welcome. It is important to reflect that the ICES advice is informed by bodies like the Marine Institute, which conducts research in our areas on our behalf and is involved in the general advice that is available to the Commission for the December Council or indeed for the allocation of mackerel quotas.

I emphasise the importance of ensuring that it is off the ICES advice regarding the figure of 955,000 this year. If that updated figure is used, the equivalent impact on the Irish fishing fleet would be a total allowable catch for mackerel in 2020 of 77,500 tonnes as opposed to just over 55,000 tonnes. This would be a net benefit of €40 million for the mackerel sector so the stakes are quite high. The fact that the additional mackerel quota allocated by ICES as a result of the revised estimates in the middle of this year was not figured and built into this year's total allowable catch has resulted in €20 million less in respect of the value of mackerel for this year. We support the Government. It is essential that the full impact of the revised estimate is the actual outcome as a result of the talks for the total allowable catch for 2020.

I thank the Deputy for his support. We will keep him informed of developments as they occur in the Council.

Beef Industry

Brian Stanley

Ceist:

64. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his plans to establish a beef market index and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41603/19]

My question concerns the Irish beef sector agreement. I ask that Bord Bia develop a beef market price index model to improve transparency.

As part of the Irish beef sector agreement of 15 September 2019, Bord Bia committed to develop a beef market price index model based on three components - cattle price index, beef market price index, including retail and wholesale, and an offal price indicator. Work on the development of this index is under way and progress on this will be reported via the beef task force, which was set up to oversee the implementation of the commitments agreed to at the recent beef talks.

The task force comprises key beef sector stakeholders, with Michael Dowling as independent chair. The beef task force meeting scheduled for yesterday, 14 October, was adjourned, as members of the task force were prevented from attending the meeting. It is in the interests of everyone involved in the beef industry that the work of the task force goes ahead. The task force’s remit is to monitor the implementation of the actions arising from the agreement reached on 15 September. It offers the most viable platform for strategic engagement with key stakeholders. It was a great pity that farm representatives were not in a position to air the legitimate concerns of farmers at the task force.

The agreement of 15 September sets out strategic measures that will seek to address structural imbalances and enhance transparency in the sector. A number of actions in the area of market transparency, beef promotion and strengthening the position of the farmer in the supply chain were agreed.

I do not intend to read out the agreement in full as the text is available on the Department's website. I am satisfied that it contains the best balance of immediate financial benefits for farmers and a series of more medium-term strategic actions. The best approach to supporting the sector, especially in the current context of Brexit uncertainty, is by providing a strong basis of financial support to primary producers, providing supply chain strengthening mechanisms such as producer organisations and ensuring as broad a range of markets to sell product to as possible.

My Department is also proactively engaging with several potential beef producer organisations, which have to potential to strengthen the bargaining power of beef farmers in the supply chain. Two beef producer organisations have been formally recognised by my Department in recent weeks. I firmly believe that producer organisations constitute an important part of the toolkit in building resilience in the sector by re-balancing power along the supply chain.

The Minister left out the piece that stated that it was to have been introduced in the week commencing 16 September. This has not happened. Farmers have very little information to determine whether they are getting a fair price for their produce and the lack of transparency will be manipulated by some. There is considerable frustration out there and there is despair among some farmers regarding viability and being able to keep going through another winter and into next year so we need beef price transparency across the supply chain.

I will introduce the Mandatory Beef Price Transparency Bill 2019 this week. Two weeks ago, the Minister told me in the Dáil that he was willing to look at measures such as this. The measures in the agreement are good but it would be better if they were legally underpinned. The Minister should give our Bill a fair read over. We are open to amending it. This matter is not our sole possession but belongs to everybody, particularly the farming sector. We hope the Bill will provide the basis for legislation to underpin the agreement reached regarding pricing and price indexing.

At a general level, I acknowledge the task force as an important forum in which many of these issues can be addressed. There are a number of initiatives within that task force in terms of transparency in the market that along with the agreement and work schedule set by the task force, will inform the task force's approach to a number of matters.

I understand that what is set out in the legislation is somewhat similar to the situation that applies in the US. We will look at the legislation and its merits bearing in mind that the beef market here is somewhat different from that in the US. We will look at it and see how we can work collaboratively to improve the lot of beef farmers.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.