Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Common Agricultural Policy

Matt Carthy

Ceist:

1. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the planned framework for developing the CAP strategic plan; the redistributive measures he plans to pursue within the flexibilities provided; and if he plans to submit the plan to the Houses of the Oireachtas for amendment or approval. [38153/21]

The Minister is running out of places to hide on the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. It is getting to the point where he will need to tell us what his position is. He said he is going to carry out a consultation on the CAP strategic plan. I would appreciate if he would outline the format and the timeframe that will take, as well as whether he is willing to put the on record of this House his proposals and his position on further redistribution measures.

I thank the Deputy for the question. It is a bit rich to be talking about hiding. Every time he talks about convergence, I do not see too many Sinn Féin Deputies from certain parts of the country fronting up, or in his company. However, I thank the Deputy for the question.

These are the first oral questions since the agreement last month, which was really important. It happened at the end of June when the Council of Agriculture Ministers reached political agreement with the European Parliament on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. It is a fair, farmer-friendly and, critically, a flexible CAP deal. The agreement strikes the right balance in seeking to ensure a fair distribution of payments between farmers, while also supporting the agriculture sector to achieve a higher level of environmental and climate ambition.

Significant flexibility is given to member states to achieve this, in accordance with their own national circumstances. This flexibility was one of my key objectives in the negotiations. I am pleased to have secured flexibility to best serve our farmers.

Specifically, on the targeting and redistribution of payments, the agreement provides for voluntary capping of direct payments at €100,000, with member states also free to reduce payments above €60,000 by up to 85%, a policy that I fought very hard for. Internal convergence of payments will continue with each entitlement value to reach a minimum of 85% of the national average value by 2026. A mandatory redistribution of 10% of direct payments funding to small- and medium-sized farmers is also provided for, with a derogation for member states where they can demonstrate that their redistribution needs can be satisfied by other measures in Pillar 1.

I will consult widely with farmers on how we best apply this flexibility to address these issues at national level. The overall draft strategic plan and draft environmental report will also be subject to a further statutory public consultation and environmental assessment later this year. I will continue to update the Oireachtas this in this regard, including through the Joint Committee-----

I thank the Minister-----

-----on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, over that period. Government approval will be sought-----

Go raibh maith agat. A Theachta Carthy.

-----before submitting the plan to the European Commission by the deadline of 1 January 2022.

I can assure the Minister Sinn Féin's position on these matters is the same across the State. This stands in stark contrast with the Minister’s party. His position was often nuanced, depending on where exactly he was. He has, as he rightly said, fought for flexibility. I have always been sceptical, in that I believe he is using that as a turn of phrase in order to fight against any redistributive measures. I hope he proves me wrong when we see the outcome. I hope that we see further convergence. That will be the test, whether he introduces convergence measures quickly, and at the early part of the next CAP. That will be the test, whether he ensures that we have front-loading.

The Minister has not outlined the timeframe as to when the consultation process will take place, when it will be concluded and when he will publish the CAP strategic plan. He still has not committed to bringing the CAP strategic plan before this House, considering that his big sell at EU an level-----

The Minister to respond.

-----was for national sovereignty. This is a real opportunity for the Minister to put his money where his mouth is.

This Government is sovereign and is elected. It makes these decisions on behalf of the country. Importantly, in doing that, I will consult first and foremost with the farming community. This is something Deputy Carthy did not want to do. He wanted Europe to dictate what should be happening. Over the last number of weeks, he advocated for that to be done. That contradicts the stances Sinn Féin takes on many other issues. I have always said that I want to bring this to farm families across the country, and that is what I will do. I will consult widely with everyone in the political system, through the joint committee and by having a debate in the Dáil. The Government and I, as Minister, will ultimately decide on that after consulting widely with everyone, and that is the way it should be.

I have heard Deputy Carthy in different parts of the country and in my own county talk about how Sinn Féin takes a nationally united stance on this. He proudly stands up and declares this, in places like Donegal, Cavan, and Monaghan. However, Sinn Féin Deputies are absent in other parts of the country from similar meetings. It would be interesting to see how over the next couple of weeks he will follow up with that. Even in the Chamber-----

Minister, you are over time.

-----we see Sinn Féin Deputies from certain parts of the country absent from the debate.

This will have significant implications for farm families of the next seven years. It is important that this is brought them, fully debated and examined. I am glad to have brought that flexibility back home so that we can-----

The Minister can ignore the Chair, but it is not good practice. I ask both the Deputy and the Minister please to comply. The Deputy has one minute.

Are my eyes deceiving me? Is this place falling down with Fianna Fáil Deputies that I have not been able to notice? I can assure the Minister that attendance at oral questions does not reflect interest in the agreement. I can assure the Minister-----

It is the same at every meeting in the country.

I can assure the Minister I have attended meetings with the Irish Farmers' Association, IFA, and other farm organisations in almost every constituency. I will tell the Minister that I will not be dubious or duplicitous about this. I know, as the Minister does, if he were honest, the position of every single farm organisation and I will analyse the outworkings of their positions. I know, as the Minister does, where farmers stand on all of these matters. The Minister has been trying to bide his time, but the time is running out. It says it all that he will not let the Dáil pass judgment on the CAP strategic plan before pen is put to paper.

One of the measures is the maximum upper limits payment. It does not go as far as I would like. It does not even go as far as the Minister said he would like. I ask the Minister if he will introduce those measures without any loopholes or discretion-----

Deputy, your time is up.

-----so that we have an upper limit of a maximum of a €100,000 payment that cannot be breached.

I ask the Deputy and Minister to put their questions and answers through the Chair. I call on the Minister to conclude. He has one minute.

Would you get back up the yard, Deputy Carthy? It is rich to come in here and make a big song and dance about the Dáil being able to make decisions about this, when the Deputy wanted Europe to make these decisions.

The Minister fought against it. I wanted distribution but he fought against it.

The Deputy did not want to have the flexibility for us and for me, as Minister, to work and consult with farmers across the country and to have that flexibility at national level.

I am just exposing the Minister's hypocrisy------

The Deputy wanted to cut that off at the pass at European level.

The Minister went to Europe and fought against the interests of the farmers of Donegal and now he-----

Now he has come in here to talk about engaging and consulting, which is total hypocrisy. I hope he will welcome the fact that I secured the capacity and potential at European level to introduce a maximum payment of €66,000.

The Minister did not.

I fought for €60,000 and I achieved €66,000. This is a good deal less than Deputy Carthy’s party's position of €80,000 until he decided to follow the Fianna Fáil policy.

When will the Minister introduce it?

I am glad to have secured a good, balanced, flexible CAP deal European level. I look forward to discussing that with farming families across the country, those who are going to be served and impacted by it over the next seven years.

Minister, your time is up. Déanfaidh mé mo dhícheall a chur in iúl gur ceisteanna agus freagraí atá i gceist anseo. Cuirtear ceist agus faightear freagra, tríd an gCathaoir, más é bhur dtoil é.

Questions and answers should be through the Chair.

On a point of information-----

There is no point of order. Deputy Carthy should resume his seat.

The problem is that the questions were not answered. This is supposed to be oral questions to the Minister.

Question No. 2 replied to with Written Answers.

Agriculture Industry

Seán Canney

Ceist:

4. Deputy Seán Canney asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his plans to organise the sheep wool industry in Ireland to ensure that sheep farmers get a fair price for their produce. [37226/21]

There seems to be a bit of crankiness this morning. Maybe it is due to the late night last night. I welcome the opportunity to ask the Minister what plans the Government has for the wool industry to ensure that sheep farmers get a fair price for their produce.

I thank the Deputy for raising what is a very important issue for many people involved in the sheep trade. Wool production is an important component of the agri-industry. There are approximately 46,332 sheep flock-keepers registered on the database of my Department and departmental officials oversee and inspect 50 approved and registered wool stores where wool is held while awaiting sale. Wool is a sustainable, organic and renewable natural material which can be used in a wide range of products such as textiles, fertilisers, insulation and packaging, as the Deputy will be aware.

One of the actions under the programme for Government is to undertake a review of the potential demand in domestic and international markets for wool-based products such as insulation and fertilisers. Following the allocation of €100,000 in budget 2021 for this review, we in the Department initiated a public consultation process in early March 2021 to determine the terms of reference for such a review, which included the identification of market opportunities domestically and internationally for wool-based products, carrying out economic feasibility and cost benefit analyses on proposed market opportunities, determining mechanisms that could be used to support industry initiatives, and identification of potential research projects applicable to supporting the identified market opportunities. As part of the public consultation process, we invited stakeholders to submit their proposals on the potential market opportunities for wool products on the domestic and international markets and more than 40 submissions were received.

I am pleased to advise the Deputy that through the competitive public procurement procedure the request for tenders seeking service providers to carry out this major study was established on the e-tenders website on 8 July 2021. The closing date for submissions is 9 August 2021. The successful service provider will be contracted to carry out a feasibility study in accordance with the terms of reference detailed above and will be required to examine and evaluate the proposals received during the public consultation and report on its findings. The timeframe for the completion of the review, including the tendering process, consultation with stakeholders which we are establishing and publication of the final report, is the end of November 2021. The recommendations from this review will help focus the development of a robust policy roadmap for the Irish wool industry.

I thank the Minister of State. I welcome the fact that some progress has been made in that regard. Having studies done, getting consultants in and getting what I would call feedings from the industry is one thing. However, to give one example, in my constituency of Galway East several sheep farmers came together to form a co-op. They set out a deal with Donegal Yarns for the purchase of more than 4,000 kg of Galway wool at a price of €2.50 per kilogram. The going market rate generally is 20 cent per kilogram. That shows there is potential to make sure the product we have, which the Minister of State described as natural and having the potential for various facets in production, gets a fair price. It is important we support this co-operative system.

I am very interested to learn more about that co-operative approach. I assure the Deputy that although we sometimes get caught up in discussing brand new and shiny initiatives that have never been done before, as far as I am concerne, as Minister of State with responsibility for new market development, it is not about reinventing the wheel; it is actually about looking at indigenous elements of trade that had great value for farmers in the past but that have lost that value in more recent times. I am happy to discuss further with the Deputy the initiatives that are happening in his constituency. He will be aware there were 3.88 million sheep in the State as of 31 December 2020. Market forces and demand dictate prices in industries such as the wool industry. It moves in cycles and the current cycle, in the context of the Bradford wool market in the United Kingdom that tends to set the price, is very low. As such, any new opportunities we can find to work together or to take new approaches such as a co-operative approach are something I am very happy to seek to extend further. The report offers a great opportunity to identify all opportunities in the sector.

I thank the Minister of State for the invitation. I will set up a meeting for his Department to speak to the people who brought this about and made sure it was a great day in Athenry on a Saturday two weeks ago when farmers came in with their wool and it was packed and sent up to the county of the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, to be used in Donegal Yarns. It demonstrates that simplicity is often key. We should not over-complicate this.

The Minister of State mentioned that insulation is a wool by-product. The price of insulation at the moment reflects its status as a scarce commodity. We need to work on this issue fairly rapidly. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. The approach to which I refer is currently being used across the world in the context of insulation. We need to take best international practice and support the setting up of the industry. That will create the demand and set the price within this country and keep the material here. There is also the fact that fabrics produced in Galway are being made in China and other places.

The Deputy is dead right that insulation is an area in which wool is used. It is also used in fabrics, carpeting, bedding and gardening. It makes an excellent compost. Another possibility for the use of wool is in the production of wood pellets, which is an excellent organic fertiliser. The current market uncertainties should act as an impetus for the industry players to come together, as the Deputy described happening in Galway, to see what opportunities there are to promote the excellent product to the market in as many ways as possible. My Department wants to assist in that regard. The work we are doing in terms of the overall consultation and the report that is being compiled and will be published by the end of November will be of great assistance to the industry. My office is open. I am determined to work with the sector to identify and maximise every opportunity to increase the value of what was always an integral part of the sheep industry and an integral income for sheep farmers in the past.

Horticulture Sector

Matt Carthy

Ceist:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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