I thank the delegates for coming and highlighting an important issue. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív wanted to be here, as he is concerned about the problems of the delegates.
Like some of the others around the table, I come from the west. While many farmers in the area are not engaged in organic farming, they do farm areas of natural constraint, whether it be natural heritage and endangered species, NHES, areas or special areas of conservation, SAC, etc. The Government has set a target to increase the current rate of organic farming from 1.1% of land in Ireland. The EU average is under 6%. We are, therefore, not in line with the European convention.
Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025 set out a pathway to developing production in agriculture, but they do not recognise the need to protect the environment, to look after areas of natural constraint and to advance organic farming to bring us more into line with the rest of Europe. That is a mistake. Under Food Wise 2015 there is an over-emphasis on production. My information from the European Commission is that Ireland will face penalties, unless this issue is addressed before we travel down the road to a production-based system. We all want to increase production. The previous Government brought forward Food Harvest 2020 which was the template for Food Wise 2025. Northern Ireland wants to follow that blueprint, too. Unfortunately, the environmental lobby within the European Union is very strong and under the Kyoto Protocol Ireland must meet its targets; otherwise it will be fined and the taxpayer will carry the can. There is, therefore, a need to embrace organic farming and entice more people into the sector.
The delegates say the farmers already included in the system are finding it exceptionally difficult to deal with it. How, therefore, can we entice new people into it? There is a need to deal with this issue. The delegates have identified several issues. The discontinuation of the REPS will have a major impact. I did not realise the certification fee was so high, but it is exceptionally high. Are there two or three simple things we could do for farmers already involved in the sector and to entice more farmers into it? Organic farming is not for everyone, but it does suit certain farm holdings. It should be linked with areas of natural constraint which need to be supported. The European Commission is advancing the argument that they should be given more support, but that comes down to a departmental decision. What are the views of delegates of Food Wise 2025? Are the environmental benefits of organic farming sufficiently recognised? Is there something simple the committee could suggest or recommend to the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, in regard to the payments made? The payments should be in line with all others. I do not see why there should be a delay in making organic farming payments when all the others are made and there has been a 75% advance, in October, on payments due this year. Are organic farmers not receiving payments other farmers receive until February or March the following year? That does not make any sense and needs to be addressed forthwith to bring the payments into line with all others. I was not aware of this problem.
It is fine to set out performance or outcome targets to increase production from 1.1% of land used for organic farming to 5%. Departments are very good at setting targets, but sometimes they are not specified on performance outcome measures. Going from 1% to 5% is a 500% increase in organic farming over the lifetime of Food Wise 2025 and the Department does not have a pathway or framework to achieve that target. What the delegates are bringing to the table today is vitally important and the Department needs to react to it. I will support the delegates because Ireland needs to market itself on the international stage as a green, clean, agriculture friendly environment. We can use organic farming to our advantage in that regard.
I thank the delegates for coming and look forward to further interaction during the meeting.