I welcome this motion on the vitally important subject of protecting the natural environment. I am impressed by the strong support which the motion has got. That the motion has been put down for debate and has been so fully supported is a clear indication of the welcome growing concern about the protection of the environment in all its forms.
Tonight's motion covers a wide range of environmental concerns, including the protection of the land on which we grow our crops and feed our livestock, the protection of streams and rivers, as well as the protection of wildlife. All these concerns fit into a single pattern — that of environmental protection. We seek to improve the environment in which we live.
We are also anxious to continue to let this country be known abroad as a place which not only has a very good environment but that we are anxious to be at the forefront in maintaining that position. Very good economic considerations are also involved. Our food export industry benefits from the fact that it is produced in a clean environment. This point of view is well accepted here by all involved in the food industry and those dependent on it for their livelihood.
The natural environment and its protection are, of course, a much broader question than that of the agricultural sector alone. The Government have nominated it for priority attention and, the House will recall, the Taoiseach gave it special designation as one of the subjects for attention during our term of Presidency of the European Community last year. Within the Government, primary responsibility is assigned to the Minister for the Environment who promotes and operates the broader national legislation relating to the environment. The provisions of that legislation apply to all sectors including agriculture. There are also areas which are specific to the agricultural industry and control of these falls within the responsibility of the Minister for Agriculture and Food. It is this area which is for debate this evening.
The chemicals and poisonous compounds mentioned in the motion consist mainly of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. In the case of fertilisers the main concern is that the over-use and leaching of fertilisers into waterways could create problems of excessive nitrates which could be detrimental to water, wildlife or to public water systems. The usage of fertilisers in this country is low by international standards and the continued monitoring of water systems has not indicated that fertilisers represent a risk. We are participating, within the European Community, in discussions to consider whether legislation should be introduced to govern the level of trace elements in fertilisers and also the prospects for introducing new fertilising products such as slow-releasing nitrogen types. This work could lead to the imposition of more strict control on such fertilisers that might be considered potentially harmful to the environment.
Pesticides have proved a huge boon to modern agriculture by controlling diseases and pests of crops, and contributing to the production of cheap, high-quality food, thereby reducing the incidence of under-nutrition in developing countries. However, being biologically active products they are also potentially dangerous to man and the environment. They are intended to be toxic to the unwanted or pest species, without causing damage to treated species, to man or the environment. It is necessary, therefore, that their use be controlled by laws and regulations which have a wide margin of weighting in favour of the safety aspect. This is the position here in Ireland where two bodies of statutory regulations governing the sale and use of pesticides, are administered.
The first body of regulations is entitled the European Communities (Classification, Packaging and Labelling of Pesticides) Regulations, 1985 to 1989. A pesticide may not be sold on the market without getting clearance under these regulations. The regulations came into operation in 1985 and an arrangement was made that products already on the market could continue to be sold provided they met certain conditions in the regulations. These old pesticides are being called up in batches for a more detailed examination before getting final clearance. Any pesticide put on the market for the first time after 1985 has to receive examination and clearance beforehand. In the process of clearing pesticides under the regulations, safety evaluations are made and a pesticide which is regarded as constituting a danger to human health or the environment may be prohibited or have special conditions attached to its clearance. Inspectors of the Department of Agriculture and Food carry out regular inspections at wholesale and retail outlets to ensure that pesticides on sale comply with the regulations. As a result, several seizures were made and a number of instances of court proceedings resulted in successful prosecutions.
The other body of legislation deals with the level of pesticide residues in or on fruit and vegetables, cereals and foodstuffs of animal origin. These regulations, which operate throughout the European Community, lay down maximum residue levels for a wide range of pesticides in designated foodstuffs. The maximum levels are set at a very safe level. Regular samples of all designated foodstuffs, both home grown and imported, are taken by officers of the Department of Agriculture and Food. To illustrate the effectiveness of these controls, out of 547 samples taken in 1989 only four were found to be above the limit. In such cases a warning is issued and special attention is given afterwards to produce from the same source. I would like to assure the House that in no case was a repeat discovered.
A third body of proposed legislation on pesticides is at present being discussed in Brussels. It will impose a tighter control on pesticides by requiring that all acceptable active ingredients are registered and only pesticides manufactured from these ingredients can be put on sale.
As in the case of fertilisers, Ireland is a relatively small user of pesticides. From my presentation here Senators will note that the policy and control measures being operated are designed to retain the high quality of our environment. This will involve, of course, a continuing vigilance by all sectors within which the agricultural industry will play its part.
The motion proposes to "ban the use of strychnine to ensure human safety and the protection of wildlife". Over the years, very strict controls have applied to the sale and use of strychnine. The purpose of these controls was, first of all, to protect human life. In regard to agriculture it is interesting to note that in the Protection of Animals Act, 1911, passed by the British Parliament, a special provision was made allowing the use in Ireland of strychnine or other poisons on land subject to the precautions of posting a notice and notifying the police. That permission was continued with some small modifications when the protection of Animals (Amendment) Act was passed by the Oireachtas in 1965.
I feel it is time we looked critically at that special provision. I think the time has come to ban strychnine. I propose to initiate the necessary action within my Department to ban the use of strychnine in poisoned bait by farmers. In so doing, we would be bringing our law into line with that in other countries. That we should continue to allow the use of strychnine is, in my view, likely to do damage internationally to our good name as people who care for the environment. There are many disturbing accounts of damage being done to wildlife, particularly rare wild birds. It is possible that banning strychnine may cause protests from some livestock owners, especially sheep farmers. I must ask how so many sheep farmers here manage without using strychnine and how is it that successful sheep farming can be carried on in Scotland, Wales and elsewhere where strychnine and other poisons are banned.
I will deal briefly with a number of points which were raised. Senator McGowan raised the question of alternatives to strychnine. There are many compounds available which are more toxic than strychnine. However, none of these compounds is viable without undergoing detailed evaluation and, at present, could not be recommended as an alternative.
Senator Hussey raised the question of the labelling of pesticides. All pesticides assessed by the Department of Agriculture and Food are then labelled in accordance with EC legislation. In regard to the numbers of staff involved in the evaluation of pesticides, ten personnel are directly involved.
The motion makes favourable comment on the operational programme for the control of farmyard pollution. I am glad to tell the House that it is proving satisfactory in operation. The position is as follows: the operational programme for the control of farmyard pollution was the first operational programme approved for Ireland in the context of the negotiations on the National Development Plan 1989-1993. In fact, it was approved by the Commission in advance of the finalisation of the Community support framework for the plan in response to a special request by the Minister for urgent EC assistance to deal with our pollution problem.
Under the programme grants of 55 per cent are payable for slurry and effluent storage and 45 per cent for animal housing and fodder storage in the less favoured areas of the country; outside those areas the corresponding grant rates are 45 per cent and 35 per cent respectively. Young farmers meeting certain educational criteria are entitled to grants which are one-quarter higher.
The date, some 28,000 applications have been received for pollution control work under the scheme. Of these, 21,000 have been approved to proceed with work representing a total investment of £173 million, while grant aid of £38 million has already been paid. This represents real progress on farmyard pollution.
Besides the steps which I have taken to control the concentration of residues in our soil, I also have responsibility for the organic farming unit of my Department. Senators will be aware that a new unit was set up in June of last year following a budgetary allocation of £450,000. Its objective is to develop all aspects of organic production, whether horticultural, tillage or livestock.
Organic farming is a method of production whose hallmark is an ecologically sound system of farming. To achieve this, it uses positive beneficial practices such as balanced rotations, extensive use of composts and green manures and specific cultivation techniques as well as a prohibition on the use of agrochemical pesticides, chemical fertilisers and veterinary products. Clearly from an environmental point of view the development of organic farming is a trend I welcome and during our Presidency agreement was reached by the Council of Ministers on a measure which will regulate the production and labelling of organic produce. This proposal, which has been agreed in principle, is awaiting the opinion of the European Parliament and other technical examinations before adoption by the Council of Ministers. Implementation of this regulation will provide a statutory assurance to the consumer of organic quality and environmental conservation and protection of our countryside. However, Senators will also be conscious of the fact that organic farming results in lower production levels and requires a premium price for its produce in order to sustain this reduction in volume. The reality is, that only a limited number of people have the discretionary income to afford these higher prices. The combination of reduced food production and higher prices means, in effect, that for the foreseeable future produce from conventional methods of farming will be the main source of food.
That being said, it would be shortsighted of this country to ignore the fact that a market exists for premium organic produce. Not alone is the market growing but present production levels cannot meet this demand, much less cater for an increase. Furthermore, this is a market for which Ireland would have an advantage by virtue of its perceived image of having a relatively unpolluted environment. It is to ensure that this country is in a position to capitalise on this niche market that the organic unit was established.
I realise that a major difficulty which this country has is the small number of scale of practising organic producers. There are many reasons for this but the principal ones would relate to a lack of information on what is entailed in the production of organic produce. This is why the organic unit has allocated a high proportion of their resources this year towards building up a sound information base by giving grants in aid to academic institutions to hold courses on the topic, to research agencies either to provide empirical data on the precise systems which suit our methods of production and to market bodies to ascertain precisely the market requirements and how best to meet them.
I would like to put on record my support for this motion. I think I have covered all of the relevant sections of my Department which have an input into the protection of the natural environment. Finally, I wish to thank all the Senators who contributed to the debate here tonight and, indeed, last Wednesday night also. All the contributions were well researched and showed a depth of concern and interest on the part of the Senators.