I welcome the Minister and he has ten minutes in which to make an opening statement.
Climate and Agriculture: Statements
I am delighted to be here today in the Seanad to speak about the climate challenge from an agriculture perspective.
While the Covid-19 pandemic lingers in Ireland and around the world, we cannot lose sight of other challenges. The climate challenge is certainly one that remains in firm focus both for me personally and for this Government.
The agrifood sector is Ireland's most important indigenous industry. It plays a vital role in Ireland’s economy and the fabric of rural communities and societies. It is the bedrock of every rural village in Ireland. Our agrifood sector is dominated by livestock. We have 80% of our agricultural area under permanent grassland, which underpins our world famous grass based production system, producing beef and dairy products that are exported to 180 countries all over the world. The sector accounts for 8% of all employment and 10% of all exports that leave Ireland are agrifood based. The sector is a significant driver of economic activity in rural Ireland.
The sustainability of Ireland’s food production system is well recognised internationally and acts as a key competitive driver in international markets for Irish food producers. Nevertheless, there are challenges ahead for food production systems globally. No more so than in Ireland where 37% of all national greenhouse gas emissions come from the agrifood sector, which accounts for a total of approximately 21.4 MT CO2 equivalents in the most recent full-year inventory by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, in 2020.
While farmers have delivered much by way of efficiency gains in recent years, it must be recognised that some environmental metrics have deteriorated on the back of recent dairy expansion. It was in this context that I published AgClimatise, which is our climate and air roadmap out to 2030, in late 2019. This was followed up last summer with the publication of Food Vision 2030.
Food Vision is a landmark for the Irish agrifood sector with the potential to transform agriculture, food, forestry and marine in the period to 2030 and has sustainability at its core. Food Vision is a strategy for the sector that was produced by the sector, and is honest and upfront about the challenges ahead. Crucially, it proposes solutions and charts a pathway to sustainability in all its dimensions that being environmental, economic and social, using a food systems approach, a more holistic view of agrifood and its interconnectiveness.
Food Vision outlines four high-level missions for the sector to achieve its vision of Ireland being a world leader in sustainable food systems. First, there is the mission called A Climate Smart, Environmentally Sustainable Agri-Food Sector that has an overall target of climate-neutrality by 2050 with verifiable progress by 2030, which is critical. There are seven goals in this mission that encompass: missions reductions; carbon sequestration; improvements in air quality; restoration and enhancement of biodiversity; improvements in water quality; development of diverse forests; enhanced seafood sustainability; exploring the bio-economy; and strengthening Origin Green.
Mission 2 is for viable and resilient primary producers with enhanced well-being. The primary producers, who are our farmers, fishers and foresters, have a prominence and centrality in this strategy that sets it apart from its predecessors. There are four goals in this mission which involves: improving the competitiveness and productivity of primary producers; increasing the creation of value and distributing it fairly; introducing greater diversification in production systems and incomes; and improving the social sustainability of primary producers across areas such as generational renewal, gender balance, health and safety, mental health and well-being and rural development. The family farm model is key to the three pillars of sustainability. We recognise that economically sustainable farmers, fishers and foresters are an integral part of the rural and coastal community, and that healthy environments, ecosystems, communities and economies go hand in hand.
Food Vision 2030 points the way to primary producers being providers of a much broader range of ecosystem services. While continuing to produce food, they will also be engaged in activities such as sequestering and capturing carbon, reducing emissions, supporting biodiversity, managing water resources, and protecting and enhancing soil health.
Mission 3 is called Food that is Safe, Nutritious and Appealing, Trusted and Valued at Home and Abroad. Mission 4 is called An Innovative, Competitive and Resilient Agri-Food Sector, Driven by Technology and Talent.
In November 2021, the all-of-government Climate Action Plan was launched. It commits Ireland to a legally binding target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions no later than 2050, and a reduction of 51% by 2030. The plan sets targets for each sector, including a 22% to 30% reduction in agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. This is an incredibly challenging target for the sector but one that is needed to contribute to the overall 51% economy-wide reduction. This means for agriculture emissions to reduce to between 16 to 18 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2030 then there must be an absolute reduction of between 5 to 7 metric tonnes.
The sector will also contribute additionally through reducing land-based emissions, and managing our soils, in particular peat soils, in a better way. This is a very ambitious target for the sector that I am confident that our farmers and fishers will achieve, and in doing so will require transformational change across the Irish agriculture landscape.
The agriculture sector due to its biological nature, coupled with the high level of methane in the emissions profile for agriculture, results in unique challenges, in particular when compared with other EU member states. In the absence of new technological innovations, and as long as the sector produces food, feed or fibre, there will always be residual emissions. However, we are not starting from a point of inaction, as we know. Plus the commitments within the Climate Action Plan build on progress to date.
The publication of the Climate Action Plan 2021 goes hand in hand with Food Vision 2030 thus ensuring that Ireland can continue to produce high-quality food in a manner that protects the environment and mitigates climate change. It is important that we drive this momentum forward from here on. Food Vision 2030 is about targeting increases in value growth rather than volume growth. It is about evolving and adjusting to a more sustainable way of farming that uses less inputs and relies instead on new technologies, and new practices.
One of the main policy frameworks contributing to environmental improvement, including climate change in agriculture, will be the Common Agricultural Policy Strategic Plan 2023-2027. The draft plan was submitted to the European Commission on 31 December 2021 and ahead of our regulatory requirement to do so. The Commission is now assessing our plan. Following this assessment, we expect to receive formal observations in late March or early April. Department officials will continue to engage with their Commission counterparts. It is anticipated that Commissioner Wojciechowski will provide an update on the approval process to all member states at the Council of Ministers meeting in March.
As Senators will be aware, the process of approving the three five-year carbon budgets, as proposed by the Climate Change Advisory Council, are currently being considered by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action. Reaching the ambition of 51% reduction in emissions places Ireland as a global leader in climate action but we must all recognise that reaching this target is not without its challenges. The Climate Action Plan sets outs ranges for each sector so as to meet this ambition and all sectors, including agriculture, must play their part. The sectoral ceilings will be a matter for Government and will be developed after the carbon budgetary process. When setting these sectoral ceilings it is imperative, as outlined in the Climate Action and Low Development (Amendment) Act, that the special economic and social role of agriculture, including with regard to the distinct characteristics of biogenic methane, must be taken into account.
I thank colleagues for their engagement on this very important subject and for putting it on the agenda of the Seanad. Climate is one of my priorities as Minister, so these two hours will be a great opportunity to hear their views and comments. The Climate Action Plan identifies a series of actions that can deliver emissions reductions without the need to reduce numbers. There are known or existing measures that will get the sector close to the target range for the agriculture sector, which is based on maintaining animal numbers at current levels. There is a real opportunity to maximise emissions reductions through early adoption of such measures.
Research in reducing agricultural emissions is promising and final animal numbers in 2030 will be determined not only by how technology and innovation delivers for the sector but also to what extent some livestock farmers embrace other opportunities or voluntarily diversify to other enterprises, for example, extending organic farming practices.
We have already laid out a roadmap for environmental ambition in Ag Climatise. This will be revised to align with the targets in the climate action plan. Reaching a target of between 16 to 18 Mt CO2 eq in 2030 will require us to manage the emissions profile from the sector between now and then, through mobilisation of as many actions as possible. I look forward to the contributions of Senators.
I thank the Minister for being here. I pay tribute to him for the manner in which he has handled this matter and the courage he has shown in every county throughout the country, where he has met the grassroots and farmers in rural communities and listened to them. I was at one or two of those meetings. While 90% of the people present were excellent and there were hard debates, the Minister did take some abuse. In general, it has been accepted that he is doing an excellent job. He has taken a lot of the anger out of this entire debate. What he has done is go into communities and explain. He has a fantastic hold of his brief and that will stand to him. My family has been involved in agriculture, and I have been involved in horticulture in the past. I look forward to engaging with the Minister.
Sometimes when we listen, we learn a lot. The Minister went around and he listened. I have seen him at some of those engagements on his feet for three and a half hours. There is a consensus, even among people who might not otherwise agree with the Minister politically, that the manner in which he has handled this was productive in terms of allowing people to ask questions. He allowed them to vent their anger, and that happened, but in doing that he said something new to Irish farming that has not happened for a number of years. The Minister stated that he is here to listen and to work and engage with farmers. We all know that if you do not engage with people, you do not succeed. We must acknowledge that we have a challenge. It does not matter who will be in power here in the years ahead, there will be the challenge of climate change. We must work with many other groups and all other sectors to ensure that at the end of the day we do what is necessary. I fear if we do not do that, in the long run the consequences for agriculture and rural communities will be great.
When I talk to many farmers one to one, they want to engage and to do the right thing environmentally. If we can come up with solutions to reduce nitrogen use and find alternatives such as pilot schemes that support farmers, they will work with that. There is a very interesting debate currently on the growing of clover. An increasing number of farmers are experimenting with this and they find it is working. I am not saying that we can completely reduce the use of nitrogen and other fertilisers, but we can cut it down and we can deal with the run-off from it. I say this as someone who is very pro rural communities, agriculture and horticulture. We must do that.
If I understand Bord Bia's analysis correctly, we are exporting food and drink to approximately 180 countries. Even with Brexit, those exports increased by about 4% last year. The dairy sector alone was worth €5 billion in 2021. The meat and livestock sector was worth €3.5 billion in exports. Not alone is it trying to sustain agricultural communities, but behind all of that there are thousands of people employed in all of this business. What the Minister is trying to do, which we have to do, is protect agriculture, horticulture and jobs. If we do not make some of the changes that are absolutely necessary, we will lose many of those jobs.
Much of what the Minister has been proposing to farmers on CAP and the expansion of the agricultural schemes remains to be fully decided on. It is very important to give options to farmers. I have discussed this with farmers. If they have six, seven or eight options to improve environmental standards on their farm, they will do it. They must also accept that it must be sustainable. In all honesty, some farmers in the past ten years have said to me that they have been carrying too much stock for the type of land they have. It may mean people reducing livestock numbers by five or ten. That might make all the difference. In some cases, it might be far more sustainable for the farmers involved.
I want to comment on the horticultural industry. There is substantial money involved in that industry. Perhaps we should pilot more horticultural schemes because we are still importing a huge amount of fruit and vegetables that used to be successfully grown in this country. I accept that the cost factor for farmers and horticulturists is one of the challenges. It does not pay to produce here. We should consider giving further supports and aid to those farmers. I read recently that we spent up to €100 million importing cooking apples into this country in 2020 or 2021. Many apples come from the south of France. Ireland has one of the best climates in the world for producing cooking apples. We should have pilot schemes for farmers who would like to diversify and convert two acres into an orchard. Years ago, there were orchards everywhere. Even small farms had ten, 12, 15 or 20 trees. Everybody had their own fruit. There is a market for that here in Ireland. That is just one issue. There are many other aspects of the horticulture business that I could mention and much that we could do, but I will not go into it all here today because I accept there is a cost factor involved.
I wish the Minister well. There are a lot of challenges. I will come up with ideas for him and I will be supportive of him. The challenge can be met. We can make agriculture very sustainable. It will be in all our interests to push forward with a plan that we can get the majority of farmers to accept. I accept that there will be hard decisions and that it will not suit everybody, but for the sake of the industry overall, we are on the right road. I compliment the Minister on what he has done and the way he has engaged. That engagement is so important for the future.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I notice the Minister does not have any officials with him, which is probably a testament to his mastery of his brief. I intend to try to test the latter a little. I have taken a disjunctive view of today's statements. It was proposed that we would have statements on agriculture and climate. They have a united meaning, but they also have a separate meaning. I do not expect the Minister to have answers off the top of his head in response to what I want to talk about today, which is the horse racing industry. I want to talk about the allegations that were made about doping being a major problem in horse racing. Hearings took place at the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, before which various representatives of the industry and the Department appeared. Those hearings led to the production of a report. I do not know if the Minister has had an opportunity to comment on the report or its recommendations in the Seanad. The issues that were discussed are live and serious. A number of recommendations were made, and these have implications for the Department and Government policy. The Government may have a view on some of the recommendations, generally or specifically.
The context is that in recent years, a number of allegations have been made that suggest a serious examination of horse racing and integrity in horse racing is warranted. The Minister will be aware of articles in the Sunday Independent by Mr. Paul Kimmage and others and the intervention of Mr. Jim Bolger and so on. As I said, he will be aware the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine met during the summer gone by and heard from the various stakeholders. All of that is important to address because we need to protect and preserve-----
I am sorry for interrupting; the Senator is straying a little bit from the focus of the debate. It is very specific. The Senator is mentioning names. I know he said that-----
I certainly will not be mentioning any more names. It is within the agriculture brief and I explained that at the start.
I took a view that today's title was disjunctive rather than conjunctive. Is that the right way of putting it?
It was a very good try.
Anyway, we need to protect and preserve what is a vital sector within Ireland, both in terms of elite sporting achievement but also in terms of the number of jobs involved. We need to ensure that the great many people who love horse racing, including in my own family I might add, can continue to enjoy and contribute to a sport which is run to the best possible standards of fairness and integrity.
When the agriculture committee examined the sector last July to the extent that it did, and the extent to what it can do is limited in three hearings, it made reference to two broad areas, that is, the governance of the sector and the manner in which it regulates and monitors potential doping of horses. The Minister will be aware that major allegations were made, which came from a very credible quarter. I will leave it at that. We are not talking about random allegations from people with no knowledge of the sector.
The Minister will also be aware that the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, IHRB, which monitors for doping and is responsibility for integrity in the sport, receives somewhere short of €10 million through Horse Racing Ireland, which in turn receives its money substantially from the betting taxes. He will be aware that is split approximately 80% between the horse racing industry and greyhounds.
I argued, and it was not disputed, that the current board structure of the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, which has responsibility for doping, is very closed shop in that it is entirely an emanation of the Turf Club, effectively. When something comprises entirely industry insiders, some of whom might be engaged in very substantial commercial transactions with the very people they are regulating, there is at the very least a perception of a potential conflict of interest. It may be said, of course, that it is one thing to be on the board of an organisation and another to be operating. There is very little doubt, however, that there should be no connection at all between people who have any involvement in the owning, breeding, training or sale of horses and the regulation of integrity in the sport. There is absolutely no need for it. At the very least, we can say that any such body should have a majority of lay members, by which I mean people who do not have hand, act or part in owning, training, breeding and the purchase or sale of horses. There would also need to be an independent chair. That was substantially supported in the recommendations of the agriculture committee.
The Senator is straying into a very specific area.
This is a very broad debate in relation to agriculture and employment.
The Senator is putting forward very specific things around one sector within the agricultural sector.
Yes. The purpose of this Chamber is to allow people to come in on areas of expertise and interest to go for it and seek accountability.
It is not relevant to the thrust of this debate.
It is highly relevant because it is within the Minister's brief.
It is very specific.
It is climate and agriculture. It does not have to be confined to both.
It is not an Oxford comma.
It is not in the spirit of the debate, in fairness.
I do not think anybody can object to the fact that I am raising serious and important points. I am not making any allegations.
I am not taking that away from the Senator.
I am taking this opportunity to ask the Minister to address something that to my knowledge he has not addressed in the Seanad so far.
The Minister is not in a position to do so. As the Senator himself pointed out in his opening remarks, this is very specific. The Minister is not aware of it-----
I was not faulting-----
-----and the Senator is not expecting the Minister to answer this either.
Precisely. I am taking this opportunity to inform him and see what he wishes to say in response to the concerns I have raised and the questions I am asking. These issues are too important not to take every opportunity to bring them up. The shocking mistreatment of retired horses, which was exposed in a BBC "Panorama" report, was also discussed during the hearings of that Oireachtas committee. These are important issues. The committee published its report on 9 November. I believe enough time has passed to enable the Minister to at least give a general view or commit to giving some kind of response to the recommendations of the committee. Perhaps he has done so already.
I will leave it at that. There are a number of recommendations in the report; approximately 11. The particular area I have focused on, however, is the need for governance change at the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, having regard to all the money it receives indirectly from the State. The question is whether the Government intends to leave it to the IHRB to clean up its own house or if it has been in communication to say it expects that certain changes will be made, and whether the Government will move to ensure such changes by way of legislation in the event that change is not forthcoming.
No alternative point of view was expressed at the committee. It is an open and shut case that the governance of the IHRB is a closed shop and nobody dissented from the argument that this needs to change. The Minister has responsibility for agriculture. It is important that he should have a view on it and that we would know at some point what his view is in order that we can then decide whether we want to be talking about crafting legislation in this House to try to address something as important as that. I am not trying to hold the Minister to giving a detailed response today; far from it. As I said, however, it is too important not to take this opportunity to bring it up.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I will take this opportunity not to speak on horses but perhaps to speak on climate and agriculture if possible. In many ways, the agricultural community has been a leading player when it comes to the change of agricultural practices, in particular in the last few years. It feels that in many ways this has not been acknowledged. We all realise that climate change is a core part of our society and life, and that changes in practice in transportation, energy production and farming are all key to us making sure we reach our targets in 2050. As the Minister rightly said, they are ambitious without a shadow of a doubt.
We need to probably start telling the story about what farming has done over the last few decades and in many ways over the last few years. The story of us producing enough food for 50 million people is a starting point. We are a really significant player in the world food market. We provide food for so many people, particularly in the European Union. If we look at where we went from the Second World War to now, Ireland has become a real driver in that regard. That is the subject people do not mention or talk about enough.
We might look at our fertiliser practices and what we have changed, in particular over the last 24 months. That is a really significant statement. Over the last 24 months, more than 6,500 farmers are now spreading the majority, if not all, of their slurry by the trailing shoe method. If I had stood in the Seanad Chamber in 2016 and said that, I would have been laughed out of the House. That happened because of significant investment by the Department through the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, in particular, and infrastructure such as the trailing shoe slurry tanker. Nearly every dairy farmer in my part of the world at the moment is spreading slurry with the trailing shoe, which means we are saving more than 80% of the ammonium going into the atmosphere and also bringing nitrogen directly down into the plant. That is a really positive story about farming changing and moving with the times and becoming more economical with fertilisers, in particular the manures.
Farmers know one thing. They know that 25 years ago they sold their product because of traceability. We needed to make sure our product was traceable and that there was traceability from the fork all the way to where the animal was born. That came about because of the foot and mouth outbreak at the time. Now it is about making sure our product is sustainable. If we are to get access to the global markets of 50 million people, which we are doing, our product will not sell unless it is sustainable, which it is in so many different aspects. We need to start talking about the sustainable product we have. We have opportunities to expand the farming remit of so many farmers and to incorporate them into other parts of agriculture.
I will often say that farmers need to be a part of the solution when it comes to forestry. The number of farmers who are not involved in the forestry game at the moment because of certain issues within the sector is unfortunate. There is potential for farmers in every part of Ireland to be involved in forestry. However, that will probably take a change of ethos within the Department, as well as a change of ethos in other issues. In particular, I mean the licensing issue and the afforestation programme. If we had farmers who had 100 acres planted, maybe not on their own land but somewhere else, for a significant part of an area in forestry, that would be an exceptional driver for the economy and for the environment. There is serious potential there, but we just need to tap into it. That is one of the things we need to start talking about. Senator Murphy's analogy of cooking apples was stark. Every farmer who I know of probably had as an acre or two. That provides a potential to cover this, but we need to start thinking about it. I realise that the new CAP reforms give potential in that regard. Again, we need to start talking about that. A certain percentage of one's landholding can now be a part of that solution.
Down in my part of the world, we are blessed with distilleries. We have wonderful distilleries in west Cork, Clonakilty and down in Midleton. These are world drivers in the distilling market. They do not reach the peak of the market unless they are sustainable. That is why they are there. What we have done in that industry alone is an acknowledgement of how that industry has embraced change and how it has become part of the solution. I want to acknowledge the distilleries for what they have done, in the amount of local employment they give, but also in how they interact with the farming community. Hundreds of acres of malt and barley are grown every year. That is a big driver in these towns. West Cork Distillers employs 20% of the population of Skibbereen. That is the driver in our economy. That is a significant driver for us. We need to start promoting and talking about that.
I had the pleasure of going to Bandon with the Minister a few months ago to visit the Farm Zero C project at the Carbery farm. It will be involved in making sure that the farming community has the ability to learn how it can reduce its carbon footprint in dairy farms in west Cork. That is a knowledge transfer scheme and a test farm. It is bringing in different varieties of grass. It is proving how technology can be part of the solution. It is also bringing in groups of farmers. That is the chain. When we can bring farmers onto farms to show them the new farming practices then we make the changes. We make significant changes. The Minister and I had a wonderful afternoon that day. That is the kind of project that we need to promote and talk about.
Today, the farming community in many ways feels that it is being blamed for absolutely everything. Farmers do not think they are getting the acknowledgement for the amount of food and economic prosperity that they have brought to rural Ireland. We need to change this narrative. Farming is a good news story. It has achieved so much in such a short space of time. It is not the problem, it is the solution. So many people want to consider it just to be the problem. I would say to the Minister that the narrative must change. It must be about positive farming and about showing exactly what we have achieved in a short space of time. When we move to the new technologies, such as the protected urea, protected fertilisers and the new varieties of grass they are growing in Bandon in that Farm Zero C project, that is the future and that is why we will be a viable agricultural industry going forward. However, if we keep with the narrative of hammering the farming community and talking it down, we will see unfortunate knock-on effects for rural Ireland.
This debate here today in the Seanad is an important one. It gives an opportunity to our Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to lay out his thoughts about how we are going to reach our targets. It also gives Members of the Seanad an opportunity to talk up farming, to talk up what it has achieved and to acknowledge that they are up for the challenge and that they will succeed in climate change and in reaching these targets.
Senator Boylan has eight minutes.
Go raibh maith agat. I will stick to the topic and I will not bring up greyhounds, which is my hobby horse under agriculture-----
I would encourage the Senator to go broad here. It is the only chance she will get.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in today's debate on climate change in agriculture. I apologise that I cannot stay until the end, but I will be following the debate.
We are at a pivotal moment when it comes to tackling climate change. The window for action is closing by the day. The future generations are watching us now. They will look back in despair at the last decade, about not only how we wasted those years to take climate action, but also about how we had a Fine Gael Government for the last ten years that played a negative role in international climate change negotiations. Then, domestically, it took policy decisions that have made the mountain we must now climb on climate action even more onerous.
The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 was passed last year. I welcome that it was passed with the support of the vast majority of Members of both Houses. There was a small minority of Deputies who did not support that Bill. The Act has finally set in place a framework for us as a country to bind this Government and future Governments, whoever they might be, to a trajectory of emissions reductions.
The carbon budgets are still to be brought to the Dáil and the Seanad. They will set out the pathway for how we will reach those reductions across all sectors. That includes agriculture. The trajectory of those emissions cuts will be challenging for all sectors. Last week, the climate action committee heard from various stakeholders. These were stakeholders that represent business interests, the trade unions, Social Justice Ireland, as well as stakeholders that represent the Irish Farmers Association, IFA. They were there to present.
There was an acceptance from most of the sectors that the days of shirking responsibilities in climate action are over. We all accept that fairness and social justice have to be at the heart of climate action, not just because it is the right thing to do - because it is - but also because we have to bring communities along with us on this process. That means that no sector can get a bye-ball. Special treatment for one sector inevitably means that somebody else in society has to take up the slack. It is time now for leaders in all areas of society to show the leadership that the public is crying out for, to engage with the stakeholders and with the industries they represent and to be honest about the scale of the challenge we face as a society. That said, sometimes we have a tendency, particularly people like me who have followed climate action for so many years and who have studied it, to get so frustrated and have anxiety about the lack of action that is being taken. However, climate action also presents us with huge opportunities. This is an opportunity to fundamentally change how we organise society and how we organise the economy.
The same goes for how we produce our food, how we value how that food is produced, how we use our land and how we value the land that produces that food. Take, for example, organic farming. For years, organic farming has been neglected by Government policy in this country, and it shows. We are at the bottom of the EU table. I think Malta is the only country that is lower than us in how much agricultural land we have dedicated to organic farming. Our figure is 2%. The EU average is 8.5%, but we are on 2%.
There has been a lack of ambition. In fact, there was a point at which one could not even enter the system. If one wanted to be an organic farmer, the system was closed to one. We now have a target of 7.5% by 2030. That will not even bring us up to the EU average today. Meanwhile, the EU is storming ahead and setting targets of 25% by 2030. For so long, we have heard that Irish agriculture thrives on a sustainable green reputation, but there is a lack of support for organics. That undermines that reputation, but it also does nothing to support farmers who want to go into organics. Sinn Féin is proposing an additional €15 million for organics in 2022 alone. I do not think there is any reason we should be waiting for the new CAP to begin properly funding a conversion so that farmers can convert to organics. We can learn from our EU counterparts. There is a reason countries are storming ahead when it comes to this issue. Denmark, for example, mandated supermarkets to stock organic produce. They created the market for farmers.
They told farmers to go organic and they guaranteed them there would be a market for their produce in the supermarkets. Sinn Féin would like to see Teagasc and Bord Bia resourced with ring-fenced funding to promote organics and give farmers the confidence that there will be a market for their produce.
I understand, coming from a privileged position in a well-paid job, that this is not practical for everyone but I would also encourage members of the public, where they can, to buy from the wonderful farms out there, including in Dublin, that are bypassing supermarkets and the large meat processors and selling their products directly. This ensures the farmer gets the maximum value for the produce he or she produces and it also ensures that the food chain is shortened, the quality of food is better and the life span of the food is increased. This in turn reduces food waste, which is another high source of greenhouse gas emissions.
I would like to discuss forestry. We know that trees sequester oxygen from our carbon dioxide from the time they are planted but most of the net carbon sequestration is in the period after when they are about ten years old. If we are planting trees today then most of that carbon sequestration will be post-2030. The failure in afforestation today not only affects our ability to meet our 2030 targets but it also has implications for our future 2050 targets. Each year we are missing out on millions of tonnes of carbon sequestration. Last year we planted 2,000 ha when we need to plant 15,000 ha of new forests each year to get to net zero by 2050.
A lot needs to be done to turn the ship around when it comes to forestry but the first action has to be to resolve the issue with the system itself. We need to establish a system that is fit for purpose, well-resourced, screens out the bad planning applications, is compliant with the Aarhus Convention and does not block people out from making objections. We must screen out the bad applications, make it Aarhus compliant and have a statutory period in which a decision is provided to applicants. We also need to protect the native woodlands we already have. We have fragments of oceanic temperate rainforest that need to be given the space to do their thing and expand. National parks are under threat and we all watched in horror last year at what was going on in Killarney National Park. The research suggests that the older woodlands slowed down that fire. I am hoping that the review of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, will give the service the resources to go after anybody who is caught illegally burning or cutting hedgerows and to make sure those people face the full rigours of the law.
I want to quickly look at the international food system and what Ireland needs to do. I know that Ireland has recognised the principle of agroecology and its role in building sustainable food systems. That needs to be backed up with action so I would like to see Ireland increase the proportion of overseas development aid spent on agriculture and food systems that are targeted at scaling up agroecology initiatives. I would also call for the State to ratify the Nagoya protocol on access and benefit sharing, which allows traditional knowledge and ensures a trade policy is fair, inclusive and does not facilitate the oligarchic market control by agribusiness and the privatisation of biodiversity.
I call on the Irish Government to support a binding UN treaty on business and human rights to regulate the activities of transnational corporations, allowing communities, particularly indigenous communities in the global south, to have their human rights upheld.
I welcome the Minister to the Seanad. It is always great to have an opportunity to speak about agriculture and climate change in this Chamber. As the Minister well knows, I am passionate about our indigenous industry. Agriculture is who I am, how I was reared, how I rear my children and part of my daily life. The Minister highlighted his commitment to his brief and to his community. He mentioned how he has travelled around every single county in the Republic asking farmers their opinions during his consultation phase. That has to be rewarded. The Minister is the first Minister to have done that so I applaud and congratulate him for doing that. The day we had him in Ardee to meet our Louth farmers was a great one and I look forward to welcoming him again because I know he has an awful lot of friends in County Louth.
We all know that agriculture and our rural landscape are what Ireland is known for. All across the world our beautiful land and top quality produce is well-known. We are the emerald island and the green island and we know we have a lot of work to do to make this country green and sustainable by name and by nature. We have huge targets of 51% reductions in our overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and that will set us on the path for the zero emissions by 2050 target. I know we can do this by working together across all Departments and industries. I have been advocating for strong environmental policies for as long as I can remember since I created a green team in my primary school so I was pushing for this 20 years ago. This is what we all believe and as a farmer’s daughter, I was brought up to know that we have to look after our countryside, animals, produce and what we create on this island. We have to step up in every single industry to make sure we bring everyone with us.
We know significant changes are needed and significant decisions are being made in every aspect. However, it also sometimes feels that the agricultural community is under fire, although not by the Minister or the Department. It feels like it is being blamed by society for every single carbon emission in our country. We have to look at our transport industry, the lack of sustainable packaging, the waste in our public sector and our buildings and hospitals with windows being left open with the heat on. We need joined-up thinking, we cannot blame farmers for everything and I know the Minister does not do that.
We all know farmers want to change. They want to protect what they have on their land but if Members will pardon the pun, the environment is so tense. Farmers are working under pressure and in volatile circumstances to an incredibly tight margin. When farmers do not receive a cost price for what they produce, never mind a profit, it is understandable how worried farmers are. I know there is space for afforestation but we have to change our attitude towards this and reduce the bureaucracy of planting and harvesting and make it accessible. We have to build the rewards of tree planting and put the protection of our hedgerows into the rewards scheme. We must match the sequestration by trees and hedgerows to the production of food. We should measure it, highlight it and scream it from the rooftops because we know our farmers are sustainable and that an awful lot of what they produce is already carbon neutral. There are other greenhouse gases but I imagine they are on top of being carbon neutral as it stands.
As someone who grew up on a small beef suckler farm I know that struggle and I know the disappointment at a table when the cheque comes and one is not getting the cost price for one's animals. It is a fairly depressing day when that cheque arrives on the table and it does not cover the costs. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to the national food ombudsman to make sure we have fair trading practices and to implement the directive that was highlighted in the Minister’s spring legislation.
I also want to highlight the importance of protecting the tiny animals we have in this country, that is, the bees. We must support our colleague, Senator Martin, with his Bill, which I seconded in this House. The Minister knows I am a huge advocate for looking after our bees and our native biodiversity and trees. We have an opportunity to preserve the native bee in this country and we can do that by banning the importation of bees. We can do so on an environmental basis and we should forget about the EU law on the free movement of goods. We have a good rationale for the protection of our bees and I hope we can do that and move forward in an ambitious way because I am ambitious for agriculture and climate change in this country.
We can all agree that farmers are the custodians of the land and the best-placed people to know exactly how to implement some of the measures we are trying to bring in. It is important that we try to tone and dial back the negativity towards people in the farming community and in agriculture. Instead we should let farmers show how we can empower them and how they can do the job properly. They are the solution and not the problem in being able to tackle some of the climate challenges we have.
We have to pursue changes that will enable farmers to continue to produce world-class food while at the same time lowering their carbon footprint. We must make sure that these changes benefit farming families financially while also protecting and helping the environment. There are a few key changes that can be considered, one of which is reducing the average age of slaughter from 27 months to 24 months. This would have the equivalent effect of removing 500,000 cows from the herd. It would require collaboration with stakeholders in the beef sector and a focus on practices at farm level to ensure that beef animals reach the required weight at an earlier stage. That is something we could seriously consider.
Changing our practices, as Senator Lombard suggested, around the use of fertiliser would see farmers using less and using types that produce less emissions. This means farmers could maintain the same level of production but at a reduced cost. We should also look at how we can improve genetics and how we feed our beef and dairy herds to ensure a reduction in the emissions they produce while improving their productivity. The aforementioned are options that we are committed to pursuing.
Carbon farming is another very interesting area. Not only must we reduce agriculture's overall emissions but we must also increase its potential to sequester carbon. That is why the carbon farming framework is so important. It is a system that rewards farmers for removing carbon from the atmosphere. The development of that model is to be explored and the aim is to produce a strategy on it by 2023. We must continue this journey. We must acknowledge that people involved in agriculture are the solution. They are the people who know it best and I very much trust in their judgment.
The Minister is welcome. I would like to acknowledge the tour of Ireland that he did during the summer and autumn of last year. It was a valuable exercise in meeting stakeholders face to face in various marts. I visited Maam Cross mart with the Minister and also attended a meeting in Athenry a number of weeks later alongside public representatives from Galway East and Galway West. Farmers have real concerns about a number of different challenges, including the new CAP regime that has been put in place, the new situation with regard to entitlements and the changing of that sphere and also issues such as gas prices which have resulted in a dramatic increase in fertiliser prices.
In terms of the objective to reduce the use of fertiliser, price will play a very important part in reducing output this year. The work and research being done by Teagasc on sequestration and the use of clover and multi-species swards is very important. The early finishing research on the Newford herd in Athenry is also hugely important and proves that early finishing is possible. Not every farmer will be able to do it but there are farmers who can, depending on breed type, husbandry and the quality of their land. There is potential in early finishing and it could be a game changer for Ireland in reducing our emissions. There are too many cattle being finished at too late a stage and they are contributing to our carbon and methane output.
The sequestration of carbon is hugely important. A small number of farmers seem to have an aversion to planting trees and that issue came up at the meeting in Athenry. They felt they were too productive but everyone has to play their part in this. They have to be able to show that on their farm, they are contributing to helping the overall situation in the country. I commend the Department's plans and hope stakeholders will be able to work with the Minister and Department to improve the final outcome.
I welcome the Minister to the House and join others in acknowledging the significant communications campaign he undertook. It was unusual in that the Minister took the time to tour marts, when he could and when it was safe to do so. I attended two marts and to see the Minister in the ring, not selling animals but selling policies, was really good. It was a real hands-on approach to engagement and it was appreciated. Those who know about cattle dealing and cattle marts are the heart of politics, agricultural language and discussion. Many people go to the marts, not necessarily to sell but to meet their colleagues and friends, have a bowl of soup or a sandwich, do business and trade. They barter and exchange politics and agriculture there. The mart is really important and I want to acknowledge that.
I looked at the climate action plan for 2021 which contains 41 designated actions, as outlined in section 16.4. There are actions related to the marine and forestry which I do not intend to go into in any great detail. I want to spend some time talking about organic farming and organic horticulture. Farmers know that agriculture and climate change are inextricably linked. Indeed, they are inseparable. Farmers have ambitions not just to produce food but to do it in a sustainable, productive and, dare I say it, profitable manner, and why not? They need the full support of Government and Government agencies in achieving these clear objectives.
A just transition is not an optional or extra policy but a legally binding obligation resulting from Ireland's commitment to tackling climate change. That has to be pointed out and we must face up to it. Climate justice is an ethical and political issue, not just an environmental one, and we need to emphasise that as part of our discussions today. Farmers need substantial financial support for transition too. This is important in the context of sustainable eco-schemes and funding for same. Farmers need funding, incentives, encouragement and support for the transition. There are many changes and new ways of doing business in agriculture and horticulture with which farmers need assistance and support. I ask the Minister to share with us further details on the schemes and incentives he is proactively developing. Supporting and incentivising farmers to move to more sustainable methods is inextricably linked to a just transition. We must leave no individuals, communities, economies, sectors or regions behind as we seek a transition to a low-carbon future and address climate change.
Last year, Organic Growers Ireland appeared before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. That organisation's primary role is to present the needs and views of organic growers and farmers, support the effective and dynamic promotion of organic produce, identify training needs, improve access to technical information on organic horticulture and agriculture and, most importantly, encourage new entrants into organic horticulture and agriculture. The organisation has called for an organic farming internship programme to be developed, expanded, supported and resourced, and I support that call. It has also called for greater research into organic crop production and additional advisory services. This is an area that has been left lagging behind. Ireland has a clean, green image, yet it has the second lowest level of organic farmland production in the European Union. What does that say about us? We have an image that is both clean and green but our organic production is the second lowest in the EU. We must do better. We must think bigger and support organic farmers.
I draw the Minister's attention to a number of key objectives in the 2021 climate action plan. One is to promote an increase in legume crops in the agricultural system, while another is to increase the current area under organic production from 74,000 ha to 350,000 ha by 2030. That will require a lot of work. Another key objective is to build up our organic research capacity. One further key objective is to double the supply of biomass which is very important in the context of fuel supplies.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House today and ask him to place an emphasis on organic horticulture and agriculture in the months ahead. We must support people in this transition and always remember that it is a just transition. It is an economic, social and environmental transition and that is the key message that we must continue to drive home.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. Like Senator Kyne, I compliment him on the work he has done since taking up his brief. In particular, I compliment him on listening to the voices of the farming community and visiting the marts around the country. The latter was a useful exercise.
Farmers are front-line workers in the battle against climate change. What farmers are looking for is sustainability. They want to ensure that farm families can be sustained from a financial point of view but they are also committed to addressing the climate and biodiversity challenges. As other contributors noted, farmers know and can see the impact of climate change on the ground and in the context of what happens in their communities.
It is important that the Minister should start to roll out some of the incentives for farms to move in a green direction. I am thinking especially of solar panels and renewable energy on farms. We have got to give the incentives and clarity to farmers to be able to make greater use of those panels. I have spoken before about anaerobic digestion, AD. I am concerned that we have not been ambitious enough in some of our targets. I was very struck reading Darragh McCullagh in the Irish Independent where he points out that there are only ten AD plants in the State compared with almost 50 in the North. Compared with the approach in other countries, we are not being ambitious. If we want to look at slashing emissions from slurry, we do need to look at seriously investing in AD, not only in large scale plants but in smaller plants too, in order to make it sustainable.
In the context of something that goes towards giving farmers an income, I have always favoured a carbon credits trading scheme. We all want to see more trees being planted but there is a situation where if farmers invest in measures that will ensure that there is carbon sequestration they do not benefit directly from the carbon credits. It is almost a communist system. The State is the one that controls it. Whereas if we allow the individual farmer or landowner to control their own carbon credits and be able to trade them, that may ultimately generate income for them.
I welcome Teagasc's investment of considerable time into research on carbon sequestration in our soils and what can be done in this regard. Some of the work that it is being done would have been helpful a number of years ago. It is essential that we look to invest in a big way in research. Partnership between Teagasc and the farming community in that area will be important.
Unlike Senator Mullen, I will not stray. There was not an Oxford comma after climate. The phrase "Climate and Agriculture" is very clearly used in the title to this debate.
The joys of the Seanad. We can all -----
Senator Mullen has been known for flogging several dead horses over the years. Maybe in this debate that was not a surprise.
The Minister knows that peat has been an ongoing hot topic. I would argue that our horticulture sector is perhaps one of the greenest sectors in agriculture. Those in involved in horticulture and mushroom growing want to ensure that everything they do is done in a green and environmentally sustainable way. They want to make sure that their produce is green and branded as such. Now that we are moving into the spring season, I would ask that we finally resolve the issue surrounding peat. We cannot have a situation where this country continues to import peat. There must be a way to support those small growers. I am totally opposed to the use of peat for burning. The Government's science on that is correct, but we need to resolve the issue for those in horticulture and mushroom growing.
I agree with Senator Lombard and others. This is about farmers being seen as front-line contributors to the battle against climate change. We cannot continue to heap blame on farmers and farm families. The Minister's approach has been the correct one and I commend him for his work on that area. I just encourage him to continue do as he has been doing and to continue to be ambitious.
I call Senator Pauline O'Reilly. I have not had the opportunity of congratulating her on the singular honour of becoming chairperson of her political party nationally. That is a huge achievement. It is with great pleasure that I call her to speak.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach, and I thank all the Senators for their support. The Minister is very welcome. I am delighted to see him here to discuss this really important topic of climate and agriculture. He will know that I am a member of the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action. This is an issue that is really close to my heart.
It is important to say that environmentalists, myself included, do not point the finger of blame at farmers. That is a really important message. Because the emissions from agriculture are 37% of our overall emissions, it is important that we discuss the matter. However, we can do so in a respectful manner and in a way which means that we do not single out farmers. I do not think that farming families are being pointed at but I do understand why people might feel they are. The media has a part to play in not pitting people against each other.
Consumers want a greener product. Macra na Feirme representatives appeared before the joint committee. One of the things those farmers asked for was access to ecologists. Farmers of the future know that this is where we are moving, that consumers across Europe want a greener, sustainable product and that is coming closer to home in Ireland. Much of what we produce in this country is exported, which means that we will have to stay on top of it. Where does the blame lie? In some respects, it lies with practices that have not led farmers in the right direction. It might have been because things were not known and because the climate and biodiversity crises were not fully understood. We only have to think back a few decades when we would have seen much more biodiversity on farms that we grew up around. That really has changed and nobody knows it better than a farmer who is out there with his or her hands in the earth. They know that. They want support, and the Department wants to support them.
The committee is looking at emissions ceilings. Its work in that regard will eventually be sent to the Minister's Department. It is important that we have the greatest ambition because that serves farmers. It is also important that we seek to go beyond that. That might sound like pie in the sky, but things are changing. Even the attitude towards nitrogen fertiliser is changing. More people are talking about multispecies than ever before. Things change and move on. There are opportunities for farmers. Look at the farmers who are the subject of the derogation. The latter is really only concentrated around 5% of farmers. It is not the small farms in the west or the majority of farms; it relates to very intensive farming. We are going to have to step up to the mark, address this matter and pull the lid back on it. We cannot say that it is to do with every farmer. It is not even about blaming those farmers; it is about moving in a different direction and supporting them to do so.
Breastfeeding and how we support it is something very close to my heart. The Minister for Health has made improvements in that are and has put in place lactation consultants across the country. The agriculture industry also has a part to play. It is not accidental that we have a very low breastfeeding rate in Ireland, a country which is one of the largest exporters of formula milk or, at least, the product that becomes formula milk. We export to Asia. This industry is worth €1 billion a year, and with it comes a huge responsibility. China's breastfeeding rates have dropped from 60% to 30%. The availability of formula contributes to that no matter what we think.
Not everyone can breastfeed but everyone should have the opportunity to avoid a bombardment of advertising which promotes something that is fundamentally not the healthiest way to go. It is a healthy alternative if one cannot breastfeed but it should not be the first port of call. If 70% of a population is using formula, there is something wrong that we need to examine. We cannot put money and industry above health. The World Health Organization has stated that breastfeeding is the way to support healthy children and mothers. That must be a part of the conversation about food, nutrition and how we value our infants and children. Some 84% of women in Ireland go into hospital wanting to breastfeed and only 37% come out breastfeeding. It is not just about thinking about people who go into hospital and want something different. This is about supporting people who want to breastfeed and helping them to achieve their goals.
Another area on which I want to touch is animal welfare because the Minister is here and the matter falls under his remit. It is important to say that there are two ships due to dock in Libya. I have been told this by the animal welfare group within the Green Party. I raised this issue before Christmas when storms were raging and the Finola M vessel was stuck in a storm. The concern at the time was that there were no vets on board. I would like some assurances that now the pandemic is coming to an end, vets will be on board these ships, at the very least. That is not to talk about my aversion to live export in general. On this one issue, we need to make sure the animals are well taken care of and there are vets on board.
I will also raise the matter of Rossaveal and investment in our ports. It has been identified that the coast of Connemara is one of the areas for the development of offshore wind. I know that the development of some of the ports is under the Minister's remit. I would like to hear what is happening with Rossaveal Port. We know we need deep-water ports if we are to advance floating offshore wind. It could create considerable employment off the west coast, as it will off the east and south coasts. Much of the wind is off the west coast. We need to have a pipeline in place for offshore renewables.
If it is agreeable, I will share half my time with Senator Maria Byrne.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
The Minister is welcome to the Chamber. I will follow on from the comments made by Senators Malcolm Byrne and Kyne about the work the Minister did before Christmas in visiting marts. I was at a mart with the Minister in Thurles and I think he was there for four and a half hours. If anyone says the Minister is not willing to talk to ordinary farmers on the ground, that was not the experience I had with him in Thurles. After the meeting, the view was that the Minister was there to listen and take on board what everyone said. He was not necessarily there to agree with what everyone said but he was there to listen and take on board the concerns of people in my area. I thank him for that.
I acknowledge yesterday's announcement of the GLAS traditional farm building grant scheme to a value of €25,000. Every farmer in the country has a building that could do with being done up. Old buildings and sheds could now be used. I encourage people in Tipperary and anywhere else who have buildings of that kind to avail of this scheme. It is a good scheme. Buildings of that sort have been let go for the past 20, 25, 30 and 40 years. It is important for farmers to use that scheme.
There are many matters on which I could touch but I only have a short time to speak. When the Minister was previously in the Chamber, I talked to him about the increased price of fertiliser for farmers and the additional cost of it in 2022. That is going to be a burden on many farmers. I asked the Minister at the time if he could do something to support farmers with a scheme. Many schemes have been set up to support farmers in other areas, especially when they go through difficult periods. We need to do something for farmers because of the cost of fertiliser. Last year was a good year for many sectors in farming and most farmers accept that. However, the cost of fertiliser is going to be a huge issue. Farmers recognise that they need to reduce the use of fertiliser but that will happen gradually. We need to do something to support them now.
It was announced today that fuel costs in Ireland are the highest in the world. That will have a significant impact on the agricultural industry this year. I would appreciate it if the Minister could support farmers.
The Minister is welcome. I thank him for coming in to discuss this important topic. I believe the agricultural sector wants to make changes and ensure it can perform in the most environmentally friendly ways. We must remember that the changes we are expecting are big. For the sector to make these appropriate changes, the targets must be realistic and supports must be offered. I know the Minister and the Department have been offering many supports. I acknowledge, as my colleagues have, the engagement that the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, have had with people on the Common Agricultural Policy and the work they have put into it. That is important. To address the interests of the agricultural sector and the targets it has to meet, all must be involved. We must involve farmers, researchers, the Department, industry, policymakers and advisory bodies. Education is also important. During the past two years, many farmers have been attending online courses and learning other ways to do things. We must build on that, going forward.
Senator Murphy mentioned clover. On a visit to Grange in County Meath, I learned that people there are researching clover and its advantages. That is being rolled out across the country. Teagasc is doing wonderful work in terms of research and innovation, and I compliment it on that.
An enormous budget has been put in place for CAP. The 2023-2027 plan was recently sent to Europe. I compliment the Department on the work that went into that.
Senator Malcolm Byrne raised the importation of peat. That is having a knock-on effect on horticulturists and people who grow plants. Those people are having to import peat and the costs involved are considerable. It is something that needs to be looked at. We must support our own farmers.
I wish to share time with Senator Dolan.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
The Minister is very welcome. I concur with the comments of other Senators about the Minister's visits to all 26 counties. I was in Granard mart when the Minister visited. He gave his time. We did not agree with everything that was said but everyone got to say what they wanted to say. It was important that farmers' views were heard. It is important, leading into any decision with regard to the emissions percentages in agriculture, that there is a full discussion with all farm organisations.
I have a couple of issues to raise. I have spoken to members of the Irish Farmers Association about the beef environmental efficiency programme and the needs in that regard. They have a request that an extra €60 million from the national budget will go into that scheme.
Senator Malcolm Byrne mentioned solar energy and there is an opportunity to utilise the shed space provided by poultry and dairy units and agricultural sheds throughout the country. Solar panels can be installed to create energy that will ultimately feed back into the grid.
That will reduce energy usage but provide farm income. It is important significant grants are put in place in that regard.
The introduction of a food regulator was promised. At what stage is that progressing? It has not happened yet but it is important that would be delivered shortly. Members of the Irish Farmers Association are protesting outside Lidl in Cavan today about chicken and egg prices. Many of the multiples are cutting their prices. Irish people want to see Irish products on Irish shelves and everybody would want to get them at a bargain price but, ultimately, it is the farmers who do not get a fair price for their products when those product prices are cut. They are seeking an increase of 15 cent per chicken and 2 cent per egg. When will we have a regulator who will regulate this product market?
I concur with the comments on the price of fertiliser. That has all been said. We need to examine and address that issue. More importantly, there needs to be full engagement with the farming sector.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy McConalogue and pay tribute to his proactive work. It feels strange being here in this House considering we meet in mart rings most of the time. The Minister has heard comments and feedback from colleagues and people from the west. His work is very much appreciated. Taking into account the types of farming in the west, this debate is crucial.
The Minister will have heard many farm families ask whether there is a future in agriculture. The young people we met in marts, many of whose parents were with them, spoke about that. We want to get the message across that there is a future in agriculture. There has been strong trade in the recent period. There is talk of prices being kept up because everybody is returning to eating out in restaurants. There will be really good prices for beef in the next period. We know from Bord Bia that record agrifood, food and drink exports have been hit. Exports to Africa have grown by 12% and to south-east Asia by 20%. It is crucial Bord Bia is doing that job of increasing food and drink exports, which will have an impact for farmers.
As Fine Gael spokesperson on research and innovation, my focus is on how we can support farming families with technology to meet these targets. It is involves everything we have done previously. The Minister might comment on funding for that with respect to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Teagasc, the Walsh fellowships and Science Foundation Ireland. There are joint research programmes with many of our third level universities. We now have Mountbellew Agricultural College, a university campus town as part of the new Atlantic alliance. It was agreed today in committee that the start date for that will be 1 April this year. We hear from Mountbellew Agricultural College that many young farmers are innovating ranging from grassland management to reducing the use of fertiliser to low-emission slurry-spreading. They are learning new practices. They are able to tackle the challenges ahead of us. They will lead the way in the same way as many of our farming families.
On renewable energy, it is important to support farmers to use solar panels, renewable energy on farms and to be able to feed back into the grid. Another issue is how we will reduce costs or challenges we face with fertiliser and fuel costs.
I acknowledge the appointment of the new head of organics in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It is crucial there is that focus in the Department. I would also mention the number of signpost farms in organic farming and the question of how will we support families in rural areas to consider engaging in organic farming. There is an interest, particularly among women coming through into farming, in organics and how we can develop that.
The Origin Green programme is crucial. I am not sure if the Minister will have time to answer some of those queries in his response but I acknowledge the work that has been done. I stress that at all time there is such hope for farming families. I really had to get that message across.
As that concludes Members' contributions, it is my pleasure to call on the Minster to response to the debate. I want to acknowledge, and I know I speak for all the Members of this House, the Minister's willingness and the degree to which he goes out of his way to engage with people, both farmers and representatives, across the country. It is quite incredible the levels to which he goes to meet people on the ground, and it should be acknowledged.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his kind remarks. I thank all the Members for this very constructive debate. It has been very informative. I have enjoyed the engagement and it has been very productive. The tone of this debate is important and it is the tone we need to adopt to ensure we make the real progress that must be made in reducing emissions, ensuring the sustainability of the food produced in our agricultural system, supporting farmers to improve their incomes and continuing the extremely important and world-leading work they do in producing healthy, nutritious, safe and sustainable food.
Senator Pauline O'Reilly stated that nobody should be pointing the finger at or seeking to blame farmers. That is a really important starting point. We cannot say that often enough. There is no doubt we have learned a great deal. if we reflect back to ten years ago, I bet there were no debates in this Chamber on the issues of climate change, global warming or emissions. Certainly, 20 or 30 years ago we did not have the same level of knowledge or understanding of the importance of our emissions profile, of how we conduct our daily lives, the actions we take and how we live with respect to the environment and the world around us or in the way we interact with our environment in terms of its importance to biodiversity. However, we have learned a great deal and we need to respond to that. We have also learned about the challenge we face not only as a nation but as a world and as citizens of Earth in collectively taking serious steps to reduce emissions and tackle global worming. That comes down to each of us individually, each sector of the economy and each industry, business and compartment of our national life. Importantly, that also applies to agriculture, particularly given that it is such a significant part of our national emissions profile. This is not because of anything specific to agriculture, although it can be very much tied to the fact we have a climate that is very conducive to good agriculture production. However, the main reason is that we do not have the same industrial sector as other developed countries, which means our agricultural profile makes up a higher proportion of our overall emissions. That sets us apart from many other European and developed countries, with New Zealand being the only country with which we are comparable in the percentage of the overall emissions profile that agriculture makes up. Naturally, in examining how we can reduce our emissions profile nationally, there will be significant discussion on agriculture, as well as other aspects of the economy, but agriculture will naturally comprise a big part of that discussion. Farmers and all those engaged in the food sector are willing to play their part. As a number of representatives and Senators have said today, no one more than farmers wants to ensure that the way they produce food and interact with the environment is in sync with the environment, promotes biodiversity and keeps emissions to a minimum. Also, central to that is animal welfare. Farmers are stepping up to the mark in that respect and have already contributed a significant amount.
In terms of how we move forward, it is important we all work together, that we co-operate regarding the plans we have put in place, that we listen, engage and educate one another, and that we put in place plans for how we go forward and make progress. That has been the approach the Government has taken. We have made massive strides in putting in place plans which will make a difference. The next challenge is to step forward with those and see results in the reduction in emissions from agriculture and right across the economy in the time ahead. If we reflect back to the 1960s or 1970s almost all Irish agriculture was organic and it was following that time chemical fertiliser became a tool. However, we have tools at our disposal that our forefathers, grandfathers and my father when he was a young did not have in terms of soil fertility and testing.
There were more multi-species around then because it was there in the soil. Clover was really important. We have a good understanding of all of those things now and tools we did not necessarily have then. We are now seeing how farmers are adopting the different tools at their disposal.
There is significant emerging science, particularly regarding methane. Through Teagasc, we have invested in studies looking at how emerging science around feed additives can be applied at national level. There is significant potential in that respect. Studies are also looking at breeding. We have seen the progress made in the productivity of cows over the past two decades through genetic evaluation and the economic breeding index. That is applied to milk. Different animals have different emissions profiles with regard to methane. How do we programme that into genetic breeding and how do we go about making our breeding decisions to factor that to create lots of potential. The key point is that we must make our contribution to lowering the emissions profile.
That will also enhance the value of the food we produce because it will make it even more attractive to the people to whom we are selling it. Our markets across the world, which are widespread and cross the globe, have been built on the back of our sustainability credentials and the fact that we are a pasture, grass-based food-producing nation that is viewed as one of the most sustainable food producers in the world. The way we will maintain those markets is by becoming even more sustainable and verifying and showing that. The way we will add value and maximise profit for farmers and the food they produce is by becoming more sustainable and reducing the emissions footprint because it will ensure we continue to be a number one choice whenever consumers in Ireland or any other country go to consume food. That is the way we maximise the profits at farm level and add value to that.
We could all look to add more volume and see the value and margins reduce. The key issue is adding value to what we produce in the time ahead. The Food Vision 2030 strategy, which I published at the end of the summer, very much speaks to that sustainable food systems approach to our food production system. In taking that approach, Food Vision 2030 outlines how we can grow the value of our exports from €14 billion today to €21 billion by the end of the decade through taking that approach. That is very much the direction we need to travel and is complemented by the climate action plan. The targets in that plan are ambitious but deliverable. They will stretch us but we must all stretch ourselves. Every sector has to stretch itself.
The lower emissions target we received in agriculture is a reflection of the understanding, which was outlined in the programme for Government, that the Government needs to take into account the particular science around agriculture, its emissions profile and the economic and social importance of the sector. I believe the emissions target we have put in place is an appropriate one that respects that but will also challenge us. The challenge is to deliver on that in the time ahead.
Senator Dolan spoke about the need for hope in agriculture and to ensure there is a strong future for it. I concur with that. Senators Murphy, Lombard, Mullen and Maria Byrne spoke to this as well. There is a very strong future for our agriculture sector. People respect food more than they ever did. They respect how it is produced and its sustainability credentials. They are increasingly conscious of what they put into their bodies and will want to be assured not just that it is safe and nutritious but that it is sustainable. That is going to be very important for us to keep our place on their plates.
I see Ireland building on the tremendous starting point we have because we will deepen the credentials we have, add value to them in the process and continue to be a food-producing nation that is respected, valued and sought after across the world. In doing so, we will ensure that the place of the primary producers in the food system is strengthened in the process and maintain a strong agriculture sector in the time ahead. I thank Members for the spirit in which this debate was held and look forward to us going forward together in the same manner, making real progress, strengthening our sector and making it more sustainable in the process.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response to the debate.