Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Ceisteanna (32)

Brian Stanley


32. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on recently published figures by the CSO which show that in quarter 3 of 2019 fewer than 100,000 persons were employed in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors, a decline compared to the same quarter in 2018; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48946/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (7 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Agriculture)

This question relates to recent Central Statistics Office, CSO, figures which show that in quarter 3 of 2019, fewer than 100,000 people were directly employed in agriculture, forestry and fishing. There has been a significant decline compared with the same quarter of 2018. I believe this is feeding into what is happening and I want the Minister to make a statement on the matter.

My Department continually monitors the levels of employment in the agriculture and wider agrifood sector. Employment figures are primarily sourced from the Central Statistics Office quarterly labour force survey. Additional data on specific sectors are also sourced from Bord Iascaigh Mhara and the Irish Forestry and Forest Products Association.

The agrifood sector is an essential part of the economic and social fabric of Ireland, especially in rural and coastal areas. Irish food is produced by farmers, fishermen and agrifood companies around the country and this locally-produced food is exported to more than 180 countries around the world. Primary agricultural output increased from €5.9 billion in 2008 to €8.2 billion in 2018, an increase of 39%. Agrifood exports increased from €7.9 billion in 2009 to €13.7 billion in 2018, marking growth of over 73% since 2009.

At the same time, the numbers working in the agrifood sector have seen a gradual decrease. In 2008, employment in the sector averaged 182,350 compared with 172,800 in 2018, a decrease of 5.2%. Much of this can be attributed to increased productivity and the adoption of new technology, although there have also been changes to the way the figures are measured by the CSO. The Food Wise 2025 strategy includes actions to support farmers and agrifood businesses in improving the competitiveness and profitability of their enterprises. These supports make Irish farm enterprises more efficient and maximise their contribution to regional and local rural economies.

Based on the first three quarters of the year, the 2019 employment figure for the agrifood sector as a whole averages 163,000 or 7.1% of national employment. This must be seen in the context of record employment figures across the economy as a whole. Employment in primary agriculture is 96,800 and 4,600 are employed in the forestry and fishing sectors. The food and beverages sector employs 55,600, with wood and wood processing accounting for a further 6,000 jobs.

It should be noted that the labour force survey is based on the main employment a person reports in the survey. Where a part-time farmer reports his or her off-farm job as his or her main employment, he or she will not be recorded as working in primary agriculture. It is also important to note that while the overall level of employment from these sectors is 7.1% of total employment nationwide, the proportion of employment outside Dublin is much greater.

There has been a 41% decline in the number of people employed since 2011. The Minister referred to increases in output, turnover and everything else. However, there is a problem with the level of profitability. Desperate farmers have protested in the city for the past two days because they are unable to make a living. Their margins have been slashed.

We need a new strategy which gives farmers a sustainable income, as well as some kind of decent future and security. They have a major role to play in a number of different areas and I do not see a sense of urgency from the Government in terms of creating new income streams for farmers and allowing them to get involved with schemes to produce renewable energy. An area in which we need to make progress is on-farm forestry, something I will come to in another question. There will be major regulatory difficulties for some small plantations with regard to harvesting.

We need reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. While we all accept that output has increased - the figures are there in black and white – farmers' margins are not sufficient to allow them to sustain themselves through farming.

I draw the attention of the Deputy to the point I made earlier to Deputy Cahill in the context of applications for the basic payment scheme. There have been 122,000 applications, not taking into account the substantial number of farmers who, for one reason or another, do not make any application or do not have any entitlement to payments.

In respect of those employed in primary agriculture, it comes down to what they report to the CSO census. Many part-time farmers contribute significantly to the rural economy and agricultural output. However, if they report in the labour force survey that they are a construction worker, a teacher and so on, that is listed as their main employment despite the fact that they make an important contribution to the rural economy in terms of their participation in farming. We track all of these issues and they are an important source of data.

The numbers need to be processed properly in order to get an accurate picture. The number of basic payment applications is a further piece of information which should be appropriately considered. It is a question of recognising that those who are part-time farmers, for one reason or another, make a significant contribution.

Many are working in other jobs because the margins in farming are not viable. Farmers in other countries in Europe have better margins as well as additional income, through other enterprises on farms such as renewable energy. I do not sense that any great importance is being given to this by the Government and Department. There are difficulties in connecting to the grid, for example. In regard to on-farm forestry, we will have problems with small plantations. Farmers need new long-term schemes, rather than schemes which will only last for 15 years or are being used as retirement plans.

CAP reform is necessary. It is immoral to give one farmer €150,000 or €160,000 in payments, while a farmer around the corner gets €2,000 or €3,000. That is not sustainable. We need to make small and medium-sized farms more sustainable and help farmers achieve that by levelling out payments in the CAP negotiations.

The CAP reform process is ongoing. There is a consultation process. It is important that we develop the levers that will be available to us to deliver the maximum support to those who need it most. The Deputy referred to renewables. My Department recently introduced a new scheme to support renewable energy through grant aid for solar panels under the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS.

Part-time farming is an important part of the rural economy and is recognised in terms of its contribution and entitlement to be supported through CAP. I have publicly stated many times that I continue to see those farmers as equally important in the context of entitlement to support under CAP reform.

I remind Members that we will get through more questions if people stick to the six-and-a-half-minute timescale. Deputies in the Chamber will not have their questions answered if people go over time.