Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Ceisteanna (37)

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

37. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if changes will be made to the organic farming scheme assessment criteria which automatically favours larger farms over smaller farms in view of the fact that 50 of the available 125 marks are awarded based on a size threshold. [49105/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (10 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Agriculture)

The recent opening and then closing of the organic scheme was really disappointing in that, of 225 applications, only 55 were ultimately successful. Many farmers put a huge amount of money, training and attention into this area and are bitterly disappointed. I understand that there was only one successful application in the area of horticulture at a time when we want to expand our horticultural production. Some 70% of horticultural fruits and vegetables in this country are imported. I ask the Minister to review the whole process and to reconsider many of the applications. One issue is that of the amount of land involved. The promotion of larger farmers within the assessment criteria is one of the reasons the scheme was so unsuccessful, at a real cost.

The organic farming scheme is one of the most successful schemes under our current rural development programme. A budget of €56 million was allocated to fund the scheme during the period 2014 to 2020, which was the largest allocation ever to an organics support scheme.

The scheme has more than achieved its targets in new land converted and the maintenance of organic land. Latest figures indicate that there are now some 72,000 ha under organic production, an increase of nearly 50% on the position at the start of the programme in 2014.

The organic farming scheme, OFS, was reopened last year on a targeted basis on foot of a recommendation from the organic sector strategy group. This group included representatives from a broad range of stakeholders, among them the farming representative organisations, processors and organic control bodies. Following assessment by the group, it recommended targeting sectors for which there is a clear market demand and which are critical to the further development of the organic sector, namely, horticulture, cereals and dairy. There was acknowledgment that the budget was limited given the success of the current scheme and the overall spending within the rural development programme.

It is important to note that the selection criteria used could only be revised within the parameters approved by the Commission under the current rural development programme. It should also be noted that based on the selection criteria used, the predominant farming enterprises in 95% of the unsuccessful applications were not from the targeted sectors. While a maximum of 50 marks could be obtained in respect of the size of the farm, the sectoral balance enterprise marking was weighted in favour of the targeted enterprises. The horticultural enterprises, which tend to be smaller in size, gained a maximum mark of 50 under this criterion.

This was a targeted reopening and I fully expect that there will be a new organics scheme under the next Common Agricultural Policy. Ranking and selection criteria to facilitate assessment of applications will be reviewed and may be revised in the context of a new organic farming scheme at that stage.

Of those 55, how many are in the horticulture sector? I heard what the Minister of State said. While one can read the terms and conditions that are calibrated to support that, it has, however, singularly failed. Rather than wait for the next CAP scheme, which will probably be delayed so we will be talking about 2022 before it is finally agreed, we need to act now. In respect of horticulture, Ireland currently imports 70% of a rapidly increasing demand for horticulture products. Irish farmers are out on St. Stephen's Green today, stating, rightly, that they are the ones losing out because they cannot get the higher price they need to survive. This is one way we could achieve the diversification, higher prices and profitability that we need.

How many horticulture farmers were approved under this scheme? Were Europe to agree to a revision, would the Minister of State go back and look at some of the failed applications?

There were two applications. One was accepted and the other failed.

There were two.

Two applied. The breakdown of unsuccessful applicants was five in cereals, 70 in beef, and 28 in lamb. Returning to the press statement when I opened the scheme it was on the recommendation of the group, which had all the stakeholders, that this would be targeted in areas where there was a specific market deficit. As I said in my opening response, 50 marks were based on size but there were also 50 marks for the sectoral areas in which people were involved. My press release last year stated that this would be ranked on the basis of those priority schemes on foot of the strategy group's recommendation.

On the delay, the transitional arrangements to the next Common Agricultural Policy will allow us the opportunity to try to get a new scheme in place. This has been the Department's most successful scheme. Funding has been increased this year to €12 million. There are real market opportunities which we need to grow. We will work to get a new scheme open as soon as possible. This was an extension of the scheme. The budget provided was double what was anticipated.

We have a real problem if there were only two applications in horticulture. That was the first of the three targeted areas that were mentioned. If there were only two applications, that means that sector requires an immediate review and an effort is required to ignite some activity and interest in the horticultural sector. It has particular characteristics and needs. We need Irish horticulture. That there were only two applications from horticulture to the scheme is a sign that this needs urgent attention, and no delay.

I set up an organic strategy group last year. This was one of its recommendations. It published a forward implementation programme and plan that deals with all the issues. I advise the Deputy to study that.

I have. I advise the Minister of State to do something about it.

That is what we are doing.

Questions Nos. 38 and 39 answered with Question No. 36.