Wednesday, 2 February 2005
Dáil Eireann Debate
—supports the Minister for Agriculture and Food in her efforts to continue the development of a sustainable, competitive, consumer-focused agri-food sector and thereby enhance its contribution to a vibrant rural economy and the environment.
Mr. Browne: Last night my Government colleague, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, outlined, in very clear terms, this Government’s excellent record of actions to support the agri-food sector over the past few years. I will outline to the House the progress we have made in other areas which are important to the continued development of the sector.
A high health status in the national herd is important in the context of safeguarding consumers, the development of a sustainable agri-food sector and the promotion of animal welfare. Ireland’s current relatively high animal health status, its traceability systems, its veterinary medicines regime and production systems all underpin food safety and farm output and are essential for our export trade. These measures reassure consumers and support the delivery of many of the EU livestock support schemes.
We have in place a combination of control measures, compulsory and voluntary testing, recording of data, inspections and investigations, mandatory and voluntary reporting, codes of practice and a committee on animal welfare. In line with our commitment under the Good Friday Agreement, and for other reasons, we maintain a close liaison with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland in the operation of schemes and in developing joint strategies on animal health.
With regard to animal health, excellent progress has been made in recent years in reducing the incidence of diseases of major economic importance. With regard to BSE, the number of cases has fallen from 333 in 2002 to 126 last year. More importantly, the majority of cases are now identified in cattle born in 1996 or earlier.
Excellent progress has also been made on TB and brucellosis. In the case of TB, reactor numbers have fallen consistently since 1999 and in 2004 were down by 50% on the numbers identified in both 1998 and 1999. Even greater progress has been made on brucellosis where in 2004, laboratory positive animals were down almost 90% on the 1998 figures.
With regard to animal traceability, we have comprehensive identification and tracing systems in place for all the main livestock species. These systems meet in full, and in certain cases go beyond, our obligations as a member state of the European Union.
The cattle movement monitoring system, CCMS, allows us as a matter of course to trace the origin, identity and movement history of Irish cattle before they enter the food chain. The extent and accuracy of data now available on CMMS allows it to be used for a variety of other applications also. It is routinely used to identify and trace cattle for disease control purposes, for example contact tracing for BSE and brucellosis. It is employed as a marketing tool for Ireland’s beef export industry and is also used to assist in the testing and certification requirements of a variety of schemes such as certification of beef for Russia, determination of age for BSE testing etc.
The national sheep identification system, NSIS, is based on individual identification of sheep by means of ear tags and on paper records to track movements. Despite the criticism that has been levelled at it, overall the system has operated successfully since its introduction. It has also facilitated the development of a scrapie genotyping programme as well as being used to identify carcasses exported to other member states.
The Department also plays an important role in protecting the health of consumers of Irish food through legislation relating to the use of veterinary medicines and the detection of illegal residues in food, through the national residue plan.
As Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, I remind the House of the contribution that the forestry sector makes to the rural economy and the environment. Forestry, which provides employment to some 16,000 people, has a key role to play in ensuring the economic stability of rural communities, in enhancing our environment and natural amenities and in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.
This Government is committed to the development of the forestry sector and this week I announced an allocation of a €124 million package for forestry in 2005. This is the biggest allocation ever made for forestry and is an affirmation of the Government’s and the Minister’s commitment to the sector.
As Members heard last night, the Government has an impressive record of achievements across a broad range of areas. It can be relied upon to remain totally committed to the agri-food sector and to sustain its major role in the country’s economic development, notwithstanding the overall changed policy framework in which we now operate. I commend the motion to the House.
Mr. J. Brady: There is no doubt this will be not only a year of great change for Irish agriculture, but also one which will be equally rewarding for the industry. Reform of the CAP will substantially free farming from the burdens associated with paperwork and allow it to reach its full potential in the marketplace.
Farmers want to be engaged in important and worthwhile economic activity which serves both markets and consumers. As a result, they want to be in a position to secure the rewards the market offers for their produce. They do not want to be restricted in the scale of operation by production quotas and stocking limits. Instead, they want the freedom to respond to market demand and supply and to the specifications of the open market sought by retailers and consumers. This is what the new CAP offers.
I firmly believe the new CAP arrangements will allow agriculture to develop in a sustainable and profitable manner. The single payment scheme will provide farmers with a basic income that will allow them to decide their own business preferences, which will in turn influence the strategic needs of the sector as a whole.
We are facing a period of major adaptation at both farm and processing levels, but also for the administration which supports the sector. The Government will continue to lead the change agenda in order for agriculture and the agri-food sector to develop. For many farmers, decoupling will be an opportunity to make new choices. With their direct payments no longer linked to the volume of production, they will be free to farm and to align their farm enterprises to meet the needs of the marketplace rather than be driven by grant or premium support schemes. This will not only benefit farmers but will have a broader added value for the food supply chain which will ultimately be for the good of all consumers.
Having outlined the general position regarding decoupling, I now want to focus on the outlook for the beef and sheep sectors. Deputies will be aware that beef production is extremely valuable in the overall economy. The annual value of beef exports amounts to €1.5 billion, representing almost 25% of total Irish agri-food exports. These are impressive figures by any standard and underline the overall importance of the sector to the economy.
Last year we exported a total of 475,000 tonnes of beef. Some 258,000 tonnes of this were exported to the United Kingdom and 170,000 tonnes to the rest of the European Union. It is particularly encouraging to see the growth in our beef exports to these high value markets. In recent years that has been the key success of our beef marketing strategy which has seen a dramatic shift in the level of EU market penetration at the higher value end, mirrored by reduced dependence on third country trade which, nonetheless, remains a significant part of our strategy.
Russia continues to be our main third country export market with a total of 41,000 tonnes exported there last year. Small quantities of Irish beef were exported to Egypt, and Algeria re-opened its markets for fresh and chilled Irish beef last October. Efforts are being made to have frozen beef accepted there as well and the prospects are positive. These markets are important outlets for specific cuts of Irish beef at particular times of the year. We continue to exert huge efforts, politically, diplomatically and at trade level, to re-open international markets and to maintain as broad a spread of markets as we can.
As with beef, decoupling in the sheep sector will bring sheep producers closer to the dynamics of the market. Competitiveness will be the key at both producer and processor level in maintaining and growing market share. The year 2004 was an excellent year for the sheep meat sector with throughput at export plants 16% higher than in 2003. Demand was buoyant on the home and export markets and the outlook is most encouraging in the medium to long term with continuing strong home demand and the opening of new markets in Tanzania and Algeria. France remains the principal export market for sheep meat, with last year’s exports ahead of those of the previous year. Irish lamb competes successfully on the market against lamb from New Zealand and other countries. I see no reason it should not also continue to command the loyalty of Irish lamb consumers on the home market.
Mr. Callanan: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion on agriculture. In the short time the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, has been in office she has made a significant impact for the betterment of the farming community. I thank the previous Minister, Deputy Walsh, for the great work he did for agriculture over many years. It is fair to say that the Department of Agriculture and Food is one of the most efficient organisations in the country.
The decision by the Minister to introduce full decoupling of direct payments from 1 January 2005 was the correct one, one with which most farmers agreed. Decoupling will give farmers the freedom to farm for the marketplace. Before decoupling, farmers had to keep large numbers of stock in order to get a decent amount of premium. They also had to buy and sell stock to suit premium and extensification dates. These restrictions suited the meat factories as farmers had to sell too many cattle and sheep to them before certain dates, therefore making it easier for meat factories to drop prices. Under decoupling a farmer can keep the amount of stock which suits his or her farm and still receive the same amount in payments. If the number of stock decreases it should cause market prices to increase. Most farmers will keep a reasonable amount of stock and will concentrate on better quality animals that suit the market. It is important to recognise the deal that was secured by our Ministers for Irish agriculture.
The stacking of entitlements will be a great advantage for some farmers. Where a farmer who owns 100 acres rented another 100 acres in the reference years, he can stack his full entitlement even if he cannot rent an extra 100 acres under the decoupled system and receive full payment. Farmers can also plant part of their land with forestry and stack their payments on the rest of the land. This is also allowed if land is sold to local authorities for road making.
Another advantage under the decoupling deal is that farmers can still get their area based, or headage as it used to be called, payments in disadvantaged areas and the REPS payment in addition to the single payments. REPS has been a good scheme for farmers and the environment. I would encourage all farmers to get involved in the REP scheme. The Minister should ensure that reasonable notice would be given to farmers prior to inspections under the REPS or other schemes before compliance inspections take place. Inspectors should be farmer friendly and where small areas of non-compliance are discovered a yellow card system could be used that would allow a farmer a week or two to remedy the situation. If the farmer remained non-compliant at that stage he should be penalised.
Agriculture is still a significant industry in Ireland with agri-food exports worth €7 billion. Ireland is the fourth largest food exporter in the European Union. We are 800% self-sufficient in the beef sector, 300% self-sufficient in sheep meat and 900% self-sufficient in butter and milk products. Our export markets are important for that reason. Bord Bia and other agencies do a wonderful job selling our produce. Our quality assurance scheme and labelling are most important. Our drive for total traceability to the farm gate has worked well in helping us hold on to existing markets and gain new markets throughout the world. I compliment the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, on her work in promoting our pigmeat and beef on her recent visit to China.
In future it will be most important that we invest in research and development to find out what the market wants. I am pleased with the sum of €10.6 million that was allocated to FIRM, the Food Institutional Research Measure, in 2005 to encourage high quality research.
I welcome the fact that our disease control measures are at last working with a sharp decline evident in the number of herds restricted by TB and brucellosis. We must keep a close eye on the import of beef from foreign countries to ensure it is fully compliant with our disease controls, especially to ensure that it is hormone-free. While I am in favour of full traceability, the separate tagging of every sheep appears to cause a great deal of hardship for sheep farmers. I always held the view that a herd tag would provide adequate traceability.
Agriculture is in good hands with the Minister, Deputy Coughlan. Her support for live exports is most welcome. We need a live export trade to provide competition for the factories. I support the amendment to the motion.
Mr. M. Moynihan: I congratulate the Minister, the Ministers of State and the team in the Department and wish them well. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this agricultural motion. As other speakers said, Irish agriculture will experience significant change this year and in future. With decoupling in place there is an expectation that less food will be produced on farms.
One of the most important things for us as an island nation is to ensure that our markets are maintained and that all the produce we export can stand up to food safety scrutiny by any organisation abroad. The importance of food safety has been recognised at EU level by the establishment of the European Food Safety Authority in 2002.
The European Union has developed a comprehensive package of Community-wide legislation in the area of food safety and hygiene as well as comprehensive measures to ensure satisfactory food safety controls are operated in both inter-Community trade and trade with third countries. In this regard the contract between the Department and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland covers the implementation in Ireland of all national and EU legislation to protect the interests of the Irish consumer as well as the implementation of import controls as provided for in EU legislation. Comprehensive measures are in place to ensure enforcement of the legislation and control measures. In the case of foodstuffs of animal origin supervisory requirements are applied in member states to ensure that animal-based food products are produced to standards that guarantee the safety of food and the protection of food and animal health. The application of these standards in all member states is monitored by the European Union Food and Veterinary Office.
As regards imports from third countries, all such animal products must come from third countries or specified areas of third countries which are approved for export to the European Union. The EU Food and Veterinary Office carries out inspections to ensure that only establishments with hygiene and health standards equivalent to those in the EU are approved for export to the EU.
All importers of products of animal origin must be registered with the Department of Agriculture and Food and are required to keep appropriate records available for inspection for a period of at least three years. Imported meat must be accompanied by appropriate documentation showing country of origin and the approval number of the premises where it was produced. In the case of third country imports a health certificate is also required. All meat must be appropriately labelled.
Imports from third countries must be landed at specified Border inspection posts. In Ireland these are located at Dublin Port and at Shannon Airport. Documentary, identity and physical checks are carried out at Border inspection points.
All these measures are covered in the contract between the Department of Agriculture and Food and the FSAI. The contract requires the Department to make regular reports to the FSAI on the implementation of these measures. The FSAI also carries out audits on the Department’s operations in these areas. The Department’s operations are subject to audit by the EU Food and Veterinary Office.
The overall operation of food safety measures is kept under constant review at EU level. These measures are in place to enable the European Commission to introduce specific controls on certain products or on particular countries to ensure the protection of humans and animal health. These measures adopted can be bans on imports of a particular product or of exports from particular member states.
As I have indicated, the importance of the consumer in the agri-food business is at the core of the policy of the Department of Agriculture and Food and it is also essential for the industry. It is a key element of the strategic plan operated by the Government and Department. We must provide the legislation, controls and supports. However, it is equally important that all those involved in the food industry from farmers to retailers and the catering business accept that we have a responsibility to provide a high quality product and the maximum information to our consumers.
Mr. Cregan: I echo the words of congratulations and compliments to the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Mary Coughlan. Since her appointment and based on her subsequent performance, I have heard nothing but positive vibes from all interested groups in the agriculture sector throughout the country. I also congratulate her two deputies in the Department, Ministers of State, Deputies Browne and Brendan Smith. They are doing a very fine job.
It would be remiss of me to speak to a motion on agri-food without mentioning the loss of 140 jobs in the past few days in west Limerick at Kantoher Food Products, part of the Kerry Group. I am extremely concerned for the 140 workers and the future markets for the 40 growers involved. I call on the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the relevant State agencies to put their heads together to ensure that, with the goodwill of the Kerry Group, we can resolve this crisis and find replacement jobs for these people.
The importance to the consumer of being in a position to make food consumption choices which best suit their circumstances and preferences is a vital element in today’s market. An appropriate labelling system is a key element in this respect. The two main issues which emanated from the recommendation of the labelling group were the centralisation of enforcement in one agency and the definition of origin.
I very much welcome the centralisation of enforcement as well as the fact that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland is now responsible for the enforcement of labelling regulations. This will not only streamline the enforcement measures but it will also provide a one-stop shop for any complaints on incorrect labelling of food. The service contracts between the Food Safety Authority and other State bodies and the Department of Agriculture and Food have been amended to take account of this change in enforcement policy.
Food labelling, with the exception of fish, is now located in both the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Agriculture and Food in line with another recommendation of the food labelling group. There was full agreement within the food labelling group that consumers have a right to information on the origin of the meat they cook in their homes or eat out. I welcome this unequivocal recognition of the rights of consumers.
At the beginning of 2004, two regulations relating to the labelling of poultry meat were introduced. The first of these regulations requires poultry meat originating in a country outside the EU to bear an indication of the country of origin when offered for sale in a retail premises. The second requires information regarding class, price per unit of weight, condition and slaughterhouse details in respect of non-prepackaged poultry meat to be provided to the consumer.
EU regulations provide for a detailed labelling system for beef to be applied at retail sale, which is over and above the general labelling provisions. These regulations do not apply at restaurant and catering sector level. I hope the Minister can proceed with a legal requirement that country of origin must be displayed in respect of beef served on such premises. The legal options allowing for this development are currently being examined and any necessary legislation will be introduced as soon as possible.
On the food labelling issue in general, the primary aim is to protect consumer interests and to ensure the consumer is properly informed. Ireland is a major exporter of food and food products and there is a considerable volume of imports. Therefore, it is imperative that the same standards are applied to the labelling of foods in every sector and that a level playing field exists for the entire food industry.
I compliment the Minister for her leadership of a delegation of food and drink industry representatives to China as part of a recent wider trade mission. I understand that, while she was there, the Minister signed a pig meat protocol with the Minister for the Administration of Quality, Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, that will form the basis on which pig meat products from Ireland will be exported to China. This formal agreement will provide a framework within which actual trade in pig meat products will commence later in the year.
The Minister also raised the question of the lifting of the Chinese ban on beef products in official discussions with both the Minister for Agriculture and the Minister for Administration of Quality. During these discussions she emphasised that the control and supervision of food safety is afforded the very highest priority in Ireland and that the Government is committed to the preservation of our status as a supplier of the highest quality products to international buyers.
She also addressed seminars in Beijing and Shanghai organised by her Department and Bord Bia, which were aimed at promoting Irish food and drinks in the Chinese market, providing assurance on the safety controls related to food production and details on the country’s export capability.
Mr. Carty: I too wish to compliment the Minister and her Ministers of State on the manner in which they are handling the decoupling issue and implementing the deal in consultation with all the interested parties.
For years farmers rightly complained about all the bureaucracy which was attached to the various schemes. It is a well-known fact that Ireland must export 90% of the food it produces to other countries and it is therefore necessary that the production of safe animal food products begins with the use of safe animal feed. Animal feed is thus one of the most important sectors within agriculture. Annual production figures for compound feed for sale in 2003 were as follows: the EU 25 member states — 142 million tonnes; Ireland — 3.66 million tonnes, of which 58% was for ruminants; 19% for pigs; 13% for poultry; and 9% for other species.
Licensed manufacturers of compound feeds use more than 80% of available feed materials as feed ingredients. Less than 2% are fed as straight feed or used for on-farm mixing, which is mainly confined to ruminant diets and a small number of specialised pig producers. The EU imports a large proportion of its protein requirements such as soya bean meal, corn gluten and cotton seed meal.
The underlying principles which apply to legislation in the area of animal feed are that feeding stuffs do not endanger food safety, do not pose a risk to animal health, meet minimum standards, are accurately labelled and are fully traceable. Most of the legislation on animal feed originates at EU level and the measures extend to specific controls on issues such as additives in feeding stuffs, marketing of compound feeding stuffs, putting into circulation of feeding materials, undesirable substances and products in animal feed, approval and registration of establishments operating in the animal feed sector, animal nutrition inspections and genetically modified feed.
In addition, there are a number of measures under veterinary legislation which impact directly on the animal feed industry, for example, processed animal protein, medicated feeding stuffs and animal by-products. Following on from a series of well-publicised incidents in Europe concerning animal feed, for example, BSE, dioxins and the MPA hormone, the Commission undertook a review in 1999 of the position in regard to the existing legislation and control activities in food and animal feed, including veterinary matters. The outcome of this review was published in January 2000 in the form of a White Paper on food safety.
Some of the problems identified in regard to animal feed in the White Paper included lack of coherence and uniformity of approach in food and feed legislation and non-uniform implementation of controls across member states in some cases, the complexity and subsequent lack of understanding of the legislation and the apparent lack of self-control in the animal feed industry when compared with the food industry. With a consistent push by Commissioner David Byrne to have most of the action points of the White Paper on food safety completed before the end of his Commission term, a whole series of legislative proposals have come through on food and feed.
The two most recent regulations relate to the feed area, namely, the regulation on official food and feed controls, EC (2004) 882, and the regulation laying down requirements for feed hygiene. Both of these pieces of legislation were finalised during the recent Irish Presidency. The regulation on official food and feed controls is wide-ranging and is directed at member states to establish adequate controls in the food and feed areas. It impinges on both the food and feed areas of the Department of Agriculture and Food as well as the Department of Health and Children. This legislation will involve less change in feed control than in food control activities, as the core issues are already firmly enshrined in feed control legislation. The feed hygiene regulation consolidates and extends the scope of the directive requiring the approved registration of certain feed business operators to include all other operators in the feed chain. Feed export controls are implemented through inspection and sampling by authorised staff at stages of the feed chain, including importation, storage, manufacture and use at farm level. Every effort is made by the Department of Agriculture and Food to implement the legislation and ensure the safety of the feed and food chain is kept intact. It is clear that the feed industry is a vital link in the safety of the food chain.
Mr. McHugh: With the era of the single farm payment beginning, it is appropriate that the House is debating the issue. The single farm payment will focus farmers’ attention on providing products for the marketplace. Their ability to sell their produce will be the determining factor as to whether they continue with certain products. It is time for the Minister for Agriculture and Food to take a fresh look at the status quo to determine what new or enhanced measures need to be put in place to cater for the new regime.
The motion calls for the implementation of a clear and transparent quality food labelling system for consumers. Food labelling in a clear and concise manner will be the reference for consumers to determine which foods to purchase. It should contain references to volume, nutritional composition and identify where the foodstuff was produced or processed. It is essential that a labelling system be provided that fully informs the consumer so that he or she can make a decision when purchasing food produce. Research has shown how important proper labelling of foodstuff is to the consumer. Half the population have indicated that it is the issue of greatest concern to them.
The Government has a sovereign right to provide the level of health protection it deems appropriate. Food labelling has an important role to play in health protection. A certain labelling regime already applies. However, it is unacceptable that there is no detailed labelling system applicable to beef served in restaurants and catering establishments. This is not good for the health of the consumer. Consumers should know that the beef products they eat are Irish. It is unacceptable that products imported from Brazil can be repackaged in Ireland to be sold on as Irish products. The Minister must address these issues. The consumer is entitled to protection in this area.
Identification and traceability of Irish beef is well advanced. However, the same intensive documentation of traceability and country of origin is not available for all imports. The practice where a product’s main ingredient can be imported and undergo substantial transformation to then become an Irish product is unacceptable, dishonest and misleading. The Minister for Agriculture and Food should rectify this unacceptable practice. It may be covered by EU legislation. However, it is in the consumers’ interest for the Minister to change this.
Due to the recent changes brought about by the Fischler proposals, we are entering a new regime that will be for the better as production will be related to demand. However, the Minister owes it to the farming community to lead the way, in conjunction with all relevant agencies, to identify opportunities, direct energies and refocus efforts to ensure that the agrifood industry reaps the maximum benefits from this new regime.
Dr. Cowley: I appeal for those in County Mayo who have left the land in their thousands in recent times due to their failure to eke out a living on the land. Those left on the land struggle to remain by supplementing their meagre incomes with off-farm employment. There are those who do not care one iota if the entire west of Ireland dies out. I care. To hell with the begrudgers, who have a difficulty with the fact that I care. I am doing the job I was elected to do.
Dr. Cowley: The plan is to depopulate my county. Recently the terrible job losses at Allergen, Bellacorick and Bord na Móna have been a severe body blow to the most socio-economically deprived area of Ireland. Those left on the land are trying to hold on. The land is their heritage and it is their right to stay on it. However, it is getting more difficult to do so with the problems in securing off-farm employment. Farmers have left the land in County Mayo in their thousands. The agenda is to further decimate the area and give the coup de grâce to those who remain on the land by diluting the disadvantaged status of the county. Moves are afoot to negotiate the disadvantaged status to one criterion, not location but soil quality. This must be resisted and I call on the Government to be vigilant on this issue.
Dr. Cowley: The people of County Mayo will not tolerate any more shenanigans. We are still waiting for a proper road infrastructure, a western rail corridor, adequate ambulance services, balanced regional development and the jobs that every other region has. We do not want the dirty jobs. We are still waiting for Knock Airport to be treated as an international one. To the Government and the EU I say,“Hands off our county unless there is something positive to give us”.
Mr. J. Breen: My former party colleagues on the Government side of the House disappoint me. While they paid many compliments to the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, none were given to her predecessor, Deputy Walsh for the great and solid work he did for the farming community.
Mr. J. Breen: As a member of the farming community I welcome the decoupling of single payments. Significant progress was made in the implementation of the scheme, making farmers’ lives more bearable. This step will change the course of farming. The single payment will amount to a virtual farm income in many cases. The return from the marketplace must be maximised to ensure farm incomes increase. It is important that costs are controlled, quality programmes are introduced and we invest in markets prepared to take our produce.
As agricultural exports amount to €7 billion per annum, they must be protected and improved. How much beef has been imported? Will the Minister confirm that large numbers of hotels and restaurants are importing sirloin and fillet steaks?
Mr. J. Breen: In recent years, thousands of cattle, calves, sheep and pigs have been exported from the Republic to the Continent. This method should continue or it will have a disastrous effect on farm incomes. The nitrates directive will also reduce production. The new European Commissioner is against live exports. I want the Minister to ensure the Commissioner has no hand, act or part in live exports from Ireland.
Mr. J. Breen: Living standards are intimately dependent on farm productivity. We rely on our farm produce to feed ourselves and to provide the surplus with which to buy those requirements that are physically impossible and economically impractical to produce at home. The agricultural sector, which employs one in ten of the workforce, must be protected and expanded. Labelling of produce is vitally important and rogue traders have no place in the process. More must be done to promote our agricultural products abroad. Will the Minister ensure there are oral hearings for people who fail the written test.
Anomalies in the farm retirement scheme must be addressed as a matter of urgency. There was an attempt to address the issue in reply to my priority question last week, but it was not satisfactory. Small farmers are the backbone of the rural economy and rural communities, and more must be done to ensure this way of life continues to be viable. Retirement presents a number of challenges to farmers, particularly where they are passing on the farm to the next generation. The Competition Authority should be asked to investigate prices paid by factories for meat produce in the autumn. For example, in 2004 the factories paid €20 less in the fall of the year for cattle bought in June. At a time when the farming community is experiencing a decrease in incomes, this type of practice cannot be allowed to continue. Will the Minister guarantee that small producers who were forced to sell their weanlings without the benefit of premiums are entitled to some compensation from the modulation fund? The incomes of cereal producers and farmers who plant their land must be promoted and guaranteed. Will the Minister ensure this aspect is addressed? I hope the Minister will carry out the promise she put on record tonight.
Mr. Sargent: I am speaking on behalf of many farmers in my constituency of north County Dublin, as well as farmers throughout the country. I ask the Minister to take on board what has been said here because this is a very urgent motion. The issue of labelling is relevant due to the experience of the foot and mouth outbreak. It is relevant to the way retailers and restaurateurs can source food quickly from overseas, forcing down the price of Irish farm produce. It is relevant also because, in effect, less food is now being grown in Ireland by many farmers. It is impoverishing farmers and all of us because we do not have the proper policy to encourage the development of agriculture and prevent its demise.
In 1980, 385 acres of tomatoes were grown in Ireland and this is now down to 50 acres. Gas bills have increased by 40% in a year. These factors, which are effectively forcing people out of business, require the Minister’s understanding and intervention. In 2000, there were 956 potato growers in the country. In 2004, this number had decreased to 700 growers. Week by week, people are getting out of agriculture. The number of vegetable growers, many of whom are in my constituency, has halved in the past five years. This is a recent phenomenon. This is a haemorrhage in agriculture.
The Government must take responsibility for what is happening. Many farmers are now encouraged to sell for building land rather than grow food because they are guaranteed a return when they sell land for building. They may as well do so when one examines the development levies in a number of counties, even development levies on polytunnels. I know that Kildare is an exception to this, and I wish other counties were more enlightened. As a result, the production of other crops such as strawberries will decrease because it will not pay farmers to erect a polytunnel.
On the other hand, there are increased costs and increased vulnerability in the food supply. Between 1978 and 1999, road transportation of food increased by 50%. When people visit a restaurant and take into account where the food came from, they will discover that the average meal in a restaurant now involves items that in total have travelled an average of 24,000 miles. When we talk about the country of origin and where ingredients come from, we must also take into account where the oil comes from. Transporting food 24,000 miles requires a lot of energy, and this figure is increasing. If Irish food is not available, the alternative will continue to increase as oil prices increase. We are all aware of the story of Nero fiddling as Rome burns. This motion is a plea to the Minister not to be a Nero. We need to save Irish agriculture from demise and the trend that has become apparent.
There was some hope in 1997 when the IFA met retailers to agree that 48.3% of the retail price would be paid to growers in the horticultural sector. Supermarket retailers told suppliers that they should respect that agreement, which lasted for a little more than a year. Now the personnel has changed and the situation is deteriorating. Currently, the average price growers receive is 35%, and this is decreasing even though the price of food is increasing. The Minister should inform her colleagues around the Cabinet table that they are killing her sector.
The whole area of GM food is seen as a panacea. We must be careful because a Wall Street report said it is a bad investment. Health studies have not been carried out in the long term and insurance cover is not available. If it puts its eggs in this basket, the Government will risk further the demise of Irish agriculture. We have an opportunity to go forward as a GM-free country, which trades on its green, clean image, but the Government does not appear to realise the potential of doing so.
Mr. Ferris: I have no difficulty supporting the proposals contained in the motion. There is a clear need to address the issue of food quality and origin, and to promote the food production system in a manner that will benefit both producers and consumers.
I agree with Deputy Upton that the issue of genetically modified food is central to this, and it is something I have stressed since being elected. Deputy Upton referred to the Government not appearing to have taken a position on this issue. I wish I could be more confident that the Government’s abstention on the ratification of GM animal feed was evidence of neutrality. However, I fear this is not the case. I welcomed the decision to abstain as a change from what up to then had been a series of votes in favour of GM. However, I am not confident that the Government will not support future proposals to open up the EU to GM. It would be absolute madness for this country with its agricultural base and reputation as the producer of high quality food to open itself up to GM animal feeds and crops. There is no economic argument in favour of it from the point of view of farmers, and certainly none as far as consumers are concerned. Perhaps the proposers of the motion will clarify the Fine Gael position on GM in their summing up.
Another major issue regarding food production is the share of the price paid by consumers that goes to primary producers. Only this week we saw farmers protesting against a proposed 10 cent per gallon cut by Glanbia. I cited statistics in the past which show that farmers get as little as a quarter, or in some cases as low as 20%, of the retail price for certain products. This is not acceptable and I have urged farmers to look long and hard again at the structures of the processing sector, which has moved a long way from the original idea of co-operation. Have farmers sacrificed long-term security of income for shares in what are to all intents and purposes agri-business corporations over which farmers no longer have control?
I note that the motion does not refer to the closure of the Carlow sugar factory. I hope this is not as a result of the differences that emerged last week between the prospective partners in the caring coalition on the closure. Sinn Féin is opposed to the closure of the plant and to any future moves which may threaten the future of the sugar industry in this State. The processing of sugar was for many years an example of a successful State enterprise and it will be a shame if the consequence of privatisation is the closing of the entire sector. Obviously the sugar sector in this country is subject to change at international level but its future cannot be sacrificed as part of whatever trade deals the EU agrees with the World Trade Organisation. Developing countries are entitled to access the EU markets but a strong stand needs to be taken to ensure that the workers employed at Mallow and Carlow and the farmers who supply the plants are not left to pay the costs.
I have on several occasions tabled questions and otherwise raised the issue of alternative use of sugar as a renewable energy crop for the production of biofuels. I am aware that the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, has stated that this is a commercial matter for Greencore and that the State has no role, but it has a role given that the taxation structure for alternative fuels will be crucial and that there is a grant of €45 per hectare for energy crops. The Minister replied to a question I tabled recently and noted that sugar beet is excluded, so that might be looked at if there is a possibility of using beet as a source of production for biofuels.
The other issue vital to the future of Irish agriculture is research and development. I mention this in the context of a series of closures of Teagasc facilities and statistics which show a marked decline in the level of investment in agricultural science at third level. According to the statistics, of 2,797 full-time researchers in 2002, a mere 44 worked in agricultural science.
Mr. Kehoe: I thank Deputies Naughten and Crawford for tabling this motion and giving me the opportunity to speak on it. I am sharing time with Deputies Connaughton, Coveney and Deenihan. I will not lecture the Minister on the price of cattle and so on.
I come from a country steeped in agriculture and the agricultural industry has been of the utmost importance to us in County Wexford over many years. The Minister of State in the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Browne, is from the county and I hope he will do the agricultural brief proud when he delivers Bord Bia to my home town of Enniscorthy. I have no doubt he will do that before he ends his career in the Department.
I will say a few words on traceability, food labelling and the importance of our clean Irish food. When a consumer buys food, specifically meat, the first thing he or she — usually it is the woman of the house — looks for is quality. We have very high quality Irish meat in our supermarkets and we can be proud of that. We are not utilising that product properly in terms of selling it outside Ireland. We have lost many markets over recent years. The Minister is new in the Department and I ask her to do her best to ensure that we regain all the markets we have lost. It is not easy to sell food abroad but we can be proud of what we have done.
Deputy Naughten spoke about food labelling and the sale of food in restaurants and hotels. Féile Bia has been one of the best initiatives ever taken and it is a pity more restaurants and hotels have not signed up to it. However, most hotels have applied Féile Bia standards and that is great to see. Many hotels import beef from outside Ireland and do not inform us of its origins because they can acquire it cheaply and sell it in their meals at expensive rates.
The importance of Irish food was seen over the past year, especially with the opening of farmers’ markets. The Minister of State, Deputy Browne, and I have been involved in establishing a farmers’ market in Enniscorthy. It is brilliant to see that market in the town every Saturday morning. People bring in home-made produce, meat, vegetables and so on. It is great to see housewives buying that produce straight from the farm gate. As the farmers say, the middleman is being cut out and it is great to see that happening. Farmers are getting the right prices for their food and it is brilliant to see that. It is a pity we do not see more such markets throughout the country. From talking to my colleagues I understand they are spreading in the country towns. Will the Minister give that movement more publicity through her Department in so far as she can? We have Bord Bia and the enterprise sections of different Departments. Will the Minister ensure that the concept of the farmers’ market is increasingly promoted? We are not sufficiently proud of our food and if we sell the concept of the farmers’ market, I have no doubt that we will be on a winner.
Regarding food labelling, the Minister knows as well as I that people are bringing in foreign beef, chicken, lamb and so on to Ireland. Will she inform the House what she is doing to stop this meat coming in and what the Department is doing about the hooligans and gangsters involved who are trying to fool Irish people about their own prime food? Perhaps the Minister would consider the motion before the House.
Mr. Connaughton: This is an important debate. I wish the new Minister well and thank the new Fine Gael spokesman on agriculture and food, Deputy Naughten, for tabling this important motion for discussion.
I will say something a little different to what other Members have said. I am one of the few practising farmers in the Dáil, an ever decreasing number as far as I can see. I share the positive view that the change to the single farm payment will be of some use. However, there are commentators running with this ball who do not fully understand what is involved. The payment will be a good thing if everything else allied to it clicks into place.
I will explain what I mean. Last week I went to buy my fertiliser which cost €70 per tonne more than last year. A neighbour built a slatted house and because of the doubling of the price of iron, the house cost almost twice as much as it would have done five years ago. Veterinary bills have quadrupled in the past four or five years. If all those input costs into farming continue to increase at those rates and the single farm payment remains an average of €10,000 per farm, let nobody tell me farmers will fly high on that sum. Some commentators have also suggested that a cutback in stock numbers will mean better quality. One can only cut back so far. On some of the fertile ground in this country, if one removed even 10% of the stock, one would not even control the grass.
It is against this background I must sound a note of caution. If it happens that product prices do not increase, farmers do not get more for their weanlings next year than they got last year, the factory beef price is not higher next year and the year after than it was last year and the price of sheep does not keep pace with input costs, we will have major problems. The Minister must remember that around the table at which she sits in Brussels, the single farm payment was introduced to have a cheap food policy. The EU personnel involved believe that the price of food will fall. We will see what happens.
Whatever else the Minister does while in Kildare Street, she should ensure the ship sails for live exports. I congratulate her on what she has done so far. She is paid to do that and it is what she should be doing. If we had an Irish Minister for Agriculture and Food who did not do so, we would lose heart altogether. Of course, it is an economic matter for those concerned, and they will not sail, no matter what any Irish Minister says, unless it pays them to do so. That is the important part, and the Minister must ensure that people do not place restrictions on capacity or anything else regarding cattle in transit. She must stop that from getting any worse or it will not pay farmers to export cattle.
As far as the middle men are concerned, whatever we do in this country, a substantial slice of the profits that is morally absolutely within the remit of Irish farmers is taken out of their hands. Unfortunately, the consumers do not give credit for that. It is possible to take a more streamlined approach and cut out the middle man much more than hitherto. There appears to be some blindfold on the Government regarding that side of things.
Another great battle that the Minister will have to fight for us — we will certainly help her — is to ensure that no restriction or reduction is imposed on area aid or the number of acres in the disadvantaged areas that qualify for the area-based payment. As the Minister is aware, this is on top of the single farm payment, and it will cripple poor farming areas if land is removed from that system.
I remember the extent of the BSE crisis some years ago. French farmers did something that we could not do — we should have done so, but we did not — they went in for big labelling when we were in trouble. They got the message across to the French consumer that there was nothing better than French lamb or beef. We will have to get very tough on labelling and at least ensure that the beef coming in from all over the world is produced to the same high standards as in Ireland. Ultimately, if one cannot prove something, one has to ensure that Irish housewives leave it. There is nothing wrong with our promoting that idea.
This is my first opportunity formally to wish the new Minister for Agriculture and Food well in her brief. It is a tough job and she faces several challenges, some of which I would like to outline. Most relate to battles she will need to fight in Europe on behalf of Irish farmers.
The first concerns sugar beet, which is absolutely crucial to Irish agriculture, though perhaps not in the part of the country where the Minister lives. However, in the midlands, south and south east, sugar beet represents a crop of great significance to arable farmers in particular. It is part of rotation and a very valuable cash crop that does not rely on extra payments coming from Europe to subsidise it. It has taken a significant blow in the past few weeks through Greencore’s decision to close one of two factories in Ireland. In case Deputy Ferris is in any doubt, Fine Gael has expressed frustration and disagreement on that time and again. Sugar reform is leading to the uncertainty and many of the bad news decisions regarding sugar.
Ireland must ensure many things in the European context. They can be broken into three different categories, the first concerning price. If one is a realist, one must accept that there will be sugar reform in Europe and some price reduction. It is the job and responsibility of the Minister to set a realistic target for what she can achieve to minimise that price reduction. That is how her success in this area will be measured, not how it is announced or the PR but the facts and figures regarding the extent to which she can minimise it. The price reduction must be in single figures.
On the quota reduction, we now have a harder sell thanks to Greencore. The strongest argument that Ireland could make in the European Parliament regarding minimising our quota cut was that we had two factories. Owing to economies of scale, if we reduced our quota, it would have been very hard to justify keeping two factories open. Thanks to a pre-emptive closure decision by Greencore regarding Carlow, that card has now been plucked from our negotiating deck. We must now make the straight case that Ireland deserves only a very small quota cut in the context of overall European reductions.
People have not focused much on what is perhaps the Minister’s most difficult challenge. She must ensure that what several countries are pushing for in Europe does not happen, namely, that the sugar quota should be capable of transfer from one European country to another. In France, they see themselves as having a competitive advantage for growing sugar, being able to deliver a higher sugar content and higher yields because of climatic conditions, though we have some small areas on the south-east coast that can match them. Other countries ensured that the milk quota was not transferred between countries, though that would have suited Ireland since we have a competitive advantage. In the same way, we must ensure that the sugar quota is not transferred across the borders of European countries. Ultimately, whatever quota we receive at the end of the negotiations must stay on Irish farms for Irish farmers to grow.
Regarding the practical consequences of the closure in Carlow, there are many farmers who simply do not know what is going to happen in the coming year. It is the Minister’s responsibility to provide clarity on issues such as how we are going to transport beet next year. The Minister may say that it was a commercial decision for Greencore, and that is probably true. However, farmers need leadership on this issue. Many farmers who have set aside land to plant sugar beet for the coming season simply do not know where they stand. For example, they do not know who owns the quota. Has there been a decision yet? Is it the farmers and, if so, are they entitled to compensation if it is taken away from them and moved south from the midlands? Is it the company or the Minister on behalf of the State?
We need clarity on those issues soon since in the next few weeks farmers must make decisions on what crops they put into fields. We also need clarity from Greencore on the future of Mallow. There have been announcements regarding job losses there. I understand that it is a matter of streamlining to make the plant there more efficient. I believe that 14 job losses are to be announced. We must reassure farmers that it is not the first step in a potential closure of the Mallow factory. Farmers must know how the new sugar system is to work with one factory and how they will fit into that structure as growers. The Minister must ensure that she, Greencore and farmers’ organisations provide that information for farmers since at the moment they simply do not know.
The nitrates directive is another challenge for the Minister. People will know that the latest Government action plan has been rejected by the European Commission. There is an ongoing negotiation process to find an action plan that is both acceptable to the Commission and workable for farmers. In particular, the most efficient and intensive dairy farms in the country must be able to survive under it. The Minister must focus on issues such as closure periods, storage capacity and stocking rates, playing hard ball with the European Commission to ensure that we get through.
Live cattle exports have been mentioned. It is a matter of striking a balance between the humane treatment of cattle, which we must all support, and ensuring that Ireland, which relies more than any other country in Europe on such exports, can continue transporting cattle across this Continent, something that is absolutely crucial.
I have raised this matter time and again over the past two years. The Government must consider the opportunities that energy crops can provide for agriculture in the shape of biodiesel and biofuels. Ethanol can be used as a replacement for petrol and wood biomass as a replacement for peat over a period of time.
Mr. Deenihan: The Minister and her two colleagues are facing a formidable challenge in the next few years. The outlook for agriculture is generally bleak when one considers that the price of milk, generally speaking, is the same as what it was in 1978 yet costs have increased over 100% since then. It is no longer economic to farm in many instances, and that is the reason many people are leaving the land in droves. Nobody seems to care about that. It appears to be the economic solution. I was speaking to an official in the Department of Agriculture and Food some time ago and he told me that only half the number of farms are sustainable. The current philosophy appears to be one of indifference towards the issue of survival on the farm.
I was examining the number of small food enterprises in my constituency ten years ago. Ninety per cent of them have gone out of business. I suggest the Minister survey the entire country and examine the number of small food enterprises that have gone out of business in the past five years. They appear to have vanished and they are not being replaced. Major support mechanisms must be put in place to encourage our small food industries.
The Ministers should support the excellent Féile Bia initiative. It deserves support but it is not getting it from the industry because it is using imported meat camouflaged as Irish meat. That is happening across the country in the tourism sector. It is a major challenge and the Minister should speak to her Minister of State about the practice which is happening everywhere. We need a total review of our agricultural policy. The three Ministers have the energy to do it and I suggest they do it immediately.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. B. Smith): Last night, my Government colleague, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, outlined clearly and in precise terms what this Government and the Department are doing to promote the sustainable development of a competitive, consumer focused agri-food sector at every level. I listened patiently to Opposition attempts to create the impression that no investment has been made in developing the industry and that nothing has been done for the consumer in terms of labelling. That is total nonsense.
Minch Malt Ltd. is Ireland’s largest maltster with an annual capacity of 125,000 tonnes. It sources quality malting barley directly from 3,500 Irish farmers for its malting plants at Athy and Banagher. The company is to close its malting plant at Banagher and its two intake points at Tullamore, County Offaly, and Borrisokane, County Tipperary. The company has given its reason for closure as competition on export markets in Russia, south east Asia and South America, to where it has traditionally exported 50,000 tonnes annually. It is retaining its principal plant in Athy.
The recent decision by Greencore to rationalise its operations by closing its sugar plant in Carlow, consolidating all of its sugar manufacturing in Mallow, was a commercial decision taken by the company in the light of increasing competition in the industry and as a consequence of the forthcoming reform of the sugar regime. The rationalisation programme involves an investment of €20 million to €25 million in Mallow, which demonstrates a commitment to the maintenance of an efficient sugar processing industry in the country.
To facilitate the one factory operation, I understand beet from the Wexford region will be diverted to Wellingtonbridge for transport to Mallow by rail. The company also plans a new rail depot to be established in the Carlow region to assist beet growers make their deliveries, and it is understood that a planning application will be submitted to Carlow County Council shortly.
A number of Deputies understandably referred to the nitrates directive. We are in discussion on that with the European Commission. Having put a well thought out package of proposals to the Commission before Christmas, drawn up with the assistance of Mr. Denis Brosnan and input from many sources, including the farming organisations, we were disappointed that it did not find favour with the Commission. The Minister, Deputy Roche, has also indicated his disappointment because it was a balanced package that met with general agreement.
We met the farming organisations again recently and officials have begun discussions with the European Commission. They have made it clear that we will defend our proposals on their scientific merits. We will all have to work hard for a successful outcome. We are not only facing what I understand could be very substantial fines but we also have to safeguard our continuing CAP funding. Negotiations will soon begin on the next round of rural development funding covering the rural environment protection scheme, compensatory allowances, forestry and the early retirement scheme. I am convinced that our position in those negotiations will be made very difficult if we are still in contention with the Commission about the nitrates directive.
Criticism was levied at the level of spending under the specific food related measures in the national development plan. As the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, said in her contribution last evening, the national development plan contains an indicative public funding allocation of €358 million for the food industry by means of a series of measures covering capital investment, research, technology and innovation, marketing and promotion and human resources. Despite a slow start due to delays in getting EU state aid approval for some measures and difficulties in 2001 arising from foot and mouth disease, progress has been good and, in some cases, exceptional. By the end of last year, a total of €187 million had been awarded under the various measures and I am confident the momentum that has built up will be maintained for the remainder of the plan.
On the food labelling issue raised by a number of Deputies both last night and tonight, I want to be very clear. In her contribution last night, the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, gave a comprehensive account of the exceptional progress that has been made in implementing the 21 recommendations of the Food Labelling Group. I repeat that the Department and the Department of Health and Children are currently examining the legislative measures necessary to extend the labelling rules on origin that currently apply to beef and poultry meat, sheep meat and pigmeat. We are also exploring measures for mandatory labelling of origin of all meat in the food service sector. The issues arising concerning products which come within the scope of the EU definition of substantial transformation will be considered in this context.
Mr. P. Breen: I congratulate the Minister and wish her well in her new portfolio. She has a difficult task ahead, particularly in Brussels with her negotiations on the beet sector and the nitrates directive. I also congratulate my colleague, Deputy Naughten, for bringing this motion before the House. If Deputy Naughten does as good a job in agriculture as he did in transport, Irish farmers will have a voice in the Oireachtas.
This motion has my full support. The issues of farming practices, labelling and consumer information are integral to the economic well-being and general health of the country. We all realise that farm payments, particularly the single farm payments, will have a dramatic effect on farming practices here. That point does not need to be emphasised.
We are also aware of the number of older farmers in the farming community. These people have been forgotten by the Minister and her Government as they pursue their socialist Inchydoney agenda. Family farms are the fabric of our society and are dependent for their viability and future on single farm payments. People must be treated fairly but they want transparent and equitable treatment.
Earlier I heard Deputy Callanan speak about the efficiency of the Department. That is odd because the Department of Agriculture and Food continues to have one of the highest rates of customer service complaints to the Office of the Ombudsman. I wonder where Deputy Callanan got his facts on that.
In 2004, the REPs budget was underspent by over €100 million. That should not happen again. Other areas were underspent also and I hope the Minister and her officials will use their budget this year to address the real concerns of farmers. Farmers deserve better treatment.
Last year I tabled a number of parliamentary questions in respect of force majeure applications in County Clare. More than 600 such applications were made but only 88 were successful. I am aware of a number of genuine cases where people who have suffered made applications at great expense, but failed. I refer, for example, to a widow who was obliged to set out her dairy herd during the three years in question and who did not qualify for force majeure payments.
There is another matter I would like the Minister to consider. I recently came across the case of a young farmer who was given land by his uncle. Due to the fact that his uncle was very old, there were few subsidies attached to what is a large area of land. The farmer in question did not qualify for any payments at all. He was obliged to seek other work to supplement his income. He then applied for the national reserve quota but because his income was just over €20,000, he does not qualify for payment. He would have been just as well off if there had been no subsidies or entitlements attaching to the land because he could have made a first-time application. I urge the Minister to consider the case of this man and the many others like him.
Farmers, as much as consumers, require a clear consumer focused quality food label. Farmers and consumers want origin and processor of all Irish food produce to be presented on labels. In addition to this, I call on the Minister to establish an explicit labelling system for the catering sector to ensure that consumers will have the highest degree of confidence possible in respect of all stages of the food chain.
Fine Gael believes these requirements in respect of food labelling are reasonable because they reflect the needs of consumers and the wishes of producers. We understand the link between consumer confidence, farm viability, product development and farm to fork product enhancement. I sincerely hope the Minister, for the good of all concerned, understands the issues we are discussing.
I will deal first with the questions raised by Deputy Ferris. The Deputy referred to the sugar industry. It is a pity he was not present in Carlow when the protest took place or that we was not in the House last week when we debated the sugar industry. It is sad that he is commenting critically on the issue because if he had read the motion he would be aware that it refers to the development and enhancement of the food promotion programme. The fact that 25% of all sugar sold here is imported highlights the difficulties the industry faces. If the sugar beet industry here fails, many arable farms will no longer be viable. It is a pity Deputy Ferris did not recognise that fact. If we had changed the motion to read “from farm to spoon” as opposed to “from farm to fork”, he might have understood it better.
Mr. Naughten: The Minister chose to employ that favourite old Fianna Fáil argument that everything is fine because they are spending loads of money. She attempted to dazzle the House with big numbers, referring to the amount of money being spent on the agri-food sector under the NDP and the number of people employed in the sector.
Mr. Naughten: The big numbers to which the Minister referred are impressive. We have been doing well and she and her predecessor spent loads of money. However, we are not doing as well as the Minister would like to suggest. By international comparisons, we are only doing all right.
It is predicted that by 2015 there will only be two major dairy processing companies here and that there will be a maximum of four or five beef slaughtering facilities in operation. The Government and the Minister appear to have buried their heads in the sand and are ignoring that issue. Deputy Deenihan referred earlier to small and medium sized food companies. Teagasc predicts that only 100 such companies will be left here.
Since the start of the year, the agri-food industry has lost more than 650 jobs. These include more than 400 jobs in Greencore, at Irish Sugar and in the malt and barley industry; 140 in Kantoher Poultry; and, as announced earlier today, 70 at Dairygold. These are the figures to which we must give consideration.
In its 2004 report, the enterprise strategy group expressed concern that the food and drink industry failed to grow its export trade to the extent other sectors achieved during the Celtic tiger years. Irish food and drink exports are growing at 3% per annum. As we move forward, we need to do more to develop the sector. Our international competitors — states across Europe and also countries such as New Zealand — have, in recent years, recognised that to successfully compete on new global markets, they will need to consolidate, up-scale and improve standards for research and development and innovation and marketing. The Irish agri-food sector is not adapting at the same pace. The Government avoids implementing reform and tackling the bottlenecks in the system, whether they exist in the areas of promotion, development, marketing or manufacture.
From listening to the Minister’s contribution, it seems future reform does not feature highly on the Government’s agenda. The Minster and her Fianna Fáil colleagues seemed far more interested in clapping themselves on the back for being able to have spent so much money. The ability to spend money is not a criterion for measuring success.
The Minister did not refer to increasing the State spend on research and development in the agri-food sector. I remind the House that, despite the proven economic importance of the food-processing industry to the State and the potential for future export growth, the food-processing industry receives significantly less State funding for research and development than other high-tech sectors. The standard in respect of a sector that produces 25% of our net exports is, therefore, second class. By international comparisons, the agri-food sector is doing all right. In the future, however, this will not be adequate. Only a secure and successful food processing industry will ensure that Irish farmers receive a fair price for their produce.
The Minister stated that Bord Bia is widely acknowledged as doing a thoroughly professional job in branding and promoting Ireland, the food island. She is correct. Bord Bia has done an excellent job in branding Ireland in this way. Why not associate this with an international label that could be used to promote Irish products throughout the European Union in order that consumers will specifically purchase such products? The majority of Irish beef goes into the catering trade at present, at a marginal profit to processors. Farmers are being squeezed as a result. We are clapping ourselves on the back because we are entering the catering trade but what we need to do is get our products on to the supermarket shelves and obtain premium prices for them. Unless we do the latter, Irish farms will not be viable in the future. To date the Government has ignored that reality.
The Government’s failure to close off the various legal loopholes in the area of food labelling will undermine consumer confidence in the Irish meat industry. This is a matter of extreme concern, particularly as the Commission has already put forward proposals to allow an extra 116,000 tonnes of beef from Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay into the European Union. That is an increase of almost 300% in the level of third country beef exported into the Union. Irish farmers will be obliged to compete with that low-cost product. We need labelling now and we need it throughout the European Union. The Minister can take the first step by putting a labelling system in place here.
The system of pigmeat imports into this country is also being abused. Some of the Minister’s colleagues stated earlier that it is great that the Food Safety Authority is responsible for tackling this abuse and that it is competent to deal with it. The authority does not have the resources available to it to draft the regulations and ensure that they are implemented and policed. It is great to pass the buck but everyone knows that doing so does not provide answers or ensure proper policing.
There are massive tonnages of beef going into one of the premium markets, in the Netherlands, where some Irish beef is being sent at present. We should be trying to get more product in there. If we had product labelling and a quality label for the Irish market, it would enhance the opportunity we have. I call on the Government to stop trying to distort the debate on the future of Irish agriculture by trying to dazzle the House with self-congratulations and big numbers. Based on international comparisons, the agri-food sector is doing all right, but that is no longer sufficient.
|Ahern, Michael.||Ahern, Noel.|
|Andrews, Barry.||Ardagh, Seán.|
|Blaney, Niall.||Brady, Johnny.|
|Brady, Martin.||Browne, John.|
|Callanan, Joe.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Carey, Pat.||Carty, John.|
|Collins, Michael.||Coughlan, Mary.|
|Cregan, John.||Curran, John.|
|de Valera, Síle.||Dempsey, Tony.|
|Dennehy, John.||Devins, Jimmy.|
|Ellis, John.||Finneran, Michael.|
|Fleming, Seán.||Glennon, Jim.|
|Grealish, Noel.||Hanafin, Mary.|
|Harney, Mary.||Haughey, Seán.|
|Hoctor, Máire.||Jacob, Joe.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Kelleher, Billy.|
|Killeen, Tony.||Kirk, Seamus.|
|Kitt, Tom.||Lenihan, Brian.|
|Lenihan, Conor.||McDowell, Michael.|
|McEllistrim, Thomas.||McGuinness, John.|
|Moynihan, Donal.||Moynihan, Michael.|
|Mulcahy, Michael.||Nolan, M. J.|
|Ó Cuív, Éamon.||Ó Fearghail, Seán.|
|O’Connor, Charlie.||O’Dea, Willie.|
|O’Donnell, Liz.||O’Donovan, Denis.|
|O’Flynn, Noel.||O’Keeffe, Batt.|
|O’Keeffe, Ned.||O’Malley, Fiona.|
|O’Malley, Tim.||Parlon, Tom.|
|Power, Peter.||Roche, Dick.|
|Sexton, Mae.||Smith, Brendan.|
|Smith, Michael.||Treacy, Noel.|
|Wallace, Dan.||Wallace, Mary.|
|Walsh, Joe.||Wilkinson, Ollie.|
|Woods, Michael.||Wright, G. V.|
|Allen, Bernard.||Boyle, Dan.|
|Breen, Pat.||Broughan, Thomas P.|
|Connaughton, Paul.||Costello, Joe.|
|Coveney, Simon.||Crawford, Seymour.|
|Cuffe, Ciarán.||Deasy, John.|
|Deenihan, Jimmy.||Durkan, Bernard J.|
|Ferris, Martin.||Gilmore, Eamon.|
|Gormley, John.||Harkin, Marian.|
|Higgins, Joe.||Howlin, Brendan.|
|Kehoe, Paul.||Lynch, Kathleen.|
|McGinley, Dinny.||McGrath, Finian.|
|McManus, Liz.||Mitchell, Olivia.|
|Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.||Murphy, Gerard.|
|Naughten, Denis.||Neville, Dan.|
|Noonan, Michael.||Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.|
|Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.||O’Dowd, Fergus.|
|O’Keeffe, Jim.||O’Shea, Brian.|
|O’Sullivan, Jan.||Pattison, Seamus.|
|Penrose, Willie.||Perry, John.|
|Quinn, Ruairí.||Ring, Michael.|
|Ryan, Seán.||Sargent, Trevor.|
|Sherlock, Joe.||Shortall, Róisín.|
|Stagg, Emmet.||Stanton, David.|
|Timmins, Billy.||Twomey, Liam.|
|Upton, Mary.||Wall, Jack.|
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