Tuesday, 27 June 2006
Dáil Eireann Debate
Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan): The implementation of the nitrates directive is a matter in the first instance for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The Minister, Deputy Roche, sent proposals to the European Commission in May for amendments to the regulations he made in December 2005 giving legal effect to Ireland’s nitrates action programme. The new proposals, which the Minister, Deputy Roche, has outlined publicly, were developed in conjunction with my Department and with the input of Teagasc. They address a range of important issues identified by submission and raised by the farming bodies.
There have since been direct discussions and other contacts between officials of Departments, Teagasc and the Commission. I understand that those discussions are close to being concluded successfully. I am satisfied that the outcome will be of major benefit to Irish farmers in that the changes being discussed with the Commission will provide them with greater flexibility in complying with fertiliser limits and will simplify certain aspects of the regulations. The changes, when agreed with the Commission, are likely to recognise that farmers in REPS are already farming to a high environmental standard. They will also provide an essential breathing space for the pig and poultry sectors, giving them extra time to adapt and to explore alternative ways of dealing with the manure produced on their holdings.
Once the discussions on the regulations are concluded, my priority is to proceed with negotiations on a derogation to allow certain farmers to operate, under appropriate conditions and controls, up to a level of 250 kg of organic nitrogen per hectare. The derogation proposal was given an initial presentation to the EU nitrates committee in December 2005 and there were bilateral discussions with the Commission in January, but no further progress was possible while the regulations were under review. The proposal will have to be discussed further at future meetings of the nitrates committee before approval can be obtained.
Mr. Crawford: I thank the Minister for her reply. Is there any truth in the rumour that has been circulating in the past few days that the regulations as presented to Brussels are not acceptable? Are they being sent back for further change, especially regarding fines and other penalties on farmers? Currently, those penalties are tough. How will the new situation deal with pig and poultry farmers? Will manure from those farms be allowed to go on other farms involved in REPS? What regulations will apply and how will they be affected? Is any effort being made to get litter and manure treated in the same way as fertiliser? As a farmer, it is unacceptable that one can buy whatever fertiliser one likes at the local store and spread it on the land, yet one cannot take a much superior product from local farms in the form of pig or poultry manure.
Does the Minister accept that farmers are in limbo because they do not know where they stand? As the Minister has said, the derogation cannot be given until the agreement is made. That means that many people are half way through this year’s season but still do not know what regulations they have to deal with.
Mary Coughlan: There has been no finality to the regulations that are being discussed by the Departments, Teagasc and the Commission. A number of proposals have been put forward, particularly with regard to REPS. As they involve an environmental methodology of farming anyway, one of the concerns was about the use of organic nitrogen on REPS farms, that is, inclusive of the pig and poultry sectors. If the proposals currently with the Commission are accepted, they will certainly alleviate many of the concerns that have been expressed by REPS farms.
In the pig sector, we are seeking an elongated timeframe to allow people to adapt. In particular, we are exploring alternative methodologies for using organic nitrogen. That derogation will allow people to adapt to change and will be most beneficial. Some weeks ago, I announced a farm investment programme which is geared specifically to new technologies. I am hopeful that the pig and poultry sectors, particularly in the Deputy’s area, will be involved in that new technology framework. That will allow us to deal with some of the current concerns.
Fines and other penalties are ultimately a matter for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the European Commission. The framework within which we work, the European Communities Act 1972, will not allow any further increase in fines. Concerns have been expressed but we are approaching finality in the discussions between the Departments and the Commission. We have put forward our concerns pragmatically as regards how we wish to see those regulations being amended and I hope they will be dealt with quickly. I am concerned, as we all are, that there had been a time lapse on the derogation which causes angst for farmers.
Once these regulations have been signed off, I intend to meet farmers to discuss all the outcomes, although I realise that summer is not a great time to meet farmers who are at their busiest then. I intend to work with the pig and poultry sectors and REPS farmers so that people will be well informed. Hopefully, the outcome of these discussions will ease some of the current concerns in farming circles.
Mr. Crawford: When will the nitrates committee meet again? Does the Minister accept that there is a need for a genuine and commonsense approach here? We are moving into a major change in circumstances whereby farmers’ main income is the single payment. If a farmer loses that payment, he or she would have to change to the farm assist programme. It is vital that time is afforded to ensure that people can work within the system and be fully advised on it. I welcome the Minister’s suggestion of having advisory meetings to deal with pig and poultry issues. The Minister must realise serious anxiety exists as to the direction we are taking. The sooner this matter can be sorted out, the better. Regardless of what she says about the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, does the Minister for Agriculture and Food accept she must deal with the issue of family income at farm level?
Mary Coughlan: As a Minister who has met many people throughout the country, I am acutely aware of the concerns that exist. I have taken the opportunity to quell some of this anxiety by providing full information. The Deputy and I agree that information meetings and sectorial meetings will be very important. In the context of the discussions that will take place next Wednesday on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, which is not appreciated among the public, it is important to note that one of the reasons people receive a direct income under the single farm payment is that there are cross-compliance measures.
I want to proceed in a pragmatic format with regard to the framework under which these issues are pursued. That is why it is important that I have met all the farming organisations during my tenure in office. It is also important that we have a charter, a review clause and a kind of a yellow card system to deal with minor misdemeanours. There will also be a major reduction in the number of inspections that will take place. We will continue to consider new ways to deal with these issues, like other member states in the decoupled system.
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