Wednesday, 13 February 1991
Seanad Éireann Debate
That Seanad Éireann, noting with concern the increasing threats to the natural environment posed by chemicals and poisonous compounds used in agriculture, and while welcoming the scheme of grants to assist farmers in carrying out pollution control work, calls on the Minister for Agriculture to introduce more stringent regulations to control the use of pesticides and to ban the use of strychnine to ensure human safety and the protection of wildlife.
Mr. McGowan: I have fairly strong views on this subject. It is important to  arrive at a fair balance. There are different interests at stake and I totally understand those who are concerned about foxes and different species of wildlife but it is also important for the farmer to eradicate dangerous animals like foxes. I have seen young lambs killed by foxes. There is a problem for the farming community: how to accept the terms of the motion before the House and at the same time survive economically on a farm.
Not long ago in Donegal there was a serious problem in relation to exploratory mining tests for uranium. We had all kinds of experts telling us what we could and could not do. One fellow who described himself as a doctor had a beard and a title. We established later that he had been drawing the dole for 30 years in England and had few if any qualifications. I question those people who put themselves forward as experts and hold extreme views on any subject. If we wanted to preserve our natural beauty we would never use fertilisers, pesticides or sprays. We would not use anything at all. We would all be naked.
Mr. McGowan: We must have a balanced approach to the problem of pollution. I support the motion. If we ban the use of strychnine we must introduce some alternative. I do not know what the answer is but perhaps the Minister would indicate his thinking on this. The Minister comes from a farming background and knows both sides of the argument. His concern for the environment would be as great as that of any Member of the House. I hope that we reach a satisfactory conclusion and that the Minister responds in such a way that farmers will believe they are not being got at again.
Mr. Hourigan: I support the main thrust of this motion but I have reservations about tighter controls on the use of certain chemical pesticides. Presumably this would extend to fungicides and other items also.
 I support without qualification a total ban on the use of strychnine. It is dangerous to human life and a very severe method of eradicating vermin, foxes or dogs. Strychnine was the customary way of dealing with sheep-worrying dogs. I have seen it used and unless extreme caution is taken in its application it can be highly dangerous to human beings. The smallest particle — any medical person present could vouch for this — of strychnine even under the nails would have a lethal effect. On those grounds alone it should be banned. It causes violent death to any unfortunate creature, human or animal, who consumes it.
Pesticides, weedkillers and fungicides all have a place to play in progressive agriculture. For example, over the years the proper application of fertilisers and pesticides have ensured good crops with the minimum amount of waste in the form of weeds, dirt and so on. We must be careful about the precise wording of this resolution. When we advocate more stringent regulations to control the use of pesticides we must question if it is right that enlightened, well-informed persons will be restricted in their use of certain pesticides. In many instances people are capable of safely using different pesticides, weedkillers and fungicides and this is one area where I have reservations about the motion.
It is ironic that the famous famine 140 years ago was caused because fungicides to control potato blight were not available. Half the population died as a result. There are many instances where production could be increased with the effective use of different chemicals. There is nothing wrong with using these various products. It is the abuse and misuse of them that cause the problems. For example, there are many medicines available in the farming sector which people are restricted from getting even though they are essentially harmless if used carefully. I know that one must legislate for all people but competent people should not be precluded from having many of these products available to them under certain conditions. Take MCA, for example, which is used for spraying  rushes. People use this product every day and get excellent results. There are no side effects or difficulties with it. There is no danger to health.
I spoke earlier today about the environment and the danger of having an oversupply of chemicals in circulation but we must be careful not to go too far in the other direction and limit or make unavailable products which are essential if we are to produce crops. For instance, it would be totally and utterly uneconomical for farmers to avoid using all forms of chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides, weedkillers, fungicides and so on. Organic farming is costly but if people are prepared to bear the cost then that is fine. However, on a commercial basis it is essential that these various products are made available. I would like to know what people have in mind when they talk about stringent controls. Perhaps the Minister — whom I should have welcomed to this House in my opening remarks — will tell us about that.
Strychnine should be taken off the market; it should not, under any circumstances, be made available to anybody. As far as many other products are concerned, exaggerated claims have been made about their side effects. Apart from cigarette smoking, there is medical evidence to substantiate the point that cancer and other major illnesses are not caused by the fumes or are the side effects of these products. There is a totally wrong belief — it is damaging to agriculture — that the use of fertilisers, pesticides, weed killers and fungicides has increased the incidence of cancer dramatically. That is not the case.
Mrs. Jackman: I thank Senator Hourigan for giving me five minutes of his time. This is a complex motion. There are three key issues and they could have been debated separately. The first issue relates to the increasing threat to the natural environment posed by chemicals and poisonous compounds used in agriculture. Farmers are judicious in their use of chemicals and poisonous compounds and the weather dictates when they  should be used. If you take the compounds used on cereals, alphidicides, a balance must be found and it is when we have inclement weather conditions during the summer months that the problem arises. Sprays should not be used in mid-summer but if nature decides otherwise and if there is indiscriminate use by the operator the bumble bee will be at risk. Autumn is the prime time for such spraying. The slug pellet does not cause a problem. The snail obviously eats it and that is that. A small farmer with a low income can hardly afford to pay £3, £4 or £5 per acre for those compounds. Specialist advice is needed and the farmer should be told when he should spray. We would not then have indiscriminate use of sprays.
Looking at the budget figures in relation to Teagasc, £1.25 million was allocated but farmers and farming organisations have talked about a £0.5 million shortfall. I know the Minister said that £0.5 million may be made up later but the service has disimproved. We have heard over and over again that the small farmer cannot afford to pay. At the end of the day we are talking about specialist advice and education being given to farmers.
To move on to the second point — pollution control and grant assistance — with the depression in farm incomes obviously there is great need for grant assistance. We know that 60 per cent of farmers have incomes under £5,000. Current grants fall behind actual costings. Under the Programme for Economic and Social Progress there is agreement for them to be index-linked and we would welcome that. There are problems for farmers in times of shrinking incomes.
It is interesting that since 1987 £300 million has been invested by farmers on pollution control measures. That means 30,000 farmers have carried out works which have resulted in a reduction in the level of agricultural pollution. The position with regard to fish kills has improved. Farmers are the first to spend  when they have good incomes. In 1987-89 when they had reasonable incomes they invested in pollution control measures and borrowings increased. Half of the work has been done. However, with the collapse in incomes now farmers cannot afford to do that work. When you go to the bank looking for an overdraft or to borrow money you are asked what sort of return you will have on your investment. For pollution control, the return is long term. Farmers are as interested as the rest of consumers in a fresh food, clean environment policy. They are just as interested in preserving the environment. I do not particularly want them to be solely regarded as “custodians of the environment” as seems to be the case with the MacSharry proposals. They have always seen themselves in that role but they must have a reasonable income to enable them to carry it out. If we want a clean, unpolluted environment we must grant aid them.
I do not have time to refer to the use of strychnine I welcome the input from the Irish Wildlife Conservancy whose spokesperson yesterday spoke so passionately about the rate of kite deaths as a result of their feeding on a poisoned sheep carcase. I support the spirit of the motion but at the end of the day if we want a clean environment we must pay for it.
Mr. Dardis: I welcome the Minister this evening. He is a very loyal attender in this House and it is nice to see him again. The Progressive Democrats will support this motion for one reason and that is in relation to the sentiments about strychnine, the need to ban it and thereby ensure human safety and remove the threat that it obviously poses to wildlife. However, I have serious reservations about other aspects of the motion. It seems to me rather a hotch-potch in some respects in that it mixes up several items which are not particularly well-related to one another.
As regards poisonous compounds used in agriculture, I know of very many but they are all naturally occurring ones.  Those of you who have partaken of a good meal in the restaurant have probably consumed a good deal of poison during the course of that meal. You may have had some salt which is a poison, you may have even gone to the bar and had some alcohol which is also poison and you may have had a cigarette which in itself is a third poison. Poisons are all around us. They do not just relate to agriculture. Quite innocuous substances are poisonous if taken in sufficient volume. That is the point: it is the dose that counts. We put chlorine in our water and that is regarded as being desirable from the point of view of the general well-being of the community but chlorine is a poison also. I would not like it to be commonly assumed that there is indiscriminate use of poisonous chemicals or compounds in agriculture. Pesticides are certainly in use but the Minister knows from the workers in his own Department that there are very rigorous controls on the development and sale of those compounds and that they play a very central role in the economic well-being of the industry. That is not to say that one would not be very conscious of the environmental aspects of the use of such compounds and of the requirement that they should be monitored very carefully. I do not like the linking of the matter of pesticides control with the matter of strychnine. These are two completely different things and I do not really understand the linking of pesticides with a scheme for the grants for farmyard pollution. That seems to me to be a separate issue.
One of the most notorious chemicals to have been developed this century was DDT. It was a very pernicious and a very dangerous chemical, considering what it did to wildlife. It worked up through the food chain and we all know what happened to eagles, to peregrine falcons and so on as a result of DDT. It had more widespread side effects than that. Of course, it came to a head when Rachel Carson wrote her famous book The Silent Spring. It must also be said that despite all of these drawbacks DDT was probably responsible for saving many  millions of lives in Africa by controlling locusts and so on, so there is a balance of advantage and society has to ask itself where the balance of advantage lies. The balance of advantage from a comfortable western middle class position is totally different from the position of somebody starving in an African desert. I think this is sometimes lost sight of.
There is an enormous challenge facing us in relation to feeding the world. We cannot for a moment defend the sort of position that we have in the EC where we have huge surpluses and significant costs involved in their maintenance. I have very serious ethical difficulties about a situation where we can spend millions of pounds per day on waging war and, on the other hand, we do not seem to be able to devote resources to disposing of that food to those who are most in need of it. That is not to say that something should not be done about it.
On the question of pesticides, I share the view which has been expressed by many Members in the House that they are essential to this task of trying to feed the world. The population of the world is going to reach 8.2 billion, and double itself by the year 2025. We are faced with an enormous task in feeding the world. Certainly we have problems in the Community. It is a question of resources; a question of relocating the mountain which is there. On a global basis there is no mountain. I think it is quite significant, and Professor Raftery referred to this last week, that Norman Borlang who was the person who more or less created the Green Revolution was the person who bred the dwarf wheats and fed the Indian sub-continent and other parts of the world also. As a result, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, not a Science Prize, for his work. He has said that he believes it is the judicious use of agricultural chemicals, especially chemical fertilisers, which is necessary to produce the food needed to feed today's population of 5.3 billion and to feed that growing population into the future. He said he wanted to stress that agricultural chemicals and fertilisers are like medicines; when used appropriately they are beneficial but when used without  proper caution they can be deadly. That is the essence of the problem. It is to do with how these substances are used rather than the nature of the substances in themselves.
In relation to naturally occurring substances, very many of them are toxic in their own right. I know that there is a unit in the Department which monitors agrichemicals and one of its chief concerns is the accumulation of the toxicological data relating to pesticides and its perusal. I sometimes wonder why data that is acceptable in other European countries, such as Germany where they have very rigorous standards in relation to agricultural pesticides, have to be presented in this country in a different form and somebody has, as he told me on one occasion, to come in with 50 lb. or maybe 5 cwt. of literature to satisfy the requirements. We have got to the point where analytical procedures can detect one part per billion of a substance within a pesticide, within a chemical, or within an agrichemical. As somebody said, that is like trying to find one Chinaman.
We focus very heavily on that aspect and that is not to say that environmental protection is not important. Of course it is. It is something we must all subscribe to. It is essential to the development of our agricultural economy that we be able to stand over the products we sell on the world market as being of superior quality, produced on an island which is perceived to be one that is environmentally friendly. The problem about all these things is that we leave out the efficacy factor. We do not care enough about how a substance is used at ground level and what it does to the crop. We are obsessed with the science of analysing what is in the substance without paying a great deal of attention to what the thing actually does.
In relation to the strychnine problem, it is only a matter of time before there is a human tragedy and a child or an adult — more likely a child — comes in contact with the substance and I understand that it is far more lethal to a human than it is  to a dog. It would require a much greater dose to kill a dog than it does to kill a human, but I would stand corrected on that. Of course, sheep farmers have an immense problem. I come from an area around the Curragh where there is devastation and you only have to see what dogs can do to a flock of sheep to want to do something very serious in retaliation. However, I do not think that excuses people who go around throwing meat over garden walls and killing dogs. We had a situation like that locally not so long ago. I do not think it is open to sheep farmers, whatever the provocation, to take the law into their own hands.
Strychnine is a totally indiscriminate killer. Apart from killing foxes and grey crows, it will kill other things. I notice from The Irish Times of today's date that the Irish Wildbird Conservancy has called for restrictions on the use of poisons on baited carcasses because they believe that two red kites died from feeding on such carcasses. I also note that the IFA last night strongly attacked any move to ban such poisons, calling it a retrograde step. I have to say quite explicitly to the IFA that I do not think that that is acceptable. I think that a grave responsibility exists in relation to human health and in relation to endangered species. I also have information from the International Council for Bird Preservation which says that the substantial use of strychnine, allegedly for pest control, which is not done in accordance with the regulations, does huge damage. Ireland is the only EC country to permit the sale of the substance. It cites the example of the buzzard which comes our way occasionally and is nearly always poisoned by strychnine.
I also note that the Taoiseach may wish to re-establish the sea eagle on Irish-vickillane, so if we were to facilitate the Taoiseach so much the better. Let us try to facilitate the Taoiseach. I do think that a balance is required in relation to the whole question of pesticides and their use in agriculture. I think it was Swift who said that the man who could make two blades of grass grow where one previously grew was worth more than the  whole band of us in here. That is still the position. Despite all the problems which we have within the European Community and despite the food mountains, we are faced with having to feed a world which is going to demand more and more food in the future. I think the position which we take from comfortable dinner tables in middle class houses may not be the position that the world which is starving requires of us.
I welcome the motion. It is a pleasant change that I am in agreement with everything that is on it. I do not know whether that should be worrying for me or for Fianna Fáil, but that is the way it is. I believe that there is a great need for more stringent regulations in relation to the control of pesticides. Pesticides are a threat under two broad headings. First of all, they present a threat to the environment and, secondly, a threat to human health. In relation to the threat to the environment, the use of pesticides gives rise to the generation and production of pests which are themselves resistent to the pesticides; they give rise to the necessity to use larger doses of the pesticides to ensure that the pests are killed. There are, of course, the well-documented adverse affects of DDT residue in the carcases of animals giving rise to the problems with wild birds, such as hawks and so on, that Senator Dardis has already mentioned.
A report was referred to in the United Kingdom last October and great concern expressed about the level of pesticides in drinking water which was consumed by the public in Britain. Those are some of the environmental problems in relation to human health. I think it should be put on record that the World Health Organisation estimates that approximately 10,000 people are poisoned each year from the use of pesticides. That takes place for the most part in the Third World. But of course some deaths have also taken place in this country. There are well documented cases of accidental  poisoning due to the use of paraquat. Quite a lot of effort went into trying to diminish the risk of that. There is also the matter of what is not known — the area of doubt. American research, for example, suggests that farmers exposed to the weed killer 24D for more than 20 days per year are six times more likely to suffer from certain forms of cancer. Alden, for example, is concentrated in the milk of mothers who are feeding their babies because of the way it is metabolised. That should be a matter for concern.
All of us are going around with a certain amount of DDT in our bodies; all of us would have a certain amount of DDT deposited in our fat. It depends on the amount of fat that we have in use, of course, and on our exposure to DDT. That is the reality. I cannot say that it does any great harm. I cannot say with certainty that the opposite is not the case either. The problem with these pesticides is the question of toxicity and there you are into an area of uncertainty. How do you extrapolate from experiments carried out on laboratory animals to situations involving humans? Do you do it on the basis of their body weight? Do you do it on the basis of their surface area? Do you do it on the basis of a whole range of differing indices of metabolic size and so on? Is there any certainty that the studies which are carried out on experimental animals are relevant to humans? There is certainly well-documented evidence that some compounds are metabolised differently in laboratory and in experimental animals compared to in humans.
Senator Dardis already alluded to the fact that strychnine was metabolised differently in humans and in dogs. We do not know what effects small amounts of these compounds which are consumed over a long period of time will have on people. We do not know what their effects will be on various multifactoral disorders — those diseases which arise from a series of differing factors coming together. Here is another factor fed into the equation.
We do not know either what their  effects might be on the manner in which genetic information is passed from one generation to another. I am saying these things simply to illustrate the point that there is no certainty that these products are not harmful; neither in the case of many of them do we have evidence that they are. You are left in an area of doubt and it is in that context that you have to make decisions and of course you are talking about risk benefit and all that type of thing.
I have some concern about the manner in which the residues are controlled in this country. The main way of controlling these residues and the use of pesticides seems to be to monitor the levels of residues which are found in materials entering the food chain. That system of monitoring, first of all, does not preclude the improper application of the pesticide; it does not preclude the usage of doses of the pesticide greater than recommended nor, for that matter, does it ensure that the person using the pesticide will read the instructions as to how it should be used. Even if they do read and understand the instructions there is still no certainty that they will follow them. These are areas of considerable uncertainty.
I gather that some 2,000 samples of food material are analysed for a wide number of residues and metabolised residues each year. That seems a large sample but it is still a relatively small amount of the total food which is consumed. There is no published data on the levels of residues in Irish foodstuffs even if that data were available. There is no data on the intake of pesticides by various segments of the population; there is no data available on the intake of pesticides by those sections of the population which may be considered to be at risk from exposure to them. There is no data, for example, available on the intake of pesticides and of various other herbicides by those who are pregnant, by lactating mothers, by the young, by the elderly, by those who have various metabolic and other types of medical disorders. We are simply in an area of ignorance as far as all these things are concerned. The reality  is that approximately 2,700 pesticides, herbicides and fungicides can be offered for sale in Ireland. I suppose that about 1,000 of those products actually do get on to the market. What we are talking about here is the fact that there at 1,000 products which have the capacity to kill biological material, making their way into the food chain, and we really do not know the extent to which they are being consumed quite simply because we have not done the necessary research.
As to what should be done about these products and how we might tighten things up, there are a number of suggestions that I would make, firstly, I believe that people who use those compounds should be accountable for the way in which they are used. They should be answerable for the manner in which they are applied. Those who use them should be properly trained and regulations should be made to ensure that that happens. I believe that the proper use of these products on farms should be properly monitored and should be used as a last resort and at minimal levels. I think that that is important from a human health point of view. I also believe that it is important from the point of view of the welfare of the economy because the big selling point that the Irish food industry has going for it is its image of purity on the European market. It is absolutely essential that we make every effort to protect that image and that we safeguard it very jealously indeed. There is little purpose in people making excuses for the use of these products and putting the other side of the case to the one which I am making. We should reduce as far as possible the level of these things which are used so that we can face the European consumer and assure them that what we are producing here by way of food is the most wholesome material that can be produced anywhere. If we make the long term investment it will certainly pay dividends. I welcome the motion and the general approach that is implied in it, particularly when it refers to terms of greater and tighter controls on the use of pesticides. I certainly would be all for it.
Mr. Ross: I would like to thank Senator  Upton for so generously giving us some of his time. I have to admit, first of all, that I was not aware, before I was informed by the Irish Wildbird Conservancy Association and by Senator Fitzgerald in the Fianna Fáil motion, of the free availability of strychnine. I congratulate the Government on producing this motion. I think it is quite horrifying and it certainly reminds me of the appalling way that we treat animals throughout the world in the interests of selfish commercialism. It reminds me of the seal cull which goes on in Iceland, Greenland and elsewhere, and also of the obligations we have to nature which we do not fulfil. It is particularly shocking because strychnine is quite obviously a very brutal form of poisoning. Strychnine, as I understand it, does not kill someone dead immediately but is a very brutal and very painful form of poisoning. While I and anyone who wants to preserve wildlife understands the need to protect flocks and to protect certain animals from predators, we must do it in a humane way and in one which is recognised as civilised by society.
I would like to ask the Minister if he can give us some promise that this motion which has all-party support and is welcome will be translated into legislation because everybody here is as aware as I am that passing a motion in this House has absolutely no legislative effect. When this is passed unanimously, as it will be this evening, farmers will continue to poison dogs, birds, mammals and protected species just as they did before. It is also quite obvious that it is not just birds, whether barn owls, or buzzards which are at risk but that this poison threatens children, sheepdogs and all sorts of animals which it was not intended this particular poison should kill. It seems to me that one of the current practices is wrong. The idea that poisoned carcases should be used to attract predators is utterly wrong. That seems to me like an agent provocateur. It seems to be drawing them in from various areas to the exact places where they are not meant to be and sending them away poisoned.
My understanding is that now is the  right time for a reform of this legislation. When it was originally introduced it appears we did not have alternative means of protecting the species and wildlife we are trying to protect. It seems to me from the briefing I received that there are now new methods for protecting these species and that they should be used. I refer to five strand electric fences and sophisticated forms of putting wildlife down which certainly exclude strychnine. It is a pity Ireland is one of the few countries left which actually allows strychnine to be sold across the counter quite freely. I know there are some restrictions but they are very minor ones. I hope no more wildlife becomes extinct in this country after the introduction of measures which I hope will see the beginning of the end of the use of strychnine in this country.
Mr. Norris: I would like to thank Senator Upton for giving us some time and also thank Senator Tom Fitzgerald who approached me last week and asked if I might contribute in some small way to this. This is one of the reasons I have done so. It is an excellent motion and, like Senator Ross, I hope it will be acted upon.
There are three or four Acts, the Wildlife Act, the Vagrancy of Dogs Act — going back to the 19th century — and then an Act of 1965. If this motion is going to mean anything as Senator Ross has said, it will require amendment of the legislation. I would like to concur with Senator Ross and ask if the Minister will indicate to the House what he has in mind with regard to such amendment. Otherwise we are going to be facing what was outlined for us in the title of a famous American book A Silent Spring. In other words, a great deal of our wildlife is going to be eliminated from the countryside. Very rarely now do we hear the corncrake and we are facing the elimination of large numbers of species of birds well known to the Irish people.
I would like to mention the fact that, in addition to being approached by the Irish Wildbird Conservancy, I have also been approached by a constituent who  is Chairman of the Irish section of the International Council for Bird Preservation. The information which was placed before me from this source is very worrying with regard to the question of strychnine. Strychnine is an extremely dangerous poison. In every other European country it is very closely regulated and its sale is illegal in all other European Community countries. That clearly points to us as an anomalous element in the equation.
The use of strychnine here for pest control is inaccurate. It is almost the equivalent of the much vaunted precision bombing of the Allies. It is simply not precise. It is not an accurate method and it feeds a highly dangerous poison into the food chain. I heard someone speak on the radio this morning about the poisoning of two red kites, which are rare birds, in County Wicklow — I think it was somewhere around Bray, but I may be wrong about this. These birds are believed to have been killed as a result of eating carcases poisoned with strychnine. So this very week we have a classic example of a situation where bird species are threatened. It is a very unpleasant way of dying because the animal or bird dies apparently in some considerable agony.
Another example would be the buzzard, a very remarkable and beautiful bird which my informant tells me would thrive in Ireland if the kind of amendments which are being proposed were passed into legislation. This is clearly shown by virtue of the fact that strychnine is not available north of the Border. The buzzard population is quite healthy there but gradually it fades out as you come south. This correlation is clearly traceable to the availability of strychnine.
It is also worth mentioning that Irish strychnine is smuggled illegally to Scotland where it continues to do damage. I have concentrated on strychnine because it is an aspect on which I have been briefed but the Minister will also take into account situations like the import  into this country and the illegal distribution of angel dust which used to be——
Mr. Norris: I have made my point. I have concentrated the argument on strychnine but there are other substances which I have no doubt other people will deal with. I am grateful for being afforded the opportunity to speak at all.
Mr. Hussey: I support this motion because every year we read of a number of tragic accidents where people, because of their lack of knowledge of the dangers of certain pesticides either inhale the fumes or in some cases swallow the substance leading often to tragic consequences for the victim. The utmost precautions should be taken by the manufacturers of those products, by the retailers who are selling the products to the general public and by the general public themselves who are the users of those products. Very often the labelling on the containers is inadequate and the danger to life is not highlighted enough by those who are selling those chemicals and pesticides.
In recent years we have seen enormous usage of pesticides in Ireland though it is still low in comparison to European standards. This came about because of the increased markets for the farmers' produce and, therefore, the farmers wanted to get the maximum yield from their land. The use of pesticides contributed in no small way to this high yield. Indeed, without pesticides many crops could not be grown at all and others could  not be grown economically in competition with other EC countries. Pesticides are essential for controlling vectors of human and animal disease, controlling pests of forest species particularly in nurseries, cereals, potatoes, sugar beet etc. Without pesticides food could not be produced in many countries at economic prices and famine conditions would obtain. While the use of pesticides is necessary to protect crops, more stringent control is also necessary to protect the environment and to ensure human safety and the protection of wildlife. That is why we have put down this motion tonight for discussion.
I am satisfied that there is excessive use of pesticides and of poisonous chemicals and this is certainly having a harmful effect on the environment and particularly on wildlife. How many of the birds we were all so familiar with in our youth have now vanished because of the use of artificial fertilisers? The corncrake, whose call was so familiar in rural Ireland, is no longer there. There are many other species, which I cannot name at present, that are also extinct. It is sad to see that happen because of the excessive use of pesticides.
There are certain regulations in place to control the sale and use of pesticides but, in view of the excessive use of those chemicals, there should be a reappraisal of those regulations. I would like to hear from the Minister the staff numbers employed in his Department to deal with this problem and also to test the various brands of pesticides and poisonous chemicals that are coming on the market. My information is that the numbers of personnel employed by the Department who are qualified to deal with this very important matter are inadequate and I ask the Minister to have this rectified. It would be disastrous if the Department of Agriculture and Food were in any way found to be inadequate in dealing with this very important matter.
Strychnine is better regulated than pesticides. It is controlled by the Department of Health but conservationists are still concerned that the quantities being used in Ireland are increasing. In fact,  strychnine imports into the Republic in 1988 were 40 times the amount imported into Northern Ireland. The quantities recorded were 22 kilos and 0.5 kilos respectively. There has been an increase in the use of strychnine and I urge that strictest of controls be enforced in regard to this poison. It is a very dangerous substance if it gets into the hands of people who are not aware of its danger. It is important that we discuss this matter in this House. I support the motion and congratulate Senators who have contributed on it.
Mr. R. Kiely: This motion has four parts. The first is the threat to our natural environment posed by chemical and poisonous compounds. The second, for which we can congratulate the Minister for Agriculture and Food in implementing the control of farm pollution, is a scheme which has worked extremely well and was aided by the EC. The third is calling for regulations to control the use of pesticides and the fourth is to ban the use of strychnine to ensure human safety and the protection of wildlife. There is a tremendous acceptance and appreciation by farmers in my area of the assistance given by the Minister for Agriculture and Food and indeed, the EC, in aiding farmers to carry out pollution control. Today I would like to congratulate the Minister, the Minister of State and the EC for providing the necessary finance to ensure that pollution from our farmyards is down to a minimum.
In regard to the threat to our natural environment by chemical and poisonous compounds, we should look at Ireland and look at pollution in two forms — atmospheric pollution and ground pollution. Ireland, being an offshore island, has the cleanest atmospheric environment in the Community. I would even go as far as saying that produce in Ireland is far cleaner due to our clean atmospheric environment. Environmental issues will be very important over the next ten years. They are quite expensive to farmers at present even with high grants from the Government.
 The Dutch, who have pollution problems, expect to reduce their chemicals by 50 per cent by the year 2000. In other words, one-third of the 320 pesticides used will be phased out. At present, 220 tonnes of pesticides are used in Holland every year and it is proposed to reduce this amount by 50 per cent. In regard to chemicals, the Dutch will spend £700 million over the next ten years to bring about a change over to organic produce. That will mean a substantial reduction in the use of chemicals. They have a tremendous problem with pesticides and ground water. Regulations for nitrogen are to be drawn up and the disposal of manure is of central importance. They are talking about a processing capacity of six million tonnes by the end of 1994. They have massive problems that will cost a lot of money to remedy.
In this country we do not have as many environmental problems. Therefore, we should enter the purer food market more rapidly than the Dutch. It all comes down to one thing, promotion of our products, dairy, beef, lamb, poultry, vegetables and so on. We should promote them on the scale of our production, and organically, because any one of the aforementioned products are produced almost 90 per cent organically. We are very low users of chemicals. Our underground water is almost totally unpolluted but that does not mean we must not put corrective procedures into place. We should promote the proper use, instead of the abuse, of chemicals. We need a minimal use of chemicals in our environment. Perhaps we should be marketing our produce stating that our residues are at least 50 per cent below the Community acceptable level. I have no doubt that we will be able to achieve this. There are regulations under Community law for the control of chemicals. We do not need any further controls, only better education and awareness programmes within our community on the proper use of chemicals.
The fourth part of this motion deals with banning the use of strychnine. In doing so we will be protecting our wildlife  and this will further enhance our reputation for having a clean food environment. We need a proper structure within our agricultural industry, supported by industry, farmers and ourselves to market our produce with extremely low levels of pesticides. Marks and Spencers in the UK have recently withdrawn all organic produce from their shelves. This has coincided with the change in the American attitude where they recognise the proper use of certain chemicals to aid and enhance their produce.
As we need antibiotics to get over colds, so also animals and plants need certain chemicals to increase their resistance. Finally, I will stress again that more stringent control is needed on the use of strychnine to ensure human safety and the protection of lives. The Minister for Agriculture and Food is implementing regulations for the control of farm pollution but a further educational process on the proper use of chemicals which are below normal acceptable standards in the world is needed.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. Kirk): I welcome this motion on the vitally important subject of protecting the natural environment. I am impressed by the strong support which the motion has got. That the motion has been put down for debate and has been so fully supported is a clear indication of the welcome growing concern about the protection of the environment in all its forms.
Tonight's motion covers a wide range of environmental concerns, including the protection of the land on which we grow our crops and feed our livestock, the protection of streams and rivers, as well as the protection of wildlife. All these concerns fit into a single pattern — that of environmental protection. We seek to improve the environment in which we live.
We are also anxious to continue to let this country be known abroad as a place which not only has a very good environment but that we are anxious to be at the forefront in maintaining that position. Very good economic considerations are  also involved. Our food export industry benefits from the fact that it is produced in a clean environment. This point of view is well accepted here by all involved in the food industry and those dependent on it for their livelihood.
The natural environment and its protection are, of course, a much broader question than that of the agricultural sector alone. The Government have nominated it for priority attention and, the House will recall, the Taoiseach gave it special designation as one of the subjects for attention during our term of Presidency of the European Community last year. Within the Government, primary responsibility is assigned to the Minister for the Environment who promotes and operates the broader national legislation relating to the environment. The provisions of that legislation apply to all sectors including agriculture. There are also areas which are specific to the agricultural industry and control of these falls within the responsibility of the Minister for Agriculture and Food. It is this area which is for debate this evening.
The chemicals and poisonous compounds mentioned in the motion consist mainly of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. In the case of fertilisers the main concern is that the over-use and leaching of fertilisers into waterways could create problems of excessive nitrates which could be detrimental to water, wildlife or to public water systems. The usage of fertilisers in this country is low by international standards and the continued monitoring of water systems has not indicated that fertilisers represent a risk. We are participating, within the European Community, in discussions to consider whether legislation should be introduced to govern the level of trace elements in fertilisers and also the prospects for introducing new fertilising products such as slow-releasing nitrogen types. This work could lead to the imposition of more strict control on such fertilisers that might be considered potentially harmful to the environment.
Pesticides have proved a huge boon to modern agriculture by controlling diseases and pests of crops, and contributing  to the production of cheap, high-quality food, thereby reducing the incidence of under-nutrition in developing countries. However, being biologically active products they are also potentially dangerous to man and the environment. They are intended to be toxic to the unwanted or pest species, without causing damage to treated species, to man or the environment. It is necessary, therefore, that their use be controlled by laws and regulations which have a wide margin of weighting in favour of the safety aspect. This is the position here in Ireland where two bodies of statutory regulations governing the sale and use of pesticides, are administered.
The first body of regulations is entitled the European Communities (Classification, Packaging and Labelling of Pesticides) Regulations, 1985 to 1989. A pesticide may not be sold on the market without getting clearance under these regulations. The regulations came into operation in 1985 and an arrangement was made that products already on the market could continue to be sold provided they met certain conditions in the regulations. These old pesticides are being called up in batches for a more detailed examination before getting final clearance. Any pesticide put on the market for the first time after 1985 has to receive examination and clearance beforehand. In the process of clearing pesticides under the regulations, safety evaluations are made and a pesticide which is regarded as constituting a danger to human health or the environment may be prohibited or have special conditions attached to its clearance. Inspectors of the Department of Agriculture and Food carry out regular inspections at wholesale and retail outlets to ensure that pesticides on sale comply with the regulations. As a result, several seizures were made and a number of instances of court proceedings resulted in successful prosecutions.
The other body of legislation deals with the level of pesticide residues in or on fruit and vegetables, cereals and foodstuffs of animal origin. These regulations, which operate throughout the European Community, lay down maximum residue  levels for a wide range of pesticides in designated foodstuffs. The maximum levels are set at a very safe level. Regular samples of all designated foodstuffs, both home grown and imported, are taken by officers of the Department of Agriculture and Food. To illustrate the effectiveness of these controls, out of 547 samples taken in 1989 only four were found to be above the limit. In such cases a warning is issued and special attention is given afterwards to produce from the same source. I would like to assure the House that in no case was a repeat discovered.
A third body of proposed legislation on pesticides is at present being discussed in Brussels. It will impose a tighter control on pesticides by requiring that all acceptable active ingredients are registered and only pesticides manufactured from these ingredients can be put on sale.
As in the case of fertilisers, Ireland is a relatively small user of pesticides. From my presentation here Senators will note that the policy and control measures being operated are designed to retain the high quality of our environment. This will involve, of course, a continuing vigilance by all sectors within which the agricultural industry will play its part.
The motion proposes to “ban the use of strychnine to ensure human safety and the protection of wildlife”. Over the years, very strict controls have applied to the sale and use of strychnine. The purpose of these controls was, first of all, to protect human life. In regard to agriculture it is interesting to note that in the Protection of Animals Act, 1911, passed by the British Parliament, a special provision was made allowing the use in Ireland of strychnine or other poisons on land subject to the precautions of posting a notice and notifying the police. That permission was continued with some small modifications when the protection of Animals (Amendment) Act was passed by the Oireachtas in 1965.
I feel it is time we looked critically at that special provision. I think the time has come to ban strychnine. I propose to initiate the necessary action within my Department to ban the use of strychnine  in poisoned bait by farmers. In so doing, we would be bringing our law into line with that in other countries. That we should continue to allow the use of strychnine is, in my view, likely to do damage internationally to our good name as people who care for the environment. There are many disturbing accounts of damage being done to wildlife, particularly rare wild birds. It is possible that banning strychnine may cause protests from some livestock owners, especially sheep farmers. I must ask how so many sheep farmers here manage without using strychnine and how is it that successful sheep farming can be carried on in Scotland, Wales and elsewhere where strychnine and other poisons are banned.
I will deal briefly with a number of points which were raised. Senator McGowan raised the question of alternatives to strychnine. There are many compounds available which are more toxic than strychnine. However, none of these compounds is viable without undergoing detailed evaluation and, at present, could not be recommended as an alternative.
Senator Hussey raised the question of the labelling of pesticides. All pesticides assessed by the Department of Agriculture and Food are then labelled in accordance with EC legislation. In regard to the numbers of staff involved in the evaluation of pesticides, ten personnel are directly involved.
The motion makes favourable comment on the operational programme for the control of farmyard pollution. I am glad to tell the House that it is proving satisfactory in operation. The position is as follows: the operational programme for the control of farmyard pollution was the first operational programme approved for Ireland in the context of the negotiations on the National Development Plan 1989-1993. In fact, it was approved by the Commission in advance of the finalisation of the Community support framework for the plan in response to a special request by the Minister for urgent EC assistance to deal with our pollution problem.
Under the programme grants of 55 per  cent are payable for slurry and effluent storage and 45 per cent for animal housing and fodder storage in the less favoured areas of the country; outside those areas the corresponding grant rates are 45 per cent and 35 per cent respectively. Young farmers meeting certain educational criteria are entitled to grants which are one-quarter higher.
The date, some 28,000 applications have been received for pollution control work under the scheme. Of these, 21,000 have been approved to proceed with work representing a total investment of £173 million, while grant aid of £38 million has already been paid. This represents real progress on farmyard pollution.
Besides the steps which I have taken to control the concentration of residues in our soil, I also have responsibility for the organic farming unit of my Department. Senators will be aware that a new unit was set up in June of last year following a budgetary allocation of £450,000. Its objective is to develop all aspects of organic production, whether horticultural, tillage or livestock.
Organic farming is a method of production whose hallmark is an ecologically sound system of farming. To achieve this, it uses positive beneficial practices such as balanced rotations, extensive use of composts and green manures and specific cultivation techniques as well as a prohibition on the use of agrochemical pesticides, chemical fertilisers and veterinary products. Clearly from an environmental point of view the development of organic farming is a trend I welcome and during our Presidency agreement was reached by the Council of Ministers on a measure which will regulate the production and labelling of organic produce. This proposal, which has been agreed in principle, is awaiting the opinion of the European Parliament and other technical examinations before adoption by the Council of Ministers. Implementation of this regulation will provide a statutory assurance to the consumer of organic quality and environmental conservation and protection of our countryside.  However, Senators will also be conscious of the fact that organic farming results in lower production levels and requires a premium price for its produce in order to sustain this reduction in volume. The reality is, that only a limited number of people have the discretionary income to afford these higher prices. The combination of reduced food production and higher prices means, in effect, that for the foreseeable future produce from conventional methods of farming will be the main source of food.
That being said, it would be shortsighted of this country to ignore the fact that a market exists for premium organic produce. Not alone is the market growing but present production levels cannot meet this demand, much less cater for an increase. Furthermore, this is a market for which Ireland would have an advantage by virtue of its perceived image of having a relatively unpolluted environment. It is to ensure that this country is in a position to capitalise on this niche market that the organic unit was established.
I realise that a major difficulty which this country has is the small number of scale of practising organic producers. There are many reasons for this but the principal ones would relate to a lack of information on what is entailed in the production of organic produce. This is why the organic unit has allocated a high proportion of their resources this year towards building up a sound information base by giving grants in aid to academic institutions to hold courses on the topic, to research agencies either to provide empirical data on the precise systems which suit our methods of production and to market bodies to ascertain precisely the market requirements and how best to meet them.
I would like to put on record my support for this motion. I think I have covered all of the relevant sections of my Department which have an input into the protection of the natural environment. Finally, I wish to thank all the Senators who contributed to the debate here tonight and, indeed, last Wednesday night also. All the contributions were  well researched and showed a depth of concern and interest on the part of the Senators.
Mr. McKenna: First, I want to compliment the Minister on his positive response to this motion. I congratulate his for stating that the time has come to ban strychnine and that he proposes to initiate the necessary action in his Department to ban the use of strychnine in poison bait by farmers. This will be welcome news for all the people who have been campaigning and lobbying at every available opportunity for this development. Everybody who has been involved in promoting this motion and in bringing the ban on the use of strychnine to this stage are to be congratulated. A special word of congratulations should go to Senator Tom Fitzgerald because he initiated this motion and he gave a brief to all Senators who were interested in following through. The motion got widespread support from all sides of the House. Also, I would like to pay tribute to the Irish Wildbird Conservancy who have campaigned for so long to bring about this development.
In passing it is important to reiterate — I think it was Senator Dardis and Senator Norris who mentioned this — the fact that two red kites have been found poisoned here and the strong possibility is that they were poisoned by bait laced with strychnine. I will explain briefly the background. As we know, red kite are a rare species of birds of prey. I understand there is a small colony of them in Wales at the moment and I believe that the two kites found dead here were part of a consignment of 19 that had been released in the highlands of Scotland to try to regenerate the population of red kites. Unfortunately, they strayed over here. That proves, in great detail the difficulty with birds of prey. The two birds that strayed over here died and the strong possibility is that they died from bait that was laced with strychnine.
In case anybody is under the impression that those who proposed this motion are a motley crew of do-gooders  I hasten to add that nothing could be further from the truth. All of us, on all sides of the House, have some connection in one way or another with farming. A number of us were raised on farms, others have spent holidays on farms and know exactly what farming is all about. It is understandable that the farming community should try as far as possible to protect their livestock by whatever method but nobody, but the wanting few, would wittingly set about to destroy the beautiful creatures that are part of our heritage. Some farmers decide on the spur of the moment — because predators prey on their sheep — to try any method of getting rid of the predators.
Senator Ross made an important point when he mentioned the lacing of bait with strychnine. One part of the law as it stands that bemuses me is that one has to get a certificate from a Garda Síochána to buy strychnine. One can then go to a chemist and purchase it and use it in whatever careless fashion one likes. There is a regulation which a states that where a beast dies on the land that beast has to be removed, but if the beast is laced with strychnine it can be left there as bait. That is absolutely appalling because that animal becomes increasingly more dangerous for a number of reasons. It has been mentioned by a number of Senators that the use of strychnine is very toxic. There are spin-off effects relating to the animals that eat the bait and also to those that eat those animals when they die. Even in terms of human tragedy the dangers inherent in the use of strychnine are absolutely appalling and it is most appropriate that the Minister should announce he is putting legislation in motion that will ban its use.
It is important to put on record that the profesional in pest control will neither recommend the use of strychnine because of the inherent dangers both to man and beast, nor will they use it themselves. Although it has been used for many years, it has not solved the problem. That is the kernel of the whole matter. There is not one shred of evidence to show, that the use of strychnine increases livestock  or does away with predators. In fact, the reverse could be argued. For the reason Senator Ross mentioned, bait actually draws predators rather than eliminates them. It does the reverse of what it was intended to do in the first place. I am particularly pleased that this announcement has been made here tonight. I am particularly happy that it should be made at a time when we are debating another piece of major environmental legislation. It is appropriate that the two of them should coincide and that the Minister has announced that he will be introducing further very important environment legislation.
I think it is appropriate that this motion, which has got a very positive response from the Minister, will make people more aware of the responsibilities we have to very rare species of wild fowl. Senator Hussey mentioned the corncrake that we were all very familiar with when we were young, but you will not hear the corncrake any more. It is a sad reflection on society. Despite technological development in farming, industry and so on, we can all live in harmony. We should recognise the problems because we have a responsibility and a duty to protect those species that need our protection.
It is unthinkable that very rare species of wild fowl, if immediate action is not taken to protect them, will be extinct within a very short time. Then we will be moaning and wondering why people did not do something. It is our responsibility to take steps now. If we woke up in the countryside one morning and did not hear the birds singing, see squirrels running around, see the wild fowl and heard nothing but our sighs for an environment that is gone there is absolutely nothing that could be done about it. The time to act is now. The Minister has made a very positive statement here this evening. I am delighted to have been here when he made it. I compliment and congratulate the Minister and I congratulate everybody involved in this particular development. It is a great day for the environmental protection of the wildlife.  Question put and agreed to.
|Last Updated: 23/05/2011 07:13:21||Page of 11|