Agriculture – Statement by Dan Neville

The Government have seriously neglected the Farming and Agri Food sectors which has a severe impact on the farming lives and on the economy of Co. Limerick. The Agri Food sector was seriously destabilised by the economic crisis.

During the boom the construction industry provided a false sense of security for farmers presenting as a source of off farm employment which masked the lack of government support and development of the farming sector. In 2008 40% of farmers held an off farm job. Of those 50% held an off farm job in construction. In the first 6 months of 2009 off farm employment for part time farmers fell by 35%. The reality of this crisis was reflected in farm incomes. The average farm income in Ireland fell by 30% in 2009, three times the EU average a drop of 40% from 2007 to a low of €11,968 and the number of farmers seeking Farm Assist increased by 200%.

The last government cut supports to REPS, Early Retirement Scheme, Young Farmers Installation Scheme and REPS Suckler Cow Scheme. The new government must be committed to protecting existing farm gate supports to the best extent possible and the priority is to try and find efficiencies within the current budgetary framework to provide for those farmers who are going to find themselves locked out of the Agri Environment Options Scheme in 2011 as they finish their REPS 3 contracts.

Primary Producers should not have to accept a price for their produce which is below the cost of production. Equally, consumers should not have to pay the second highest food prices in Europe. We will bring the greatest sense of balance to the food chain from farm to fork. Fine Gael proposes a number of measures for a fairer trading environment.

Fine Gael has published Fair Trade legislation to force supermarkets to disclose their products, put an end to unfair trading practices and to rebalance power in the food chain giving consumers fair prices for groceries and producers a fair price for produce.

Now is the vital time for negotiations in terms of the future of CAP. Fine Gael is a member of the largest political grouping in Europe, the European Peoples Party and is best placed to negotiate a strong CAP for Ireland. This is also true in relation to future development in world trade off negotiations where a strong presence in Europe would be viable.

Fine Gael Policy on Agriculture

Agriculture and Seafood

The agri-food sector has huge potential to contribute to export-led economic recovery. Agri-food exports are worth almost €8 billion sustaining over 150,000 jobs and 128,000 farms. But the agri-food industry has seen farming income fall by 40% between 2007 and 2009, three times more than the EU average. Farm incomes have recovered somewhat in the past year but the average still rests at approximately €16,500, significantly lower than the average industrial wage. Fine Gael will provide agri-food businesses with the environment needed to position Ireland as a world leader in the food industry.

1.1 A Decent Living for Farmers

Fair Trade Bill: Removing unfair practices to competition will lower food prices for consumers and will give producers a fairer price for their produce. We will enact a Fair Trade Act, which will ban a number of unfair trading practices in the retail sector such as ‘hello money’ which suppliers have to pay to get their goods on supermarket shelves.

Competition, Consumer and Utilities Commission: To save taxpayers’ money and to streamline resources, Fine Gael will merge the Competition Authority, the National Consumer Agency (NCA), Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) and the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) into a single, more powerful Competition, Consumer and Utilities Commission. We will seek to empower this new over-arching regulator and consumer champion to enforce our Fair Trade Act.

Farm Gate Schemes: Fine Gael recognises the contribution that farm gate schemes make to farm incomes and will do the utmost to protect farm-gate supports from further cuts.

AEOS: Fine Gael particularly values the contribution that agri-environment schemes play as an income support for farmers. We will investigate the possibility of expanding the Agri-Environment Options Scheme (AEOS) to those farmers locked out of the scheme following the conclusion of their REPS 3 contracts by delivering efficiencies within the current budgetary framework.

1.2 Promoting Farming Interests in Europe

CAP Reform: Fine Gael is committed to negotiating a fair deal for Irish farmers and will use our membership in the European People’s Party, the strongest political grouping in Europe, to campaign for a good deal for Ireland under the Common Agricultural Policy. Our primary aim is to secure a fair overall budget for agriculture under the renegotiated CAP. We will also prioritise a Single Farm Payment system which best benefits active farmers and the Irish system of production.

Trade Negotiations: Domestic economic problems must not overshadow emerging threats from ongoing trade negotiations. Fine Gael will work with our partners in the European People’s Party to avoid any damage to the agricultural sector from future trade deals.

Market Volatility: We will negotiate a pragmatic approach in the EU to address the impact of volatility in commodity prices on producers.

1.3 Positioning Ireland as a world leader in agri-food

A More Efficient Department: The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has traditionally acted as a payment processing facility rather than a driver of growth in the agri-food industry. We will move responsibility for agri-payments to a new one-stop-shop under our Reinventing Government proposals. We will also develop a new innovation unit in the Department to drive new policy initiatives in the agri-food industry.

Added Value Products: We will develop a stronger, collaborative approach to food research and will amend the R&D tax credit regime to make it more attractive and accessible to smaller businesses.

Marketing Ireland: We will develop a single brand for our agri-food sector globally, to market Ireland as the Green Food Island.

Regional Branding: We will encourage co-operation between Bord Bia and local business support centres to give small businesses assistance in developing individual food brands and will seek protected geographical indicator status for indigenous foods, which will help Irish products to increase exports.

Food Tourism: We will develop a culinary tourism strategy through Fáilte Ireland to sell Ireland’s network of artisan food producers, cookery schools and restaurants.

1.4 Reforming Rules and Regulations

Freedom to Farm: We will conduct an audit of existing regulations for farmers to identify ways of reducing the burden of compliance without compromising on animal welfare, environmental or food safety standards.

Agri-proof EU legislation: We will examine new EU rules for any practical difficulties before finalisation in the EU, through a new European Legislation Committee.

1.5 Food Safety

Single Food Safety Agency: Building on the existing Food Safety Authority, Fine Gael will create a single food safety monitoring agency responsible for food safety inspection from farm to fork. This will enhance the food traceability system and reduce the burden of red tape on business. Food safety is paramount in maintaining Ireland’s reputation internationally as a producer of healthy food. However, there are currently too many different agencies involved in food safety including the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, local authorities, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Children, the Health Services Executive and Sea Fisheries Protection Authority.

1.6 Enhancing the competitiveness of Irish Agri-food Businesses

Reducing Labour Costs: Fine Gael will review Employment Regulation Orders (EROs) to deliver a more competitive environment for job creation in the agri-food sector. We will allow farmers to negotiate a collective agreement at farm level with their staff which would exempt them from the ERO but not minimum wage and other employment protections.

Business Inspections: We will cut down on inspections for small business by rationalising the existing structures dealing with health and safety laws and labour laws. We will cut the red-tape burden for small businesses by 25%.

Greater Access to Public Procurement: Fine Gael will ensure small Irish businesses including those in the agri-food sector are given every opportunity to win valuable public sector contracts for goods and services.

Carbon Tax: Fine Gael will exempt farm diesel from further increases in the carbon tax.

1.7 Encouraging Young People in the Agri-Food Industry

Young Farmers: Fine Gael will increase the educational opportunities available to young people interested in a career in farming or in the agri-food sector through our agricultural colleges and third level institutions, as well as practical workplace opportunities in agri-food businesses.

New Farm Models: We will review current farm partnership arrangements with the Office of the Revenue Commissioners to identify reasons for the poor take up of this model. We will publish revised arrangements for farm partnerships and shared farming arrangements and promote new arrangements through Teagasc.

CAP Reform: We recognise the need to support young, active farmers. Fine Gael will work with the European Commission to ensure that the value of young farmers in ensuring a sustainable agricultural sector within the EU is a key policy of the CAP.

Tax Commitments: Stock relief is an important benefit for young farmers at a time when other incentives and supports have been abolished. We will maintain the existing relief.

SME Loan Guarantee Scheme: We will introduce a partial loan guarantee scheme for small and medium sized businesses, including sustainable small agri-food enterprises.

1.8 Animal Welfare

Outdated Legislation: We will enact new animal welfare legislation to update existing animal welfare rules which are outdated and need to be reformed.

All-island Approach: We will encourage greater co-operation across the island of Ireland on animal welfare issues.

1.9 Food Labelling

Single Irish Food Label: We will introduce a single food label for all Irish produce, which will be simple and easily recognisable in both domestic and international markets and will emphasise Ireland’s ability to produce green, quality, healthy food.

Country of Origin: We will seek final agreement at an EU level on an extension of country of origin labels to a broader range of food products.

Nutritional Information: To promote quality Irish products as part of a healthy lifestyle, we will work with industry to introduce a Guideline Daily Amounts label for a broader range of food products.

1.10 Protecting the Environment through Renewable Opportunities

Forestry: We will deliver an afforestation programme of almost 15,000 hectares of forestry per annum through our NewERA plan, creating new jobs for rural communities.

Biomass: We will merge Coillte and Bord na Mona into a new company called Bioenergy and Forestry Ireland which will expand Ireland’s position in biomass. This will not only create additional jobs for rural Ireland but will also provide farmers with a very real market opportunity for renewable crops.

Anaerobic Digestion: We will develop a new agriculture energy and land use policy for the country and will investigate opportunities for anaerobic digestion as a means of producing electricity and providing an added income option for farmers.

Sugar Production: We will carry out a feasibility study into the possibility of redeveloping the sugar beet sector, particularly with a view to the possibilities for biofuel production.

1.11 Supporting the Seafood Sector and Marine

Expanding the Industry: Fine Gael believes Ireland, as an island nation with a strong and valued fishing tradition has huge potential to succeed as a serious competitor in the international seafood sector. The seafood industry currently generates annual revenues of €718 million and provides direct employment for 11,000 people. With an estimated 40 million tonnes of seafood to be required annually by 2030, there is significant scope for further expansion.

Common Fisheries Policy: We will negotiate the best possible deal for Irish fishermen in the context of the ongoing review of the Common Fisheries Policy. Our priorities are:

  • A progressive reduction of discards, fishery by fishery and in all maritime regions in the EU.
  • Protection of the Hague Preferences
  • A uniform and transparent regulation regime
  • A clear, independently audited database of infringements across the EU
  • The development of a sustainable aquaculture plan
  • A strong focus on seafood marketing, labelling and country of origin to ensure imports meet the same standards on safety, hygiene, traceability, recall, information and audit.

Sea Fisheries Bill: We will publish legislation to replace the criminal sanctions system for minor fisheries offences with an administrative sanction system to bring Ireland into line with other European jurisdictions.

Funding for Fisheries: Fianna Fáil and Green Party in-fighting has limited Ireland’s ability to draw down EU funds for seafood development. We will resolve difficulties blocking the drawdown of available funds.

Aquaculture Licensing: An additional 42 million tonnes of farmed seafood will be required to keep pace with demand each year by 2030, just 20 years away. We must increase our raw material supply and expand our aquaculture sector. We will remove administrative obstacles and clear the backlog of aquaculture licences currently preventing the creation of thousands of jobs in the aquaculture sector.

Value Added Products: Currently, 85% of all Irish seafood is commodity traded. There is a significant opportunity to generate more value from this raw material base. Fine Gael will task Bord Iascaigh Mhara with assisting Irish companies in adding value to their products through innovation.

Single Food Label: We will create and market a single label for all Irish produce and will drive a targeted marketing campaign to grow the Irish brand in new markets.