Charlie McConalogue TD, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine - Fianna Fáil Ard Fhéis
Published on: 05 November 2023
Good afternoon, everyone.
Chairman Daly, Deputy Cahill, Deputy Moynihan, and Councillor McCooey, very special guest Tom Arnold plus everyone here today.
It’s great to be here again today at an Ard Fheis with Fianna Fáil in Government.
Because Fianna Fáil is a party that always wants to be in government so that we can drive progress and continuously make a difference.
We are a party made up of members and public representatives who are doers, are pragmatic people, not content to spend our time giving out and doing nothing, to simply always be right about what is wrong, but a party focused on delivery, making people’s lives and our communities lives better.
We are a party that seeks to be in government so that we can implement our policies and make real meaningful progress.
And that’s what we’ve been doing these last three years across government and that’s what I’ve been doing on your behalf as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine -
Working to deliver for farmers, fishers as well as for rural and regional Ireland.
Previously as opposition spokesperson, I worked to ensure that Fianna Fáil was the farmers party in the Oireachtas. Over the last three years I have been working - by delivering - to make sure that Fianna Fáil is the farmers party in Government.
In opposition we set out the policies we wanted to see delivered for farming families. And we have gone about delivering - on and, in many cases, surpassing our commitments in government.
It is my pleasure to sit on this panel amongst colleagues as your Fianna Fáil Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to discuss the topic Building a strong and sustainable future for Irish Agriculture and Fisheries.
Strength is easily defined and a concept we understand.
And in the context of the agricultural industry, our strengths are many;
Our strength is in in our small open economy, a policy pursued by our party predecessors over 70 years ago. The opening of markets has been linked with improved economic performance and the creation of new opportunities. And with that open economies tend to grow faster, lowering prices and providing jobs.
Our strength is in the unique grass-based production system that underpins the high welfare and environmentally friendly messaging that makes the products we export globally so attractive.
Our strength is in our own protein food security. Security that enables us to trade milk and meat proteins with 180 global partners. Trade inwards with these partners sees Irish consumers gain access to foods (amongst many other products that improve our quality of life) that balance out our diet profile.
Our strength is in our famers and processors whose innovation and ingenuity takes the raw material of the former and creates food products that are safe, nutritious and in demand the world over.
As Minister I have worked to ensure that the capacity to grow exports and add value is maintained.
Last week, I attended a Teagasc event marking 50 years of the European Union and Agriculture. A video looking back on those 50 years was played and served as a reminder of how Ireland has changed over that period. The agri-sector has experienced huge change and huge challenge but has also progressed massively over those 50 years.
When Taoiseach Jack Lynch and Fianna Fáil brought our country into the EEC in 1973, Ireland was on the periphery of Europe. Accession brought with it greater access to markets for beef, dairy and sheep but also price and income shocks and beef and butter mountains.
Today, we see a very different agri sector in Ireland, one driven on productivity, efficiency, and knowledge.
Agrifood exports continued to grow in 2022, increasing to almost €19 billion and accounted for 9% of all the goods exported from Ireland.
The Irish agri-food sector is globally orientated, with approximately 90% of Irish beef, sheep meat and dairy produce exported each year.
In 2022 we exported
- more than one billion euros in value of Irish beef,
- one billion euros in value of butter,
- one billion euros in value of Irish cheese and;
- one billion euros in value of Irish whiskey.
These record exports are dependent on the almost 165,000 people employed in the sector across 135,000 farms, 2,000 fishing vessels and aquaculture sites and some 2,000 food production and beverage enterprises.
They are also dependent on Government support.
I have just returned from the Korean trade mission. We came back with a successful outcome with movement secured on the next phase of beef access. This is access to a market of over 50 million people who import two thirds of the meat they consume and presents massive potential for our beef farmers.
Opening new markets for our high-quality product is vitally important. Not only does it create competition for the product, but it also adds value to the whole carcase maximising returns to farmers.
Last week, I opened Kerrygold Park in Mitchelstown the newly expanded global home of Kerrygold. This strategic investment will play a key role in supporting Kerrygold’s ambition to become Ireland’s first €2 billion food brand in the coming years.
Kerrygold is a wholly farmer owned brand and its growth therefore is delivering value through the chain to farmers.
I supported this investment through the Capital Investment Scheme for enterprises engaged in the processing and marketing of primary meat and dairy products which was jointly funded by my Department and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and administered by Enterprise Ireland.
Sustainability, competitiveness, and innovation are vital so that our agri-food sector continues to grow in value in our existing and new markets. That often requires significant capital outlay, and the capital investment scheme was designed to ensure that the food industry could invest in projects that will underpin its sustainable development over the next decade, help food processors to support their export activity and bring returns for farm families and primary producers.
The projects that qualified are focused on the future, supporting either new products and/or new market diversification strategies. It is very satisfying to see one of the projects come to fruition.
The agrifood sector has faced numerous challenges in recent years, including the challenges posed by Brexit and the illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
These have resulted in a greatly changed trading environment with our closest neighbour and a rapid rise in input costs over the past 18 months.
I have been the most successful Minister in terms of drawing down funding from the Brexit Adjustment Reserve. This funding, while predominantly expended in the marine sector on major projects to future proof the industry, also funded the innovative and world first genotyping programme - which will enhance the environmental sustainability, health and productivity of Irish beef and dairy herds - as well as the 2023 beef welfare scheme.
To counter the impacts arising from the war in Ukraine, I moved quickly. First to address concerns in relation to a shortage of fodder, introducing a fodder incentive scheme which will pay out almost €80 million in support to farmers.
But this was just one of a number of supports.
- I more than doubled the Protein Aid for tillage farmers to €7m.
- I introduced direct supports that paid farmers up to €100,000, to deal with input price spikes in the pig and horticulture sectors.
- I provided grants to support the planting of Multi Species Swards and Red Clover.
- Further to this, I introduced a National Liming Programme to support soil improvement that grant aids the spreading of lime up to Spring 2024.
These latter measures, while having agronomic benefits for the soil, also support farmers in reducing their fertiliser bills and improving their bottom line.
Despite these challenges, average family farm income has increased each year over my tenure as Minister. I acknowledge that the levels of this increase vary considerably from farm sector to sector. And therefore, I have prioritised beef and sheep, the most vulnerable sectors in Budget 2024, delivering on the programme for government commitment of €200 per suckler cow as well as €20 per ewe, the highest payment ever made per head to sheep farmers.
Fianna Fáil has also been working tirelessly in government to support our fishing sector and coastal communities. We have focused on supporting the sector to come through Brexit and build for the future.
I established a task force to bring fisher representatives together and chart the way to maximise the strength and value of our fisheries to our coastal communities. That Task Force Report recommended 16 different schemes and investments to support the sector. I have ensured that no dust has gathered on any aspect of those task force recommendations and will have delivered on all 16 schemes by the end of this year.
I’m also working on a continuous basis at European level to ensure that we take every opportunity possible to deliver improved quota for our fisher sector in Government.
I am going to address one last strength as it one of the primary bridges to sustainability – that strength is our water.
You might baulk at me calling water a strength with the events of Middleton, Inistioge and just last week Carlingford showing the power of water, just how real climate change is and how we are impacted by it.
In the last 12 months, we have had the wettest October on record, the wettest March on record and the wettest July on record. This sandwiched a dry period in June.
However, it is water and our temperate climate that gifts us with the economic advantage of a grass-based production system.
Our water quality is up there with the very best in Europe, but it is under pressure.
And while the EPA reports this week clearly show agriculture is not the sole problem, in terms of Nitrogen in our waterways, farming is the predominant source.
This water quality pressure has manifested itself in the drop from 250kg of N to 220kg N per hectare in 2024 across much of the country.
I convened a Water Quality Group with representatives from across the sector; Teagasc, the farm bodies, industry representatives and the EPA all coming together to explore the best possible options to reduce agricultures impact, protect and improve water quality with the stated aim of securing a derogation for 2026.
This year I also rolled out a €370m Targeted Agricultral Modernisation Scheme for Capital Investment - TAMS 3.
Slurry storage has been shown to be a very significant measure in support of water quality and therefore, I announced as part of Budget 2024, an increased rate of TAMS grant (70%) for new tanks for those importing slurry. I established a new separate TAMS investment ceiling of €90,000 for slurry storage tanks and I ensured continuation of the accelerated Capital Allowances on Slurry Storage.
Farmers are most impacted by the changing of our climate and we must protect our future. We must adapt to increasing demands around how we work with nature.
This brings me to the second part of our topic: Building a strong and sustainable future for Irish Agriculture and Fisheries.
While strength may be more easily quantified, sustainability - not so much, as it means different things to different people.
In my speech last year, I spoke about Food Vision 2030 – our shared strategy for the agri food sector. I believe that the aims of Food Vision go a long way to supporting a sustainable future, vying to meet the sectors ambitious ceiling under the Climate Act while importantly the recommendations also aim to ensure that farmers remain productive, economic and efficient.
I personally lead the High-Level Implementation Committee of this strategy and can report that significant progress has been made this year. The Food Vision 2030 Dairy Group and Beef & Sheep group both submitted their final reports in 2022 with the recommended actions and measures agreed.
I will be frank, some of these measures were contentious, and some continue to be, such as the exploration of the feasibility of a dairy cow reduction scheme. Such contention is why I put such weight and importance on cross sector engagement to achieve a consensus.
To address the issues of the tillage industry, a tillage group was also formed, and I am expecting that report shortly.
A strong and vibrant farm sector is reliant on young farmers who will innovate and lead out on the change journey that we must all travel over the course of the next decade.
Succession and generational renewal is a global challenge for agriculture. To ensure the agri-food sector remains strong and sustainable into the future, supporting young farmers will continue to be a key priority for me and the Government.
The reasons why young farmers do not stay farming are multiple. Young people have the option to explore other more lucrative careers, while the older farmer may not have identified a successor or simply may not want to retire with farming fundamental to their sense of self.
I have provided targeted supports to enable young farmers to become financially independent as well as higher rates of grant aid under TAMs3. For older farmers there are both Collaborative Farming Grant Schemes to support partnerships and a Succession Planning Advice Grant to encourage and support farmers aged 60 years and over to seek succession planning advice.
The taxation measures aimed at young farmers, both to facilitate succession and to support their establishment, are estimated to be worth some €200 million per annum. That is clear commitment to young farmers and succession.
In terms of access to finance, one of the unique characteristics of the €500 million Growth and Sustainability Loan Scheme (GSLS) Scheme is that loans up to €500,000 are unsecured, making it a viable source of finance for young farmers and SMEs who do not have high levels of security.
One of the reasons that young people do not stay in rural areas is down to housing. Fianna Fáil in Government is helping rural residents address the housing challenges being faced across the country.
- The help to buy scheme delivers up to €30,000 toward buying a first home.
- The first home scheme means that the government can provide 30% equity to help people buy their first home with no interest for five years.
- The vacant and derelict home grants provide - for the first time - €5ok and €70k to bring properties back into circulation. These supports apply whether you are building your new home in the countryside, beside your farm, or in a local town and village.
Fianna Fáil in Government committed to gender equality and I in my role as Minister for Agriculture am proud to have made tangible progress in this area.
I hosted a National Dialogue on Women in Agriculture on St Brigid's Day. The Dialogue was chaired by former Tánaiste and Minister for Agriculture, Mary Coughlan. The outcome of the discussions has been compiled into a report which is due for imminent publication.
I committed to achieving better gender representation on the state boards under my remit also. My minimum - that of a 40% ratio - will be achieved over the course of this Government and I was delighted to see several appointments secured by highly qualified female candidates in 2023.
I am very pleased that, for the first time, Ireland’s new CAP Strategic Plan includes a number of specific measures aimed at increasing the participation of women in farming, including an increased grant rate of 60% under TAMs3, women-only Knowledge Transfer Groups and also European Innovation Partnership funding to develop initiatives that will promote women's participation in farming.
Today is the final day of a three-month consultation period on our PGI status for beef. While there are still hurdles to jump, this is another initiative I am taking to add value to our product.
It is vital that there is a return on the investment being made by farmers and Government. This means getting a fair return from the market. While I cannot ever be involved in pricing, I am delighted to say that in the coming weeks I will approve the board and chair of the agri food regulator.
When the President signed the legislation required to establish An Rialálaí Agraibhia into law on 11th of July, I saw the realisation of an initiative I spearheaded from my time in opposition, to its inclusion in the programme for Government, and now into law.
CEO designate of the Agri Food Regulator Niamh Lenihan has already had engagements across industry and I look forward to that office achieving the aims that I have set out.
In conclusion I want to go back to the topic title: strong and sustainable
The next decade is one of the most crucial for food production. As global instability increases, strong sustainable farmers are needed more and more.
My aim as Minister for Agriculture is to provide farmers with choice.
Choice to pick the production system best suited to their farm and the product that suits them, their family and their lifestyle best.
The sector has demonstrated its adaptability and resilience in the face of major challenges while continuing to deliver safe and nutritious food for Irish and international markets.
- We promised €200 a cow. That has been delivered.
- Also delivered is extra support for the sheep sector in a doubling of funding to €20 per ewe.
- The Acres programmes took in 46,00 applicants in the first intake, over 50% more than initially planned, which I delivered in response to the massive environmental ambition of our farmers.
- The new Forestry programme provides 20 years premiums to farmers, five more years than previous schemes.
- And 50% extra national funding for the new Common Agricultural Policy delivered with support from then Minister for public expenditure Michael McGrath.
- And in tandem with supporting farmers to continue their massively important role in food production, we have a range of innovative schemes, cutting edge research and funding in place that will help us to meet the 25% emissions reduction target for agriculture in the Climate Action Plan.
I traversed every county and corner of the country to deliver a CAP that was fair to all our regions and to all our farm families no matter what their farm type of their farm size.
Over the next year and more we will complete the implementation of our programme.
And start focusing on why farmers and fishers should back Fianna Fáil to continue to be at the helm of Irish food production after the next election. We will have a strong track record of delivery to put before the people at the next election.
We will develop a strong manifesto and policy platform that will continue to drive Irish agriculture and food production forward. We will continue to ensure that Irish farming has a strong future at the forefront of the Irish government and that Fianna Fáil continues as the farmers party in Government.
Across the board we are working to make sure that rural and regional Ireland is backed in every way possible and to ensure it progresses strongly in all aspects.
This is work we are determined to continue.
I want to thank you as our members for your fantastic support in driving us on as a Party on this important work in Government.
Together we will continue to press forward and together we will work to ensure that Fianna Fáil continues to be at the heart of delivering for regional and rural Ireland, our farming and fishing families, and our local communities across this country in Government.
Thank you for listening and I will hand over to our chair Paul Daly to commence the panel discussion.