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Developments in Organic Sector - Seanad Debates

John O'Mahony(Fine Gael)

I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Andrew Doyle, to make his contribution.The lead spokespersons will have eight minutes each and all other Senators will have five minutes.

Andrew Doyle(Wicklow, Fine Gael)

I apologize; my voice is a little bit groggy and I hope I manage to stay audible for my opening statement.

I welcome the opportunity to make a statement to Seanad Éireann on the organic sector, for which I have special responsibility within the Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine. For the information of the Members of the House, I propose to give an overview of the organic sector in Ireland, the supports that are available, the market situation and the challenges and potential opportunities that exist. I look forward to the contribution of Members on this important matter. I will put the sector into context. While the organic sector in Ireland is still relatively small in regard to agriculture as a whole, it is experiencing considerable growth. There are currently 2,127 organic operators in Ireland, of whom over 1,700 are farmers. The area of land under organic production has expanded dramatically under the current rural development program, thanks to a suite of supports that have been put in place.

The latest figures indicate that there is now 72,000 ha under organic production, an increase of nearly 50% since the start of the program in 2014. The growth of the sector has been specifically fostered through the new organic farming scheme, in particular, which was introduced as part of the rural development program, along with dedicated capital investment schemes and better synergies with other schemes such as GLAS.

The new organic farming scheme was launched in April 2015, with a budget of €56 million over the lifetime of the rural development program. It has been very successful since its launch, attracting 942 applications in its first tranche and 322 in the second. To put this in context, the highest number of applications received previously was 380 in 2010. I also want to draw attention to the fact that over 500 of the organic focus scheme applications received in 2015 were from farmers converting to organic farming for the first time. The upsurge in interest represents the first real expansion of the production sector for many years and is very encouraging.

By way of comparison, the highest number of new entrants to organic farming heretofore was 158 in 2009. The new scheme has three times that number. When combined with organic farmers participating in the old or existing organic farming schemes, this means that we now have 1,740 organic farmers in the system. This is a major step forward by any standards. The new scheme is a major success and we have already met our targets for the entire RDP period. One of these targets was to convert some 16,000 ha of new land to organic production. Following the first two tranches of the scheme, we now have 26,000 ha in conversion, a 60% increase on the original target.

We have not forgotten those farmers operating under the old organic farming scheme. Following extensive negotiations, the Commission agreed to extend the benefits of the higher OFS payments under the new scheme to the old scheme participants. Furthermore, the Commission has agreed that we can extend the contracts of people operating under the old scheme so that all participants can now be confident of a secure system of supports right up to the end of RDP period. We have effectively managed to synchronize all our various contracts of support for the next five years.

For the first time, this allows us to plan ahead with confidence in terms of supplying and developing an organic food market. In planning ahead for the current RDP period, we were very conscious that organic farmers have very special requirements in terms of on-farm equipment and facilities. Under TAMS II, therefore, a dedicated capital investment scheme has been put in place for the sole benefit of organic farmers, providing support for the widest range of equipment and structures of any TAMS scheme. Such investments are eligible for 40% grant assistance, with 60% grant assistance for qualifying young farmers.

We have also put in place a ring-fenced and very flexible investment scheme for organic processors. The scheme is wholly State funded and offered grant aid to €500,000 for individual projects. The scheme recognizes the importance of innovation and keeping abreast of technological developments. It directs financial assistance towards projects which facilitate the adoption and application of new technologies. While the financial supports are essential, other support mechanisms are also critical to future development. The importance of providing education and training for those considering organic options and existing organic farmers cannot be underestimated. Since 2010, the inclusion of an organic training course as an essential prerequisite to joining the organic farming scheme has provided farmers with a good understanding of the regulatory requirements but, above all, enabled farmers to make informed decisions regarding their organic options.

One of the most successful initiatives in raising awareness of the organic sector for other farmers and the general public has been the demonstration farm program. It is run by Teagasc and funded by my Department and continues to go from strength to strength. For young farmers and even successful established producers, there is plenty to learn and new ideas to help improve various enterprises. I would like to commend Teagasc, especially the organic advisory staff and the participating farmers, on the time and effort they put into making the program a success. The Organic Growers of Ireland internship program has also been a successful initiative which has provided practical guidance and training for young farmers who are considering organic horticulture.

From an organic farming perspective, the market situation, challenges, and opportunities are largely dictated by the demographics of our organic farming sector. The majority of organic farmers are engaged in beef and-or sheep production, with relatively low numbers engaged in tillage and dairy. Increased participation in the organic farming scheme means that when these operators have completed their conversion period, there will be an increased volume of organic beef and sheep available for sale. Research shows that market opportunities exist for Irish organic beef. The market for organic lamb is, however, more challenging. The most important challenge for us now is to ensure that we develop the market for the organic product in tandem with the growth in production. This will be the keystone of long-term sustainable growth.

Mindful of these challenges, my Department is working closely with Bord Bia - its officials are meeting me today - to develop organic markets for our organic produce, especially sheep meat. Bord Bia undertook a detailed analysis of the organic sheep meat sector in 2016 to gauge quantities of organic product coming to the market in 2017, with a view to identifying markets for this produce. This work will continue. I would like to acknowledge the work Bord Bia continues to do to raise the profile of organic food among consumers at home and abroad.

Ireland has developed a strong reputation internationally for its organic farmed salmon and is the biggest producer of organic farmed salmon in the European Union. Demand for Irish organic salmon has grown by 11% since 2012, with the estimated value of the export market in 2015 reaching €64 million. There is clear potential for growth in this sector.

While there are undoubtedly real challenges in terms of developing markets, there are also promising and encouraging signs for the future. Bord Bia has indicated that there has been a rise of 23% year-on-year in the sales of organic food in major multiple outlets, increasing the market share to €142 million. This is a very positive reflection on organic farming in Ireland and mirrors a growing trend right across Europe. Demand for organic food products has continued to rise over recent years, with the global market for organic agricultural products up by 355% from 2000 to 2015, climbing from €16.8 billion to €76.7 billion, according to a report presented at the BIOFACH world organic trade fair in Nuremberg last week.

We need to focus on how we can further grow our share of that market, by exploring opportunities such as increasing our overseas presence. Ireland has maintained a strong presence at the BIOFACH trade fair for several years now and this has been proven to generate new export opportunities for the Irish producers involved.Back at home, research suggests that over 90% of Irish shoppers now buy organic at least once a week, which is clear evidence of the growing public awareness of the organic brand. We have an opportunity to capitalize on this. This includes replacing imported organic products with Irish goods wherever possible.

I cannot conclude without mentioning Brexit. Brexit is a recognized challenge for the Irish organic sector. In the first place, the UK is a very important market for our organic produce. However, currently, both countries are producing organic food to harmonized  EU regulatory standards. Any deviation from these harmonized standards could lead to a disruption in trade in the short term with potential increased bureaucracy and costs to exporters. This is an area we will continue to monitor closely as the process for negotiating Brexit begins.

I have concentrated on informing Members of the House about the current state of the organic sector in Ireland referring both to its challenges and opportunities. While challenges do exist, opportunities are available to those who have the vision to tap into a sector which is seeing unprecedented growth. Going forward, I would like to see existing markets consolidated. The evidence suggests that there is further potential in the sector but in order to grow sustainably, it must be market driven. As Minister of State with responsibility for the organic sector, I am committed to the sustainable development of the organic sector and I hope that Members, as public representatives, will assist me in this objective through the encouragement of those considering the organic option, the maintenance of existing organic producers and the development of the sector generally.

Bord na gCon is the statutory body which is responsible for the following: the control, promotion and operation of greyhound racing; the overall control of coursing; the promotion of greyhound exports; the operation of totalisator betting; the regulation of public sales of greyhounds; the making of grants for prize money; the allocation of grants to improve amenities at tracks; the licensing of greyhound tracks and their officials; the authorisation of bookmakers to conduct business at tracks; and the collection of levies on course bets. In that context, it runs commercial operations in a number or greyhound stadia. In total, there are 17 greyhound tracks licensed by Bord na gCon, with Bord na gCon currently owning Shelbourne Park, Harold's Cross, Cork, Tralee, Waterford, Youghal, Limerick and Galway. It also has a 51% share in the Mullingar track.

In an economic report by Jim Power in 2010, it was estimated that the greyhound racing industry is responsible for sustaining in excess of 10,000 full and part-time jobs, directly and indirectly, many of them in rural communities and that it injects an estimated €500 million into local economies. The greyhound breeding industry is also very export oriented with over 75% of greyhounds now running in the UK being Irish bred. Greyhound racing attracts thousands of tourists to Ireland from many countries, particularly France, Germany and the UK, and it works closely with Tourism Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and the various tour operators. Ireland is regarded as a world-class player in greyhound breeding and there is considerable potential for further development in this area. The Irish Greyhound Derby, which is run in Shelbourne Park, is one of the richest greyhound races in the world.

The 2015 audited accounts of Bord na gCon have being submitted to my Department and were submitted to Government yesterday for noting. The accounts show some positive metrics for Bord na gCon but it remains the case that the financial position of the board is extremely challenging and would be considerably worse without the additional subvention from the horse and greyhound fund in 2015. This was an additional €2.8 million - up to €13.6 million. In overall terms, the turnover from racing activities increased by 12.5% from €25.02 million in 2014, to €28.16 million in 2015 due mainly to the introduction of its new food and beverage business. While on-course wagering experienced a decline, which was also a feature of horse racing, the impact on tote turnover has been reduced through the introduction of numerous international co-mingling customers and the growth of online wagering on the tote following the introduction of the Barking Buzz app.

Having said all this, Bord na gCon has been operating in a very difficult financial environment for a number of years, in particular since 2011 when it took on considerable debt as a result of the development of the Limerick stadium. In 2014, against the background of reducing income for the organisation through the recession and the significant debt burden, my Department commissioned an independent report into certain matters relating to Bord na gCon, including its financial performance and prospects. That report, known as the Indecon report, provided a roadmap for the sustainable development of the greyhound sector and in that context, recommended a number of asset disposals, including Harold's Cross, in order to reduce the debt burden. The first asset disposed of was the former Bord na gCon headquarters in Henry Street in 2015 for approximately €700,000 with the proceeds being offset against Bord na gCon's debt.

Bord na gCon is continuing to work very closely with its banking partners to manage issues arising from the legacy debt of €12.5 million relating to the Limerick stadium, which continues to hang over the industry and inhibit its development. The board also operates a term loan facility of €6 million which is subject to fixed annual repayments. The balance of this facility was reduced to €3.9 million as of 31 December 2016. In addition, the board has an approved overdraft facility of €6.25 million. Currently, net group debt stands at €20.3 million down from €21.6 million in 2015 so the debt is moving in the right direction but at a slow rate.

One of the key risks to the future of the industry is the scale of the debt that still remains. I understand that having considered the matter and having regard to the recommendations in the Indecon report, Bord na gCon has decided to cease racing at Harold's Cross with a view to putting the stadium on the market in order to reduce its debt levels and increase its capacity to provide support and assistance to the industry. While this is very regrettable, its view is that there is no other option if the burden of debt on the organization is to be reduced in any meaningful way. I understand that its intention is to transfer the Harold's Cross racing schedule to Shelbourne Park and that all 12 staff at Harold's Cross will be offered redeployment.

It should be noted that any sale of Harold's Cross will require the consent of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Ministers will consider any specific proposal for its sale, having regard to the Indecon recommendations, the value obtainable, the need to avoid any further burden on the taxpayer and the need to reduce the significant burden of debt so that resources can be better deployed towards the development of the sector rather than the servicing of the debt.

There has already been significant Government commitment to this sector in recent years with the contribution of the taxpayer through the horse and greyhound fund having increased from €10.8 million in 2014 to €16 million in 2017. The Government remains committed to continuing to support this vitally important sector. However, it is clear that if it is to have a sustainable future, the burden of debt on Bord na gCon must be reduced. In this regard, the board has its own responsibilities to discharge which involves some very difficult decisions. It cannot be the case that the entire burden of resolving the sector's difficulties always falls on the taxpayer. This may involve some very difficult decisions.

I intend to bring the heads of a greyhound industry Bill to Cabinet next week followed shortly afterward by pre-legislative scrutiny by the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine.The Bill seeks to address in general terms issues relating to the governance and regulation of the greyhound racing sector. The heads reflect recommendations for legislative change made in the Indecon report, commissioned by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in 2014, in the greyhound report of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine published in 2015, and in the Morris review of anti-doping and medication in Ireland, commissioned by Bord na nGon and published in 2016. They address governance issues in Bord na gCon, provide a robust legal basis for strengthened regulatory controls in the industry, modernize sanctions, improve the integrity and include the welfare of greyhounds as one of the statutory functions of Bord na gCon. In addition, it provides Bord na gCon with powers to make regulations in regard to substances that may be used or given to a greyhound, prohibiting the use of certain substances and setting thresholds in relation to others.

I very much look forward to engaging with colleagues in a positive and constructive way on the development of this Bill. It is clear that the development of the sector depends entirely on its reputation, and a robust and modern legislative framework is a critical part of that dynamic.

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Paul Daly(Fianna Fail)

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. At the outset, I would like to put on record my annoyance at the fact that these two sectors were coupled together. They are both very important sectors within the agriculture brief and they are well deserving of their own slot. It smacks of getting them over with. By coupling them, it limits the amount of time we have to converse on both of them.

I will deal with the organic sector first. I welcome the Minister of State's briefing. I may differ somewhat on the numbers, but I think that the difference in our numbers probably has to do with dropouts. While a good picture of new recruits to the organic sector was painted, it is a five-year cycle and the number of people who stay in the sector after the five-year cycle is completed was not mentioned. There is a large dropout rate and people revert to the conventional farming after five years. That is a very clear indicator that there are issues within the sector and people are struggling to maintain the standards required of them and survive on the funding available. Some 1,721 farmers on 52,390 ha out of the total of 140,000 Irish family farms, while commendable, is very low. It is below 2%. The EU average is between 5% and 6%. In other parts of the world - Australia being a prime example - it goes up to 15%. We have to ask why we are below the European average and so far behind the world leaders. At a time when it is proven that the sales of organically produced produce and the food is up by 23% in 2016, we have to import between 75% and 78% of fruits and vegetables that are sold here as organic. There is huge potential in this area, with the proper supports.

As a first-time Member of this House and as a new member of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, I was shocked to realise that as late as December 2015, the previous joint committee did a lot of work on this and put a comprehensive report together, which was forwarded to the Department. Unfortunately, to date not one of the issues highlighted concerning the organic sector has been addressed by the Department. One of the major issues highlighted was same year payments, and there is still a major issue here where people are still not receiving the payments due to them within the same calendar year. This is a problem across the entire farming sector, not just organics, and we hear that the reason is that there is an IT problem. In a sector like this, which is subsidy driven, it is vitally important for the survival of these farmers that they get their payments within one calendar year.

Another major issue highlighted by the joint committee was that the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, and organic sector funding be looked at. The double funding rule is an inhibitor in some cases, in particular for the smaller organic farmers when they take up organic status because they lose out on GLAS payments. The joint committee recommended that a front-loading system is put in place where €315 per hectacre for the first 20 ha be introduced. Again, there has been no feedback from the Department on this or no action on same.

It was also recommended by the joint committee that the stocking density for hill sheep or hill farmers be reduced from 0.5 livestock units per hectacre to 0.15. The mountainous and hilly areas of this country lend themselves ideally to an organic system, but we are inhibiting through stocking densities. It is a non-monetary change and it will not cost anybody anything to change those figures and make it a more viable proposition.

The main issue that needs to be addressed is the fact that we do not market or promote our organic products nationally to a sufficient extent. The majority of what is being produced organically is going for export, and I think that we need to be promoting Irish produced organic produce for the home market and take down the barriers where local processors such as local butchers can be allowed to process beef and lamb and sell it locally. A number of individuals within the sector are really progressing by taking the bull by the horns and using systems like the local farm markets to sell their produce. This has proven to be successful.

Another issue raised by the joint committee was the duplication of inspection. Where people are Bord Bia compliant and organic compliant they are having double inspections. Could this be looked at with a view to avoiding double inspections and introducing inspections only where there are perceived problems as opposed to an annual inspection? Irrespective of how compliant one is with one's previous inspection, one still has the onerous task of preparing for another inspection the following year.

There was also a request for payment for forage production, which would be a big help to the organic sector. It would be a feasible proposition for organic farmers to produce their own feed. The biggest cost on most organic farms - beef and sheep, in particular - is that when they have to be fed organic food the organic food is not available and has to be imported. That is a major expense.

Moving on to the greyhound industry, it employs 10,300 people with an economic output of €500 million. Since 2002 there have been 10 million visitors. These are brilliant figures for an industry that unfortunately is receiving much bad press and in the eyes of the public is not functional. We, in Fianna Fáil, support the fact that it receives 20%, some €16 million, of the horse and greyhound racing fund, but I would put an addendum there that under the current circumstances, and given the frightening figures the Minister has provided on the debt associated with the sector, this money should be used more like it is in horse racing. Some 63% of the money received by the horse racing industry is allocated towards prize funds. This is not happening in the greyhound racing sector. The prize funds are minimal. It is like the old adage that if there is no carrot at the end of the stick, one will not move forward. Sales of greyhounds have suffered because of this. The Minister in handing over this money should add an addendum to it that it will apply a similar system and that a mandatory amount of the money it receives should go towards prize money, which would help to bring the industry back to where it was in days of old.

Unfortunately, I have to return to the joint committee which produced a report in 2016 that was forwarded to the Department. If one chooses any subject across the political spectrum in this country and comes across report after report after report, there is a problem. The Minister cited the Indecon, the Morris, and the Jim Power reports, and I would like to include in that the all-party joint committee report of 2016. I welcome the fact the Minister of State has said he is bringing it to Cabinet next week, but it is too late at this stage. We have seen what is going on and the state the industry is in while we have been waiting for the promised Greyhound Industry Bill. It is a pity it has not happen sooner.From the Minister of State's report, it is evident how necessary this new Bill is.

Along with that, there must be serious governance issues in the greyhound sector. On the Harold's Cross issue, which the Minister of State mentioned and which I do not have time to go into in detail, when in financial difficulty one most likely has to sell an asset and if one is going to sell an asset, one will sell one's best asset. Harold's Cross is the best asset. However, what concerns me is the manner in which that process was carried out. If one is working, as Bord na gCon is, with owners, trainers, breeders, bookies, caters and staff, one has negotiations and some method of informing people of what is coming down the line, and one does not go in on a Monday morning and put a chain and locks on the gates. The way it has been handled has given the sector even worse press that it is probably deserving of. They did not do themselves any favors and as a result, now we have a strike in Dublin with owners and trainers. Other owners and trainers are put in the precarious position where they will be unable to pass the picket in Shelbourne Park. Already, in Shelbourne Park, we have lost the two semi-finals of the gold cup. If this threatened strike extends to the tracks in rural areas, many of them will not open following the strike because of the figures so well mentioned by the Minister of State.

There needs to be a strong look taken at Bordna gCon's governance and management. This would be necessary for any organization or individual who would carry out a procedure the way they carried out the procedure of closing down Harold's Cross. If that is how they do their business, it shows why they are in such a position.

Victor Boyhan(Independent)

I warmly welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Andrew Doyle, here. I am conscious that he has particular responsibilities for food, forestry, and horticulture within the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I thank him for his comprehensive statement on this sector. It is to be welcomed. It is comprehensive and covers a lot of the areas in which I would have an interest.

Looking at the word "organic", I spoke to a few people here this morning who asked what were we talking about and what is "organics" all about. It is worth saying, not for us but for those who listen in here, that organic farming is a method of crop and livestock production that involves much more than choosing not to use pesticides, fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics and growth hormones. It is a far more complex issue. It is about being kind to the environment, kind to nature, adapting other alternatives in an organic, proper and sustainable way for the land. It need not always be farmers per se. Particularly in Wicklow, Meath and around the fringes of Dublin, and especially in north county Dublin, there are smallholdings of ten, 15 and 20 acres running a sustainable business in organics. There is a model for that too, but it also comes in with the agriculture. There are small growers now all around this country trying to get into organics.

The previous Senator set it out and I agree with him. We have issues, in terms of field crops, fruit crops and vegetable crops. From Bord Bia, we are aware of the enormous potential for exports. People are now very interested in the source and origin of food. Equally, they are interested in the integrity and the validation process that certifies organic foods because there are questions about what is and is not clearly organic. Therefore, we must instill in the purchaser confidence in the market.

There is significant potential for developing exports. Bord Bia is doing a very good job. The Minister of State was in here only last week and we talked about that. Bord Bia's marketing strategy is an excellent one. It is very professional. It is an agency that we can be proud of in the State, in terms of its marketing and strategy and in trying to develop new markets, particularly in the organic sector.

Organic production, by its nature, can be small but it can be very big too. There are issues around soil and water management, pest and disease control. How can we have successful and good organic food that embraces the issues around pest control and disease control but that is done in an organic way? What permitted substances are allowed to be used? I refer to the certification and integrity surrounding that. We need to instill confidence in it.

The previous Senator spoke about the home market. We see the growth of artisan food markets and the markets for all of that. That is very encouraging. I see these markets all around the country. People are coming to them. They are choosing to buy organic food, but also food that they can be sure, in many cases, by meeting the growers and is sourced locally. There are enormous challenges. I would particularly like at some stage if the Minister of State would take up with his officials and advisers the area of certification, the Origin Green brand and how we can constantly reinforce this Irish brand of good, sustainable organic food, and all the issues relating to the source of integrity.

It struck me talking to a number of people that one of the big deficits in this area of organics, which the Minister of State touched on, is education and training and how young farmers and young growers can get involved. This morning I spoke to someone who works here who used to work in Teagasc, who is a small farmer in the west and who wants to go into organics, but whose problem is a lack of knowledge. How do such small farmers divest from dry stock into organics and where do they get advice, whether free or professional? How can they tap into training? I note Teagasc does good work in that area. The Minister of State talked about the farm visits and the farm internships and the partnerships. Those all are excellent but the greatest deficit in this area is education, further education and training, and good advice on animal husbandry, horticultural aspects to organics, etc.

The Minister of State mentioned three words - challenges, potential, and opportunities. There are major challenges. There is a certain reluctance, but it is not because people do not want to take up and meet the challenges. It is that they need education and support in regard to organics.

There are enormous opportunities for soft fruit production, the cider sector in terms of apples, etc., and organic vegetables. These have enormous potential. I would appeal to the Minister of State to look again at how we can assist and incentivize those both in the farming sector and outsiders who want to come in at some level in a small way to organics, and how we can do that in training.

It would be remiss of me if I did not raise the green low-carbon agri-environment, GLAS, payments. I do not expect the Minister of State to give me an answer but I would appeal to him to use his good offices to push to give a commitment to honor the debt that is owed to many farmers under GLAS. They are waiting. They want to be paid. They are constantly in touch with many Members, in both this House and the other House, about their payments being honored under GLAS. I would ask the Minister of State to use his good offices within the Department to push for the payments for those farmers who are due to that money.

Michelle Mulherin(Fine Gael)

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for his presentation setting out the position on both the greyhound sector and the organic farming sector.

In regard to the greyhound sector, at this point, I will be deferring to my colleague here, Senator Ray Butler, who has personal experience of and passion for greyhounds over the years.

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Gerry Horkan(Fianna Fail)

Is the Senator sharing time?

Michelle Mulherin(Fine Gael)

I am not sharing time. I am merely alluding to that.

Briefly, on the issue of greyhounds, greyhound racing and the raising and breeding of greyhounds goes back centuries. It is part of our history and heritage. It gives great joy to those who are involved. When the statistic of 10 million people having greyhound racing meetings since 2002 is laid before one, it shows the significant impact greyhound racing has on the economy and tourism. The Jim Power report in 2010 showed that at the time there were 10,000 full and part-time jobs, directly and indirectly, associated with the sector, with all the benefit to local economies. The point is it is spread throughout the country. There is also the breeding side, where 75% of greyhounds now running in the UK are Irish bred.

The depth of the passion for greyhounds and the greyhound sector is shown by the recent development at Harold's Cross. This matter will be debated further. On the issue of the greyhound sector governance and regulation, I welcome the fact that the Minister of State is bringing the greyhound industry Bill to Cabinet and before the Committee on Agriculture, Food, and the Marine, of which I am a member. We will have a chance to debate it further.I have no doubt we will be back here considering the up-to-date position on it. I acknowledge the significant funding the Government puts into the industry in recognition of its importance to the people and the entire economy.

I wish to move on to the area of organic farming. Senator Boyhan did justice to our objectives in setting out the context. Organic farming is good for the environment and is sustainable, and it is good for our health. While it is open to debate, I believe a good piece of organic chicken or beef or an organic vegetable has a taste that non-organic products do not have. Therefore, there is doubtlessly a lot to commend organic farming.

Organic farmers face many more impediments than other farmers. Organic farming is less intensive and requires different farming methods. Insecticides and pesticides are not used in the same way as in traditional farming. This all adds to the cost.

There has been a great uptake and a lot of interest in the organic farming sector. The Minister of State outlined how the sector is growing. There are now 2,127 organic operators. No doubt, this growth has been stimulated by the organic farming scheme. The value of the organic market in Ireland grew by 24% in 2016 to €142 million. The growth is in both the domestic and export markets. Irish consumers spent €31 per capitaon organic produce in 2015, which is up 23% on the previous year. In Switzerland, however, the comparable figure for the same year is approximately €220 per capita. Therefore, this is an area where there could be considerable growth in Ireland.

Organic farming fits in very well with our international image of green and clean. This is very much promoted by Bord Bia through the Origin Green initiative. I welcome the fact that Bord Bia had a strong presence in Munich recently at a food fair that is one of the biggest showcases of organic food. As in all areas of farming, we are anxious to find new markets and build up our trade outside the country. Bord Bia plays an essential, commendable and successful role in this regard. This is evident not only in the organic sector but also in the agrifood sector. There has been significant annual growth in our exports in the past seven years. For this to continue, we must keep finding new markets.

It costs farmers more to engage in organic farming given the associated practicalities. I agree with Senator Paul Daly that an issue arises in regard to sheep and beef production in that farmers are not able to source organic feed here. This is an impediment and it requires farmers to grow their own feed if they can. That is a considerable ask. It makes quite a demand on land and land use and it is a challenge.

Now that the organic farming scheme is closed to new applicants, how can we encourage more people to become involved and step across to organic farming? What will bridge the gap for those who have missed out? All the money under the rural development program has been committed at this juncture. Commendably, the target of bringing 16,000 ha of new land into organic production has been well exceeded, as the Minister of State has outlined. There is actually 46,000 ha of converted land. What practical steps can be taken to support farmers in this regard? I welcome the funding made available through the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, which has assisted farmers. Is Bord Bia our main means of marketing our products?

I wish to raise an issue on which I have been in communication with the Minister, Deputy Creed. It relates to organic farming but is bigger than that. I refer to the matter of the insecticideflupyradifurone, which is being developed by Bayer. The company was seeking permission to license, distribute and sell the product in this country. A number of concerns have been expressed in regard to its impact on food production and biodiversity. It has been stated it poses a particular threat to the honeybee. If this insecticide were banned, it would not be the first. I point in particular to DDT, which was very harmful, as we learned after it was banned. What is the State's view on this? I acknowledge there are many differing views but there is a body of scientific data expressing concern over the use offlupyradifurone. What is the State's intention regarding its use?

Pádraig MacLochlainn(Sinn Fein)

As Senator Paul Daly implied, we engaged on the issue of organic farming previously. The Minister of State was the Chairman of the agriculture committee during the previous Dáil and his report was published with a range of recommendations. Apparently, quite a few remain to be implemented. Obviously, concerns were expressed to the Minister of State over the scheme. In 2015, a number of organizations appeared before the committee, including the Department, Bord Bia and some of the organic farming bodies, and the report was published in late 2015. The current agriculture committee has learned that there are considerable issues.

I wish to highlight a number of the recommendations and what we understand to be the state of play in regard to them. First, the joint committee recommended that the Department should ensure no payments would be delayed in 2015 as they were in 2014. We understand there are still problems in regard to payments being made on time. On foot of circumstances concerning GLAS payments, we had a considerable session with officials from the Minister of State's Department recently and went through the IT systems and some of the circumstances that have obtained. We have been given assurances that the problems will not be repeated. I would like a sense of what is happening in this regard.

The second of the recommendations, which total 17, was that the Department should investigate whether it would be more efficient to have one streamlined body granting organic status, preferably Bord Bia and that the registration fee should be reduced. Again, we are advised this has not been implemented. I would like the Minister of State's view on that.

The fourth of the 17 recommendations expressed the joint committee's concern that smaller farmers are not benefitting adequately from the organic farming scheme while farmers with larger holdings are benefitting disproportionately. It was recommended that payment on the first 20 hectares would be front-loaded, amounting to €315 per hectare, in view of the fact that small farmers cannot avail of the organic payments and also claim for low-income pastures or traditional hay meadows under GLAS. Again, we are advised this recommendation has not been implemented. We want to know why.

The next recommendation that was brought to our attention was No. 11. The joint committee recommended that the Department employ a risk-based inspection regime when inspecting premises engaged in organic farming. That has not been implemented.

Recommendation No. 12 was that the Department should attempt to reduce the duplication of inspections by making Bord Bia the certification body. The committee has been advised that this recommendation has not been implemented. The Minister of State was Chairman of the committee that published the report. I commend him and the then committee for what appears to have been an excellent piece of work, but he will agree that one of the frustrations in Leinster House is that, whenever committees put a lot of work into matters, hold hearings and produce reports, they end up down the back of a radiator, as a comedian famously alludes to every week. That is not acceptable. If Members are to have credibility, reports must be analyzed. I commend the current Chairman of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Pat Deering, who was Vice Chairman when the report was published for revisiting these issues and seeking to hold people to account. I appreciate that the Minister of State probably cannot give a full response, but will he issue me, Senator Paul Daly, other Senators who are interested and the committee with a detailed response on why the recommendations are not being implemented? Sometimes, there are good reasons, but the Minister of State should tell us why.

As the Minister of State knows, there has been a great deal of controversy about the greyhound industry in recent years. Apparently, 10,300 people are employed in it. I would love to know where they work and the basis for the claim that the industry contributes €500 million to the economy. My party opposed the decision to allocate in the recent budget €80 million to the greyhound and horse racing industries. We called votes on it in the Dáil and the Seanad. According to Horse Racing Ireland, the horse racing industry employs 14,000 people and contributes €1.1 billion to the economy. People were concerned that half of the €80 million - not even that much; €14 million - could have been used to ensure a place on a school bus for every child in the State who wished to have one. That is the kind of choice that must be made in government. Do we allocate money to an industry, certainly the horse racing end, that many argue involves wealthy people?

There have been serious questions for quite a while about corporate governance within the greyhound board. The resignation of Ms. Geraldine Larkin late last year was a symptom of the crisis in the greyhound industry, which is well known and has been reflected in the findings of the many reports produced in recent years. The Government needs to take decisive action to re-establish confidence in the industry. The time has come to stand down the board and reorganize structures with the clear objective of implementing the recommendations made in the Morris report on the misuse of drugs and the recommendations of the Oireachtas agriculture committee on corporate governance. The industry is a mess that must be cleaned up, with serious issues of mismanagement and doping undermining its credibility and integrity. Such is the mistrust of the dog testing system that the Irish Greyhound Board recently issued the directive that no Irish dog should be allowed to run in Britain without first being tested and being found to be clear of drugs by the British authorities. The disregard shown for the rules and basic controls expected in any semi-State body has alarmed and frustrated dog breeders and owners across the country. Last year we voted against the decision of the Government to allocate €16 million to the Irish Greyhound Board. We made the point that these organizations needed to step up to the plate and that we would still be discussing the significant inadequacies therein when we reached the budget for next year.

I wish to address the issue of the sale of the Harold's Cross stadium which has been operating since 1927 and is a much-loved track among smaller owners. The Minister of State probably heard them on the news saying they could not afford to compete at other venues. Harold's Cross has been a popular track among generations of punters and the greyhound racing fraternity is upset about its closure.

The horse and greyhound racing fund will be before the Houses again. We will engage in it and may table amendments, but before the Minister of State comes to us in the next year looking for more money for the board, he must ensure the industry will have cleaned up its act.

Paudie Coffey(Fine Gael)

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Andrew Doyle, to the Seanad for this debate on the organic and greyhound sectors, two indigenous industries that, unfortunately, have different outlooks. The organic sector is growing and people see that it has strong potential, whereas the greyhound industry is in decline because of a number of legacy issues that need to be addressed. However, it could have strong potential were it to be managed properly.

I recognize the support given to the organic sector by the Minister of State and his Department. In many communities around the country, new enterprises are growing thanks to the various incentives and support provided by the Department.

My main reason for contributing is to outline my concerns about the future of the greyhound industry. I will speak briefly about its value to the economy which has been outlined.

I was amazed to hear the Sinn Féin representative ask where the more than 10,000 people who made a living from the industry worked. I know many hundreds in my community who make a living from it - this is replicated around the country - including trainers and breeders. If the Senator was to attend the various racetracks around the country and if Sinn Féin supported the industry, they would see the many people who maintain the tracks and ensure they are fit for purpose, the many drivers, the veterinarians who ensure greyhounds are kept in top order, the catering and bar staff and the stewards. Sinn Féin is not willing to recognize these workers, given the statements made in the Chamber. If it does not recognize the industry's value to the economy, it is no surprise that it opposes the funding provided for the horse racing and greyhound industries. These are indigenous, rural industries that I want to see maintained and supported.

Recently, I met owners, breeders, trainers and patrons who were very concerned about the current state of the industry. They are frustrated and angry and want action. I support them in that regard. There has been a loss of confidence across the sector and the issue needs to be restored. That can only be done by reviewing and reforming the sector from the top down with the Minister of State who is new to his role at the helm. That includes the board, management at tracks and governance structures.

Recently, the Minister of State met a group of Fine Gael Oireachtas Members that included my colleague, Senator Ray Butler, as well as Deputy Joe Carey and many others who were supportive of the greyhound industry. We outlined our concerns because we wanted the Minister of State and his officials to listen. He has inherited many legacy issues, but they need to be tackled now. They might have resulted from poor governance in recent years. I mean no disrespect to the officials sitting behind the Minister of State, but officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine were in situ when many of these issues arose. There is a need for accountability throughout the system from the Minister to senior departmental and IGB officials. It is not good enough that the industry is being put at risk by bad management and poor governance.

We have an opportunity. I add my voice in support of the new legislation the Minister of State is due to publish soon. Colleagues and I want to support him because we see that this indigenous industry has strong potential but changes are necessary. We must attack the doping controversies and take on the legacy issues and debt problems. We must urgently review the issue of track viability and find ways to attract patrons back to racetracks to enjoy a night's entertainment. Kilcohan Park in Waterford is a famous stadium, not only in Ireland. It hosts many famous racing and soccer days, but it is only open one night a week, which is a crying shame. Reform of how we incentivise trainers and breeders to enter dogs in races could increase numbers.I acknowledge there are good people in the industry and good people managing our tracks but there needs to be a review in order that there will be more racing nights and that tracks can become more viable. A controversial "Prime Time" program is due to be broadcast the week after next and that might be a good thing. Let us uncover the problems and tackle them. I will support the Minister of State in that endeavor, as I am sure will other Senators.

Brian Ó Domhnaill(Fianna Fail)

I welcome the Minister of State and his officials for this important debate. I will confine my remarks to the greyhound industry. The Minister of State has listened to industry stakeholders, particularly when he was Chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

I agree with everything Senator Coffey said. He hit the nail on the head when he said the industry is in turmoil. The Minister of State referred to the 2015 audited accounts which are due to go to Government before being laid before the Oireachtas. Unfortunately, they make for grim reading. The accounts were published on the IGB website briefly before being removed and I had an opportunity to view them. If the same accounts are presented to both Houses, they will highlight that the IGB is totally incompetent when it comes to running the industry. For example, taxpayer funding increased by 25% in 2015 but the legal and professional fees associated with running the IGB increased by 245% in one year. Media and other income were down by 70% to only €100,000. Without taxpayer intervention, the organization would be insolvent.

Alarm bells need to ring quickly in Agriculture House about this organization, otherwise, a major national scandal is only weeks away. Ordinary punters, owners, and breeders are not being listened to by the body with statutory responsibility for administering the sector, which is wrong. They were outside these Houses protesting last week and I met some of them while I spoke to others over the phone last weekend. I appeal to the Minister of State not to allow this organization to run the industry into the ground. To address its managerial incompetence and lack of transparency and accountability, the answer is to sell the Harold's Cross facility. Protests will continue outside Shelbourne Park at every race night because greyhound owners and breeders are not being listened to. Their only option is to highlight their concerns outside Shelbourne Park. The industry is at an impasse and I appeal to the Minister of State to intervene.

I agree with Senator Coffey that the current board of the IGB is not fit for purpose and needs to be replaced. Stakeholder accountability and transparency need to be applied to the sector. The issue is urgent. The organization is in receipt of a State subsidy of €285,000 a week this year. From a financial management perspective in the context of the public finances, this organization does not meet the standards set down following good work by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I say that as someone with a financial background.

The agriculture committee made 13 recommendations dating back to January 2016. If implemented, they would solve some of the problems. I welcome the legislation that will be brought forward and I appreciate the Minister of State's efforts in this regard because he is working hard on it. Unfortunately, by the time the legislation passes through both Houses, it may be too late. An urgent intervention is required. It is not for me to suggest what should happen but the Minister of State needs to intervene. Will he use his good offices in conjunction with his officials to ensure that intervention happens within days rather than weeks because this could rocket out of control if something does not happen quickly?

Ray Butler(Fine Gael)

I welcome the Minister of State. I have been involved in the greyhound industry all my life. I have bred, raced and trained greyhounds and my family history can be traced back in the industry to winning major competitions. This industry is the best in the world. We are noted for breeding the best greyhounds in the world. The industry employs between 10,000 and 10,500 people. Unfortunately, there are legacy issues. I do not blame any political party but the chief executive officer, CEO, of the IGB, was on €300,000 under the previous Administration. The Taoiseach was not even in receipt of the same wage. It was a disgrace. The CEO was told not to proceed with a project in Limerick by solicitors and architects but she went ahead andploughed €1 million into a hole in the ground with clay to fill in before she even started building the greyhound stadium, which became a white elephant. We have a new CEO - Ms. Geraldine Larkin is gone-----

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Gerry Horkan(Fianna Fail)

I remind the Senator of the parliamentary practice not to identify or name people.

Ray Butler(Fine Gael)

The previous CEO is gone and a new CEO is in place. I hope the rumor the previous CEO was paid to leave is not true. The new CEO has been brutal in coming to town. There are ways and means to deal with people but closing Harolds Cross stadium will not solve the problems. Between €6 million and €7 million will be raised. The problems will be solved through a betting levy online of 1%. A total of €1 million was raised last year and that amount will increase because the volume of online betting is going through the roof. The levy could raise €2 million next year. Why can that money not be used to pay off the IGB's debt while leaving the money the Government is putting in to run the industry to be used as prize money? The banks will have to sit down and deal with us because, at the end of the day, it will not be good public relations to close greyhound tracks in rural Ireland. They will have to be brought in and we can deal with them when the time comes. The pensions deficit is a huge problem for the IGB in Limerick. I believe the figure is €8 million. Nine or ten people employed in the Limerick office are earning €100,000 a year, which is ludicrous.

Sinn Féin opposed the funding allocated to the industry in this year's budget, yet the party has no problem fundraising at greyhound tracks such as Dundalk and Shelbourne Park.

Michelle Mulherin(Fine Gael)


Ray Butler(Fine Gael)

The party opposes the funding of greyhound racing. Its members, therefore, want 10,000 people out of work but they have no problem fundraising at greyhound tracks.

Michelle Mulherin(Fine Gael)

Where are the Sinn Féin Senators now?

Ray Butler(Fine Gael)

Elvis has left the building. This strike will go on but we have to sit around a table to see what is best for the greyhound industry.We do have to look at prize money. I know that the ordinary person who has the grading dog from A5 down is not too unhappy about €300 first prize money or a little bit more. It is the bigger stakes where we need the better dogs to come into a competition where we need the funding. The derby prize money has been cut, the Cesarewitch had been cut and all the classics money has been cut so we have to look at better funding into the better racing and we will get the better results because better racing brings out the people.

All is not lost, this can be reversed but we need to sit down with people and we need to look at the board. It is the time that we need a new board in place.

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Gerry Horkan(Fianna Fail)

Senator Butler perfectly timed that five minutes. No other Senators are indicating to speak so I call the Minister who has ten minutes to respond.

Andrew Doyle(Wicklow, Fine Gael)

I will deal with questions relating to the organic sector first. I understood I was to speak to one issue and have questions and answers and then speak to the other, which I would prefer. If I leave anything out I would be happy for people to prompt me and remind me.

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Gerry Horkan(Fianna Fail)

If the Minister has got to five minutes and he is still speaking on organics, I will indicate that he has five minutes left.

Andrew Doyle(Wicklow, Fine Gael)

On the first question from Senator Paul Daly, the issue of leakage came up and was identified in the value of money review, so the increased maintenance payment of 60% now in operation means that most people are opting to stay and there is agreement from the Commission to extend their contract. What I was saying earlier is that we have all the various participants into the one stream, so by the end of this rural development program, everyone will be coming out. It is 26,000 ha extra rather than 46,000, the aim was 16,000 ha. The budget for the scheme has been increased and extended and it has been a success so that is a good indicator. What I would love to be able to say is that in the next program we will be able to extend it further but until we know the level of funding that will come through it is impossible to be honestly able to say that. That would be the target.

I would refer back to my first term in the Dáil, 2007-2011, when then Minister of State with responsibility for food and horticulture, former Deputy Trevor Sargent, said that we were at 1% and if we could get to 2% over the next five to ten years, we would have done a really good job. We have done that. I have to acknowledge that he was one of the first people to advocate and champion the value of the organic sector. It can be seen in the figures. There are specific issues as one goes through the report of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the organic farming scheme. Rather than go through them all today, what I propose to do is outline a number of the recommendations that have been agreed and implemented.If Senators wish, I can try and go through some of them. Delays in payments is, unfortunately, a symptom. I think 75% of all the 1,740 have been paid. GLAS is an overhang, as people may be aware; I have not been paid myself and I have been told that it is an IT issue. There is a dedicated team of officials on the sixth floor of Agriculture House going through these cases one by one to get them through. There are individual issues with organic applications, there are 300-odd left, where they are trying to iron out and pay different partial identifications. It is not in the Department's interest to hold on to anybody's money because they have to explain further down the line to both the European Commission and the Court of Auditors that have targets to hit regarding their payments.

On adopting a flexible approach and front-loading, the question of front-loading was brought to the Commission but the basic principle of the cost incurred and income forgone comes into play here. The cost incurred and income forgone varies from hectare to hectare and it was decided not to push any further at this time because it does not seem as though it will be favored by the Commission.

Senator Mac Lochlainn raised the recommendations in the joint committee's report on the organic farming scheme which have been agreed. The eighth recommendation was agreed that farmers and factories should ensure that organically produced meat is packaged and sold as such to attract a premium price and not merely sold as an ordinary meat. There are a number of factors behind the problem, with the increase in sheep meat, in particular, geography and theunavailablity of processing on the western half of the country. With the availability of reasonable value organic feed and the competitive price that conventional lamb trade makes, this year may be slightly different. In general terms, lamb prices have gone up significantly in the most expensive time to feed and farmers take an economic decision and might say that it is not worth their while pursuing it. That is something they might have to check up on.

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Gerry Horkan(Fianna Fail)

That is five minutes.

Andrew Doyle(Wicklow, Fine Gael)

I can make sure that everyone gets a response on this, certainly with regard to all 17 recommendations in the report, because I was chair of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine at the time. Each and every one of these has a response and a reason if they are not agreed or if they are agreed. A graduated penalty points system has been agreed and is now fully in place.

I will now move to greyhounds and thank the contributors. I do not disagree with a lot of what has been said. This is a legacy issue. People call for new governance and the dissolution of the board, but it is worth making the point that there is only one board member predating that period. I have refrained from appointing anybody for two reasons, first, their term has not expired and second, I am only in this office since May. I have been trying to get this legislation agreed and we finally have it; it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the work that has been done in trying to draft it, to try to tailor it to suit the needs of the greyhound sector. I want to reassure everybody that I am committed to it. I found it a learning curve when I got the job and I thought that I knew a considerable amount because I had gone to hearings but when I got into it I realized how complex the various different sectors are.

I insisted on meeting members of the Dublin Greyhound Breeders Association, and indeed the wider federation, over two consecutive days, in order to hear from them. I really admire these people. Everybody, including the members of the board, would rather not be faced with the conflict that is selling Harold's Cross and would prefer to come up with an alternative option. I take on board everything that has been said about the manner and method by which this has been carried out and will convey Senators' views. There is an opportunity here. An additional two members are proposed in the new draft legislation, and there are provisions on governance integrity and sanctions; the independence of the control committee and the appeals committee; and the period and number of terms that members can serve. There is an opportunity to make sure that there is a wide-ranging representation.

The members that have been filled over the last couple of years have been filled based on the expertise deficit identified in the Indecon report and, as I understand, went through the Public Appointments Service. They predate my time, but when one looks at their expertise, there is one individual who is a vet and a barrister and a solicitor who was once a State solicitor for Cork city. Among others, there is another person who is a managing director of Bank of Ireland finance and has executive risk-management experience. Those are the people who were employed. There would appear to be a need to put in the stakeholders. I attended the forum back in October to brief everybody. They were all invited and I spent three and a half hours with a member of the legal section of the Department to try to hear their views and listen and present the outline of the legislation that I thought we would have out before Christmas, to be honest. I think that structure is good but it needs to have more connectivity so that the recommendations that come through that get onto the board table and the people at board level representing the best interests of the industry take on board suggestions.It needs to have more connectivity so that the recommendations that come through that get onto the board table and the people at board level representing the best interests of the industry take suggestions on board.

Senator Burke made a tangible suggestion. He referred to how to increase revenue and perhaps use that to pay down legacy debt and release funds. When we say we should ring-fence Exchequer funding to increase prize money and the offering, that is true but if one is compromised by a debt that one has to service one is very limited.

I understand the extra expenditure relates to the franchise being taken back and extra people employed. I stand to be corrected, but I have been told that there was a net benefit to the revenue stream. I am also advised that the resignation of the CEO was in accordance with the terms of the contract, and legal advice was taken. I have no more detail on that, but if I get it I will send it to the Senator.

When a Bill goes through pre-legislative scrutiny if the schedule of the House permits I would hope to have it fully enacted by the summer recess.

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Gerry Horkan(Fianna Fail)

I thank the Minister of State and all Senators involved in the debate.

Source: KildareStreet - Developments in Organic Sector - Seanad Debates