Food safety comes at a price, says Coveney

Thu, Sep 13, 2012, 01:00

Minister says quality food requires high standards, writes ALISON HEALY, Food and Farming Correspondent

URBAN DWELLERS who complain about farmers receiving EU subsidies should realise that the safety and security of their food is made possible by the Common Agricultural Policy, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney said yesterday.

He said quality and safety standards imposed by the EU were very onerous on farmers and did not come free.

“People sitting in their living rooms in Donnybrook and Crumlin who are contributing to the cost of the Common Agricultural Policy, they also get a return in terms of the quality of food they can expect in the supermarket and the kind of countryside that many people cherish and love,” he said.

“If we are going to impose higher standards in terms of quality and in terms of guarantees around sustainability and animal husbandry and all the other things that make consumers feel good about the food that they buy, well, then we have to pay for that.”

Mr Coveney also noted that 85 per cent of all European funds coming to Ireland came through the agriculture policy so the whole country benefited indirectly.

The negotiations on the reform of the Cap are likely to happen during Ireland’s hosting of the EU presidency next year.

He said it was hoped that agreement on the overall EU budget would be reached before the end of the year, leaving the Irish presidency free to concentrate on the Cap negotiations. But some people believed it was “likely” that the overall budget would not be agreed in December. If this happens “well, then it becomes much more challenging . . . that would be a very pressurised and difficult timetable”.

The Cap negotiations will boost the profile of the 40-year-old Cork man who has been mentioned as a possible future leader of Fine Gael. When asked about this, he said “to be honest, I don’t even think about that. I’m focusing on my job . . . If you were to offer me any ministry in the morning I would stay in the ministry I’m in because I think it’s a really dynamic sector.”

He noted last year’s 27 per cent increase in the number of students studying agriculture or food-related courses and said it was a very exciting time for the sector. And he said he was confident that there would be significant investment in research and innovation in the area.

Mr Coveney said an independent report had found that 25,000 direct and indirect jobs could be created in the food and drinks sector by 2020 if the targets in the Food Harvest 2020 plan were met.

The industry plan aims to increase the value of primary production by a third over the next decade, including a 50 per cent increase in the volume of milk production.

However, environmental groups have expressed concern at the targets. Friends of the Irish Environment sent a 23-page dossier to commissioner for agriculture Dacian Ciolos and commissioner for the environment Janez Potocnik, asking that the plan be assessed under EU directives.

In a joint response, the commissioners said the plan “would benefit from both a strategic environmental assessment . . . and from an appropriate assessment under the habitats directive”.

Mr Coveney said independent consultants were conducting an environmental analysis of all the scenarios set out in the plan and this would be completed before the end of the year or “hopefully before then. This is something we are taking seriously.”

He said Ireland was the first country in the world to measure the carbon footprint on every beef farm.

“And we’re about to do the same with the dairy sector.”

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Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan yesterday announced extensions to the periods for the application of certain fertilisers, in response to the recent bad weather. Friends of the Irish Environment expressed concern that this could lead to fertiliser run-off into water sources during rainy periods.