Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney has said he will face down any demands that the agri-food sector should stall expansion because of environmental concerns.
Addressing the AGM of the Irish Farmers’ Association on Wednesday, Mr Coveney said the sector could expand while addressing environmental challenges.
“Anybody who advocates to me that we should be meeting our climate change and environmental obligations by simply reducing the intensity of farming or reducing our herd size in my view does not understand the connection between global food security and the global climate change challenge,” he said.
Mr Coveney said Ireland could produce food in a more sustainable way than many of its competitors because of our natural resources.
“Countries such as Ireland . . . should be encouraged to do more of that, not less,” he said. “And I will be an aggressive and pro-active advocate for that approach...and I make no apologies for that. And in my view that not only makes environmental sense for Ireland as well as ensuring that you have opportunities to expand and grow as farm businesses.”
The Minister said the food and drink sector had rarely been as important to the Irish economy as it was now. He was applauded by delegates when he said farm families were part of the reason why multinational companies were making profits and they should see some of that benefit.
“Otherwise you are simply a supplier of raw material for other people to make money on the back of,” he said. “It is my job to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Mr Coveney also said he believed Ireland could be the fastest-growing milk producer in the world over the next 10 years “certainly for the next five” because of the abolition of milk quotas.
However, he did not want to see a new generation of dairy farmers “essentially working for the bank” because they borrowed unwisely to expand their farms.
“That would be a disastrous outcome for us,” he said.
Mr Coveney warned dairy farmers that in future their milk price would be dictated by factors such as a drought in Australia or grass growth levels in New Zealand, because Ireland exported 90 per cent of its milk output.
During a question and answer session with the delegates, he said he was open to looking at a year-round scheme which would give farmers grants to make their workplaces safer. The first farm safety grant scheme closed in early January and attracted 6,000 applications. A second tranche of the scheme will open later this year.
Mr Coveney said the deaths of 30 people on farms last year was “shocking” and could not continue. “In simple terms, 6 per cent of the workforce in Ireland work on a farm and 60 per cent of the fatalities in the workplace last year were on farms. That is just totally unacceptable.”
The Minister faced a range of questions from farmers, including a plea for training for the poultry industry. He also heard criticism of the lack of progress on getting the Russian ban on food and drink lifted. Mr Coveney said the Irish authorities were working hard to get the Russian market open for multiple products but it was a complex situation and politics was at play.