Minister of State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan has denied an unfolding crisis in the peat harvesting sector is the product of a "green agenda", insisting the Government is bound by planning laws relating to large-scale extraction.
He was addressing the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee on Tuesday, where anger was expressed following reports in The Irish Times that the country's first horticultural peat shipment of 3,600 tonnes arrived on Saturday.
"We now have a situation where shiploads, huge shiploads, are being imported into Ireland. a 3,000km journey by sea to Ireland, where a further 200 trucks meet the ship to unload the peat and deliver it to plants," said Sinn Féin Cavan-Monaghan TD Matt Carthy, who acknowledged the peat-reliant mushroom industry was of significant importance to his constituency.
He put it to Mr Noonan that equivalent journeys for domestically sourced stocks averaged 10km, a claim previously made by industry body Growing Media Ireland (GMI), who said last weekend’s shipment was necessary due to rapidly depleting peat reserves.
Horticultural peat is used in the production of various food stuffs, primarily mushrooms, but also soft fruits and vegetables.
A Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) legal action led to a High Court ruling in 2019 regarding strict planning regulations for commercial extraction, a move the industry said rendered it unfeasible, effectively bringing it to a close.
At Tuesday’s committee meeting, Mr Noonan flatly denied the situation was a result of policy and said he was personally against peat importation.
“The continued assertion that this is a green agenda [is not the case],” he said. “Who would accept that we would attempt or try to undermine an industry? Our collective job here as legislators is responsibility towards those people and the staff and the workers and the families.”
Instead, Mr Noonan said, “we are caught in a legislative bind” to which there is no obvious solution.
GMI has already called for a simplified licensing system for commercial extraction similar to those used in other countries.
However, the committee heard this would not be straightforward. Department official Brian Lucas explained that any such approach would require time consuming primary legislation and the introduction of a range of new systems and processes.
Speaking ahead of the committee meeting on Tuesday, FIE director Tony Lowes said his organisation would consider renewed legal action if any effort was made to license commercial harvesting that digressed from EU regulations cemented by their successful 2019 legal challenge.
“[I am] disappointed that the industry hasn’t tackled the problem,” he said, adding that there had been ample time to develop the kind of alternatives currently under review by a department working group due to publish its final report later this month.
“Whether you are going to use [peat] for growing mushrooms or burning it in your fire, it’s all the same. The warning signs have been there, they all knew about this court case.”
That position will do little to ease the concerns of political representatives who voiced their frustration on Tuesday, demanding some clarity on the industry’s future, particularly in the short term.
Committee chairman and Tipperary TD Jackie Cahill stressed that the importation of peat was "both environmental and financial lunacy" and urged some solution to allow for domestic harvesting.
While careful not to pre-empt forthcoming recommendations, Mr Lucas said some options under consideration included identifying alternative peat stockpiles, bringing in expertise to advise industry on alternatives and funding compost research.