The ploughing of set-aside land and ecological focus areas (EFAs) would provide “considerable extra ground” for increased crop production, according to Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture Martin Heydon.
Minister Heydon said such measures are part being “examined” and “worked through” at EU level. He said he and his colleagues, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue and fellow Minister of State Pippa Hackett, are continuing to engage with the Europe in order to “get maximum flexibility” for the mechanisms that will support Irish farmers in ensuring food security.
Heydon made his comments in the Dáil on Tuesday night following a meeting with farm organisations on food security and supply challenges brought about by the war in Ukraine.
The meeting resulted in the formation of a national fodder and food security committee which will be led by Teagasc and will hold its first meeting later this week.
Minister Heydon suggested that detail on the type of support package which will be made available to farmers to overcome supply challenges, “might be in place from the EU in the near future, even in the coming days”.
We do not have a crisis in food security right now and we do not have a feed crisis
On the actions needed to prevent feed shortages, the Fine Gael minister said: “We do not have a crisis in food security right now and we do not have a feed crisis, but we want to make sure we do not have one next winter.
“That is why we must use the time we have now, the best available to us, to support farmers to do what needs to be done to secure the food supply chain into the future.”
Minister Heydon was speaking in response to questions from Social Democrat agriculture spokesperson Holly Cairns TD and Fine Gael TD Colm Burke.
Cairns criticised the Department for not “learning” from the food security fears experienced at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020.
She said: “Despite having such an extensive agriculture sector, we still rely very heavily on food imports.
“The Department’s policies and choice of markets have forced farmers into a small number of [sectoral] areas, which has very much reduced the diversity of our produce and, ultimately, reduced our resilience.”
The Cork TD warned Minister Heydon that “pivoting quickly to tillage would be a challenge for the [agricultural] sector”. However, she said this “needs to happen now if we are to have a grain harvest next year”.
Similarly, Colm Burke TD highlighted the “very short timeframe of just four weeks” which he said is left for farmers to make decisions on crop planting.
Minister Heydon explained how the Department has established a “rapid response team” to “actively monitor the impact on agri-food supply chains and inflationary pressures arising from the developing situation in Ukraine”.
There are options in the context of forage crops, the management of silage production and the production of maize or beet
While agreeing that the war in Ukraine will impact feed supply, he said: “On tillage, we are fortunate that the success of higher-yielding winter-sown crops is estimated to be greater for the coming harvest due to favourable autumn planting conditions.”
“There are options in the context of forage crops, the management of silage production and the production of maize or beet. There are many sensible things we can do from an agronomy perspective in order to ensure our systems are as robust as possible.”