Dáil Éireann - Volume 327 - 25 February, 1981

Adjournment Debate. - Vegetable Imports.

[373] An Ceann Comhairle: I have given permission to Deputy Deasy to raise the subject matter of Question No. 72 on today's Order Paper.

Mr. Deasy: Question No. 72 is as follows:

To ask the Minister for Agriculture if his attention has been drawn to reports of large-scale dumping of vegetables by market gardeners in west Waterford and east Cork; if he is aware that the over-supply situation is being blamed on imports from other EEC member states and third countries; and the action he is taking to protect the small farmers concerned.

I used the word “dumping” in one context and probably I could have used it in two. It is dumping by third countries and fellow members of the EEC which is causing our market gardeners to dump their own produce for absolutely nothing. I am calling for immediate Government action to reduce the massive imports of fruit and vegetables from the EEC and third countries which are threatening the livelihood of hundreds of market gardeners on the south coast. I referred in my question to west Waterford and east Cork but I could have referred to all of County Waterford, County Wexford, west Cork and Kerry as well. This problem affects growers in all these areas.

The import of produce from third countries should be stopped forthwith and produce from EEC states should be banned where it is proven that subsidies in contravention of EEC regulations are being applied. Irish importers appear to be co-operating with foreign interests to squeeze out home producers and I am asking that the National Prices Commission investigate, as a matter of urgency, the marketing of fruit and vegetables in this country.

It has been alleged that our producers cannot sell onions to supermarkets and other retail outlets at 4p per pound, while imported onions are being sold for [374] between 25p and 30p per pound in the same outlets. That is just one example relating to one variety of vegetable, but there are many different types involved. Producers in County Waterford have already dumped 200 tons of onions and ploughed back acres of cabbage and cauliflower in recent months. During the past two years over 100 acres of orchards have been pulled up in the Dungarvan area alone, while apples to the value of £7.5 million were imported during the first ten months of 1980. That information comes from a reply to a Dáil Question on 16 December last.

Imports from Cyprus have ruined the early potato market and I am requesting the Government to ban or curtail such imports until the Irish crops have been marketed. I should like the Minister to tell me whether Cyprus is in the Common Market. We know that on 1 January this year Greece, or the Hellenic Republics, acceded to the EEC and I want to know whether Cyprus is included. It appears that Cyprus has been partitioned and that one part of it is dominated or governed by Greeks and the other by Turks. Turkey is certainly not a member of the EEC and has not applied for membership. Are we importing produce from outside the EEC without any constraints whatsoever? The Cypriot potatoes have absolutely wiped out our own growers of early potatoes, specifically in my own area of Ballinacourty. I am sure the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Deputy Allen, has experienced the same problem in south Wexford, as has Deputy Corish.

Mr. Corish: We are importing carrots from Israel.

Mr. Deasy: Yes. According to the Taoiseach in reply to a Dáil Question on 16 December last we imported processed foodstuffs to the value of £230 million and unprocessed to the value of £96 million in the first 10 months of 1980, a total well in excess of £300 million worth of foodstuffs mainly consisting of produce which could be produced at home.

I ask the Minister to take action. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people [375] are involved. I am specifically concerned about areas in my own constituency such as Ballinacourty and Ardmore where onions, carrots and cabbage are grown. People there have been left with vast quantities of produce during the past six months. The problem has been building up steadily over the years and has really come to the boil during the past few months when they have found it impossible to sell their produce. The Government and the National Prices Commission have a duty to see that the marketing system set up here is put into proper hands and under proper control. There is a strong suspicion that consortiums, including the major supermarkets and large retail outlets, are hogging the market and discriminating against Irish produce because they are guaranteed not alone the type of produce I refer to but other types of vegetables and fruit we do not grow here. There is some link-up.

How could Irish onions be refused at 4p per lb when the same produce is being sold for 25p to 35p per lb? The Minister should check those prices. Obviously, there is some underhand work going on and it is time the Government and the NPC investigated it. If there are rings involved, they should be smashed. We all know that such produce can come here very cheaply because the people concerned have an advantage over us as a result of their better climate while we have to endure harsh winters. Half of the potato crop may be lost if we get frost in May and a gale in the middle of the summer could result in a severe loss in the apple crop. Last summer our onion crop was badly affected by the dreadful weather. Continental producers have an advantage with their climate and they can flood the country with their produce because their transport costs are very little. The refrigerated lorries which transport meat to the Continent from here are used to bring back fruit at cheap rates. Apples are a prime example. We are reputed to have a good climate for growing apples but in the ten months from January to October last year we imported £7½ million worth of apples. The value of apples produced at home was only £1½ [376] million. At home we only produced one-sixth of the apples sold on our markets although we are supposed to be able to produce the most delicious apples of all. It so happens that the French Government are illegally operating a number of subsidies including the illegal advertising here on TV of French apples. I have been informed that the French Government are paying the cost of such advertising.

Many other subsidies which are illegal under EEC rules are being applied. For instance, French producers get abnormally low interest rate loans which put the Irish competitor at an unfair advantage. Transport subsidies are also paid even though they are out of order. Those with greenhouses to produce tomatoes and so on are given a heating subsidy and those heating subsidies are in direct contravention of the EEC rules. They should be eliminated so that our producers can get a fair crack of the whip.

It has been said by importers and those involved in large retail outlets that the quality of the Irish produce is not as good as the imported goods. In certain cases there may be some truth in that statement because there is a slap-happy haphazard way of marketing our produce. We must bring our marketing and grading methods up to standard. Why should the 95 per cent of genuine growers suffer because of laxity on the part of the other 5 per cent.? It is the duty of the Departments of Agriculture and Industry, Commerce and Tourism to ensure that growers are registered and licensed. They must ensure that the produce is kept up to standard by regular inspections. Obviously, that job is not being done and it is giving the supermarkets and other large retail outlets an excuse to make a killing. That killing is being made at the expense of the market gardeners and small farmers in west Waterford and east Cork.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture (Mr. Smith): There is not an overall supply of vegetables on our markets at present and quality produce has been making good prices in recent months. There have been, however, local [377] problems due to changes in the marketing patterns and in some instances the poor keeping quality attributable to weather conditions in the 1980 growing season. In relation to imports of seed potatoes there is no doubt that the imports from Cyprus——

Mr. Deasy: I was referring to early potatoes.

Mr. Smith: The import of early potatoes from Cyprus last year had a depressing effect on the market. The Minister proposes to make an order under the Agricultural Products (Regulation of Import) Act, 1938, to control those imports. That should have the effect of controlling them. In the context of the general import of potatoes, which last year totalled almost £4 million, some of which were imports of frozen chips — the establishment of the plant in Donegal should have the effect of eliminating that — it is true that they sold on the market some times at two-and-a-half times the price of the Irish produce. That was because of the manner in which they were graded, presented, packaged and purchased by Irish housewives in preference to Irish produce. I should like to put on record that our traditional varieties are the best in the world but they need to be properly graded and presented on the home market in an aggressive manner. We should not have any fear of imports from outside if we properly grade and present our own produce. In so far as imports have been a problem, I believe that will be eliminated this year.

We have not imported any cabbage. There is a misconception about that vegetable perhaps because of a variety which is known as Dutch cabbage but that is grown here in substantial quantities. It is because of its name that there is an impression that we import it, but we do not import any cabbage from outside. We produce about one-third of our total apple requirement, about 12,000 tons. The domestic requirement is about 40,000 tons. It has become a specialised growing method and the marketing has become very organised. The horticultural [378] group in my Department have assigned to it in recent times the task of specifically looking into this question of marketing and the growing of apples here. In spite of some claims to the contrary we do not have the climatic conditions annually to produce top quality apples. Consideration is being given to altering the traditional varieties, increasing the yields and eliminating the percentage of small type of apple we seem to produce in abundance but which are difficult to dispose of.

There are two major producer groups here, the Paradise group of Waterford and south Kilkenny and the Green Aces of Dundalk. Obviously, the road forward is to have improved marketing, more research and production on a continuing basis. We must market our produce as aggressively as possible. In the final analysis we are not able to meet the demand on the domestic market and we require imports because of that.

Mr. Deasy: The research of the Department is first class and it is carried out at Ballygagin Institute in Dungarvan.

Mr. Smith: We produce approximately 10,000 tons of onions which is a little more that half of our total requirement. Because of the problems that have risen due to the lack of storage facilities and the change in the marketing situation — van drivers used travel around in the autumn to collect supplies for sale to retailers — it appears the situation has changed. It is essential that that is taken into account. I recognise the difficulties many producers are going through and I am anxious to do everything possible to eliminate this. In the final analysis a lot of this organisation will have to fall back on the producer who must avail of the services of ACOT. Producers must programme themselves into a tighter organised group producing top quality goods on a continuing basis. They must eliminate the problems that have arisen up to now. The Department will give them all possible assistance towards the introduction of a better organisation.

[379] Mr. Deasy: The matter should be referred to the National Prices Commission.

[380] The Dáil adjourned at 9 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 26 February 1981.