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A prince at war on behalf of big agri-business.

By Tony Lowes.

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney is at war on behalf of big agri-business. Simon of course is brother to Greencore’s dynamic CEO Patrick, recently in the news for spurning shareholders’ objections to his €1.4m annual remuneration. Greencore long ago shut Irish Sugar, its then only product. It makes nothing in Ireland, though it is the world’s largest sandwich maker, and in early February moved its stock exchange listing from Dublin to London. Simon is son of the late Hugh, surveyor, yachtsman and well-got Cork businessman who was demoted from Ministerial rank for improper contact with businessmen and who held a $175,000 Ansbacher account, according to the Moriarty Tribunal, though his son vigorously denied it.

On land Coveney, who is Minister for Agriculture, Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, plans to increase agricultural exports by 42% by 2020. On sea, he is planning three mega fish-farms. The first, in Galway Bay, will produce 15,000 tons a year, more than the whole of Ireland’s current production.

Simon Coveney is fighting the European Commission on both fronts, assisted by twelve (sometimes conflicting) State Bodies, including Coillte, the Aquaculture Licensing Appeals Board (ALAB),Bord Bia. Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the Marine Institute, the National Milk Agency, the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA), and Teagasc.

On land and on sea, his ambition is global.

FARMING

On land, the European Commission is intent on reforming the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) so that the astonishingly high headage grants available are capped and the grants become based on the land farmed, not the number of animals held.

In a revealing debate in the Senate this January about proposed changes to the CAP, Coveney was concerned that they would mean the “most productive farmers at present would lose an average of 60% of their payment while farmers in less productive areas would gain an average of approximately 85% in their payments. This level of switching resources will, in my view, significantly damage the productivity of Irish farming in terms of the capacity of the productive sector to invest and expand as we would like it to do. This is not in the interests of productivity or of the agrifood journey we want to create, which is around growth and jobs and expansion”, he said.

Nor does he welcome the proposals to have 30% of the overall payment applied to greening or the apparently not-so-onerous rule that prohibits claims for a farm more than 80km from the farmer’s own farm. The EU Court of Auditors, when reviewing the system of CAP payments across the EU at the end of April, warned that under the current system “payments will continue to be made even when beneficiaries do not exercise any activity on their land”. The EU seems to be concerned about situations such as that of Pádraig Flynn’s wife’s who claimed to be a farmer for a forestry grant on the basis of a single invoice for hay sold. Ireland seems less concerned.

Another example of the conflict between Ireland and the EU is the pitched battle which began before Christmas over the grant conditions for aid in Disadvantaged Areas, almost 75% of the country’s farmland. At stake is Coveney’s plan to eliminate the 40% of Ireland’s farms which Teagasc has categorised as unviable. On the grounds that there were those ”who really are not farming at all; they are putting stock on land in order to draw down payments”, he retroactively doubled the stocking level required to qualify for aid for the remainder of the current CAP program – the next two years.

Given the established legal principle against retroactive decisions affecting property rights such as those to grants, it is hard to see how Coveney can sustain his decision.

His focus on stocking numbers over quality or environmental concerns ignores analysis of farming’s contribution to the economy through preserving biodiversity, estimated by the Heritage Council to be worth €2.6 billion per annum to the Irish economy.

In any event, the Minister’s breezy replies to questions last year assuring forthcoming EU approval for his stocking changes are now notably more guarded while the IFA is increasingly concerned at continued delays in resolving the situation as time runs out for 2012 applications.

In another regressive move Coveney announced in late April that apart from breeding establishment horses would no longer [always] qualify for headage grants. The bloodstock industry is hardly the most deserving sector in hard-stretched Ireland, particularly when the country is awash with unwanted horses.

In monetary terms Coveney’s plan to trim €30m a year off the €310m CAP bill is a smaller saving than the tab the state picked up because Ireland lost the 75% EU funding in 2007 due to Ireland’s failures to meet basic environmental standards. Making that up will cost the State €42m this year alone.

Coveney had fought hard in Europe to have the ‘tie back’ year for grants in the 2014 CAP proposals put back from 2014 to 2011 implying only those who were farming in 2011 could seek grants in 2014. This was ostensibly to ensure that there was no ‘land grab’ by rich foreign interests but in fact was to keep the pot safe for the lads with their feet under the table already. This has met with resistance from the EU Court of Auditors, who have challenged the proposal on the grounds that they “undermine its own effort to encourage young people to become farmers”.

FISH FARMS

Wearing his marine crown, prince Coveney faces even greater frustrations in trying to rejuvenate the salmon-farming industry, where fish farms have halved production in the last ten years. While the global market is a mouth-watering €1 billion euro, he recently whined to the Senate that he was frustrated, that the “Commission is literally holding a stick over our head in asking us to put in place a gold-plated system for accepting applications for aquaculture licenses”.

Since 2007, 520 aquaculture licence applications have stacked up awaiting a new process that Minister Coveney called in a Senate debate “incredibly frustrating, arduous and expensive”. He confessed that “many existing aquaculture operators are essentially operating outside of licence”, and in late April listed for Cork North Labour TD Michael McCarthy 19 salmon farms along the coast from Cork to Donegal whose ten-year licences have expired.

To get around the onerous process that applicants for fish farms face, the Minister has instructed BIM to apply for the first of three mega-fish farms and to franchise the resultant licence. Called the ‘Aran Island’ fish farm, it is actually located in the centre of Galway Bay.

What Jason Wholley, Chief Executive of BIM, calls a “game changer”, this 500-hectare 72-cage farm will produce 15,000 tons a year, doubling Ireland’s production, with two more to follow off Mayo and Donegal. It has nothing to do with the Aran Islands, aside from dominating Inis Oírr’s Green Flag Beach. It risks subverting marine tourism, such as the 650,000 people expected in Galway Bay for the finish of the Volvo Ocean Challenge race this summer.

To facilitate the process the Minister is trying to bring BIM into his Department, making the applicant for a licence the same body that will adjudicate on the licence. The rumour is that the Minister is preparing the ground for Chinese investments – he visited the main aquaculture research institute in China recently – a welcome that contrasts oddly with his worries elsewhere about ‘land grabs’. Most of Ireland’s production is already controlled by Marine Harvest, a Norwegian company with an appalling track record in under-developed countries. Ironically, they may not be happy with a Chinese entry, fearful that the dramatic increase in production could collapse the price of the niche ‘organic’ market.

But groups like Save Dunmanus Bay – which saw off Marine Harvest two years ago – and Save Bantry Bay (a Save Galway Bay is also planned) – have all the scientific arguments on their side.

A large proportion of the nutrients in fish farm food either falls to the ocean floor or is excreted by the fish – then remaining available to fuel the growth of algae.

Algae can contain biotoxin produced by marine phytoplankton. This has led to frequent closures of many bays. Irish producers lost €2.5m in stock in 2005 and had to import mussels to meet market contracts. In 2008, recalls were issued for Bantry Bay mussels in Ireland, the continent, and the United States. It emerged during the successful prosecution of the company by the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, that more than 214 people were taken ill in France from Bantry Bay mussels because of harmful algae blooms.

And of course there is the sea-lice issue. According to the Central Fisheries Board, sea lice from farmed fish operations wiped out Ireland’s western wild-trout fisheries in the 1990s. Now an EU-funded three-country (including Ireland), peer-reviewed study of the impact of sea lice has unequivocally shown that salmon mortalities are almost 50% higher from sea lice if unprotected wild fish pass through bays with fish farms in them.

Caged salmon with sea lice exceeded the permitted ‘trigger level’ at some locations and in some seasons in 100% of the tests in 2010. In fact, Marine Harvest recently admitted that they treat fish before the ‘trigger level’, a practice that will increase pollution and resistance to chemo-theraputants while giving the appearance of there being no serious sea lice problem.

A loss of salmon in the rivers also may mean the extinction of the protected fresh water pearl mussel, which relies on salmon for part of its lifecycle.

Save Bantry Bay found a 1993 Salmon Farming Task Force Report recommending a minimum distance of 20k between rivers with salmon and fish farm. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Report had been “suppressed” after industry pressure.

The delays that are being blamed on the European Court Judgment against Ireland for failure properly to assess fish farms conceal the fact that, if properly assessed, open-net fish farms in the bays along the west coast of Ireland could, and should, not be permitted.

From an environmental point of view, Coveney’s princely plans represent serious threats to our remaining wildlife – on land and on sea.

Tony Lowes is a Director of Friends of the Irish Environment.