Environmental protection - Food plan needs a full assessment

Yesterday’s European Commission report on waste management which ranked Ireland 15th out of 27 member states was another indication that we have yet to make the connection between our treatment of the environment and our responsibilities to the future.

The report considers how much waste is recycled and infringements of European legislation. Failings include poor or non-existent waste prevention policies; a lack of incentives to divert waste from landfills; and inadequate infrastructure.

Even at this low point this is an indictment we should not be proud of but, unfortunately, the findings are unlikely to provoke the kind of positive cultural changes needed to move us from the middle of the commission table to a more acceptable rating.

Environment Minister Phil Hogan has recognised the unsustainability of landfill by increasing the landfill tax gradually — the levy will reach €75 per tonne within a year. This is, effectively, a tax imposed on ourselves by ourselves because we are so slow to change our habits.

A review of the responsibilities of waste producers, primarily focussing on packaging, is under way and may lead to measures that put the onus on those who produce waste to reduce it or take more responsibility for its disposal. These measures are small steps in the right direction but, unfortunately, Mr Hogan’s efforts to make us more environmentally responsible do not seem to resonate as they might with his colleague, Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney.

Mr Coveney presides over the very important and ambitious Food Harvest 2020 project which envisages that, within a decade, milk and pig-meat production will increase by 50%, beef and sheep output by 20%, poultry production by 10% and fish farming production by 300%. Sustainability and protecting Ireland’s reputation as a clean food producer are central tenets.

The authors of Food Harvest 2020 and the Environmental Protection Agency recommended the plan be assessed under the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive for Plans and Projects and under the Habitats Directive, but Mr Coveney has insisted that the plan is a “strategic policy document” rather than a “plan” so it is not subject to the same degree of oversight.

This is shabby and disingenuous. It is impossible to accept that a scheme as far-reaching as Food Harvest 2020 is not a plan but rather, conveniently, a policy. Equally it is less than impressive to say that individuals are responsible for the impact such a grand, countrywide scheme might have.

In any event such evasion must raise suspicions and threaten the credibility of Ireland Inc as food producers with the highest standards. It certainly flies in the face of this Government’s much trumpeted, when it suited them, commitment to transparency.

Mr Coveney should rather welcome a full and proper environmental assessment to ensure that it will not damage our stretched environment, especially water resources. He should welcome such an assessment too to help build a culture that gives proper weight and priority to environmental protection. But most of all, he should welcome such an assessment to protect one of our most valuable resources — our reputation as food producers with the highest standards.

Nothing can be allowed jeopardise that.


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