Independent TD for Wexford Verona Murphy has told the government that a “proactive approach” is needed to prevent the spread of blackgrass.

The highly invasive blackgrass weed was found recently in a commercial wild flower mixture that was grown in an experimental plot under the control of Teagasc in Oak Park, Co. Carlow. 

Blackgrass ‘can have devastating impact’

During topical questions on the floor of the Dáil today (Wednesday, May 26), deputy Murphy noted that it is a “major problem in the UK and can have a devastating impact on crop yields”.

“I understand that the Department of Agriculture has no certification process on imported wild flower seeds. We also have straw being imported which isn’t being tested for blackgrass,” the deputy said.

“The department needs to take this very seriously and put steps in place to raise awareness amongst those who have imported wild flower seeds and implement steps to prevent blackgrass from destroying our crops.

“Under the pollinator plan, which is a government-led initiative that aims to help bees, other pollinating insects and our wider biodiversity, local groups such as schools, community groups, Tidy Towns groups, etc, may be importing wild flower seeds to use as part of their efforts.

“With no certification on such seeds, there is a major risk of blackgrass being imported and sown unintentionally right across the country.

“Hopefully the discovery in Carlow is a one-off exception. We would be incredibly lucky if the only commercial mixture imported into Ireland contaminated with blackgrass just happened to be bought by Teagasc.

“Logic would suggest that this is unlikely and that many people have imported seed mixtures containing blackgrass from the UK.”

Proactive approach needed

The deputy has called for a “proactive approach” to this, and for there to be a certification process for imported wild flower seeds.

She has also asked the minister to establish some form of a social media campaign to make communities aware of blackgrass and to stay vigilant in identifying it.

“This is the last thing we can heap on tillage farmers and we cannot put our crop produce at risk, particularly given what will happen with the CAP reform,” the deputy added.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture Martin Heydon said the standards and purity of seed and propagating material “are implemented at EU level through a suite of EU directives and regulations”.

This legislation is not applicable to wild flower seeds, the minister said. He added that the number of weed species covered in the legislation is very limited.

“While the legislation covers certain weed and disease species, there are no specific controls relating to blackgrass,” the minister continued.

Zero tolerance for blackgrass

“Seed from third countries is certified and labelled under OECD rules.

“Although there is no specific tolerance for black grass in the OECD rules, they do state: ‘crops containing an excessive number of weeds shall be rejected’; and ‘the seed crop should be reasonably free from weeds and other crop species, especially those whose seeds may be difficult to separate from the seed crop during seed processing’.

“Since January 1, 2021, the UK has been certifying seed according to OECD certification rules and has stated it will certify seed according to EU standards for the next two years.

“Member states may implement voluntary controls for seed certified in their own territories but cannot impose those controls for seed certified in another member state.

“The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has a voluntary agreement with the Irish Seed Trade Association to impose zero tolerance for blackgrass, wild oats and sterile brome in cereal crops intended for certification in Ireland.

“My officials are in contact with the Irish Seed Trade Association with a view to extending this voluntary agreement to include wild flower seeds propagated in Ireland and imported wild flower species formulated into mixtures in Ireland.

“My department strongly advises that only locally sourced wildflower seeds be planted and my officials are engaging with the industry to ensure locally produced seed is free of blackgrass.”

He said the department is “taking swift and strong action to control what we can control in the short-term, which is what is within our system in Ireland and the voluntary code that has worked very well for us in the past”.

“The code is actually at a higher level than the international code, a higher level than the OECD rules and a higher level than EU regulations because we have zero tolerance,” the minister added.