Providing meaningful and realistic support for production agriculture will be a fundamental requirement moving forward, according to Farm Minister Michelle McIlveen who talks to Richard Halleron.
The Minister also said that getting the best possible cross-border trade deal in the upcoming Brexit negotiations and ensuring that Northern Ireland remains fully complaint with all World Trade Organisation (WTO) regulations will be her other policy priorities during the period ahead.
However McIlveen added that it is still too early to talk about the detail of the farm support arrangements that could be implemented post-Brexit. “My first priority is to ensure that Northern Ireland receives its fair share of the funding that will be made available for agriculture within the UK as a whole.
“London will be made fully aware of just how important farming and food are to the overall economy of Northern Ireland. It’s then a case of identifying how much flexibility will be available to develop bespoke support packages for the local farming sectors. Only then will we know if pushing ahead with coupled support measures are either feasible or relevant.”
McIlveen said that the existing single payment measures will be retained in place until 2019. “This will be extended out to 2020 for the purposes of the current rural development plan,” she said. She gave a strong hint that London will act to ensure a smooth transition to the new support measures after these dates. “I can also confirm that the principle of balancing agricultural output while fully protecting the rural environment will be maintained in full,” she added.
Where Brexit is concerned, the Minister confirmed that she had already met her southern counterpart Micheal Creed and the Defra minister George Eustice on this matter.
“Everyone agrees that we need to come up with a final deal, which ensures that traditional trading patterns between the UK and the Republic of Ireland are maintained with the minimum level of disruption. I was delighted with the decision to keep Minister Eustice in place within Defra as he represents a strong source of continuity, where policy development is concerned.”
Commenting on the Brussels aid package, announced some weeks ago, the Minister said that she particularly welcomed the decision to allow individual member states pay a 70 per cent advance in October. But she confirmed that farmers with pending inspections and new single payment entrants for 2016 will be excluded from this measure.
“My understanding is that the scheme to bring about a voluntary reduction in EU milk supply will be based on a payment to farmers of €0.14/L and, as it is an emergency measure, it will commence in September. The other measures within the aid package have a November timeline associated with them. However we still need to receive a lot more detail from Brussels, where these matters are concerned.”
McIlveen stressed that she will act to ensure that Northern Ireland receives the maximum amount of money possible from the £30 million allocation to the UK as part of the Brussels’ commitment to provide £350 million for aid schemes that do not specifically support dairy. “Simply asking London to agree a national top up does not guarantee that Northern Ireland will benefit accordingly,” she said.
The Minister also confirmed that securing new export markets for Northern Ireland’s food sector is another priority. “We have a great story to tell in this regard. The fact that Northern Ireland may well secure ‘BSE negligible risk’ status next year will put us in a uniquely advantageous position.”
She believes that the rolling out of the new Northern Ireland Food Animal Information System (NIFAIS) traceability scheme will provide key growth opportunities for the farming and food sectors moving forward.
“The award of the NIFAIS contract represents a significant investment in the infrastructure of the local agri-food industry. The commitment of £8.7 million of capital and resources, over an initial nine year period, reflects the Department’s commitment to build on the success of APHIS as a world-class traceability system,” she added.
“NIFAIS will improve on this support, contributing to the competitiveness of our livestock industry, which is one of the key elements of the draft Programme for Government. The animal data that NIFAIS will process is an essential under-pinning of our animal disease control programmes, and an important enabler for improvements in our animal health, welfare and genetic potential into the future.
“NIFAIS traceability is also fundamental to the delivery of our Going for Growth strategy, assuring consumer confidence in local markets, and assisting with access into demanding export markets for our animals and produce well into the future.”
McIlveen admitted that Northern Ireland has to go through London when it comes to securing new export market accreditation. “But there will be export opportunities that are of specific interest to local food companies that are not such a priority for the rest of the UK,” she explained. “I see no reason why we cannot build on existing relations with Defra in London to make all of this happen in the most effective way possible.
“Irrespective of which route is taken to market, we are still in the hands of the various importing authorities when it comes to getting their agreement regarding any request made on behalf of Northern Ireland. China is a case in point. Everything has been done, both from the perspective of my own Department and Defra, to facilitate the export of locally produced pork to that market. It’s simply a case now of waiting on final approval from the Chinese authorities.”
McIlveen continued: “Farming will remain at the very heart of the local economy.
I want to see industry grow and to make this happen will require the application of the latest research findings. Agriculture must be science driven. It is for this reason that the input of AFBI and CAFRE will be critically important moving forward. I also want to see as many young people as possible actively involved within the industry. They are the future.”
She concluded: “The food sector has been, and continues to be, a real force within our economy and has potential for further growth. I will work closely with the Economy Minister and with the industry itself on our key priorities to deliver growth for the agri-food sector and benefits to the wider economy.
“My Department is working hard to facilitate the export growth of our food sector. China is an export destination that has been developing and I want more opportunities to be realised in the months and years ahead. Officials continue to work with industry to prepare approval and maintenance inspections by potential and current trading partners across a range of commodities. I welcome the inward approval inspections that have recently been completed for pork exports to Australia and I look forward to the final report which is due before the end of 2016.
“Going forward we will have opportunities to open up new markets with other parts of the world, create new trading arrangements with the EU and sell more to GB. I intend to engage with colleagues in Westminster to safeguard and promote the best interests of our industry in the forthcoming negotiations.”