DARD Minister Michelle O’Neill has been criticised over her plans to slash AFBI’s budget by 26%.
The proposal has prompted concern from both the chairman and vice chairman of Stormont’s Agriculture Committee.
AFBI which provides highly rated and pioneering research and development to agriculture and horticulture in Northern Ireland, came before the ARD committee on Tuesday to brief committee members on the challenges facing the organisation.
Chairman of the Committee William Irwin MLA said he felt strongly that the proposed cuts of 26% were “wholly disproportionate” when compared with DARD’s overall budget reduction of 4% and he questioned the rationale behind cutting the budget for a facility actively working to grow Northern Ireland’s agri-food economy.
He stated: “Firstly it was very important that AFBI had the opportunity to come to the ARD committee and outline their concerns and give members a clear idea of the impact such a cut in resources would have for the organisation and indeed crucially, alert members to the impact on our wider agri-food sector.
“Our agri-food industry here is a significant employer and significant contributor to our economy in Northern Ireland. The level of cuts being imposed by the Minister really do beggar belief and I question the rationale behind making such a massive cut of 26% into what is a success story for our agriculture and horticulture industry.
“AFBI’s work to date, including in my own locality through the facility at Loughgall, has been exemplary, with for instance high quality grass varieties being grown across the UK and indeed into Europe. We also have important mushroom and apple development work ongoing within the organisation and along with other important studies, all these elements combined help to provide crucial assistance to the longer term growth and sustainability of our agri-food industry,”he added.
“What is also deeply concerning is the real impact on jobs, with the cuts representing some 275 jobs being lost in the short term and 400 jobs going by 2018. I feel the level of cuts being directed at AFBI is completely disproportionate, compared with DARD’s overall departmental-wide reduction of 4%. I have asked the question sternly as to why AFBI should bear such a heavy burden in terms of this proposed reduction and I have requested to meet with the DARD Minister to discuss the wider implications of the budget cut.
“The ‘Going For Growth’ strategy gives a commitment to important measures being implemented to encourage growth and sustainability and we see the rest of the UK and indeed the Republic of Ireland, increasing support for research and development. Yet the DARD Minister is actively cutting resources in this important area and I would very urgently and very seriously appeal to the Minister to halt this current course of action, as cuts of this magnitude will not bode well for agriculture and horticulture’s long term growth.”
SDLP MLA and Vice chair of the Assembly Agriculture Committee, Joe Byrne said the current cuts in the AFBI budget could spell disaster for the Agri food research facilities in Northern Ireland.
Mr Byrne stated: “In my opinion, these drastic cuts of the AFBI budget are completely misguided from a strategic perspective and will do real damage to the future prospects of the agri sector and food production. It makes no sense to have such budget cuts in AFBI at a time when DARD are promoting and espousing prospects for the agri-food sector in the “Going for Growth” strategy.
“The DARD minister, Michelle O’Neill, needs to revisit these cuts in terms of their potential damaging effect on AFBI services in order to recognise the key importance of having an internationally competitive agri-food industry in the future.”