AFBI reveals site closure and research cuts

Grazing cattle at AFBI Hillsborough.
Grazing cattle at AFBI Hillsborough.

The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) has revealed that its Crossnacreevy research site is to close following a review of the organisation.

This is just one of a number of significant cuts to the research programme currently undertaken by AFBI, including the withdrawal from arable research and plant variety Recommended List Trials.

The Official Plant Testing Station, UK National List and Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability testing functions will be transferred from Crossnacreevy to another AFBI site. Given various contractual commitments, closure of AFBI Crossnacreevy will take four years to complete.

It has also been announced that DARD will no longer contribute to AFBI’s commercial potato breeding research programme after October 2016 and will immediately commence a review of the Institute’s strategic potato breeding programme. Following AFBI’s strategic review, DARD funding will also be withdrawn from renewable energy and biomass and poultry production research, while Minister Michelle O’Neill has requested AFBI to explore alternative funding streams and operational models for its mushroom and top fruit research and to table further proposals for consideration in the autumn.

AFBI’s Omagh veterinary laboratory will continue to provide its existing range and geographic coverage of animal disease diagnostic services although some ancillary services will be centralised at AFBI’s Stormont laboratory as part of a number of internal efficiency measures.

AFBI is working closely with DARD on plans to develop the Institute’s estate so that AFBI has modern, efficient laboratory and other research facilities. The DARD Minister has indicated her desire to secure the large scale capital funding required for these ambitious development proposals.

The announcements come after AFBI carried out a review of its scientific functions, capabilities and platforms as part of a strategy to 2020 and beyond to allow the organisation to achieve its vision of providing world class science to all its government and private sector customers. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle O’Neill, has responded to AFBI’s strategic proposals to reposition itself to meet the priority needs of government and industry, while addressing the current and anticipated future pressures on public finances.

In response the Ulster Farmers’ Union said it recognised the pressures on public spending and that organisations have to find the best way to use their limited budgets.

UFU president Ian Marshall said that against that background he was pleased that AFBI had confirmed it would maintain its research focus on the main grass based enterprises in the Northern Ireland agriculture economy – dairy, beef and sheep.

“However, our concern is that other enterprises would not lose out and while we are disappointed by the proposed changes that will affect cereals, potatoes, poultry and renewables, all of which are a key part of the agricultural economy in Northern Ireland, we will engage with the minister on exploring alternative avenues by which these sectors can still access the results of meaningful research.

“One of the important issues that we have continually raised has been the transfer of this research to farmers on the ground and we intend to discuss how the links between AFBI and CAFRE can be improved to better facilitate this,” he said.

Chairman of Stormont’s Agriculture Committee the DUP’s William Irwin MLA said he had made it clear on many occasions that the work undertaken by AFBI is of significant value and importance to our agri-food industry in Northern Ireland.

“The research carried out by AFBI across their sites enables our industry to advance in many areas and I have always said that reductions in capabilities in this regard could have a negative impact on the future growth of the industry. This is all the more important in the current climate where our industry is under increasing pressure across a number of production sectors,” he added.

“I am concerned at the scale of the reductions set out by AFBI and agreed by the DARD Minister. In fact for DARD to completely withdraw from funding research for an entire sector such as potatoes and poultry and also propose to close the Crossnacreevy site, will have a knock on effect in the industry. I have requested a meeting with Mr Kennedy, Chief Executive Officer at AFBI, which I feel will be a useful opportunity for me to discuss the finer detail of the strategy contents. While I understand that difficult decisions must be taken to balance budgets I believe many sectors will feel completely abandoned by these decisions.”

Stakeholders are invited to hear more about AFBI’s strategy at its Open Day to be held at AFBI Hillsborough, Co. Down on Thursday 3 September 2015.