AFSB initiatives ‘must be pursued’

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The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) has warned the Agri Food Strategy Board (AFSB) not to allow the lack of a minister and Executive at Stormont to be a roadblock to pursuing its vision for the future of Northern Ireland’s biggest industry.

“We are already slipping behind our competitors in terms of having a plan in place and implemented – and that cannot be allowed to continue,” said UFU president, Barclay Bell.

The UFU is keen initiatives around making agriculture more productive, as a source of supply for the food industry, should be pursued now. It believes there is no reason for continuing delay, and has challenged the board of the AFSB, in a meeting this week, to justify this lack of progress, regardless of the political stalemate at Stormont .

“This is too ready an excuse of inaction,” added the Union President.

“The report which was developed through collaboration and partnership between industry representatives and Government Departments has been on the table for over four years now, and its recommendations have been debated endlessly.

“We need action to remain competitive, not least because of the changes Brexit will bring. The responsibility for implementing this strategy was shared between Government and industry and we cannot wait for a minister to rubber-stamp simple decisions to drive the industry forward

“From the outset, the UFU broadly supported the AFSB’s recommendations but stressed more detail was required. For us it has always been important that this leads to action and while some of the recommendations, particularly the Farm Business Improvement Scheme, have been rolled out, there are too many others were we have seen little progress.”

The UFU says it backs the thrust of the key initiatives the AFSB is focussing on which include an industry-led marketing organisation for local food, better livestock genomics, and aid to improve processing and marketing.

Barclay Bell again:

“We are impatient for progress. We were promised the AFSB report would not join others on the shelf labelled good ideas that never happened. Now that is in danger of happening yet again.

“We operate in a harshly competitive market place that can only become more so. Political stalemate can no longer be an excuse for inaction by the board of AFSB or indeed civil servants. Whether decisions are taken by a local or direct rule minister does not matter. We need a drive now to make sure they happen, before even more time is wasted.”

Responding to the UFU statement, the AFSB Chair Tony O’Neill said that he and his fellow Board members shared the UFU’s frustrations by the slow pace of implementation. He added:

“It is deeply concerning that we do not have a decision-taking Executive in place because vital decisions are not being taken. We have been constantly urging speedy delivery of our key recommendations, particularly regarding the AgriFood Marketing Body, Livestock Genetics and support for the processing sector, and no-one is more frustrated than I by the speed of progress.

“We remain committed to seeing our recommendations implemented in full; they were widely acclaimed when we published our report Going For Growth and they remain vital for the future success of our AgriFood sector, particularly given the additional challenges of Brexit.”

O’Neill cited the progress already made by industry and departments. These include:

the development and roll out of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme providing both financial and non-financial support to our primary producers;

the establishment of the Agri-Food Quest Competence Centre bringing industry and academia together to develop innovative practices to increase sustainability within the agri-food sector;

the publication of the Sustainable Agricultural Land Management Strategy providing a roadmap for the sustainable use of our soils, and the initial pilot soil sampling scheme which is supported via the EU Exceptional Adjustment funding;

99% of feed from our feedmills is quality assured falling within the IGFS Food Fortress Scheme;

the introduction of a voluntary Code of Practice within the dairy industry, strengthening the relationship between producer and processor; and

the funding of two projects under the Sustainable Use of Poultry Litter Scheme which will see 65,000 tonnes of NI poultry litter used annually to generate energy for use by business, the national grid and the production of a high quality organic fertiliser.

O’Neill said that AFSB members are frustrated at the pace of delivery, reagarding many of their recommendations, adding:

“Our vision was for a single supply chain, characterised by collaborative working, which linked producers and processors via retailers and other stakeholders to our customers. The whole chain must work to meet the needs of those customers.

“That must remain the core goal of the industry, and we continue to put pressure on government and other public bodies to help us deliver that.

“The AFSB is approaching the end of its term, however we continue to push for progress on the 3 key outstanding actions in relation to AgriFood Marketing, Livestock Genetics and capital grants for the processing industry having already secured capital grants for producers under the FBIS scheme.

“These projects are nearing a conclusion and we expect them to be rolled out when ready as they were previously agreed by our Ministers when in post. The AFSB Board have committed to pursue these initiatives as necessary beyond the end of our term in office.

“We are pleased that UFU have reiterated their support for these key projects and in fact share their impatience with delivery of these key actions.

“With the very significant challenges facing NI AgriFood arising from Brexit, it is critical that we work collaboratively across the industry to deliver real progress on the ground.”