SINCE my last Letter from Brussels there have been a number of developments of note.
In late December ministers and officials met to thrash out the quotas and days at sea for our fishermen for the year ahead, with a 6% increase in quota for prawns being welcomed by the industry. Fishermen will be closely following the continuing reform of the CFP in the weeks and months ahead as genuine reform is needed to end the centralised micromanagement of fish stocks.
Just before Christmas the planning application for Rose Energy was refused by Minister Attwood meaning that Northern Ireland still has no answer for Europe as to how we deal with poultry litter which has implications for the poultry sector and the entire economy. In terms of my work as an Agriculture Coordinator December also saw the conclusion of discussions to find compromise amendments for the CAP – these will now be voted on by the Agriculture Committee on 23 and 24 January.
Closer to home I met with representatives from the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association (NIGTA) and our discussion reinforced the fact that we are living in an era of a globalised fuel-feed-food supply chain. I also learned about the professional and confidential advice and support offered by Rural Support from their Development Director Jude McCann.
The new year is traditionally a time for reviewing the year gone and speculating as to what is in store for us in the twelve months ahead. In terms of agriculture 2012 was not a year that many farmers in Northern Ireland will wish to see repeated, although to their credit farmers are resilient. The weather at home had an impact on grazing, stock management, harvests and yields. For example DARD’s yield estimates for 2012 all show significant year-on-year production decreases for barley, wheat, oats and potatoes as a result of reductions in the areas planted and lower yields.
Further afield extreme weather patterns in the US and elsewhere helped to fuel a rise in feed prices which helped to squeeze margins further. These pressures - along with continued imbalances in the food supply chain and a lack of access to credit – were felt by all sectors. Looking ahead there is a hope that some of the supply chain issues could be addressed by the Groceries Code Adjudicator, especially now that extra ‘teeth’ have been added in the drafting of the bill and I continue to outline my concerns relating to imbalances in the supply chain with the European Commission.
A lack of clarity surrounding the future shape of the CAP also creates uncertainty and harms confidence in the industry, although it is still too soon to say what the final agreed package will look like this should become more apparent as negotiations continue which is important for businesses planning for the future. Farm accidents and farm fatalities were tragically featured all too often in 2012’s news reports and we all have a part to play in identifying and minimising risks on our farms to reduce the incidence of accidents which can have such a devastating impact on individuals, families and communities.
The change in the year sees the baton being passed from Cyprus to the Republic of Ireland who will now hold the EU’s rotating Presidency until the end of June with a very full in-tray of work for their political leaders and civil servants.
The theme for the Presidency is “Stability, jobs and growth” with the priorities on the agenda including; the construction of a banking union, trade policy and agreeing the EU’s budget for 2014-2020. Of course the Presidency also leads negotiations on the CAP and other legislative measures with Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney confident that a deal can be reached on his watch.
Northern Ireland will also be the venue for high level political negotiations as the UK has assumed the year-long presidency of the G8 with County Fermanagh hosting global leaders and the world’s media in June. Here too the global economy, stimulating growth and creating jobs are likely to dominate proceedings.
The start of January sees industry representatives and policy makers gathering to debate all aspects of agriculture at the Oxford Farming Conference. This year the conference considered a report which examined farming’s hidden contribution to society, it is vitally important that the wider public appreciates the positive role of farmers and agriculture in shaping our rural landscapes, enhancing our natural habitats and sustaining communities. Although farmers are custodians of the countryside they must however make a living and be supported as they perform their primary role – producing food. Support for the industry is needed to ensure the sustainable production of quality food for consumers especially given the nature of and imbalances in the supply chain. Given the growing world population and globalised nature of markets there are challenges but there are also opportunities for our farmers and growers and ensuring that they receive the support they need in the future is something I am very conscious of as the reform of the CAP continues.
Finally may I take this opportunity to wish you all a safe, healthy and happy 2013.