‘Consumers will never go hungry’

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Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) president Victor Chestnutt has highlighted the fact that Northern Ireland’s farming and food sectors can feed up to 10 million people.

Mr Chestnutt said: “Local consumers will never go hungry. One of the upsides to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis has been the growing awareness amongst the general public regarding the tremendous provenance associated with locally produced food.”

He added: “Retailers have done a tremendous job in supporting our farming and food sectors throughout the period of the pandemic.

“However, I don’t think the same can be said for the catering and food service sectors.”

Mr Chestnutt confirmed that most farm gate prices are currently at satisfactory levels.

“But our costs are increasingly dramatically at the present time,” he stressed.

“A case in point is the very significant strengthening of grain and protein prices that has been witnessed over recent weeks.”

The union president made these comments while speaking at a UFU press conference, held earlier this week.

He was joined by his deputy president colleagues David Brown and William Irvine.

Union CEO Wesley Aston also attended the ‘virtual event.’

Turning to the food processing sector, Chestnutt highlighted the need for that industry to secure additional government support to allow it both expand the scope and quality of its existing facilities.

He commented: “Northern Ireland is falling badly behind the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland in this regard. In conjunction with the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, we have asked Economy Minister Diane Dodds to address this matter as a matter of priority.

“In reply, she has said that she wants an independent assessment of the processing sector’s investment needs to be carried out.

“As far as the UFU is concerned, this work must be undertaken as a matter of priority. The theory is a very simple one: the more efficient our food processors become the greater is the potential for enhanced prices to be paid back down the line to the primary producer.”

Specifically, where dairy is concerned, the president believes that an increase in that sector’s scale of operation would reduce or, possibly, rule out completely the need for milk produced in Northern Ireland to go south of the border for processing.

He went on to call for specific support measures to be made available to the wool industry.

“Ways must be found to add value to wool,” he stressed. “It is an inherently natural product and can be put to so many uses.”

Chestnutt also confirmed that the co-operative driven marketing arrangements for wool, that have been such a feature of the sector in Northern Ireland over many years, could fall apart if government does not step in to support the industry now.

David Brown confirmed that the current farm support arrangements would remain as is in 2021.

“But it will be all change thereafter,” he stressed.

The deputy president said that the Union has been in negotiations with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) for a considerable period of time on these matters.

He said: “A beef and sheep policy paper, prepared by the Anderson Group, has been submitted to DAERA on behalf of the Union, the Meat Exporters Association and the Livestock & Meat Commission. A dairy position paper will follow in early February.”

Brown continued:“Northern Ireland will not be going down the road of switching to an almost complete reliance on environmental payments, as is the case in England and Wales. However, Northern Ireland’s farm minister will remain very restricted in terms of bringing in new headage payments for cattle and sheep.”

According to the deputy president the beef and sheep policy papers highlights the need for producers to have the scope to farm more efficiently.

He added: “We need to develop a better definition of what constitutes a public good. Looking forward, farmers must deliver for the environment. Addressing the challenge of driving down carbon emissions and improving soil quality will be central to our thinking throughout 2021.”

William Irvine confirmed that the Union is working on the development of a future strategy paper, which reflects the combined needs of the cereal, potato and horticulture sectors.

“Developing relevant crop rotation systems goes to the heart of the challenges facing these land-based industries,” he said.

Irvine went on to welcome the recognition recently given to the arable sector as a driver for improved conservation in rural areas.

The deputy president referred to DAERA’s management of Northern Ireland’s bovine tuberculosis (bTB) eradication campaign.

He said: “Farmers want to have the disease eradicated once and for all. The onus is on DAERA to come forward with its new strategy and the clock is ticking.”

Victor Chestnutt agreed: “The problem is wildlife. Everyone knows that badgers both carry the disease and spread it to cattle. The Union is happy to support a farmer levy, the monies from which would be used to specifically fund a wildlife cull.

“Everyone wants to arrive at the same end point: populations of healthy badgers and cattle living happily together in the countryside.”

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