COVID-19, Brexit and climate change dominate

Dealing with the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) as Northern Ireland (NI) works to emerge from the pandemic while managing the challenges and opportunities in this post Brexit era, were key discussion points at the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) annual general meeting (AGM).

Picture: Cliff Donaldson
Picture: Cliff Donaldson
Picture: Cliff Donaldson

Climate change was another pressing issue at the AGM which took place via Zoom on Wednesday.

Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Minister Edwin Poots MLA, and Chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA) Committee Declan McAleer MLA, were the guest speakers.

UFU president Victor Chestnutt said: “We were delighted to have the DAERA Minister and Chair of the AERA committee at our virtual AGM, addressing members and taking time to answer any queries they had. Both will be central in making key decisions that will set a direction of travel going forward and shape future direct support as well as wider agriculture and environment policies. It was important that our membership got to hear directly from them.

“It has almost been a year since our last AGM. Since then, much-needed COVID-19 support packages have been rolled out to agri sectors directly impacted by the pandemic due to market disruptions, to help sustain farm businesses and counteract expenses incurred. This followed extensive lobbying from the UFU and we also worked hard alongside other stakeholders to ensure marts could continue to operate.

“With the UK officially leaving the EU on 1 January, the NI Protocol came into effect and it has presented many challenges which need to be addressed with urgency. Our farmers feel they have been left behind as there has been no grace periods applicable to them.

“There has been a 90 percent decline in the number of NI bulls going to pedigree sales in Scotland and the historic breeding sheep trade has been wrecked. No transition period for farmers were given, we moved straight from securing a deal into the implementation period.

“Where legislation cannot be changed, flexibilities must and should be found. The EU have failed to recognise the unique situation of the whole island integrated supply chain. We were promised unfettered access to our EU and UK markets, however due to EU not granting flexibilities there has been no clarification if NI can access EU third country trade deals. This must be forthcoming.”

Climate change has become the frontrunner for 2021 and with Clare Bailey’s Private Members Bill currently progressing through the NI Assembly, Mr Chestnutt reiterated the need to address the global issue.

“Farmers are not the problem, they are the climate change solution and it’s important that we all increase our environmental responsibility. Our livestock sector is not up for sale. There are 20 million people in the world undernourished and we must use our temperate climate to help feed humanity – we should not be a contributor to carbon leakage. The environment needs to be viewed on our NI farms as an added enterprise going forward,” said Mr Chestnutt.

Tackling TB rates in NI has been ongoing for generations and once again was a talking point at this year’s AGM. Mr Chestnutt said: “I have spoken to many farmers who are mentally tormented with the awful scourge that is TB. They demand action and want to eradicate the disease once and for all. We need immediate action from DAERA not words.”

Recalling the DAERA’s Minister’s recent verbal commitment that the second stage of the independent panel’s decision should be final, Mr Chestnutt asked for this to be legislated and outlined that the treatment of historic cases should also be part of this commitment.

The UFU president also acknowledged that almost four years after the devastating flooding of the North West and effortless lobbying by the UFU, the DAERA Minister will be providing support to help those affected. He went on to speak about securing a last-minute authorisation in relation to the use of diquat in Autumn 2020, the independent review into the NI agri-food industry and working to increase the number of women involved in UFU committee structures.