So much to look forwardto in 2022

Climate change looks set to be the issue that will confront agriculture – head on - for the next 30 years and beyond. But is the environment a challenge or an opportunity for farming as the industry looks to the future?

Farm Minister Edwin Poots seems to be strongly of the view that working with the environment will represent an additional and valuable income stream for all those involved in production agriculture.

Meanwhile, Ulster Farmers’ Union president Victor Chestnutt is making it very clear that agriculture will have a critical role to play in the climate change debate.

But this comes with the clear caveat that livestock production will remain pretty much insulated from whatever changes are coming down the track, from an industry output perspective.

Each region of the UK and Ireland now has Climate Change legislation enacted. The exception, in this regard, is Northern Ireland. Currently Stormont is grappling with two proposed climate change bills: one sponsored by the Green Party MLA Clare Bailey; the other championed by Edwin Poots.

Whether or not we settle on legislation that identifies emission target for Northern Ireland or we look at the issue of what is happening across the UK as a whole, is irrelevant to me. The fundamental reality remains that we need official climate change policy that works for this part of the world.

Having two pieces of legislation – that should bring us to the same end point – being discussed by Stormont makes no sense at all. Politics is supposed to be the ‘art of the possible’. Surely the way forward is for both parties concerned to get together and come up with a compromise way forward.

It makes total sense that such should be the case. But the clock is ticking. Climate change legislation needs to be passed at Stormont in the very near future. Meanwhile the mandate of those plying their trade on the hill runs out in about four months; time.

Edwin Poots and Clare Bailey entered into a discussion on climate carnage courtesy of their contributions to the BBC’s ‘The View’ programme with Mark Carruthers on Thursday evening past. Those who saw the piece can make up their own minds as to whether or not the politicians in question are up for compromise, where their competing climate bills are concerned.

Grass fed PGI

Farming carbon is one thing. But we all need to eat at the same time. And the predictions of a tremendous surge in the world’s population over the next forty years remain in place. So there is every need for the local farming sectors to confirm that they can produce food on a sustainable basis.

And, I sense, that good news is at hand in this regard.

Ireland’s farm minister Charlie McConalogue has confirmed that the application to secure Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status for Irish grass fed beef has been submitted to Brussels. However, he has also indicated that the Republic would support the PGI being extended on an all-island basis, when a grass-fed verification system is in place in Northern Ireland.
This is a very positive development and behoves all stakeholder groups within Northern Ireland’s beef sector to come together and make PGI a tangible reality across the island. Research confirms that the bestowing of PGI status can lift producer returns within the sectors involved by up to 20%.
The good news is that the beef industries on both parts of this island mirror each other, in terms of their structure, suckler beef is critically important to both industries - as is grass utilisation. In fact, McConalogue’s announcement comes at a time when the pressure to have grass utilisation levels increased within Northern Ireland’s beef sector has never been greater.
A case in point is the ongoing CAFRE trial work, looking at the sustainability of 24-month calf to beef. This work is already highlighting the critically important role which grazed grass must play within these systems.
The other factor that must be brought into play is the role of the farm quality assurance schemes, managed by the LMC and Bord Bia. Almost 100% of the clean cattle slaughtered in Northern Ireland are farm quality assured. This fact alone should give Dublin and Brussels total assurance when it comes to assessing the management standards applied in the rearing of these animals.
It must also be pointed out that Northern Ireland’s beef industry has a BSE ‘negligible risk’ status. This was achieved back in 2017. On the back of this very positive development the sector was deemed eligible to export beef to the USA earlier this year.
So it shouldn’t take a massive effort to gather up all the information that will be required to underpin a PGI ‘grass fed beef’ application on behalf of Northern Ireland. And the sooner this is done the better.
It strikes me that LMC is the organisation best placed to undertake this work. Farmer margins are pretty low within the beef sector, even at the best of times. So the case to get the PGI application over the line as soon as possible is pretty obvious.

Edwin Poots

Our farm minister has been on a pretty torrid journey over the past few months. His political travails are for others to discuss. However, at a personal level I know exactly what’s it’s like to be battling serious illness and trying to keep the show on the road at the same time.

Since taking office, he has been a breath of fresh air, in terms of his addressing the challenges that confront production agriculture. He said from the get-go that he wanted to support the farming industry. And, in my opinion, he has kept to his word in spades.
The minister said that he would get a strong Covid support deal for agriculture and he managed to do just that. He, essentially, did away with the Greening requirement, as part of farmers’ single payment obligations and he has been very proactive in terms of getting a reasonable ammonia settlement for those farmers wishing to expand their businesses on a sustainable basis. And now we have the tremendous news, where Northern Ireland’s single payment budget is concerned. Farmers there can look forward to a 4.3% increase in their payments for 2020. And they won’t have long to wait. The monies will start hitting bank accounts – in full - from the middle of October onwards.
Back in February, when Edwin Poots took over the agriculture position within the Stormont Executive, very few people were thinking the Co Down man would have been able to come through with a fraction of these policy developments. This assertion has nothing to do with his abilities to get the job done but rather a reflection on the stasis that had so characterised the workings of the Stormont Assembly and Executive up to that point.
Another, very positive, facet of Edwin Poots’ approach to the job in hand is his ability to work with all the members of the Stormont Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA) Committee on a constructive basis. Let’s hope this continues to be the case.
Meanwhile, the challenges facing agriculture in Northern Ireland will continue to change. Coping with life in a post-Brexit world truly stands out in this regard. No doubt, Edwin Poots will be given the job of putting in place a new, long-term support strategy for the farming and rural sectors. Having a strong farming background will be of huge benefit to the minister in this context. Assuming all goes according to plan, he will remain in office until the next Assembly Elections. These are due to take place in May 2022. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with over the coming months.

And now for something entirely different

This week saw McDonald’s celebrate thirty years of doing business in Northern Ireland. The company marked this milestone in its history with a dinner, held at Larchfield Estate on the outskirts of Lisburn. Each attending guest was given a number of acorns, which they could plant in their gardens over the coming days.

This set me thinking. The coming weeks will mark the start of the 2021/22 tree planting season.
As I understand it, timber prices are starting to take off around the world. And it’s not just their immediate commodity value that is ‘fuelling’ this trend. In reality, the concept of Carbon Trading and Capture is the real driver behind what could be a very attractive proposition for local landowners.

And this is a concept which the EU and other trading blocks around the world will further endorse over the coming years.
The principle is a simple one: international businesses who wish to improve their environmental credentials will purchase carbon credits from other companies involved in carbon sequestration activities. The end result should be a reduction in the levels of atmospheric CO2. Pundits are already claiming that Carbon Trading could become a business worth £billions over the next 20 years or so. All of this will come as good news to those involved in forestry as trees can be regarded as a Carbon sump with the potential to remove significant tonnages of CO2 from the atmosphere for well over a hundred years.
Ireland’s afforested area has grown significantly over the past decades. And I fully recognise that the practice of planting on blanket bog was not our finest hour from an environmental protection point of view. But, surely, it’s a case of learning from the past.
It is worthy of note that forestry represents the only land use option through which farmers can plant-out a proportion of their enterprise, receive all of the available grants, while maintaining their Basic Payment entitlements.
There are significant areas of land across Northern Ireland that could be put to best economic use on the back of creative woodland development initiatives.

The reality is that we enjoy a uniquely advantageous climate in which to grow trees. And the economics of woodland are not just centred on the final value of the trees when they are eventually felled.
Tree planting helps create new habitats, which helps to enrich the environment and the conservation value of the landscape. This, in turn, can help to create new visitor attractions with an emphasis on education and recreation. It’s time we started converting some of this undoubted potential into reality