AFBI cuts raise concerns

DUP MLA Willaim Irwin
DUP MLA Willaim Irwin

Proposals to make significant cuts to the research work of the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), including the closure of the testing station site at Crossnacreevy, has been met with concern.

Closing the Crossnacreevy premises was just one of a number of significant cuts to the research programme currently undertaken by AFBI, including the withdrawal from arable research and plant variety Recommended List Trials.

The Official Plant Testing Station, UK National List and Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability testing functions will be transferred from Crossnacreevy to another AFBI site. Given various contractual commitments, closure of AFBI Crossnacreevy will take four years to complete.

Arable and horticulture producers have criticised the minister’s decision to back AFBI’s plans and accusing her of failing to recognise the financial and environmental contribution these sectors make to the agricultural economy.

Ulster Farmers’ Union deputy president, Ivor Ferguson, said research and development are vital for all enterprises, adding that it was frustrating for farmers that AFBI and DARD have failed to recognise this in their plans.

“The ‘Going for Growth’ Strategy sets out ambitious plans for both arable and horticulture. But AFBI and DARD have failed to balance their budget realities against industry needs,” said Mr Ferguson.

“The Crossnacreevy plant testing station has provided a valuable service to the industry. While its closure will be a loss, a much greater concern going forward is the decision to end arable research altogether.”

Mr Ferguson said it was unacceptable such a decision has been taken without consulting the industry, and with no ideas from DARD or AFBI about how to meet the research needs of local farmers.

“For us the main questions are simple - where will research now take place and who will be funding it,” he said.

The UFU is pursuing urgent meetings with DARD to ensure it funds alternative ways that cereal, potato, mushroom and apple producers can continue to have access to research tailored to local farming conditions.

Chairman of Stormont’s Agriculture Committee, William Irwin MLA said he too was concerned by the scale of the cuts.

“For DARD to completely withdraw from funding research for an entire sector such as potatoes and poultry and also propose to close the Crossnacreevy site, will have a knock on effect in the industry.”

UKIP NI leader David McNarry described the decision as ‘a let down’ stating that he had been told by the minister that the Crossnacreevy site wouldn’t be closed.

It was also announced that DARD will no longer contribute to AFBI’s commercial potato breeding research programme after October 2016 and will immediately commence a review of the Institute’s strategic potato breeding programme. Following AFBI’s strategic review, DARD funding will also be withdrawn from renewable energy and biomass and poultry production research, while Minister Michelle O’Neill has requested AFBI to explore alternative funding streams and operational models for its mushroom and top fruit research and to table further proposals for consideration in the autumn.

AFBI’s Omagh veterinary laboratory will continue to provide its existing range and geographic coverage of animal disease diagnostic services although some ancillary services will be centralised at AFBI’s Stormont laboratory as part of a number of internal efficiency measures.

AFBI is working closely with DARD on plans to develop the Institute’s estate so that AFBI has modern, efficient laboratory and other research facilities. The DARD Minister has indicated her desire to secure the large scale capital funding required for these ambitious development proposals.