Direct payments must be maintained as part of the support mechanism available to farmers in Northern Ireland beyond 2020, according to South Down MP Margaret Ritchie.
A member of the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee in London, she added that the current basic payment scheme, which is funded by the European Union, is the lifeblood of agriculture across Northern Ireland.
“Our farming industry is structured differently, compared with that which exists in other parts of the UK and this means that we need a bespoke solution when it comes to supporting both our agriculture and food sectors post Brexit,” she said. “This is why I will be arguing strongly for the retention of a direct payment support structure once the current EU funding model comes under full Whitehall scrutiny. The current basic payment system will remain in place until 2020.”
Ritchie made these comments while accompanying EFRA chairman Neil Parish MP on a visit to Co. Down earlier this week. He said that the farming industry would have to justify its demands for future support to the general public, once Brexit becomes a reality.
“This is why agriculture must clearly demonstrate that it is fully committed to maintaining the highest standards of environmental protection and conservation. The cheap food argument, however, is not one that resonates with the British public when it comes to arguing the case for them supporting agriculture.”
He added: “There will be a fair degree of flexibility given to the UK’s regional assemblies when it comes to putting in place farm support models that reflect local need.”
But when it comes to deciding the size of the farm support budget that each region of the UK receives post-Brexit, Parish said that the jury is still out on the matter.
“The Barnett formula will be looked at as part of these discussions. But it won’t be the only issue on the table. Certainly, London will not be out to demonise Northern Ireland when it comes to sorting this matter out.”
Parish foresees the UK reaching a trade agreement with the EU27, which will provide the farming and food industries with reasonable access to Europe’s single market post-Brexit. He also suggested that farming and food may well be treated as special cases in the context of free trade deals agreed by the UK with other countries, once the formal EU withdrawal negotiations had been completed.
“Equivalence of standards must be established as an agreed criterion within such negotiations,” he said.
“If this were not to be the case then the likes of Brazil could flood the UK with cheap beef and, in so doing, destroy the livestock industry of regions, such as Northern Ireland.”
The Member of Parliament for Tiverton and Honiton stressed the need for the British government to put in place structures ensuring that the UK is as self-sufficient in food as it possibly can be into the future.
“And this is a good news story for farmers in Northern Ireland. It would be naïve to think that the UK could import all of the food it requires,” he added.