Brussels helps, but more needed: UFU

UFU annual meeting at Greenmount. Picture: Cliff Donaldson
UFU annual meeting at Greenmount. Picture: Cliff Donaldson

Ulster Farmers’ Union president, Ian Marshall, has said he is encouraged by key parts of the European Commission plan to tackle the crisis on agricultural markets.

These include a boost for dairy intervention, additional private storage for pigmeat and a longer term focus on supporting exports and European Investment Bank funding for agriculture.

But he has described a voluntary milk supply reduction scheme as “more smoke and mirrors” than a realistic policy to restore balance in European milk production.

“Along with other farm lobby organisations in Europe we had lobbied for action on intervention. The increase in the volumes of butter and skim milk powder that can be bought in by Brussels will ease some of the pressure – but like others we are disappointed the price hasn’t been reviewed,” said Mr Marshall.

He added that the decision to look at ways to reopen private storage for pigmeat was a welcome commitment from the farm commissioner, Phil Hogan, but warned that both were about easing short term pressure rather than a much needed realignment of milk and pig output with demand.

The UFU says it does not believe the short term scheme to allow cooperatives and farmers to negotiate milk supply reductions will prove effective.

“This did not command much support during the negotiations. It is voluntary – and that means reductions by some will be offset by others seeing this as an opportunity to increase production. More fundamentally there is no funding for compensation, unless it comes from member states, and that is a remote prospect in the UK,” said Mr Marshall. He said however the action was at least a recognition that ways had to be found to better align milk production with demand.

“The Commission and ministers made clear there would be no return of milk quotas or other supply management controls. We must find new ways to tackle volatility – and I welcome confirmation that the agri-markets taskforce brief will be extended to take that on board as a priority,” said the UFU president.

Mr Marshall said other things in the package were welcome, including the creation of a meat market observatory to improve transparency.

“It is now up to us as farm lobby organisations in Europe to make this as effective as possible,” he said.

The UFU has also welcomed progress on an export credit scheme and ways to get the European Investment Bank involved in long term funding of agriculture.

“These are long term goals and the challenge remains getting through the immediate cash flow crisis. To that end I am disappointed the Commission has not taken up the challenge to eliminate import duties that drive up fertiliser prices. Given the pressure farming is under across Europe, it is wrong to protect global business at the expense of farmers struggling to stay in business at all,” he said.

Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill noted the EU’s additional package of measures to support farmers in crisis but cautioned that any meaningful difference needs to be felt by farmers immediately.

Following the Agri-Fish Council meeting in Brussels, Minister O’Neill said: “In my previous meetings with Commissioner Hogan and DEFRA Secretary Liz Truss, I have strenuously pushed for immediate support for our hard-pressed farmers.

“Both are well aware of my ongoing concern that, if the current situation continues, an increasing number of farmers will be forced to leave the industry, impacting on both its long term future and that of our rural economy. While I note the measures announced yesterday, the effectiveness will be judged on any real and immediate difference it makes to farmers who are currently struggling to make ends meet.”

The minister continued: “Commissioner Hogan has initiated an additional suite of actions aimed at addressing the long term stability and sustainability of the farm sector. In particular, I note Commissioner Hogan’s intention to double the intervention ceilings for skimmed milk powder and butter to 218,000 tonnes and 100,000 tonnes respectively, as well as his suggestion to consider a further private storage aid scheme for pigmeat.”

The minister indicated that she will give careful consideration to the Commission’s specific proposals as further details emerge.