‘EU must provide real support for dairy sector now’

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Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill has urged the European Agricultural Commission to offer greater and immediate support for Northern Ireland’s dairy sector, warning that continued delays would see many farmers go out of business.

Yesterday it was revealed that the UK is to receive 36.1m of the €500 million support package announced last week by the European Commission to support Europe’s farmers.

Speaking in the Assembly on Monday Minister O’Neill told MLAs that whilst she was optimistic for the future she remains very concerned about the impact of the current crisis on dairy farmers and their families.

Commenting on the recent measures announced at the Special Agriculture Meeting in Brussels on September 7, Minister O’Neill said: “The current dairy crisis, caused largely by global factors, is outside our control. We need effective and immediate EU action to address the very damaging consequences of this situation - any further delay will see many farmers go out of business.

“There appears to be little new thinking in the recent package announced by the Commission, which falls short of the immediate meaningful action I have been pushing for. I have real concerns that €500 million will not go very far across 28 member states and that the funding we will eventually receive is not targeted at our unique and specific needs in the north. I have therefore written to Commissioner Hogan seeking urgent clarification on how our member state envelope will support our farmers.

“Our local industry representatives throughout the dairy supply chain have called for a significant increase in the intervention price and I have strenuously supported that call. I believe we now need to examine the intervention system and assess whether it adequately fulfils the role of providing an effective safety net, especially given that the current intervention rate was set 12 years ago. I will continue to urge the Commission to use the full range of tools at its disposal.”

On the growing agri-food sector and the significant contribution it makes to our local economy Minister O’Neill added: “I have always been a champion of our agri-food sector in the north which continues to be a significant growth sector for the local economy with turnover in the food and drinks industry heading towards £5 billion. Recent statistics also show an increase in employment of 5% as well as increased exports of more than 7%. Clearly, we will not continue to have a thriving food sector if we do not have a thriving farm sector and that is a challenge for us going forward.”

She said she would continue to fight the corner of local dairy farmers by maintaining her regular engagement with the DEFRA Secretary of State, Liz Truss, to emphasise Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances and press her to support the case for effective and timely EU action.