Future of NI farm support up for grabs

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Farming stakeholders are being given the opportunity to have their say in shaping the future of agriculture in Northern Ireland.

In a review that represents the biggest change to the industry over the last 40 years, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) is to engage with the wider farming, food and environment sectors on proposals for the future agricultural policy framework for Northern Ireland.

Brexit is the driving force here with the current Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) no longer applicable to Northern Ireland once the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. As it stands, 2019 is the final year of CAP with a transition period to a domestic agenda taking place through 2020.

It is against this landscape that stakeholders are being urged to come forward and make their views known on a ‘Future Agricultural Policy Framework’ document, which was launched on Wednesday, and is designed to help shape debate on future support arrangements.

Norman Fulton, Deputy Secretary Food and Farming Group at DAERA, said: “Following our initial and very informative engagement with a number of stakeholders representing farming, food and environmental interests, we are now seeking views from across a much broader range of stakeholders on possible support arrangements in Northern Ireland as we prepare to leave the EU.

“CAP payments have been important in sustaining the industry, underpinning its competitive trading position and developing its environmental performance, so it is essential that the industry in Northern Ireland is provided with some certainty in relation to future support arrangements in the shorter term. There is also a need to develop a longer term agricultural policy framework and deliver a managed transition over a number of years.

“I would encourage all those with an interest to consider the framework document and to forward their views to the department by October 10.” The framework document focuses on four desired outcomes for the Northern Ireland agricultural industry, namely increased productivity, improved resilience, environmental sustainability and supply chain. A DAERA spokesman said the document represented the ‘start of a journey’ for Northern Ireland agriculture.”

He added: “We are not seeking to constrain options for any future Executive, we are seeking to gather information for future ministers. Any policy decisions would be taken by future ministers. “This document is designed to stimulate debate. It deals with broader matters, however further consultation would be expected to deal with more specific issues.”

Among the suggestions contained within the document are how payments and entitlements would be handled going forward, including changes to the Basic Payment Scheme. The options include continuing the current transition towards a flat rate payment by 2021 or freeze the value of entitlements at the end of 2019, which see the value of entitlements remain the same for 2020 and 2021.

There is also scope to change the Greening requirements which are currently relevant to only a small sub-set of local farmers. Greater emphasis is being put on education throughout the industry with a desire to see Level 3 qualifications obtained by business owners and further professional development options being made available.

A ‘Productivity Grand Challenge’ approach towards science and innovation is suggested which might include a multi-actor approach of science, innovation, knowledge transfer, education, policy and industry. In terms of a improved resilience for the industry, the payment of a basic farm resilience support measure is an option.

However, there is concern that such payments might reduce the drive to innovate and reduce the incentives to manage business risks. It is recognised that an organised transition is required from the current CAP regime, which is dominated by income support, to a new domestic arrangement. Environment remains an important issue, however, and the document seeks to develop regulations which while simpler than those currently in place would encourage ‘positive behavioural change’ and would secure the long-term environmental sustainability of the sector.

The Northern Ireland Future Agricultural Policy Framework Stakeholder Engagement document is available on the DAERA website - www.daera-ni.gov.uk/consultations/northern-ireland-future-agricultural-policy-framework

The Ulster Farmers’ Union has welcomed the publication of post-Brexit options for the farming industry in Northern Ireland. However, UFU president Ivor Ferguson says that with time short, it is frustrating that it has taken so long to get the document onto the table, with Northern Ireland the last UK region to put possible framework measures out to industry consultation.

The UFU says it accepts publication has been more difficult here because of the lack of an Executive. It says it is pleased the document contains many of the ideas put forward by the UFU last year as key principles for a new agriculture policy. These became part of a DAERA/stakeholder document finalised in January and has now been incorporated into this latest document.

“We have to make sure that Brexit is an opportunity for farmers here. We need a policy better suited to local conditions than the CAP, which had to accommodate 28 very different member states. Our goal is a productive, sustainable and resilient farming industry, and this document is a good start to securing that,” said Mr Ferguson.

The UFU says it is essential the local share of UK farm support remains the same as now, but farmers recognise the delivery model is going to change. It is also underlining the need for a sensible and well-managed transition period to new support structures with the potential to pilot new measures.

“Whatever decisions are made, it is vital that we end up with a model that is simple and avoids red tape. It must be targeted at those who take the risks in primary food production. This is an opportunity to create a better system, and it is essential we take this chance to get it right,” said the UFU president.

Mr Ferguson underlined that support arrangements that ensure success for farmers and the food industry here were only part of the equation and their ultimate format depended on other crucial issues being resolved.

“We need the government to deliver trade deals that don’t undermine our position in the UK market and give us the best possible access to the EU-27 and other markets. That is essential for Northern Ireland’s outward looking agrifood industry, which has to remain a central part of the local economy,” said the UFU president, adding that the UFU would now consult its members before responding formally to the DAERA consultation.

He also said that the UFU would work with other stakeholders to ensure farming, the environment and food processing could have a post-Brexit joined up future.

AgriSearch has also welcomed the publication of DAERA’s stakeholder engagement paper on the future agricultural policy framework for Northern Ireland.

AgriSearch Chairman John Henning said: “We are pleased that the document recognises the importance of science, innovation, knowledge exchange and continuous professional development in delivering both increased productivity and improved environmental sustainability. AgriSearch is already leading and participating in a wide portfolio of research projects that are aimed at delivering these goals.

“We welcome the proposals to take a broader look at the “Productivity Grand Challenge”, the adoption of a multi-actor approach and a move to longer term research programmes. We would particularly welcome the integration of science with knowledge exchange and education.

“AgriSearch’s mission is to drive profitability and sustainability, as a trusted, valued conduit of knowledge and information based on sound science and widely applied research. We provide a means for farmers to have a voice and a role in research and innovation which will deliver the tools and information needed to compete in an ever-changing world. We look forward to engaging with industry and government partners in the development and implementation of the new agricultural policy.”