As we implement new process under CAP reform, the European Union is never far from the headlines.
I think it is fair to say that my department has been supporting and advising farmers on many issues connected to the new rules.
However, my time spent as minister has reinforced a belief that our agriculture industry and rural communities are better off within the EU than outside it.
EU Area Based schemes bolster our rural economy by supporting farmers and helping the disadvantaged. In 2014, for example, £248m was paid in Single Farm Payment, £23.6m was distributed through the Less Favoured Areas Compensatory Allowance (LFACA) scheme and a further £20m was invested in agri-environment scheme payments to encourage practices that enhance our countryside.
Our agriculture industry and rural communities continue to reap significant benefits from Europe through the Rural Development Programme (RDP). Together with match funding, the total invested since the schemes began will potentially surpass £1 billion by 2020. It is a resource which we, in the north, are using effectively: to improve the competitiveness of our agriculture and food sector through training and capital grant assistance for modernisation; to protect and enhance the natural resources and landscapes of our rural areas; and to improve the quality of life in rural areas and economic diversification.
Because of assistance through RDP, over 50,000 people have embarked on training, nearly 19,000 farms or farm businesses have received investment or environmental support, 700,000 new tourists have visited our rural areas and around 800 jobs have been created in rural businesses.
Membership of the EU opens doors to our exporters. It affords our farmers and processors significant advantage to trade with 27 other member states. Meat and dairy can move freely. Around 81% of our dairy exports are to other member states and the EU is vital for our red and white meat industry. Unlike for exports outside the EU, standard animal health conditions are in place to facilitate the movement of live animals.
Being part of the EU allows our industry to achieve the most value from their worldwide export markets. We can benefit from the EU-agreed third-country export opportunities such as pig meat to Canada. Also, with its standardised production measures, membership allows us to export product sourced from animals born in other member states to third country markets.
Our industry can look to the EU for help in difficult times. It provides a framework of market stabilisation measures which can be deployed to assist in times of crisis e.g. it brought forward the opening date for intervention buying for dairy products and made available private storage aid for pigmeat in response to the Russian ban.
The European Fisheries Fund (EFF) has made a significant contribution to our commercial fishing and coastal communities at a time when the industry is facing huge challenges with a decline in fish stocks, damage to marine ecosystems and changing market demands. To help the industry adapt, there has been an investment of £18.5m of which over £9m has been provided by Europe. This funding has contributed to the sustainable development of fishing resources, improving the profitability and competitiveness of our fishing industry and supporting capital infrastructure projects to improve services at ports.
The EU provides co-funding for agricultural promotional campaigns and the Dairy Council recently benefitted from this to run campaigns promoting cheese and targeting third country markets. The EU also supports innovation in agri-food through Horizon 2020 to increase efficiency, sustainability and resilience of primary production
Also, let us not forget that the branding of famous local food such as Lough Neagh Eels, Armagh Bramley Apples and New Season Comber Potatoes is safe from imitation because the EU operates the Protected Food Names scheme for quality, artisan products.
Most importantly, our membership of the EU helps me to support and develop rural communities. It allows us to provide services to tackle rural isolation; it drives the development of community facilities to give people in rural areas a better quality of life, and provides encouragement for them to stay in our award winning farming and agricultural industries.
The benefits of our membership are clear for all to see. They are all around us in our rural communities. Those who advocate a withdrawal cannot possibly ignore them. Nor can they provide a reasonable or viable alternative as a way of supporting our farming and rural communities.
The funding and support provided by Europe to agricultural and rural communities is vital and irreplaceable.
Simply put, our place and the place for our farming and rural communities is in the European Union.