Agriculture will remain a production-focussed industry, according to Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) president Barclay Bell.
“I am aware of the emphasis placed on the environment by DEFRA Secretary of State Michael Gove, courtesy of his speech to the recent Oxford Farming Conference.
“But farmers can’t go green if their businesses are in the red.”
Mr Bell made these comments while addressing the recent UFU Winter Road Show meeting, held in Limavady.
He added: “Future environmental regulations must be proportionate and practical.”
Mr Bell said that he bought into the principle of sustainable intensification, where agriculture is concerned.
“But this objective must be delivered on the basis that farmers are regarded, first and foremost, as food producers.
“We are already seeing instances where environmental criteria are holding up the implementation of development plans, submitted by farmers seeking support under the terms of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme.
“This is an entirely retrograde step.”
The UFU president believes that the family farm structure, which underpins local agriculture, can continue to deliver environmental benefits for everyone in Northern Ireland.
“Farmers are the natural guardians of the countryside. And this will always be the case.”
Mr Bell admitted that issues, such as greater public access to the countryside, will have to be addressed during the period ahead.
“The vast bulk of the land in Northern Ireland is farmer-owned,” he added.
“This is not the case in the rest of the UK. We need to come up with a strategy for the environment, which reflects local circumstances. And this is why it is so important for the Stormont Executive to be re-established as quickly as possible.”
Patrick Casement, from Northern Ireland Environment Link, also addressed the meeting. He agreed that farmers must be allowed to develop sustainable businesses.
“And putting a greater emphasis on environmental improvement measures can help make this a reality,” he said.
Commenting, specifically, on the issue of delivering greater public access to the countryside, Mr Casement pointed to examples of where farmers in different parts of Northern Ireland are actively embracing this principle.
“Projects of this type can be developed into very worthwhile business initiatives,” he added.
Mr Casement also pointed out that local councils will pay the additional insurance cover required in those instances where farmers agree to opening up their lands to members of the general public.