Providing meaningful and realistic support for production agriculture will be a fundamental requirement moving forward, according to Farm Minister Michelle McIlveen.
Courtesy of her first interview with Farming Life, the minister added that getting the best possible cross-border trade deal in the upcoming Brexit negotiations and ensuring that Northern Ireland remains fully compliant with all World Trade Organisation (WTO) regulations will be her other policy priorities during the period ahead.
But Ms McIlveen said that it is still too early to talk about the detail of the farm support arrangements that could be implemented post-Brexit.
“My first priority is to ensure that Northern Ireland receives its fair share of the funding that will be made available for agriculture within the UK as a whole
“London will be made fully aware of just how important the farming and food sectors are to the overall economy of Northern Ireland.
“It’s then a case of identifying how much flexibility will be available to develop bespoke support packages for the local farming sectors. Only then will we know if pushing ahead with coupled support measures are either feasible or relevant.”
Ms McIlveen added that the existing single payment measures will be retained in place until 2019.
“This will be extended out to 2020 for the purposes of the current rural development plan.”
She gave a strong hint that London will act to ensure a smooth transition to the new support measures after these dates.
“I can also confirm that the principle of balancing agricultural output while fully protecting the rural environment will be maintained in full.”
Where Brexit is concerned, the minister confirmed that she had already met her southern counterpart Micheal Creed and the Defra minister George Eustice on this matter.
“Everyone agrees that we need to come up with a final deal, which ensures that traditional trading patterns between the UK and the Republic of Ireland are maintained with the minimum level of disruption. I was delighted with the decision to keep Minister Eustice in place within Defra as he represents a strong source of continuity, where policy development is concerned.”
Commenting on the Brussels aid package, announced on Monday past, the minister said that she particularly welcomed the decision to allow individual member states pay a 70% advance in October. But she confirmed that farmers with pending inspections and new single payment entrants for 2016 will be excluded from this measure.
“My understanding is that the scheme to bring about a voluntary reduction in EU milk supply will be based on a payment to farmers of €0.14/L. And, as it is an emergency measure, it will commence in September.
“The other measures within the aid package have a November timeline associated with them. But we still need to receive a lot more detail from Brussels, where these matters are concerned.”
Ms McIlveen stressed that she will act to ensure that Northern Ireland receives the maximum amount of money possible from the £30m allocation to the UK as part of the Brussels’ commitment to provide £350m for aid schemes that do not specifically support dairy.
“Simply asking London to agree a national top up does not guarantee that Northern Ireland will benefit accordingly,” she said.
The minster also confirmed that securing new export markets for Northern Ireland’s food sector is another priority.
“And we have a great story to tell in this regard. The rolling out of the new Northern Ireland Food Animal Information System (NIFAIS) traceability system and the fact that Northern Ireland may well secure ‘BSE negligible risk’ status next year will put us in a uniquely advantageous position.”
Ms McIlveen admitted that Northern Ireland has to go through London when it comes to securing new export market accreditation.
“But there will be export opportunities that are of specific interest to local food companies that are not such a priority for the rest of the UK,” she explained
“I see no reason why we cannot build on existing relations with Defra to make all of this happen in the most effective way possible,” she said.
“But irrespective of which route is taken to market, we are still in the hands of the various importing authorities when it comes to getting their agreement regarding any request made on behalf of Northern Ireland.
“China is a case in point. Everything has been done, both from the perspective of my own department and Defra, to facilitate the export of locally produced pork to that market. It’s simply a case now of waiting on final approval from the Chinese authorities.”
Ms McIlveen concluded: “Farming will remain at the very heart of the local economy. I want to see industry grow. And to make this happen will require the application of the latest research findings.
“Agriculture must be science driven. And it is for this reason that the input of AFBI and CAFRE will be critically important moving forward. I also want to see as many young people as possible actively involved within the industry. They are the future.”