Minister urges Brussels to take immediate action

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Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill has urged the European Union to act swiftly in order to support farmers in Northern Ireland

She spoke from London after Monday’s meeting involving DEFRA secretary of state Liz Truss, the devolved agriculture ministers and all of the UK farming Unions. This was the second opportunity O’Neill had availed of to meet Truss in less than a week.

“The meeting was broadly constructive and covered a wide range of issues on which agreement for action could be built including fairness in the supply chain and procurement. However these are steps for the longer term,” said O’Neill.

“I, and the industry representatives from the north, were adamant with Liz Truss that action is needed now. The intervention price must be raised and that pursuing opportunities in opening new markets tomorrow will not address the crisis our farmers are facing today.

“It is clear that European support for our farmers is vital right now. The dairy sector in the north, which is heavily reliant on exports, has been hit hard by adverse exchange rates and poor market conditions. Farm gate milk prices are now below the cost of production. Assistance is required. Despite appearances, I believe that the picture is not as acute in Britain.

“While it is good that my counterparts in Wales and Scotland are committed to influencing Liz Truss to act speedily, I am clear that raising the intervention price threshold is the key lever to effect positive change in the short term.”

UFU president Ian Marshall believes that concerted action will be taken to address the problems facing agriculture as a whole at the present time. He spoke after the meeting involving Liz Truss on Monday.

“There was agreement from both the agriculture ministers and the presidents of the four UK farming unions that the situation facing farmers needs urgent collective action and that the issue of sustainability needs addressed,” he said.

“Currently the supply chain is not working and a long term solution to these problems is needed. There was an agreement from all involved, to work together on a list of demands and actions to put to retailers to seek commitment from them on their sourcing, labelling and promotion of local produce.”

At the meeting Mr Marshall again underlined the need for government to press the European Commission to review the intervention price for dairy products.

“It was also agreed to collectively put forward a list of demands, ahead of the emergency EU farming summit on September 7, to the European Commission that could help farmers deal with the extreme volatility facing all enterprises,” he said.

Meanwhile, the UFU is hopeful that last week’s decision by ADSA to commit itself to a price of 28 pence a litre for milk will encourage other food retailers to follow this lead.

A Union spokesperson said that the ASDA move is the first step to ensuring that consumers continue to have access to locally produced food, while at the same time recognising that farmers need a fair price for the food they produce, adding:

“The UFU would hope that other retailers will follow suit and that this would be extended to other products. If retailers want a continued supply of locally produced food they need to ensure that farmers’ returns are sustainable.”

The Union’s Chief Executive Wesley Aston went a step further:

“We are calling on retailers in Northern Ireland to pay realistic prices for all for the food that is produced on their doorstep.

“We are striving to represent all the farming sectors, not just dairy,” he said.

“Producers across all the agri sectors are under severe financial pressure at the present time. And we expect that both retailers and those businesses operating within the food service sector to recognise this reality. This means paying farmers a fair price.”

Dr Judith Bryans, Chief Executive of Dairy UK, described Monday’s meeting as ‘constructive’.

Dr Bryans said: “The current global crisis is well beyond the control of dairy farmers and processors and all ministers are aware that the whole industry is working in extremely difficult conditions.

“After an open exchange of views, it was agreed that transparency in origin labelling and improved branding were important for consumers to be able to choose British products as easily as possible. We were pleased to see that the Government is progressing the agenda on public procurement and is keen to support the industry on exports. Dairy UK also renewed its call for the EU Commission to raise the intervention price as we believe this is an urgently needed measure to ease the pressure on the sector.

“In the long term, we need a collaborative approach throughout the supply chain to develop a toolbox to handle the impact of volatility which, as we know, is now an inherent part of the milk market.”