Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs permanent secretary Dr Dennis McMahon gave a very upbeat perspective regarding the prospects for farming and food in Northern Ireland when he spoke at this year’s Balmoral Show.
Output from Northern Ireland’s farming and food industry amounted to £4.4 billion in 2016 with the sector underpinning 22,000 full time jobs.
“But this growth must be achieved against the backdrop of a living, working and active countryside,” said McMahon.
He added: “Farm incomes increased by 87% in 2017. This was a very positive and welcome development. For its part, DAERA secured a competitive allocation in the budget allocations for Northern Ireland’s public sectors in 2018.
“This means that the department can fully commit to many of the rural development and farm capital projects that have been earmarked for local agriculture.”
McMahon admitted that Brexit represents a major challenge for the food and farming sectors.
“Uncertainty still abounds. However, DAERA officials are interacting with key influencers in London, Brussels and Dublin on this matter,” he said.
“This level of interaction will be maintained over the coming months. We are also scoping out possible future support options for agriculture. Current funding levels are guaranteed until 2022. However, DAERA staff are actively working through a range of policy options that will best meet the needs of local farmers into the future.”
McMahon hailed the securing of new export markets as one of the great success stories notched up by the local food industry over the last couple of years.
“DAERA officials have played a key role in opening up the Chinese market to imports of pork from Northern Ireland,” he explained.
“And the same principle hols where the Australian market is concerned.”
The DAERA permanent secretary confirmed that his staff, in tandem with officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in London, had helped secure a total 184 new export market opportunities for food companies in Northern Ireland.
McMahon also referenced the growing use of digital technology with the farming sector.
“For the first time we have received a 100% digital uptake, regarding applications submitted for the Single Farm Payment support system,” he commented.
“However, we are also seeing the much greater use of digital technology across the broad spectrum of farming and food activity carried out here in Northern Ireland.
But the DAERA representative also made it very clear that farmers must face up to the greater environmental challenges that are coming down the track.
“Reducing ammonia emissions is a case in point,” he stressed.
“Local farmers have a very strong track record of adapting successfully to changing circumstances. And, no doubt, this will continue to be the case as we look to the future.”
McMahon also confirmed the next stage of the DAERA strategy as the farming industry strives to eradicate Bovine TB. This will take the form of a new TB Eradication Partnership (TBEP)
The new initiative represents a fresh approach to addressing the high levels of TB in this part of the world.
In essence, industry stakeholders and veterinary representatives within the partnership will work with DAERA to provide independent advice, assist in policy development and in programme delivery. The eventual aim remains that of eradicating the disease in Northern Ireland.
“We recognise the challenge that faces all of us with the high rate of TB incidence. It is the source of significant stress for our farming families and has the potential to inflict serious damage on the wider agri-food industry and its ability to trade on a global scale. While we have taken a number of measures to address the issue, we want to keep moving forward with our approach.
“TBEP will bring together individuals with knowledge and practical experience who will for the first time have a major role in shaping the TB programme at both a policy and ground level. Farmers will be involved at every level having an input to how the TB programme operates and bringing their experience to the problem.”
McMahon announced that Sean Hogan has been appointed as Chair of TBEP alongside Seamus O’Kane, from a veterinary background, Dr Sam Strain, from a science background and Adrian Patterson and David Rea, both from a farming background.