Agriculture minister urged to produce plan to secure sector's future post-Brexit
Northern Ireland's agricultural sector is in danger of falling off a cliff if plans are not developed to replace lost EU subsidies, the Assembly has been told.
A joint Opposition Day motion tabled by the Ulster Unionists and SDLP demanded ministerial action to secure the long-term sustainability of the industry post-Brexit.
The parties noted that 70% of EU funding in the region benefitted the farming and rural sectors, the majority under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
They said the £350 million in annual subsidies represented almost 90% of farmer income and stressed the need to ensure this level of assistance was provided from alternatives sources when the EU tap was turned off.
SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone called on Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen to draw up a detailed strategy.
"A strategy that doesn't leave us in the situation and our farmers and our agri-food sector in the situation that, come 2020, we are just financially and otherwise just dropping off the edge of a cliff," he added.
"That has to be avoided at all costs and, irrespective of what people's views are in relation to Brexit or not to Brexit, we must at all costs avoid that situation."
He said the Stormont Executive had to plan for the future and tell the UK government that continued assistance for Northern Ireland farmers was a "red line".
"The DUP and Sinn Fein have a responsibility to alleviate the concerns of those in the agricultural sector who are fearful for their livelihoods, their jobs and indeed their farms," he said.
DUP MLA Edwin Poots said the next CAP deal would have seen cuts to subsidies if the UK had remained within the EU.
He said farmers had been "regulated to death" and wanted to be freed from EU red tape so they could generate more income of their own.
"Northern Ireland farmers voted overwhelmingly to get out of Europe and I think that's something this House needs to reflect upon when they have a debate coming forward on agriculture and rural affairs," he said.
Mr Poots said farmers made clear their feelings on the doorsteps during the referendum campaign.
He said: "Farmer after farmer after farmer was saying 'we want to get out of Europe' - and why did they want to get out of Europe?
"Because over the period of the 45 years we were in Europe they managed to invent something like 2,800 different regulations affecting farming.
"That's one for every week we were actually in Europe. They were regulated to death - farmers couldn't get on with the work they needed to do because they were so busy looking at the regulations, they were in fear of some mandarin coming to their farm as a result of the European regulations."
He said farmers wanted to be "properly paid" for their work rather than take EU "hand-outs".
"They want to be freed up to make money off their own labours," he said.
Responding to the debate, Ms McIlveen said Brexit presented the opportunity to develop a new UK-wide agri policy that worked better for farmers.
She claimed the European subsidy system was "broken".
"My long-term aim for the industry is to promote a sustainable, competitive, high-performing, knowledge-based agri-food sector that is prosperous and compliant," she told the Assembly.
"That means the sector will be more resilient to shocks and challenges, have high standards of animal health and welfare, deliver for the environment and have increased market access for agri-food products.
"It's quite clear we are not going to have a system like the one we currently have and why would we copy a system that is broken and not working for many of our farmers?
"This creates the opportunity for us to look at a different type of agricultural policy for the UK which will provide the necessary incentives for our farmers moving forward."
The non-binding opposition motion was passed by 59 votes to 34.