Environmental plans risk our food security, say NI farmers
The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) has warned that UK food security could be at risk if post-Brexit agricultural subsidies focus on environmental protection.
Currently, EU farm subsidies - worth about £3bn to UK landowners each year - are mostly linked to the amount of land that is farmed.
The Government has agreed to maintain the level of farming subsidies until 2024 - a move welcomed by the UFU.
But UFU president Barclay Bell expressed concern that the Government wants to see taxpayers' money going in future years to environmental protection, rather than food production.
In a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference yesterday, Environment Minister Michael Gove said farming subsidies will be replaced by payments for "public goods", from boosting access to the countryside to recreating wildflower meadows.
But Mr Bell said: "We need a balanced approach and Mr Gove must recognise the overwhelming importance of food production and food security.
"Farmers can deliver environmental goods, but if funding is not there to support food security, the UK's reliance on imported food will increase. This would undermine local food production and drive down food and environmental standards."
It is understood that decisions on the level of subsidy for Northern Ireland will have to be made by a local minister.
DUP MEP Diane Dodds gave a guarded welcome to Mr Gove's proposals which, while aimed at England, are likely to influence farm support policy across the devolved regions.
She said a local agriculture minister will be needed to shape the local implementation of future agri-support policies.
"Northern Ireland civil servants will require direction as to how they would implement agriculture policy going forward," she said.
Calling for acceleration in the pace of change, the MEP also hit out at what she described as the "unacceptable vacuum" in politics here.
"We want Northern Ireland to have the flexibility under devolution to shape this policy area but we need a functioning Executive," she said. "Unfortunately, due to the ongoing intransigence of Sinn Fein, local farmers are left without a local voice and the ability to take decisions."
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann expressed concern that the guarantee of subsidy levels until five years after Brexit may not apply to Northern Ireland.
"By setting a final date of 2024 it means that farmers will have guaranteed support at the same level as EU member states for five years after Brexit," he said.
"However, Mr Gove's comments only specifically referred to those in England so it is essential that this commitment is also quickly made for farmers in Northern Ireland. This is something I fear the ongoing absence of a minister or local Executive will likely delay, however."
Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew - a former Stormont agriculture minister - said the UK commitment to protect farmers after Brexit had no basis in reality.
"The British Government's professed commitments to protect local farmers will be met with bewilderment in the north of Ireland," she said.
"The Tory-DUP Brexit pact are committed only to dragging the north out of the EU, leaving rural farmers without almost 90% of their funding, and potentially devastating the agri-food industry."