Agriculture is Northern Ireland’s largest industry and plays a crucial role in both our economy and in countryside management – but it must not only be a means of creating jobs and delivering economic growth: it can also be a tool for tackling climate change, encouraging sustainable development and protecting our countryside.
We need an approach to agriculture that is transparent, result orientated and that provides a decent standard of living for farmers. We need to support farmers in vital food production work as well as in their crucial role driving nature’s recovery, protecting our wildlife and eco-systems and in providing common goods that benefit us all.
In the context of Brexit, we have no clarity as to what support our farmers will receive or whether they will have access to existing markets that are economically sustainable.
In addition, we have received no concrete assurances on how current EU agriculture policy will be implemented. Whether this responsibility will be devolved or sit as part of a UK-wide common policy is unclear.
This continuing uncertainty creates a ‘perfect storm’ for Northern Ireland’s farmers and the absence of the NI Executive means that many of these issues have been left unaddressed. Alliance believe that supporting our farmers is an imperative for any restored Executive.
We will push for the following to be implemented by the UK Government:
- Securing membership of the Customs Union to minimise the adverse effects of Brexit to our farming and agribusiness sectors and ensuring that customers do not see price rises due to tariffs. Access to both markets in GB and the EU is essential for agricultural and rural development in Northern Ireland.
- Ensuring UK farming continues to meet high standards of production such as food safety, environmental protection and animal welfare. These high standards need to be considered when negotiating any future trade deals.
- Greening the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) with increased responsibility given to the devolved nations. In the event of Brexit, we will push for the same emphasis on the environment but with funding allocation based on need, rather than the Barnett Formula, in order to reflect that Northern Ireland currently receives around 10% of UK CAP payments while representing less than 3% of the UK population.
- Ensuring that immigration policy means that there is labour available for work on farms and in food processing.
- Farming and agricultural supply chains make up a larger segment of the Northern Ireland economy in comparison to the rest of the UK. Any agricultural and rural development strategy and resultant funding schemes should consider this proportional difference.
- Supporting mechanisms that minimise disruption to the North-South supply chains in agri-food and maximise potential for sales into the Great Britain, EU, and international markets. Any barriers to free trade currently available to farmers today should be taken into account when formulating an agricultural strategy in Northern Ireland.
- Continued use of the EU’s geographical indicators for food products after Brexit. These indicators provide recognition for Northern Ireland produce such as Irish whiskey and Lough Neagh eels and there are other products which could benefit from this.
- Enhance the power of the NI Assembly in relation to the formulation and implementation of agricultural policy and associated environmental legislation.
It is our firm belief that agricultural support should be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly and we will strongly advocate for this following Brexit. We will push for any agricultural policy to:
- Ensure that rural development policy helps support rural areas in meeting the wide range of economic, environmental and societal challenges.
- Ensure transparency in supply chains and pricing mechanisms and enhance competition to ensure value stays in the market, enabling a fairer price to farmers and processors.
- Provide increased support for sustainable agriculture and land management, as well as targeted financing for environmental objectives such as nature conservation, protection of biodiversity and carbon emission reduction. This should also discourage harmful practices such as intensive farming and land abandonment.
- Ensure an effective means of knowledge transfer and innovation in agriculture and forestry including farm advisory consultative bodies and risk management tools.
- Be formulated using the principles of co-production and co-design, with all consultative information available in the public domain.
As with agriculture, fishing is a major industry in many communities.
It also faces a series of changes as a result of the proposed withdrawal from the EU. Any replacement for the EU fishing regime must be decided locally in Northern Ireland and ensure that the fishing industry is sustainable, both environmentally and in terms of maintaining stocks for future generations. We will ensure that UK fishing policy:
- Supports the fishing industry’s transition to an ecosystem-based management regime that rebuilds healthy fish stocks and supports a more equitable distribution of fishing opportunities.
- Develops a method of deciding fish quotas that is flexible and efficient.
- Incorporates long-term, regional stock management plans to ensure that fish stocks remain at sustainable levels.
- Retains the ban on ‘discards,’ which results in dead fish being put back into the sea.
Nature, Wildlife and Biodiversity
Part of the environmental challenge that we face is restoring biodiversity and ensuring that nature is protected against climate change.
Lower levels of biodiversity and higher levels of habitat destruction profoundly affect our ecosystem. We need to halt the decline in nature and put it on a path to recovery. We will support nature by:
- Creating an independent Environmental Protection Agency for Northern Ireland that has the powers and resources to enforce compliance with environmental and climate targets and acts as a watchdog on public bodies and the private sector.
- Protecting all existing EU environment directives by placing them into Northern Ireland’s domestic law following the proposed withdrawal from the EU.
- Encouraging the development and funding of programmes to restore wildlife and biodiversity. Where appropriate, this would include an all- island approach to wildlife management.
- Implementing the EU Birds and Habitats Directive into domestic law following the proposed withdrawal from the EU.
- Ensuring maximum opportunities to protect and restore our wetlands by ensuring conservation laws at least as strong as the Water Framework Directive. Ongoing investment in our water and sewerage infrastructure is also required.
- Supporting UK-wide legislation to improve decision making around nature issues and to establish long-term targets and powers to meet them.