Question Time: Agriculture and Rural Development Tuesday 24 November 2015

Agriculture Minister, Michelle O’Neill, discussed the current standard of living for the agricultural community during today’s Question Time. Farm incomes are affected by varying factors such as bumper harvests, poor weather, economic recession, wars, political unrest and fluctuation in the exchange rate. This makes it harder for the agricultural industry to match supply to demand as well as other industries – “volatility in farm incomes is inescapable because it is due to factors beyond our control”. These considerations are why the EU supports farming to the extent that it does.  Jim Allister MLA believes that the EU has not been doing enough to live up to its Lisbon Treaty promises to protect the farming sector, citing the current dairy crisis as an example. The Minister acknowledged that there is “room for reform” but said that the importance of EU funding, in particular the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), cannot be underestimated – “the fact remains that the CAP ensures that almost £300 million a year goes into the pockets of farmers. If we were to find ourselves in a scenario where we were no longer part of a CAP, where would that money come from? Who is going to assist farmers to be able to continue to produce food?” On a related note, Barry McElduff MLA, asked the Minister about the implications on the agriculture sector of a British exit from the EU (a situation commonly abbreviated as ‘Brexit’). Mrs O’Neill stated “clearly, an exit from the EU would mean that direct payments to farmers and rural development funding from the EU would stop. However, the many uncertainties surrounding a potential exit makes a quantitative assessment of impacts very difficult.” If EU CAP support is lost, additional funding would be required from the Treasury. However the Minister was dubious that this support would be forthcoming saying “it has been clear that the British Government have long wanted to reduce the level of support going to farmers and rural development under the CAP. They do not regard this type of support as value for money. I believe that the Treasury would be unsympathetic to calls for some of the money that is saved from withdrawing from the EU to be used to maintain direct support to farmers and rural communities at current levels” adding, “a significant reduction in direct support would leave many of our farmers in real long-term financial difficulty.” Mrs O’Neill also believes “small farms would be likely to suffer the most. It is very likely that a reduction of funding for farmers and rural communities would have knock-on effects for the wider environment.” During Question Time the Minister also addressed concerns on the new DARD headquarters, the Horse Racing Fund, woodland cover, dairy production, pig farming, the rural development programme and fishing quotas.