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The Department does not have any data on the general impact of rising fuel prices on rural areas. Agricultural businesses estimated that expenditure on heating fuel, machinery fuel and oils increased from £27·8 million in 2002 to £37·9 million in 2006. Despite the increase, those costs account for only 5% of gross input costs for agriculture, and, therefore, the direct impact from rising fuel prices is relatively modest.
However, increased fuel prices also impact on the cost of other inputs, notably feed and fertiliser, which account for a much greater proportion of inputs. It is not possible to quantify the increase in the cost of other outputs that is attributable to rises in fuel prices.
The Minister, like everyone else, must be aware that, as a result of the closure of small filling stations, as well as the loss of thousands of jobs, largely due to the supply of laundered fuels, rural communities have become more impoverished than ever in recent years. What message does the Minister have for those who still engage in the supply, or purchase, of illegal fuels?
That issue is clearly outside my remit, so I am not sure what response the Member seeks.
However, this is a good time to remind the House that the Department is doing everything in its power to militate against further costs to farmers, to help them with supply-chain development and to ensure that they are profitable.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is not involved with tax. That is a matter for the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. However, I will obviously highlight the impact on agriculture should the Assembly discuss the issue.
DARD promotes the growing of crops for use as biofuels under the EU energy-crop aid scheme. Aid of €45 per hectare is payable for all crops that are used for the production of energy products, with the exception of those grown on set-aside land. Under the scheme, crops that may be used in the production of biofuels include oilseed rape, cereals and hemp.
The Department is also working in conjunction with the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) and the Carbon Trust, which commissioned a study of the energy use of agricultural and horticultural primary-producer businesses. The findings of that study were presented at a renewables open day at CAFRE’s Loughry campus in August 2007. To facilitate improvements in energy efficiency, CAFRE is designing a series of contextualised energy-efficiency training programmes, with delivery commencing early in 2008.