Potato Crop: Wet Weather

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 22nd September 2020.

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Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP 2:45 pm, 22nd September 2020

1. Mr Nesbitt asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for his assessment of the impact of the recent wet weather on the potato crop. (AQO 724/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

My Department's assessment is that the recent wet weather in August has caused some localised flooding in parts of the Kilkeel and Newcastle areas and has led to some disruption of blight control programmes and difficulties with the desiccation of potato crops across Northern Ireland. As we now move into the main period for potato harvesting, DAERA staff will continue to monitor the situation as the effects of waterlogging on a potato crop are difficult to evaluate until a number of weeks later, usually at harvest. Furthermore, the DAERA staff will continue to provide technical advisory support to Northern Ireland potato growers to maximise business performance.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I believe that there has also been flooding on the Ards peninsula, but, of course, flooding is not a responsibility of the Minister's Department. How well does he think the relevant Departments are coordinating and coming together to help the growers?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Well, thankfully, we have had a couple of weeks of drier weather, and, for some people, potato harvesting has already started. There is an outstanding issue over an EU-imposed obligation that material that was previously used to burn off potatoes is no longer available. That has caused considerable problems in the desiccation of the potato crops. One suggestion was that, if the plants do not desiccate properly and the stem does not separate from the potatoes, the farmers could flail the potatoes, flail the tops. However, the wet weather has a consequence for that, and it is clearly unsuitable to put heavier tractors and flails in to do that. Farmers would not be capable of doing that, so that is a cause of significant concern.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

Will the Minister update the House on the application for approval for an emergency use of diquat for 2020?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I have had several submissions on that. I had a conversation yesterday, and I am to receive a further submission today. The chemicals regulation division (CRD) is the advisory body, and CRD has advised that we should not use it at this stage for a number of reasons. It has come from the European Union, in the first instance, that it is not something that it wishes to be used any longer. However, the recommended replacements are not working, and therein lies the problem. When farmers go to harvest their potatoes, they find that it has not done the job properly. Therefore, this year, I need to consider whether I can allow farmers to use diquat as a means to burn potatoes off. That is something that I am giving consideration to. I know that a number of countries in Europe have already given exceptional consideration to that and have granted its use.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

On the same theme, Minister, I would certainly encourage you to take that step on the diquat. Denmark, Finland and Austria have all given approval. What is the timescale for you reaching a conclusion? Time is now of the essence as far as potato harvesting is concerned.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

As has the Republic of Ireland. Two applications have been made to CRD, and it has rejected both applications. However, it is very apparent that the materials that have been recommended are not fit for purpose for the job that is required. Diquat was not removed from the market because of the danger to consumers; it is more about its users. However, these are all significant issues. There has to be another material found to replace it, and I have to take all those matters into consideration but have asked for further updates so that I can take everything into account and give a final decision on it very soon.