Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to talk to the House about my long-term vision for agricultural support in Northern Ireland. I also intend to announce a number of simplifications and improvements that I am making to the rules that govern the direct payment scheme for the 2021 scheme year.
Pillar 1 of the common agricultural policy (CAP) provided £293 million of direct support to Northern Ireland's farmers per annum. CAP payments have been of major importance in sustaining the industry in Northern Ireland and underpinning its competitive trading position. They have accounted for 79%, or £1·88 billion, of the cumulative total income of the Northern Ireland industry over the seven years from 2013 to 2019.
In 2018, my Department undertook an engagement exercise on a potential future agricultural policy framework for Northern Ireland. In that proposed framework, officials, in conjunction with key food, farming and environmental stakeholders, identified four desired outcomes and a long-term vision for the Northern Ireland agri-food industry.
Those outcomes are: an industry that pursues increased productivity in international terms, closing the productivity gap which has been opened up with our major suppliers; an industry that is environmentally sustainable in terms of its impact on, and guardianship of, air and water quality, soil health, carbon footprint and biodiversity; an industry that displays improved resilience to external shocks, such as market volatility and extreme weather events, which are evermore frequent and to which the industry has become very exposed; and an industry which operates within an integrated, efficient, sustainable, competitive and responsive supply chain, with clear market signals and an overriding focus on high-quality food and the end consumer. A number of projects have now been established in the Department to collate evidence, identify gaps and develop policies that will help to deliver those outcomes.
In June 2020, I announced my intention to bring forward a co-designed environmental strategy, entitled the green growth strategy, on behalf of the Executive. It will align economic growth and development with the protection and enhancement of natural assets. The Northern Ireland future agricultural policy framework has been developed in line with the green growth principles and will help to deliver its objectives. I anticipate launching that new future agricultural policy framework in early 2021, and I will update the House further at that time. Today, however, I want to broadly outline my vision for future support payments.
Leaving the EU provides for an unprecedented level of regional discretion and flexibility with regard to future agricultural support in Northern Ireland. This is the most significant change in policy to affect the agricultural sector in over 40 years. It means that our policies do not have to be constrained by the EU CAP pillar 1 and pillar 2 construct. We need to move to something new that better addresses the needs of Northern Ireland agriculture. It represents a unique opportunity to develop a new dynamic for key stakeholders across the food, agriculture and environmental spectrum to work with the Northern Ireland Government to chart a new way forward with common purpose. For that to be successful, it is vital that the long-term outcomes of productivity, resilience, environmental sustainability and supply chain functionality be kept to the fore, which will demand difficult choices, compromises and strong leadership at all levels.
Those four outcomes complement and reinforce each other, and they are broadly supported by stakeholders. A healthy and sustainable environment secures long-term agricultural productive capacity and underpins resilience. Productive agriculture minimises waste and maximises resource efficiency, which underpins environmental performance and reduces exposure to market risk. Furthermore, an integrated and efficient supply chain ensures that agricultural activity is properly focused on delivering market demands, thereby minimising wasted effort, wasted resource and inefficient supply chains and reflecting broader societal demands for sustainable production methods. The primary tools available to us — science, education, incentivisation and regulation — are applicable in helping to deliver all those outcomes. My focus is now on how we can best deliver the outcomes with the tools and resources that I have at my disposal.
Today also allows me to once again put on record that, going forward, I want to devise support schemes that provide opportunities for all our farmers — no farmer should be left behind. Schemes and support are needed to help farmers to develop their business, no matter where they farm, to become more efficient and to maximise the sustainable returns that they can achieve from the assets at their disposal. Those assets include the environmental assets on their farm. I believe that farms, especially those on hills and other disadvantaged areas, are well placed to play a major role in delivering more of the environmental outcomes that the people who live here want and that we owe to our future generations. I also believe that farmers should be properly rewarded for delivering those environmental outcomes and achieve a return on the environmental assets present on their farms. This offers a way forward where better economic performance and better environmental performance are the inseparable twin goals of any sustainable farm business.
The House will be aware that the UK Agriculture Act gained Royal Assent on 11 November. I very much welcome the Act, because it provides a platform on which we can start to move forward. Ideally, I would like to have had a locally developed agriculture Act taken through this House. However, that was not possible in the time available to us, but the Agriculture Act that we do have provides us with sufficient scope to introduce the changes that will set us on a new pathway.
The current working assumption is that the budget for future agricultural support payments for the remainder of the Parliament will be similar to the current direct agricultural support budget of £293 million per annum, plus a proportion of the pillar 2 budget. That ring-fenced funding will need to cover all the support measures that we wish to introduce. Current direct agricultural support is distributed by a decoupled area-based payment. I do not believe that that mechanism, as it stands, will deliver the outcomes and the agricultural industry that we wish to see. Nevertheless, I want to explore the role for a basic, area-based resilience payment that provides a safety net, but that must not blunt the incentive to become more productive and deliver better environmental outcomes. Careful analysis is necessary to identify an appropriate design of that mechanism that can reflect issues such as scale of operation — that is to say a cap on the maximum payment and, indeed, a minimum lower threshold — activity and so on and that is set in the context of a cross-compliance regime that is designed specifically for Northern Ireland to help to deliver policy outcomes.
That will take time, but it is my intent to move as quickly as I can on that in order to provide the budget necessary to deliver new schemes and approaches.
As part of that package, I wish to use a proportion of the agriculture budget to fund coupled payments, targeting, for example, suckler cow and breeding ewe producers. It is important to stress that that would not be a return to the coupled payments of the past. We need to design in features that will help achieve the goals of increased productivity and environmental sustainability. I have tasked my officials with completing a comprehensive review of the options for coupled support payments, and I hope to consult on it during 2021.
I will say something about coupled support for protein crops. I intend to introduce for 2021 a protein crop scheme for growing combinable beans, peas and sweet lupins. Those crops will create a domestically produced source of protein for animal feed and provide agronomic benefits within arable rotations. I intend to introduce it for 2021 on a pilot basis and then refine the approach for subsequent years to maximise the economic and environmental benefits.
A major part of the new agriculture framework will be the agrienvironment programme. As I have indicated, we need to create a regime that properly incentivises and rewards the protection of existing environmental assets and the creation of new ones. We will work with our farmers, land managers and environmental stakeholders to co-design a new approach to agrienvironment measures that is focused on delivering outcomes and a lasting legacy. We have the opportunity to create an approach whereby management of the environment becomes a profit centre within a farm business rather than a cost centre.
My officials are looking at a range of other issues that will contribute to a new agriculture policy agenda. Those include the role of capital support; generational renewal; upskilling and professional development; opportunities to develop the horticulture sector; and supply chain initiatives. I hope to say more about those in the early part of next year.
Although work is progressing to develop the long-term agriculture support strategy, I want to make some early changes that start to move us in the desired direction. I have therefore asked my Department to review our approach to the current schemes and to implement, where possible, improvements and simplifications that are in keeping with the longer-term direction of travel and that can be taken forward under the Agriculture Act 2020.
With that in mind, from 1 January 2021, I have decided to implement a number of changes. I have already announced that I will remove the greening requirements for the 2021 scheme year and incorporate the greening payment into the basic payment scheme (BPS) entitlement unit values. I will, however, retain the ban on ploughing or conversion of environmentally sensitive permanent grassland under BPS rules.
As currently designed, the objective of the greening requirements is to address a particular set of problems in cereal-producing regions where there is a predominance of very large fields that are devoid of landscape features and used for monocropping. The evidence is strong that the greening requirements of crop diversification and ecological focus area (EFA) retention have very limited relevance to Northern Ireland. If anything, they seem to have been counterproductive, by reducing the area of cropping and thus the diversity of land cover and habitat. My view is that, rather than persist with that failed initiative, it is much better to focus efforts and resources on developing bespoke environmental measures that will ensure the delivery of environmental outcomes tailored to Northern Ireland that are adequately funded.
Greening rules have added significant complications to the administration of direct agriculture support payments for applicants and those administering the scheme. Removing greening will also greatly reduce the inspection requirement associated with the direct payment regime. Incorporating the greening payment into the overall BPS entitlement values will mean that farmers will see no difference in the funding that they receive. The protection of environmentally sensitive permanent grassland will be enhanced by incorporating those rules into the basic payment scheme rules.
Whilst work on the development of bespoke environmental measures takes place, Northern Ireland's robust set of environmental laws will continue to provide protection against biodiversity loss. It is also important to remember that landscape features such as hedges and sheughs will continue to be protected under cross-compliance.
On the capping of payments, given that the changes for 2021 do not have a primary aim of altering the amount of funding that farmers receive in 2021, it is my intention to make a technical adjustment to deliver a neutral solution on capping. That is for 2021 only, however. I will want to look at capping more closely as part of the longer-term approach to support, and I have asked officials to bring forward options for consideration.
For 2021, for applications from young farmers and new entrants, I am limiting the number of entitlements that can be allocated or topped up from the regional reserve to 90 for each application. That brings the approach into line with the young farmers' payment. The aim is to prevent very large allocations from the reserve to individual farm businesses, which are difficult to justify but which cannot at present be prevented. That change will also reduce the incentive to submit speculative claims or to exploit the reserve.
I will limit over-declaration penalties to 100% of the amount due based on the area determined. That will eliminate the need to apply offset penalties in subsequent years. At present, in some cases where an over-declaration is large, the over-declaration penalty exceeds the payment due prior to penalty. In such cases, the payment is zero, and the outstanding part of the over-declaration penalty is offset against future payments made to the business over the next three years. I believe that the reduction of the payment to zero is an adequate deterrent against speculative claims involving the declaration of a large proportion of ineligible land.
I have asked my officials to review the approach to the application of cross-compliance penalties as soon as possible. My aim is to ensure that penalties are proportionate and reflect the seriousness of the non-compliance identified. As I said, using the primary powers in the UK Agriculture Act, secondary legislation to give legal effect to the 2021 scheme is being drafted. I will bring this forward under the draft affirmative procedure.
I assure the House that, in developing the future agricultural framework and our approach to future agricultural support payments, I will consult with the full range of agricultural and environmental stakeholders and keep you all updated. My ultimate aim is to ensure that we take full advantage of the opportunity to develop a sustainable agriculture industry in which farmers are supported on an equitable basis. That will be underpinned by a set of bespoke measures that will ensure the delivery of productive, environmentally sustainable, resilient and supply chain-focused outcomes tailored for Northern Ireland.
Such a scheme is currently available in the Republic of Ireland. As I understand it, close to €100 per acre of support is available. It has been used there.
There are three particular advantages to growing protein crops. First, it increases rotation. Protein crops are good for soil in that they break it up quite well. Secondly, protein crops — for example, beans — capture nitrogen from the air. We have an issue with nitrogen deposition into our peatlands, so something that removes nitrogen from the atmosphere is positive. Thirdly, protein crops grown here will displace — I recognise that the displacement will be small — some of the requirement for the importation of grains such as soya, which are grown largely in South America, where an element of that is grown by removing rainforests. On the environmental side, there are significant advantages to growing protein crops in Northern Ireland, which is why I want to take that forward.
Minister, thank you for the statement. It is lengthy and contains a lot of detail. I look forward to going through it in my role on the Committee and to working with you. In total, the annual CAP basic payment is £293 million and represents 79% of the total income of our farmers. Currently, that is wholly funded by the EU. Does the Minister agree that a level playing field on the island of Ireland is critical to the smooth operation of our agri-food economy and that any future policy that diverges from CAP could disadvantage our primary producers and rural communities here in the North?
Anything could happen. We also could be advantaged as a consequence of moving away from CAP. I indicated that I will remove the greening requirements, which are much more applicable to large grain-growing areas in France, the east of England and so forth and are not of benefit in Northern Ireland.
Moving away from the CAP creates an obvious benefit in that respect without creating any environmental detriment. So, there will be areas such as moving away from the CAP, which was a very broad-based scheme for all of the European Union, where we will be able to make support systems for farming that are bespoke to our needs. Therefore, I believe that we can drive greater productivity and better environmental outcomes at the same time by developing our bespoke scheme, and I look forward to working with the Committee in doing that.
I thank the Minister for his statement. As we are moving forward, basic payments are, of course, crucial to underpinning farm life and providing support income to farmers. With Brexit looming, can the Minister advise us what further assurances have been sought or received from the Westminster Government about additional and continuing support for farmers?
We, along with other devolved Administrations, continue to raise these issues with the UK Government, so we take the opportunity at inter-ministerial group meetings to raise the issues of continued support. We continue to receive reassurances on that front, but we will continue to keep pressing the case for agriculture and the environment in Northern Ireland.
It was probably a much easier case to make pre-COVID, as there was a fair bit more money in the system, but if the UK Government has to keep borrowing money at the rate that it is — I know that other European countries are in the same position — then that is going to put pressure on every other area, and that is something that we need to be alert to. The COVID crisis is creating unsustainability with regard to the public finances. I trust that the vaccine will allow us to move on from this, but as a consequence of COVID, we are going to be left with debts that are akin to debt that would be achieved by a war. Ultimately, that could put pressures on public finances, and that could impact on us.
Minister, you said that a major part of the new agricultural framework will, of course, be an agri-environment programme. Do you foresee that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and the Shared Environmental Services (SES) will work with the agricultural community in a more supportive role to enable modern and progressive farming in parallel with the protection of environmental assets?
I cannot speak for Shared Environmental Services because it is paid for by councils and is independent of the Department. NIEA is responsible to us, although some Members would prefer that we have an entirely independent environmental protection agency. I suggest that the Members who look for an independent environmental protection agency look at the role of SES before considering whether that is what they really want.
In some of the more marginal areas, where the land may not be as productive for the likes of big dairy and beef farms, a lot of people have ensured the renewal of their farms through building chicken houses. If you go into many parts of County Tyrone, for example, you will see that many chicken houses have been built there, and those properties have ensured that people who have an agricultural skill have been able to stay on a farm that would not otherwise have been productive enough to keep them. Sustainability is about having a sustainable environment, economy and food production.
Therefore, on all of this, dealing with a problem is not done through the blunt instrument of planning; it is actually about tackling the issue of ammonia, which needs to be addressed. The Department is working very hard to bring forward proposals on that issue that will make a significant impact on reducing the ammonia emissions and, consequently, will negate the damage that would be done to the environment by further production.
We want to encourage further production, but we want to do it in a way that is sustainable. The Department is working towards that, rather than just saying, "This is a problem, so we will stop doing that and that will end the problem". We need to address the issues that will resolve the problem, but that will still allow sustainable food production to continue.
I thank the Minister for his detailed statement. Point 13 seems to indicate a preference for a bespoke Northern Ireland agriculture Act. Given the statement by the Minister, the reality of the importance of agriculture to our economy, the particular quality of our farm product and the problem of rising ammonia levels, could such an Act be developed to deal with those issues? Are there plans in place to deal with that and, if not, could such plans be put in place?
One of the problems that we have is that this mandate runs out in 2022. For any legislation to get through now is going to be particularly challenging. You have the consultation process, there is then work to do with the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC) in developing the legislation and then the normal process of going through the Assembly, which can take up to a year.
Whilst I would like to do an agriculture Act — that is something that is desirable — I am not sure that we will have the capacity to do it in the time frame available, particularly given that the UK has just passed its Agriculture Act. Whilst it is not perfect for us, it certainly gives us considerable cover.
I have a number of pieces of legislation that I intend to bring forward, but I do not think that I can achieve an agriculture Act in the proposed lifetime of the current Assembly.
I thank the Minister for his statement and his vision for the future of agriculture. It is clear that the Minister has a wide knowledge of grassroots agriculture.
Minister, you said that you would look at cross-compliance penalties. There has been an issue in the past, of which the Minister will, I am sure, be aware, whereby penalties applied to farmers were appealed. The farmers went to an independent panel which, in some cases, adjudicated and supported the farmers, but the Department refused to agree to the independent panel's decision. What is the Minister's view on that?
I used to find it incredibly frustrating when, having represented a constituent who, having won a case at an independent panel, received a letter from an Agriculture Minister — generally, the Agriculture Ministers were named Michelle at the time — indicating that they were overturning the decision of the independent panel. I have made it clear to my officials that I will not be overturning the decisions of an independent panel. Why have an independent panel look at these things, give an assessment of how the Department came to its point of view on what the individual who made the claim had done, arrive at a conclusion on the information presented, only then for a pen to be put through that decision? It is entirely inappropriate and I will not be doing that. I have made it clear to officials that, when an independent panel makes a decision, it is the final decision.
I welcome the statement from the Minister. In paragraph 32, the Minister made reference to a neutral solution on capping. Can you elaborate on that? I aware that, during the last CAP reform, there was a cap put on the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), because there was a situation before that where some farmers were getting the best part of a third of a million pounds in a single farm payment per year, which works out at nearly £1,000 a day. There was then a cap put on that. What specifically are you referring to? What are your ideas around the neutral solution on capping in the statement?
For 2020-21, I do not intend to change the capping that is in place, but I make it clear that I intend to change capping going forward. As we discuss these issues, I do not believe that some of the payments are appropriate. I know that some of the farms are large-scale, but, as we go forward, I would prefer to see the money spread more evenly and to see a greater proportion of farmers who are not just as large in scale receiving it. I would also like to deal with some of the hobby farming that takes place, where there is no real reliance on farming but people maybe keep a small acreage in order to engage in the hobby of farming. I want to support the people who are reliant on farming for a living, and if someone receives large amounts of money that goes into the hundreds of thousands, they are somewhat less reliant than people who operate with perhaps £15,000 of profit in a year. It is hard to feed your family and to keep a home with that sort of profitability.
Paragraphs 7 and 8 of the statement make reference to the European Union. Given that we are still in the EU regulatory zone and, thankfully, retain full access to the EU market, does the Minister appreciate the importance of continuing to align with EU policies in order not to disadvantage our local farmers compared with farmers in the South and in other parts of the EU?
On the regulatory aspect of it, the answer is yes: we will align because that is part of the protocol agreement. That is somewhat unfortunate because some of the cross-compliance things do not act to our benefit. Nonetheless, that is where we are.
Moving forward, I remind Members that, whilst the protocol kept us in the single market, oddly enough, the European Union does not want Northern Ireland to be a participant in its free trade agreements. I would challenge the European Union on that. If it wants to keep us in the single market, why should it be with second-class citizenship in that single market? If we are producing goods to exactly the same standards as the rest of the European Union, why are we not entitled to be part of its free trade agreement? We will be part of the UK's free trade agreements, but why is the European Union not doing that? I understand that the reason why it is not doing that is because there is too much work involved. I suggest that that be reconsidered, because if we are going to be part of the single market, as the EU desired and negotiated with the UK Prime Minister and as was decided by the Westminster Parliament, we should get the advantages of it, not just the disadvantages.
I thank the Minister for his statement. Thank you for educating me, Minister. I thought that "sheugh" was an agricultural slang word, but now I know that it is a real word that has its origins in Irish. Some of my more learned Gaelic-speaking friends might be able to give me more information on it.
A typical farm in south Armagh is 80 acres of land ownership with 40 acres taken and 100 head of cattle that are mixed beef suckler herd, so what were the basic payments that they received and what will be the basic payments going forward as part of your proposals?
The posh word for sheugh, of course, is "drain". I thought that it was more Ulster Scots than Irish, but perhaps Patsy could educate us on that. Nonetheless, it is a good owl word that is used in the country, and people understand sheugh better than drain. Drains are very often enclosed, and sheughs are always open. Anyway.
I know the farms in County Armagh very well. I visit that area from time to time. I talk to farmers from County Armagh.
I know the land type in that area, and, ultimately, it is more suitable to suckler, particularly in its southern part, than it is to dairy. The more northern part of Armagh is probably more suitable to dairy.
We are looking at how we take away the broad instrument that just gives somebody a payment and does not reflect a lot on the work that they do and at how we make that instrument one that encourages people to engage in keeping appropriate numbers of livestock for their farms and ensures that they are supported to do that.
Support for the suckler cow is key. The Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) has put forward proposals, along with the Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association (NIMEA) and a number of other organisations, that look at support for suckler cows, beef finishing and so forth. It is important that we throw these things open to discussion and set out an element of it that will go for that type of support. That will be removed from the basic payment and be shifted over to the other pillar, which will allow us to particularly encourage younger people to engage in farming.
I know a lot of young people who would love to farm but they do not have the land. There may be land in the family, but they just cannot make enough money to get going at it. I would love to encourage more young people to go into farming because it is a great way of life. It is a great career, but young people need to be able to put bread on the table and provide for their family if they go into it.
I thank the Minister for his statement. He reiterated the point in paragraph 11 that he wants no farmer to be left behind. It is an unfortunate reality that many decisions that the Minister has taken this year have left a lot of farmers feeling left behind, notably the decision to stop the transition towards a flat rate, which would have allowed farmers operating below the regional average an expected pay increase of about 14%, as well as his refusal to reinstate the areas of natural constraint (ANC) payment against the wishes of the House. What specific commitments can the Minister make today to assure farmers in less favoured and severely disadvantaged areas that they will no longer be left behind?
If one looks at the payment system for the scheme five or six years ago compared with where it is now, one could not describe those areas as being left behind vis-à-vis others in agriculture. Quite a lot of lowland farms are not particularly profitable, and people need to recognise that. Farming in general is not that profitable. Therefore, we need to encourage farming and farm systems to maximise the value of their product and to market their product in a way that gains the highest income. It is about us providing support to farmers to make real environmental benefits. I am open to ways of doing that, and I am happy to discuss that fully with people in the uplands. They know better than anybody how to make their land productive. I am happy to engage in qualitative discussions with folks in the uplands as to how best we can take things forward, but I do not believe that a flat-rate system benefits agriculture or a lot of smaller farms, and it is not the way forward for the future of Northern Ireland.
I thank the Minister for his statement. Paragraph 31 states that:
"Northern Ireland’s robust set of environmental laws will continue to provide protection against biodiversity loss."
Does the Minister agree that, to strengthen those laws and to ensure proper enforcement, we need an independent environmental protection agency to be brought forward in legislation and enacted before the end of this Assembly term?
I hear about independent environment agencies, and about independence in general, and then I hear Members say that the courts have not fined someone enough. I hear Members challenge the courts over their fining system all the time in the Chamber. The courts are an independent agency. I hear Members discuss Shared Environmental Services and the quality of its planning advice, and they are critical of it in the Chamber. SES is an independent body. I often ask, "What are we elected to do?". We are elected to be accountable to the people. What is wrong with having a system through which there is accountability to the Chamber for environmental regulation? An independent environmental protection agency would not provide that. I can come to the Chamber and be held to account for the actions of the NIEA. It has a lot of autonomy, but I can be held accountable for its actions in a way that I could not be for the actions of an independent environmental protection agency.
One thing that I will be held accountable for is what I want to do for uplands. One factor that has contributed to the loss of biodiversity is decisions that were made in the past to drain areas in the uplands, which made farmland more productive there. We now know, however, that the most harmful factor of carbon capture in our peatlands is a loss of water. The reality is that we need to wet areas around those peatlands once again. One of the things that we need to do with this new scheme is support those farmers. If we are going to wet land that they are not going to be able to use productively, we need to support them financially for the environmental benefit that will be created by wetting the peatlands once again. That is an important piece of work. I am happy to be held accountable for those things. I do not believe that that would be the case if there were an independent environmental protection agency. It would add another layer, but, ultimately, it is for the Assembly to decide.
I thank the Minister for his statement, which referred to an integrated and responsive supply chain as one of his desired outcomes for future policy. In the absence of an effective Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) and legislation guaranteeing minimum farmgate prices, can you seriously deliver that outcome?
I agree with the Member that the Groceries Code Adjudicator is not particularly effective. This year, on the back of COVID, there has been a noticeable switch, with more people buying their own produce than eating out. That demonstrates to me that perhaps the grocery supply chain is not the worst problem that we have, albeit the big supermarkets have massive buying power. The public are quite discerning, however, and they like food that is produced locally when they are shopping in supermarkets. You do not have the same opportunity to do that if you go out to a restaurant or a cafe.
There has been a tremendous movement towards buying local. Local butchers' shops and vegetable shops and so on have been doing well throughout COVID, because people have wanted that reassurance. I therefore want to build on the fact that people know that food that is grown in their own country is generally food that is grown to a high standard. If I import chicken from some of the places in the world from which we are importing it, I do not have the same assurances that the standards are the same as they are here. People talk about chlorinated chicken. The problem is not with the chlorination of the chicken but with the fact that there is considerable salmonella in the chicken. That means that the chicken needs to be chlorinated in the first instance. The reason that there is considerable salmonella is that the stocking rates for the houses for those chickens are far higher than they are here. As a consequence, they produce chicken more cheaply, because the stocking rates are higher, but it is not of the same quality as what is produced locally. We need to be absolutely certain that the public know that what they are buying here is produced to the highest possible standards in eating quality, provenance, traceability, food miles and environmental impact. I believe that, in Northern Ireland, we can produce a product that ticks the A* list on every front. If we can just introduce a few more measures, we will be top rate for every aspect of our food production.
Minister, as you will know, I am from the Ards peninsula, and one of the areas that is extremely important to me is the work of the Ards peninsula coastal erosion group, on which a number of your colleagues work. Earlier today, regarding climate change adaptation, you talked about:
"identify and share information on best practice regarding community and private-sector engagement on climate adaptation, governance models".
Has there been any discussion on coastal management? We have a situation at Anne's Point, outside Greyabbey, where the reclaimed land has been breached. The lough has come in and basically poisoned it. You can see that the trees are dead now. Is there anything on that modelling and governance? For instance, has taking away the Bateman principle and bringing something new on board been discussed?
While coastal erosion is not part of my statement, it is a very important issue. County Down has a much softer landscape than County Antrim, which has considerable amounts of basalt and so forth. At Portstewart, I always remark on those rocks that have withstood that battering year after year after year. County Down does not have as sustainable a coastline in that respect.
We take coastal erosion very seriously. I am looking at LiDAR mapping all of Northern Ireland. That will involve our coastlines and will be a huge source of information. I want to work with the Department of Finance, which has its own plane, on that, and it will give us a huge amount of information. I want to do it in conjunction with soil analysis, testing every field in Northern Ireland, which will lead to our having a much greater understanding of the nutrient requirements in Northern Ireland as we move forward on an environmental front. I want us to do considerable work on slurry separation and on the pelletisation of phosphates, because we have too much phosphate. Instead of that going onto our land and ultimately into our waterways, it becomes a marketable product to other parts of the world that are phosphate-deficient. We need to look forward to all those things. We cannot stand still. We cannot do everything in the same way for decades and expect the same results, because the world is moving on. Things are changing, and ultimately we can do things that will be not only of considerable environmental benefit but of financial benefit. We need to delve into those areas and ensure that we can support farms and agricultural producers as they move to these schemes.
On the issue of the quality of our local food, we should be cognisant of the fact that people will buy the food that they can afford. Given the economic ramifications of the crisis that we are in at the minute, we need to be careful that the potential for cheaper imports to be within the budget of people here does not allow our good quality to be the major export for other markets. That brings me to your response to Ms Sheerin's earlier question. I hope that you can give us a wee bit more detail on the support schemes to provide opportunities for all farmers. Are you thinking, for example, of specific measures to address farm poverty and the decline in farmgate prices? I ask that because I heard a story from a farmer, who told me that, just two years ago, he invested a £500,000 loan into a new hen laying unit, and he —
Yes, the Member raises that specific case, and that is the sort of investment that is very often required to be sustainable in modern farming. You are looking at investments of hundreds of thousands of pounds just to create something that is viable and produces a way forward. Profitability is key, and how we support our agriculture sector in being profitable is much more important than support packages, because that is how people want to make their living. Where possible, they do not want to be dependent on government handouts. They want to make the money themselves. People who are working extremely hard every day deserve to have a good income on the basis of their hard work. We want to provide a means of ensuring that agriculture remains sustainable, and having an envelope of close to £300 million is a huge asset to us. How we spend and utilise that is incredibly important in ensuring that we get to the point where people are productive in bringing in their own finances.
I generally welcome the Minister's statement. I am sure that it is a great disappointment to the many doomsayers, some in the House and some outside, who told us that, after Brexit, there would be no farming and no money because the cash cow of the EU would be no more. What a lot of nonsense that was.
I generally welcome many of the things in the statement, particularly the end to greening, but I notice the pledge that no farmer will be left behind, so I ask the Minister this: when it comes to the application of the environmental policies, can he ensure that that happens? For example, he has talked to the House about introducing a requirement for injection-only slurry spreading. There are many small farmers who will never be able to afford the equipment for that, so, in adjusting those policies, will he, please, bear in mind that no farmer should be left behind?
I accept what the Member says. Whilst we are moving towards that, and there are very clear environmental benefits from it, there are also agricultural benefits in that there is greater utilisation of the nutrients that are applied to the land and less loss to the atmosphere as a consequence. On particularly steep land, that can be more challenging, and those are issues that we will need to address going forward. Many small farmers will, of course, use contractors, and whilst the contractors have a significant charge per hour for the utilisation of such equipment, they do an awful lot of work in a very short time, so it very often pays better to bring in someone else to do it as opposed to having your own equipment. Nonetheless, the Member raises a valid point. We must ensure that we create schemes and systems that are not punitive but ensure that we can assist the environment at the same time as encouraging good farm practice so that it does not lead to a situation where engaging in that becomes unaffordable for people.
Thank you, Minister. I have been listening to the debate this morning, and I have some concerns and interests around the future of the agricultural policy, as you described it in the statement, particularly around the areas of resilience, increased productivity, environmental sustainability and improved resilience. How do you believe that that can be achieved without the support of the European Union, without the ability to sell goods into the European Union, if that becomes a difficulty and a Brexit deal cannot be done, and, indeed, without the support of the common agricultural policy?
Whilst there are many disadvantages to the protocol, there is one advantage in that we have access to the single market. So, selling to the European Union going forward is not an issue; it is not a problem. Northern Ireland, of course, will have full access to sell to the UK market, which is the strongest market anywhere in Europe. It is the strongest market for beef, for example; it pays a higher price for beef than anywhere in the European Union. We will have access to the UK market, which takes over 50% of our product. The European Union takes around 25% of our product, and the rest of the world takes the other 25%. I am confident that we will be able to utilise and sell well into those markets.
I made reference to the European Union free trade agreements. It is somewhat incongruous that, whilst the European Union is keeping us in the single market and we then have to apply all the rules of the single market, it did not seek to benefit us with the free trade agreements that it is settling with other people. The European Union clearly wants to keep Northern Ireland locked in in many aspects but not in the advantageous aspects. It should reconsider that. I know that it involved work for the European Union; nonetheless, either it plays fair or it does not play at all.
Thank you for your statement, Minister. Can you please outline how the environmental plans contained in it integrate with payment plans and if any transition is required? Further to that, what conversations will you have with the Department of Finance? Obviously, there is a lot of learning from efforts to get the COVID payments and business support grants out.
Two issues. On the environmental plans, this was a formative statement that wants to open up a debate as to how best we can do things and how we can better utilise this £300 billion package to support production and the environment. In some areas, farmers will benefit more from environmental aspects than the production end. Whilst farmers would prefer to be engaged in production, for most of them, the bottom line is what really matters. We will focus very heavily on ensuring that we get better environmental outcomes from the money that we invest in single farm payments.
The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be questions to the Minister of Justice.
The sitting was suspended at 12.53 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair) —