Redevelopment of CAFRE’s Greenmount and Loughry Campuses and the Development of New Beef Facilities at AFBI and CAFRE

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 11th May 2021.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 10:30 am, 11th May 2021

I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members in the Chamber that, in light of social distancing being observed by the parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members who are participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members who are present in the Chamber must also do that and may do so by rising in their place, as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. I also remind Members that points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the question period afterwards.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you say, Mr Speaker, we are about to hear a statement from the Agriculture Minister. Of course, we were able to read that statement, effectively, in Saturday's 'Farming Life', and, today, we have had the Economy Minister in the media announcing what she is calling an economic vision for a decade of innovation. Why is it that the way that we now seem to do government is that the Assembly is an afterthought, or not thought of at all, when it comes to ministerial proclamations?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his point of order. The Member will be aware that I have raised repeatedly with the Executive, through the past year or so, the point that it is very important — indeed, essential — to respect the role of the Assembly. For the most, that has been adhered to, but the Member's point is on the record. Perhaps the question could be put to the Minister directly, and to the other Minister referred to at a later point. I will, of course, refer the remarks that the Member has made this morning to the Executive Office.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to make a short statement to the House about two major investments by my Department. It was an oversight on my part that the first one went out publicly before I got it to the Assembly. I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, for that.

We look to underpin the future sustainable growth of the Northern Ireland agri-food industry through this investment. The first is a £75 million investment in the educational facilities at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) that will revolutionise the campuses at Loughry and Greenmount, where around 1,500 students are being educated to take the agri-food industry into the next generation. Those facilities were built over 50 years ago and are now at the end of life. It is, therefore, fitting that my Department is making this investment in the centenary year of Northern Ireland. CAFRE has a well renowned reputation in the agri-food industry for providing excellent tuition and training facilities for the next generation of farmers, growers and agri-food personnel.

Our agri-food sector has faced many challenges over the past century and has grown to develop a global reputation for high-quality food and traceability. It is now time to invest in each campus in order to provide modern and well-designed facilities that will meet the needs of students, staff and industry during the next century. The investment complements the recent launch of the Bachelor of Science with honours degrees in sustainable agriculture and horticulture and the higher level apprenticeships in food and will ensure that CAFRE remains at the forefront of agri-food education across these islands. The plans for Loughry will also include a science centre, which will be shared with food research staff in the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI). Those top-class facilities will be the centre of knowledge and innovation for the industry leaders and decision-makers of the future.

I am pleased to announce an investment of £10 million to commence the development of new beef research facilities at AFBI, Hillsborough, and CAFRE. Those new facilities will integrate the future development of research, technology transfer and education at AFBI and CAFRE, which will assist in the delivery of my green growth initiative. In order to ensure that the Northern Ireland beef industry has a vibrant future as a trading sector, we must keep pace and compete on the world stage. The current beef facilities at AFBI and CAFRE are no longer fit for purpose. Investment in new beef facilities will ensure that AFBI and CAFRE have the capacity to carry out leading-edge research and demonstrate technologies in order to support the delivery of education programmes and underpin beef farms across Northern Ireland for the next 30 years. Those new facilities will be critical to ensuring the positive contribution of beef production to the management of the rural environment and to supporting the rural economy. The project will provide multiple long-term benefits for the Northern Ireland beef industry, agri-food industry and wider economy.

I also welcome the fact that the design and construction of the new buildings will be environmentally sustainable and will enhance the well-being of all who use, live and work in them. The combined investment of £85 million in the CAFRE campuses and AFBI research facilities will ensure that both those organisations deliver for the future of Northern Ireland's agri-food industry.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I very much welcome the Minister's announcement of this overdue and well-deserved investment. Minister, has any consideration been given to working in partnership with other such research centres across the island of Ireland? Have you any assessment of how this investment could benefit our inclusion in the protected geographical indication (PGI) status for Irish grass-fed beef?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

There are two issues there. PGI status for Irish grass-fed beef should have been applied for jointly. Unfortunately, the Republic of Ireland Government decided to charge ahead without Northern Ireland, in spite of the fact that we were ready to go. They used a fairly puerile excuse for not doing it together. It reflects very badly on the Republic of Ireland Government that they did not work together with us on that. I am also looking to develop a British PGI status so that we can genuinely achieve the best of both worlds.

With regard to working with the Science Institute in Ireland, we have suggested that, when it comes to the sequestration of carbon, which is very important given yesterday's debate, work is done jointly because the same issues will apply. Therefore, we will get value for money by doing that. That is something that AFBI is working on with Teagasc.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement, and I welcome the sizeable investment of £85 million in AFBI and CAFRE, which will certainly give confidence in the future of the agri-food industry.

The Minister outlined an important £10 million investment in beef facilities at AFBI, Hillsborough, and CAFRE. Will he outline why that investment is important for the beef sector in Northern Ireland in particular?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The beef research facilities at AFBI are at end of life, so their ability to carry out accredited research on beef was being lost. New facilities are therefore critical to them.

Considering the debate that we had yesterday on climate change, the work on how we can improve our beef output and reduce the amount of carbon produced from it is critical to the beef industry as we go forward. We have one of the best beef industries anywhere in the world. That is why it appals me when, without thinking of the consequences, people glibly walk through the Lobbies to destroy the beef industry, as happened yesterday. The fact is that, in traceability, provenance, quality and environmental impact, we are ahead of most parts of the world, and we can do even better. The quality of the beef industry in Northern Ireland can go from gold-plated to platinum-plated. That is why we need to invest in our beef industry and ensure that we provide support to allow it to develop and continue to be one of the big income generators and employers in Northern Ireland, in spite of the worst efforts of others.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for this very welcome investment, some of which is in a well-known and highly reputable facility in the constituency of Mid Ulster. Is there a particular time frame for the sequence of events that will follow: the design, tendering and projected completion dates of the various projects?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The design and planning process and so forth will start straight away. Normally, it takes around two years to deal with those issues for this sort of thing, and then it moves forward to the actual development, which is likely to take under two years. Over the next three to four years, we will see things happen, with substantial change at both campuses and at AFBI.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Minister, I, too, welcome the investment in the Greenmount and Loughry campuses for the future of our young people who wish to work towards a career in the agri-food industry. Thank you for that. Has consideration been given to increasing the university status of Greenmount by offering an increased number of agricultural or agriculture-based courses there?

I hope that you do not mind my asking a little extra question: has consideration been given to a university course in equine studies, perhaps in the west, such as at the Enniskillen campus?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for her questions. We have recently developed a Bachelor of Science honours course, which is delivered through CAFRE, and we are working with the universities to develop other opportunities. There are tremendous opportunities for Northern Ireland to be a place where people come to be trained and educated in the agricultural environment and agri-food. Our colleges will lead and work with the universities to develop those. The Member knows that I am very keen to establish a veterinary school in Northern Ireland. The Strategic Investment Board (SIB) has recently been engaging with universities on that, so background work is being carried out to develop that.

The equine studies provided at the Enniskillen campus are top-notch. The campus is utilised by people from all over the world, and students from the Enniskillen campus travel all over the world to develop equine skills.

What is being provided at Enniskillen is excellent, but, of course, it can be improved on. If proposals are brought to me that will improve that further, I will be very happy to support them.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 10:45 am, 11th May 2021

I thank the Minister for the statement, and I, too, welcome the detail in it. We are living in a time of increased environmental awareness, and all of us want to build back better post COVID. I note that the Minister, understandably, referenced his green growth strategy. My party's recently published document, 'A Green New Deal', seeks to commit to assist farmers in diversification programmes such as agritourism. Minister, does the planned investment seek to enhance diversification opportunities and learning?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The focus of this is on education and training in the area of agri-food, so the focus is not on diversification. I recognise the importance of diversification. That will be carried out in other ways. I recognise the importance of rural tourism and of getting that up and running again. I hope that the Executive will make the right decisions over the next number of days and enable people to travel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to enjoy the tourism offer here in rural communities and, indeed, in other places. Let us get our economy growing again.

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. Minister, I welcome the combined £85 million investment in CAFRE at Greenmount and Loughry and in AFBI, and I also welcome the discussions with the SIB about a veterinary college for Northern Ireland. I am very interested in that. Minister, will both investments that have been outlined today have an environmental improvement and sustainability element to their design?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Absolutely. Given that the current buildings were developed, I think, in the 1950s or 1960s, they are not fit for purpose in terms of environment nowadays and would have to be retrofitted, which would be hugely expensive. It is much better to build from scratch to improve what is on offer. I recognise that that needs to be done. I also recognise that the new beef facilities will be developed to reduce the carbon footprint in those facilities, but they will also be a demonstration of what is achievable in farming in reducing the carbon footprint in the keeping of beef cattle. All those things are critical, because CAFRE and AFBI have to be at the leading edge and be capable of demonstrating to the farming community what is possible.

The Member has been a very strong advocate for the veterinary school and, in particular, the Coleraine campus, but we have to be at the leading edge of that science as well. It is critical that Northern Ireland can produce its own vets and have the research facilities to go with that. In my opinion, that should have happened years ago, and I am hugely supportive of that happening now. I want to move that ahead over the next year.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome both investments and the announcement on new beef facilities at AFBI. It cannot be overstated just how important the new research and knowledge transfer facilities are to our industry. Minister, what other strategies has the Department put in place to develop young people's agricultural skills and knowledge?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We have a close working relationship with young people. Last week, I provided support to the Young Farmers' Clubs of Ulster, which do a tremendous job. That is not just people from farming backgrounds but people who have an interest in rural affairs. Many of the people who engage in the Young Farmers' Clubs, for example, are young people from an urban background who absolutely love the rural lifestyle and love to get out and engage with young people from a rural background. We are constantly investing, updating and looking at how we can support young people in the area of agri-food.

Work is being done, for example, in Loughry on agri-food.

Anybody who goes to Loughry has a job before they leave. It provides young people with a tremendous opportunity. The science and innovation available there — how we reduce levels of non-recyclables in packaging, and the work that is done with large companies in Northern Ireland to enable them to be at the cutting edge of everything that they do — is absolutely tremendous. We can be proud of it. We have a joined-up ecosystem for agri-food, and this is an investment in that ecosystem.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP

I welcome the announcement, especially given that it is some 50 years since this level of investment was last made. Does the Minister agree that many farms suffer from an underinvestment in buildings, which then impacts on their efficiency?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I do. Moreover, from an environmental viewpoint, we need to invest in agriculture, and we need to invest big. If the people who voted in the Aye Lobby yesterday support me in trying to meet the challenges that face agriculture environmentally, I am sure that they will support my forthcoming bid to the Department of Finance for funding to assist us to achieve higher environmental standards and to ensure that there are cleaner waterways and fewer emissions in the air. I am sure that the most important and significant industry in Northern Ireland — the one with the highest number of employees and a £5 billion turnover — is something that we will support. The Northern Ireland Government will put their money where their mouth is, because there is no point in walking through the Aye Lobby to vote for something that you want if you are not prepared to support it financially. I am sure that I will get massive support from the Minister of Finance to deliver for the agriculture community.

Photo of Maolíosa McHugh Maolíosa McHugh Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. The skills challenge in rural areas is significant in every respect. Providing financial support to education and having modern facilities are pivotal, not only to the sustainability of the industry but to rural economies. You have answered one of my questions, which was to do with when construction will start. To what extent will the new facilities increase capacity for those who are engaged in the industry?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

A lot of work is being done online currently. We will therefore have the opportunity to look at the colleges' capacity. There is good demand for the courses. As I indicated, particularly on the agri-food side, people on those courses have a job before they leave. We want to encourage that kind of progress, development and skills base so that the agri-food sector does not go backwards. In spite of the debate yesterday, I am determined that we will not go backwards, and I am determined that the agri-food sector will continue to grow, provide employment and put food on people's tables and roofs over their heads. In this centenary year, this is an investment in the future of Northern Ireland. Most importantly, it is an investment in the young people who will be in Northern Ireland for the next century.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

I echo the thanks to the Minister for the announcement of the investment in the CAFRE campuses at Loughry and Greenmount. As a Mid Ulster MLA, I am aware of Loughry's unique course provision and how important that is to anybody who wants to pursue a career in agriculture or any of the other particular threads.

Does the Minister agree that the investment has the potential to provide an economic boost to the big town of Cookstown, which the Loughry campus is just beside?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

It does, yes. The major part of the investment is in the science centre and other facilities at the Loughry campus. It is critical that we are at the cutting edge of science, and Loughry is. We have very skilful people there. They need the facilities to go with those skills, and that is what this is about. It is about ensuring that we have the appropriate facilities along with the appropriate people. Dungannon, where there is a huge food sector, Cookstown, Portadown and other places in the mid-Ulster region and beyond will really benefit from having that kind of facility on their doorstep.

We are working with all the biggest companies in Northern Ireland — Coca-Cola, Moy Park, Dunbia, Linden Foods, Foyle Food Group, you name it — to ensure that, when supermarkets make enquiries about the product that they require, we are right up there in the packaging, provenance and viability of the food so that they can see the backup that there is in Northern Ireland. That is a real selling point and will provide a great opportunity for us as we go to more international markets. We recently broke into the American market for beef again after 20 years of being out of it. We will be getting into new markets. It is critical that we can sustain the businesses that are selling to those markets by having a qualitative backup, and that will exist.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

I, too, welcome the Minister's statement. As was said many times yesterday, and I will reiterate today, agriculture is a key and valued part of our economy, and modern, fit for purpose educational facilities are key to its future. What assurances can the Minister give that disruption at CAFRE, and to the courses at Greenmount and Loughry, will be minimised over the next years?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I can absolutely assure the Member that disruption will be at a minimum. There will be no disruption to the courses that are available.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I thank the Minister for the welcome news of substantial investment in modernising the education and research facilities. In your statement, Minister, you said that the investment complements the recent launch of degrees in sustainable agriculture and horticulture. How many degree programmes are on offer, and how many places are on offer within them? Are there any further plans to expand sustainable education in the sector?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for the question. I cannot give you the exact figure, but I will correspond with you on it. On the latter part of the question, we will continue to work with the universities to ensure that CAFRE can deliver accredited courses to degree level. I want to open up further opportunities for that. I want to keep more young people in Northern Ireland for their third-level education. In my view, far too many young people have to travel to Great Britain and further afield for their third-level education. For some, leaving to study is a choice; for many others, it is not a choice because the opportunities do not exist in Northern Ireland. I am investing in young people and in young people's staying in Northern Ireland to be educated here. They can make their choices thereafter about what they wish to do with their lives, but let us ensure that we provide the best possible opportunities for them to be here.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I welcome these investments. I want to ask an AFBI-specific question. AFBI's laboratory testing is very important to our food exports etc. To date, it has been fully accredited to the UK accreditation system. However, courtesy of the iniquitous protocol, the EU is now dictating that the UK accreditation service is no longer acceptable. That has caused AFBI, according to its board minutes, to consider linking to the Republic of Ireland for accreditation. Would that be acceptable to the Minister?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 11:00 am, 11th May 2021

The Member knows that the protocol per se is not acceptable to the Minister. We will do everything that we can, politically and legally, to ensure that we find ourselves in an acceptable position. An acceptable position is one that does not have blockages between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The protocol is bad for the economy. It is bad for consumers. It is bad for agriculture. Therefore, we need to continue to challenge it and to raise those issues at the highest level of government. I have been doing that. I will continue to do that. I will look at legal recourse that is completely different from the other legal remedies that have been sought. We must take every legitimate opportunity to ensure that Northern Ireland is not worse off as a consequence of the protocol, which did not involve the referendum that should have been required for the constitutional change that has been imposed upon Northern Ireland.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome the news for Northern Ireland, particularly Loughry in my Mid Ulster constituency. Loughry has had a massive impact on agriculture and the food sector for the past 100 years. I worked in it for nearly a quarter of a century. You probably look at me and think that that could not be, but maybe others think that it could. It is dear to my heart. I noted the points made about the impact that it has had on the businesses that employ engineers, food workers production staff.

In the past 100 years, Loughry has had a massive impact. What of the next 100 years? I also ask the Minister for clarification. Some people think that Northern Ireland stops at Dundonald. There is more to Northern Ireland than Dundonald. Agriculture has a massive impact: if the agriculture sector has money, everybody has money.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

That has always been a saying. I heard it in the quarries and from the builders. When farming is doing well, we are all doing well. I want to ensure that farming does well and that we continue to invest in progress.

I know that the Member worked for many years in some of the leading facilities and was involved in cutting-edge work, making the plants capable of being competitive and ensuring that they were maintained to a standard that allowed them to deliver what the supermarket and commercial sectors demanded of them. It is absolutely critical. It is a highly pressurised business and having the qualified people in the workforce is critical. With the quality of training in Loughry and the agri-food sector, people can get good pay for doing their jobs. We need to continue to drive that. That is why the investment is critical to ensuring that we have the right people to support that magnificent industry.

When we go into the Senate Chamber, we see three industries remembered: linen, shipbuilding and agri-food. That reflects the positions of those industries in the 1920s. I hope that, when people go in there 100 years from now, the agriculture industry will still be powerful and leading-edge in Northern Ireland, not only on the farms but in the factories, with qualitative science supporting everything that we do, from the birth of an animal to the product ending up on someone's table.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. There is no doubt that it is a significant act of confidence not only in our young people but in the wider agri-food sector, in which my constituency of Upper Bann and my county of Armagh play a key role.

What change is envisaged in the blueprint across Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to AFBI, given these plans? Does he expect much change?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

AFBI cannot currently do accredited research into beef because its facilities have become so poor. The development will make a difference to AFBI by enabling it to do that research into beef, which can then be sold across the world.

AFBI is recognised across the world for the quality of its work. Some of its work on grass seed, for example, has led to it receiving royalties from significant companies across the world. It receives royalties from other countries because of its quality of research. We need to ensure that, as an organisation, it can continue to do that and to provide leading, cutting-edge research that can not only be utilised in Northern Ireland but be sold elsewhere to support further investment and research and to keep Northern Ireland at the cutting edge of agriculture and agri-food.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

That concludes questions on the statement. I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)