Future Agricultural Policy Decisions for Northern Ireland

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 24th March 2022.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 10:30 am, 24th March 2022

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 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, but they may do so by rising in their place as well as notifying the Business Office or Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions: this is not an opportunity for debate per se, and long introductions should not be made. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the question period afterwards.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to make a statement to the Assembly on my decisions regarding future agricultural policy for Northern Ireland. I published the future agricultural policy framework for Northern Ireland on 24 August 2021. That document identified four key outcomes of increased productivity, environmental sustainability, improved resilience and an effective functioning supply chain that together constitute my long-term vision for the Northern Ireland agriculture industry.

Over the coming decade, the agri-food industry in Northern Ireland will face many significant developments from the impact of changes to our climate, changing internal markets and trading relationships, consumer demand and technological advances and, most recently, escalating input costs as a result of the war in Ukraine. We face many challenges, but with challenges there are, of course, opportunities. I want Northern Ireland to have a farming sector that is sustainable, resilient, productive and profitable. Since the framework portfolio document was published in August 2021, my officials have worked to progress the policy proposals that constitute the components of future agriculture policy.

I launched a public consultation on my future agricultural policy proposals for Northern Ireland on 21 December 2021 for a period of eight weeks. The consultation sought responses to 60 questions and gave the opportunity for respondents to provide views and comments. The consultation was supported by a communications plan that included notification to a wide range of stakeholders across the agriculture and environment sectors, a series of well-attended consultation information sessions, press releases, radio interviews and advertisements in the farming press, along with an extensive social media campaign. A total of 339 responses were received, 55 of which were from organisations; of those, 30 were from farming organisations and 11 from environmental organisations. Of the 284 responses received from individuals, almost half identified as farmers. I also welcomed the position paper provided by the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. I take the opportunity to thank the Committee for taking the time to consider the policy proposals and for providing very helpful comments and recommendations.

Overall, respondents welcomed the opportunity to comment on the future agricultural policy proposals and looked forward to playing an effective role in the future development of a sustainable agriculture industry. Across the majority of respondents, there was a sense of opportunity for Northern Ireland to redefine its agricultural policy for the first time in almost 50 years and to develop a future agricultural policy that is better suited to local needs and will underpin long-term sustainability in the industry.

Today, I announce my policy decisions on future agricultural support. Before I do so, however, I want to take a few minutes to say something about the importance of agricultural support. As the House is aware, farm support administered by my Department has a significant influence on the economic viability of the industry and its competitive position relative to that in other regions. Over the last five years, direct payments amounting to £1·3 billion have accounted for 87% of the cumulative total net income of the Northern Ireland agriculture industry. In two of those years, the industry as a whole would have been in a loss-making position without that support. That illustrates the importance of those payments in sustaining the industry in recent years and underpinning its competitive trading position. Equally, however, it highlights a vulnerable position, and long-term viability must be secured. The agri-food sector, with the help of this support, continues to provide high-quality, safe, traceable food.

The actions of many generations of farmers and growers have also shaped the appearance of the landscape that we all enjoy today, our natural environment and the biodiversity that it supports. We have noted many times in the House the need for the agri-food sector to play its part alongside other sectors to ensure that excess nutrients do not seep into our waterways, that ammonia emissions are reduced to restore the health of our vulnerable habitats, that agriculture plays its fair share in our journey to net zero carbon and that biodiversity decline is halted and reversed.

With appropriately designed policy interventions and innovation, all of that can be achieved.

I will move on to decisions on future agriculture support. Today, I am publishing some 54 decisions, details of which are now available on the departmental website. Time will not permit me to go through each decision in detail — I am sure that you are glad, Mr Speaker — but I do want to cover some of them this morning.

I have announced a farm sustainability payment, which recognises the need for the continuation of an income support safety net. Initially, that measure will have the majority of the budget allocated to it. Over time, however, and in line with the capacity for delivery and uptake of new measures, its budget will be reduced to a much lower level as funding is released to other measures. The payment will be area-based and will use entitlements. All land-based agriculture and horticulture businesses that meet the eligibility conditions will be able to apply. Current basic payment scheme entitlements will be carried forward into the new regime. Current arrangements will continue in order to enable entitlements to be leased, transferred or sold.

Farm businesses that produced solely grass or grass silage and maintained land suitable for grazing or cultivation but that undertook no further activity during a two-year historical reference period — 2020 and 2021 — will not be eligible to claim the farm sustainability payment. There will be progressive capping of the farm sustainability payment above £60,000 per farm business. I have listened to the significant and numerous concerns raised by stakeholders about my proposals for a minimum claim size, and I have decided to set that minimum claim size at 5 hectares for the farm sustainability payment.

I am announcing a beef sustainability package with two parts to it: a suckler cow measure and a beef carbon reduction measure. Both measures are aimed at increasing productivity, making more efficient use of finite resources and driving down carbon emissions. Again, stakeholders raised concerns about the qualifying criteria for age at first calving, calving interval and age at slaughter and about the pace of implementation that was suggested in the consultation document. Officials have undertaken extensive analysis of the data held on the animal and public health information system (APHIS), and I have relaxed the targets and the pace of implementation to ensure that a significant proportion of the farm businesses can meet the targets over four years. We can then move forward together to increase productivity and reduce the carbon footprint.

No further proposals for support to incentivise productivity in breeding ewes are being brought forward at this stage. Work will, however, be undertaken to explore options for support that will improve the overall performance and resilience of the sheep sector. That will include work to explore how the sheep sector could be incentivised to provide baseline performance data to inform future sector support measures and to engage in a future ruminant genetics programme.

The Department will now proceed to develop the Farming for Nature package through co-design with stakeholders and in line with the principles stated in the consultation document, with an initial focus on actions to reverse the declining trends by creating and restoring habitats that are important for species diversity. All land managers with 3 hectares or more of eligible land who meet the scheme requirements will be eligible to participate in the Farming for Nature package. That includes land under conacre agreements and common land. In principle, a cap on the level of payment available under the Farming for Nature package will be applied. Work will progress on the detail of a cap, including the appropriate level, as elements of scheme design, such as agreement length, are developed.

The need for low carbon emission farming practices was broadly supported during the consultation. I have asked officials to develop low carbon emission farming practices on reducing the numbers of older cattle and improving suckler cow productivity through the beef sustainability package; on providing further options to reduce the age at first calving and to ensure that replacement rates in the dairy sector are co-designed with stakeholders; on the use of feed additives to reduce enteric methane emissions and nitrogen and phosphorus outputs, which will be progressed by collaborative industry research through a research challenge fund; on breeding cattle that are more environmentally efficient, which will be progressed through the ruminant genetics programme; on the use of urease inhibitor fertilisers, the optimal timing of fertiliser and slurry applications, and the establishment of grassland swards with legumes and herbs to reduce fertiliser nitrogen use, which will be progressed through applied research and knowledge transfer initiatives; on peatland re-wetting and sustainable management under the umbrella of the Northern Ireland peatland strategy; and on biomethane and hydrogen production from agricultural waste, developed through the green growth strategy, employing technologies to capture and recycle nutrients post-digestion that would otherwise be land-spread as farm animal slurries.

My Department will now proceed with the development of the investment measure on the basis of the guidelines and design principles set out in the consultation, including further engagement with stakeholders to gather evidence on the market failures affecting investment in the agriculture and horticulture sectors. We will develop and expand a suite of knowledge transfer and innovation programmes that build on the success of the current programmes delivered through the Northern Ireland rural development programme, to include an agri-food development programme for professionals interacting with farmers and growers. To encourage longer-term planning for farm businesses, a generational renewal programme will be developed, based on a three-phased approach, to include planning for succession, developing the successor and maintaining support for both generations. The future of the current young farmers' payment will be considered in the context of that programme.

The Department will engage with professional bodies in Northern Ireland dealing with land letting to seek to address some of the misunderstandings that exist around the relative merits of conacre versus long-term lets. The development of the supply chain measures will proceed on the basis of the future approach and policy proposals set out in the consultation, including further engagement with stakeholders as we review existing measures and systems and explore opportunities to make improvements to meet the specific needs of Northern Ireland supply chains. DAERA will invest in the initiation of an industry-led ruminant genetics programme. Farmers will be required to provide data for the ruminant genetics programme as an eligibility condition for future support payments.

The current cross-compliance statutory management requirements/good agricultural and environmental conditions (SMRs/GAECs) will be replaced with a simplified system of farm sustainability standards. The current verifiable standards will be rewritten as a set of underlying requirements to better meet local needs, and a compliance regime and penalty system for non-compliance that is effective but fair will be devised for the farm sustainability standards. To support that, remote sensing and administrative controls will be used by default, and educational and communication resources will be developed to better inform farmers and improve understanding of their responsibilities and the sanctions that they may face if they do not meet those responsibilities.

All agricultural land is made eligible for payment except for hard features — for example, buildings, yards, laneways etc — under future area-based schemes. The Department will revise its land eligibility documentation effective from 1 January 2024. Further work is being undertaken to fully develop the seven high-level metrics to measure achievement against the four key outcomes. The horticulture policy proposals will be further developed through a pilot programme or programmes, working in consultation with relevant sub-sectors of the industry and focusing on the production of crops with good economic potential.

The purpose of this statement is to outline the decisions that I have taken on future agricultural policy for Northern Ireland. The policy decisions that I am announcing today are absolutely vital to support sustainable farming and rural communities in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 10:45 am, 24th March 2022

I thank the Minister for his statement this morning on the future agricultural policy proposals. The Minister referred to his decision to increase the minimum claim size from 3 hectares to 5 hectares. Does he have any assessment of how many businesses that will impact, in that they currently receive the single farm payment but will not subsequently be able to apply for the new resilience payment?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The entitlements of businesses excluded from claiming the farm sustainability payment by the changes that I have announced today will not be confiscated. Businesses will retain the option to lease or sell their entitlements to another farm business. In addition, they may be eligible to apply for funding under a number of the other funding streams that fall under the future agricultural support package. Moving it back to 5 hectares, instead of going for the 10 hectares that was consulted on, will considerably reduce the numbers that fall out. The Committee suggested either 5 hectares or 7·5 hectares. I went for the lower option, and that reflected largely what came back from the consultation process.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP

Farming with nature is a key element of the policy, and I welcome the outcomes-based model that it follows. However, Minister, how will you ensure that all land types play their part in delivering for nature?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

There are so many opportunities in Northern Ireland to ensure that we do our bit to reduce the carbon footprint. For example, we have approximately 100,000 kilometres of hedges. Flailed hedges contain between 4 and 7 tons of carbon. Unflailed hedges contain between 10 and 45 tons of carbon. Do the figures: if the hedges in Northern Ireland were not flailed but were allowed to grow out completely, 4·5 million tons of carbon would be stored in hedges alone in Northern Ireland.

Interestingly, in the 27% that has always been applied to agriculture, that has never been included. It is entirely reasonable to believe that hedges are storing at least 1 million tons of carbon that is not currently accounted for. Single trees are not accounted for either; a mature oak tree, for example, stores 4 tons of carbon. If one thinks of the many hundreds of thousands of mature trees across our farms and of the saplings that are being planted, one sees a clear demonstration that much more work needs to be done to assess the levels of carbon that are sequestered and stored on our farms.

It is important that we look at what is stored underneath the ground in the big carbon sink that we call topsoil and at how carbon is sequestered in grassland and through peatland management, tree planting, hedgerow management — allowing our hedgerows to get wider and taller — and all those things. Everybody can make a contribution, whether in the lowlands or the uplands, to ensuring that Northern Ireland does its bit in carbon reduction. We want to do it in a way that sustains agriculture in Northern Ireland, however. The nonsense of basically destroying agriculture as a means of saving the planet will not save the planet; it will starve it.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his statement. He made reference to the fact that, over the past five years, direct payments have accounted for 87% of net income to agricultural businesses. I note from the statement that the budget for the farm sustainability payment will reduce to a "much lower level". What projections has the Department made on the level to which it will be reduced? It will obviously have consequential, knock-on effects on the basic income for farming activity unless farms have supplementary incomes from elsewhere.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The overall envelope will not fall, but its disbursal will change. People will be paid not on the basis of owned land but for working that land. The payments, particularly for suckler cows and beef finishing, will be set out. The figures are to be finalised, and I hope to announce them very soon, but, at the moment, we are looking at utilising around £50 million of the money that currently goes out in single farm payments. That sum will be taken from the basic payment scheme (BPS) and redistributed to people who are actively engaged in farming.

That is a means of ensuring that people make best use of the land. Land is and will be very precious. It is incumbent on us to ensure that land is well utilised. Ensuring that efficient farming takes place will therefore assist farmers not just to draw down finance from the Department but to become less financially reliant on it, because efficient farms are more profitable farms. We will drive that forward through the ruminant genetics programme and by reducing the period between calvings, the time that it takes to get a heifer in calf and the time that it takes to get that animal away into beef. All those things will make a significant change to the beef sector so that it becomes much more efficient.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Minister, thank you for your statement. You will be aware that the AERA Committee recently launched a report on the challenges in agriculture for women.

Unfortunately, I see nothing about women in agriculture in your statement. You talked about succession, for example. Will there be extra support to allow women to succeed to the family farm? Many women have caring responsibilities. If women succeed to a family farm, many are prevented from carrying out some duties, such as the lambing of sheep, due to pregnancy. Have you thought about supporting those people?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for her question. Of course women contribute greatly to the operation of family farms in Northern Ireland. Training for women in agriculture was highlighted in the responses to the consultation on the future agricultural policy programme and in the recent report of the Committee that the Member sits on. As my officials work to develop knowledge transfer and innovation programmes, they will engage with industry and take appropriate actions to encourage the participation of women in those programmes. I spent most of yesterday at the Greenmount campus. It was fantastic to see the number of young women who are training in agriculture. The day before, I was at Loughry, and, again, a fantastic number of young women — in fact, the vast majority of students are young women — are going into the agri-food sector. When you apply for grants, you get a higher percentage if you have an education background in agriculture. Therefore, when those young women go back to the farms, those farms will have greater opportunities to progress than would otherwise be the case because of young women who have that agriculture training.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for the statement. I was a little surprised when I realised that it mentions the word "climate" only once and makes no mention at all of the Minister's Climate Change (No. 2) Bill. I thought that those matters would be integral to any agricultural policy that comes forward at this time. Will the Minister give an assurance today that the policy direction and sectoral plans, including one for agriculture, which the Minister indicated that he will bring forward, will be reframed to include climate change?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I do not have time to go back to the statement, but it mentions the words "carbon" and "carbon reduction" on numerous occasions. The whole emphasis of the programme on beef is to ensure that we become efficient producers of beef animals and proteins. Carbon is captured by photosynthesis in grass, which is then put into soil. We have to make the best possible use of that grass. Grass is a wonderful thing, but humans do not eat it. Therefore, if we are to get good use of grass, we have to utilise it by producing animal proteins, which come in the form of milk and beef. Our dairy sector has shown great efficiencies, and that same efficiency needs to be delivered on the beef side. That is why there is such a focus on the beef sector because there are massive opportunities to continue to produce the quantities of beef to support the agri-food processors in a smaller footprint of land. That will enable peatlands to be re-wetted and planting in other areas, which will come together to sustain agri-food and produce massive benefits for the environment simultaneously.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

It seems from the policy announcement that you are a Minister for only some farmers. The sheep sector in the North depends on direct support. The Department said that the sector is viable but vulnerable. However, you indicated that no support for sheep farmers will be brought forward at this stage. That will be very concerning for the multitude of sheep and hill farmers across the North, including those in my constituency of North Antrim. Do you agree that the sheep sector must be recognised for a direct support scheme, such as the previous area of natural constraint (ANC), which must be reinstated?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 11:00 am, 24th March 2022

I thank the Member for his question on the sheep sector. Most farms in the sheep sector are mixed and include suckler cows. The number of sheep-only farmers across Northern Ireland is relatively small. We recognise that they have done reasonably well over the past few years, but that is not to say that that will not change in future years. This is not a finished programme of change. It is the start of a process, not the end, of moving away from landowners, particularly big landowners, claiming on an asset but not actively farming it. Therefore, we need to work with the hill farmers, particularly in providing the support that they need to ensure the environmental improvement that the Member has demanded of farmers, so that we can do that in a way that ensures that they are not worse off.

The sheep sector has its role to play in the future, and we will want to develop how we assist the sheep sector, in the way that we assist the beef sector, to become better at what it does and to have a greater output from the grazing that takes place. There will be stresses on the land available as a result of peatland wetting and tree planting. That is just a reality that we all have to face and that all of us as politicians will have to talk to the farming community about. It is a reality of the Bill that was passed in the House that there will be a reduction in the land available. Therefore, that efficiency will need to be driven forward. We will commence work almost immediately on how we can work with the sheep sector to develop such programmes. That will be more difficult than it is with the beef sector. The sheep sector will have a transfer of funding from the single farm payment.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I am sure that the Minister will be aware, having listened to the Member who spoke before me, that the farmers of North Antrim will make an informed choice about who best supported farmers during this mandate of the Assembly. Thankfully, our hands have not been on any legislation that would have decimated and destroyed sheep farmers, beef farmers and the farming industry in its totality. I thank the Minister for his statement and for his leadership in the farming industry in Northern Ireland during the mandate and for his many visits to North Antrim.

The statement referred to the beef sector, something on which there has been lobbying for some time. How will the support that the Minister has outlined this morning drive sustainability and efficiency so that our farms will be profitable and will not be destroyed in the way that some Members would have done if they had had their way?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

It will do so, first, by having heifers calving at the optimum time, which is in and around 24 months, when they are big enough to have calves. They do not need to be grown out considerably longer to do that; they need to calve at the optimum time. Secondly, we need to ensure that they calve quickly. Instead of running on for 400-plus days, we want to get a much tighter calving pattern: close to a calf every year. Thirdly, we need to ensure that the calf is taken away to be beefed. Year by year, we are reducing the age for the payment to get people to that point.

It will not be a big bang or a sudden shock. It will be a progressive scheme that will deliver that efficiency over five years. We will then deliver a substantial number of kilos of animal protein, but we will do that in a much more efficient way that will enable other uses of land to kick into play and meet the contributions to carbon reduction that the House has requested of us.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. Minister, work has been going on for some time on the ammonia action plan. May I get an update on that?

With reference to the statement, can you outline the benefits of removing grass silage growers from the payment system?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

First, I regret that I will not get the ammonia action plan to the House before the end of the mandate. Considerable work has been done, a lot of good progress has been made and we have, for the first time, reduced ammonia emissions across Northern Ireland and by a large amount not a small amount. We also have a suite of measures in place to continue to reduce ammonia emissions.

On the issue of grass-only growers, a lot of people own plots of land and, basically, grow a bit of grass and sell it off without making much investment. We want to encourage more active farmers. We do not want to encourage people holding on to those plots of land just to draw down the single farm payment. We want to encourage people to engage in the production of crops, dairy products, beef, sheep and so forth. We are moving away from including grass growers in the payment because it is a disincentive to younger people coming into farming and makes it more difficult for them to rent land to develop and build up their farms. We needed to remove that disincentive for the younger population come in and make something of the farms that they have.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I declare an interest as owner of 25 acres of agricultural land; also, my parents run a small agricultural business.

There is a shortage of fertiliser, and the Minister has referred to the present difficulties in Ukraine that are contributing to that. That shortage exists even at the exorbitant cost of £1,000 per ton. I learned this morning that Canada is advising its farmers to plant only 60% of their crop because of the shortage of fertiliser there. What role can government play in ensuring that supermarkets bear a fair proportion of the costs? If the costs are shared, they will not fall solely on the producer while the supermarkets continue to make exorbitant profits.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Government have a grocery adjudicator. Whether anyone thinks that it does a lot of good or not is another matter, and I have my doubts about how effective it has been. The lack of fertiliser is potentially a bigger problem than the lack of grain that is coming out of Ukraine. The feedback that I get is that grain was planted in the wintertime in Ukraine and is still being planted. The question is whether it will be able to get out. The amount that comes out will certainly be considerably less than it was in the previous year because quite a number of farmers are not planting. However, there still will be grain planted in Ukraine.

The second issue is the problem with fertiliser. That will lead to reduced crops, but it will also lead to environmental benefits because fertiliser releases nitrous oxide. It will not be a bad thing environmentally, but it will be a bad thing for crop production. I have talked about Egypt: it has a population of 120 million and has put out tenders for wheat but has not got them filled. It scares me that we will be looking at a real problem in Saharan regions of Africa, in particular, due to the non-availability of the food that they rely on. There will also be problems with costs for people here who have chickens and produce pork and so forth. It is a global problem. Therefore, global prices will rise, and the supermarkets will have no choice but to move up with them. That is something that we are well aware of.

It is anticipated that cereal growers will probably achieve around 70% greater profitability this year, so we have chosen not to incentivise them because the incentive already exist with the price. If we had a lot more cereal production, the problem would be that we would not have the fertiliser to go with that.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

In paragraph 36 of your statement, you refer to a "Generational Renewal Programme". I was shocked not to see any reference to women at that point, given the fact that we know that only 5% of farm owners across the North are women, and the Committee has worked on encouraging women into agriculture. You also say that you are considering the future of the young farmer payment. What action will you take to encourage young farmers into the industry and women into agriculture?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I am mindful of the need to encourage females into farming and agriculture and to eliminate perceived barriers to their accessing the industry as a viable career path. I am very heartened by the number of young women whom I see on farms. That transformation is taking place before our very eyes. When I went to Greenmount 40 years ago, there were seven women. We now have a majority of women at Greenmount and at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) in general. That transformation is taking place before our very eyes.

It is vital that everybody, male or female, who is taking over the management and leadership of a business be appropriately qualified for the role. Future support arrangements will be open to all farm business owners if they meet the conditions, irrespective of their gender. However, we reflect on work streams in order to ensure that there is greater engagement with females in the industry, and, as they work to develop knowledge transfer and innovation programmes, my officials will engage with the industry and take appropriate actions to encourage the participation of females in those programmes. We are absolutely committed to supporting women who want to farm, who come into farming and who do an extremely good job when they come into it.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

That concludes questions on the statement.