Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots MLA has addressed the first ever, drive-in Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) AGM and paid tribute to the agriculture sector for their resilience during COVID-19 and assured them of his continued support in the future.
The Minister spoke at the UFU AGM, held at the Eikon Exhibition Centre in Lisburn on Saturday after they took the highly innovative approach to stage it as a drive-in, ensuring all social distancing guidance could be adhered to.
In his address Minister Poots said: “It is a great opportunity and privilege to address the AGM but also to put my stamp on the future direction of agriculture here in Northern Ireland. All my life I have been involved in agriculture and I want to ensure that during my time in this office, I can take positive steps to ensure we have a sustainable and profitable industry in the future.
“Sometimes as an industry, I feel that farmers don’t get a fair wind in what we contribute to Northern Ireland and indeed the UK. We feed 10% of the UK population which is equates to the size of the city of London; in NI, the agri food sector accounts for 32% of our manufacturing base; we export to approximately 139 countries across the world; we employ circa 100,000 people in Northern Ireland and we produce a high quality product which is recognised across the world. As your Minister I want to take every opportunity to highlight and reinforce the importance of the sector.”
Speaking about the recent challenges facing the industry as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Minister said: “I have seen the best of people as they worked tirelessly to keep produce moving off farms, keep production moving and most importantly to keep food on the shelves. I have never taken for granted how difficult this has been for famers, growers, producers, labourers, distributors and processors alike.
“I want to thank you all for the significant part you play and urge you to keep going. There is no room for complacency, the challenges created by COVID-19 will be with us for some time. In recognising this, I have secured £25 million additional funding to help make up for some of the income lost. I have consulted widely on where the need is most and I hope to start getting that money into bank accounts in the near future. This funding is the most comprehensive allocation made by any UK or EU administration for the agriculture and horticulture sectors to help to address the impact of COVID-19.”
The Agriculture Minister also spoke of the UK’s exit from the European Union in his address to the UFU AGM: “The one thing that COVID-19 did not stop was the work on our exit from the EU. It is a key priority for me to ensure that not only does Northern Ireland have unfettered access to its largest market, Great Britain, but that we ensure that that market is protected from lower standard imports from across the globe.”
Minister Poots also addressed his views on climate change: “One of the questions I have been asked is how can you be a Minister who advocates for agriculture and the environment at the same time?
“Simple - I see agriculture as part of the solution to climate change and I am working hard with my officials to look at what we can deliver at an Executive-wide level across all industry and public forums.
“The agriculture sector is on the front line of any climate change impacts like flooding, drought and other extreme weather events.When our sector is threatened, our environment, our health and welfare, our economic prosperity and food security is also threatened.
“To ensure a balanced approach to agriculture and a sustainable environment, I recently outlined my plans for Green Growth. I also want policy to have a clear focus on resource efficiency. The strategy, will effectively be Northern Ireland’s environment strategy, stating clearly how we plan to achieve our environmental and climate change goals in a way that delivers wider economic and social benefits too.
Minister Poots concluded: “I would like to thank your outgoing President, Ivor Ferguson, for the immense contribution he has made to the UFU and the wider agri-food industry during his time in post. Incoming President Victor Chestnutt has a demanding time ahead in his new position. However, having known him for many years, I am certain that he is up for the challenge and that he will be a sound advocate on your behalf.
“I want to finish by once again thanking you for all you to for you do to support my Department’s vision of sustainability at the heart of a living, working, active landscape valued by everyone. I look forward to continuing to work with you in continuing to promote and support a vibrant future for Northern Ireland’s rural economy and farming businesses.”