Minister Poots was joined on the panel by George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, England and Lesley Griffiths, Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, Wales.
Welcoming the opportunity to take part in this years’ Conference, Minister Poots said: “Agriculture is the heartbeat of our rural community and I want to ensure that we continue to develop and maintain a viable, profitable and environmentally sustainable agri-food industry in Northern Ireland. We need to embrace a clean, green approach to our agri-food industry, which is both sustainable and profitable and addresses the environmental challenges that lie ahead.
“Green Growth means using the move from a high to a low greenhouse gas emissions society to improve people’s quality of life through green jobs and a clean, resilient environment. A consultation on the Executive’s multi-decade draft Green Growth Strategy for Northern Ireland has recently closed and that strategy seeks to adopt a holistic approach to tackling the climate crisis in the right way by balancing climate action with the environment and the economy in a way that benefits everyone.”
The 76th Oxford Farming Conference, held virtually this year, is the leading international conference held in the UK for farming and agribusiness. Its aim is to explore the different approaches being taken across the UK; the emphasis on promoting public goods as opposed to production, the need to address the biodiversity and climate challenges and the importance of supporting rural communities. The theme of this years’ conference is ‘Routes to Resilience’.
Continuing the Minister said, “Having left the EU, I now have a unique opportunity to redefine agricultural policy in Northern Ireland for the first time in almost 50 years and my aim is to embed a policy that is better suited to local needs and one that will provide for, and secure, long term sustainability within the whole industry. In August, I published the Future Agricultural Policy Framework Portfolio for Northern Ireland, setting out my vision for the future direction of farming support. In that, I stated that ‘business as usual for many farms will not be an option’ - higher productivity growth in our agri-industry, through science, innovation and knowledge transfer must be achieved in a way that is compatible with improving environmental sustainability.
“Many farmers are already investing in green technology and embracing environmentally-friending farming practices, but more needs to be done. We need to ensure that excess nutrients do not seep into our waterways, that ammonia emissions are reduced to restore the health of vulnerable habitats, we must end our reliance on fossil fuels and find less harmful ways of heating our homes and businesses and fuelling our vehicles, ensure that agriculture plays its fair share in our journey to net zero carbon and that biodiversity loss is halted and reversed.”
Other subjects discussed during the debate included the development of new technologies such as gene editing, as well as issues surrounding the the supply chain and the future for the UK single market.
On the subject of potential future trade agreements, the Minister warned against the high level of risk these could pose to Northern Ireland and UK farmers, saying “The biggest impact on Northern Ireland producers from free trade agreements is the loss of GB market share given that Northern Ireland is a net exporter of agri-food goods and GB is our biggest market, accounting for around 70% by value of beef and sheep meat processed in NI.
“While there will be aspects of the new agreements that will benefit Northern Ireland exporters, I am concerned new deals will not provide adequate protection for UK agricultural producers. The UK and Australia Free Trade Agreement is of concern, in particular the size of the tariff rate quotas that have been agreed for beef and sheep products as these quotas are, in my view, too large to offer protection to domestic producers and after 15 years, there will be no quotas at all. I have similar concerns with dairy where tariff protection will be removed after five years.”
Concluding, Minister Poots said, “My ambition is for Northern Ireland to be a world-class food region, recognised for its sustainability, quality, safety, authenticity and knowledge based approach. Looking towards COVID-19 recovery and the future, we also have an opportunity to transform our food system for future generations and assist the achievement of health, social, environmental and economic goals. There are significant challenges, but I believe there is also huge potential as we continue to innovate and think differently. With appropriately designed policy interventions and innovation, all of this can be achieved without compromising the economic viability of the farming/agri-food sector.”