Sinn Féin MLA and Chair of the Assembly’s Agriculture Committee Declan McAleer has said farming and food production must play a central role in economic recovery and the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of a safe and secure, local food supply chain.
Speaking during the debate on a Sinn Féin motion in the Assembly on planning for a just economic recovery after the COVID-19 crisis, the West Tyrone MLA said:
“I want to pay tribute to all our farmers as front-line workers for producing our food throughout the pandemic. We have around 25,000 farms in the North, and they support the employment of 48,000 people across the food and drink industry. This is a huge contributor to our economy, with a £4·5 billion turnover last year.
“As well as having a huge impact on the economy, farming is a way of life, and those of us who represent rural constituencies know that it is a way of life for many people and supports many others.
“Agriculture is under pressure. There are poor profit margins, the cost of production exceeds farm-gate prices and there are rising input costs every year. When we were gathering evidence on the Agriculture Bill recently, researchers from Queen’s University told us that, without the direct payments, 30% of farms would immediately collapse.
“No doubt, since the COVID pandemic started, that figure will probably increase. The single farm payment which accounts for over 80% of income for farmers, even before the COVID pandemic, was decreasing year-on-year. Last year, we saw a 26% decrease in their incomes.
“That is very stark in some sectors. If we take farmers in the Areas of Natural Constraint, which are mostly beef and sheep farmers, we see that their predicted income for this year is £10,000 or less if they are lucky. According to NISRA, the weekly wage here is £535. The beef and sheep farmers in the North get less than the average weekly wage.
“Any future economic recovery has to look at agriculture and food production across the island. Unfettered access north, south, east and west is very important to us.
“Brexit has created further problems because the British market is so crucial to here. We export 87% of our agri-food and most of this is to Britain. But the failure of the British Government to incorporate minimum food standards in their Agriculture Bill has opened the door to Britain importing cheap, low-standard food, which will more than likely destroy the British market for farmers exporting from here. We need to look throughout the rest of Ireland and beyond to the EU and other places to find new markets.
“The future of agriculture and future recovery require us to look at our indigenous food security, and we can see the importance of that with COVID and the volatility of the world stage. Things can change on a global basis, which underlines the importance of having our own secure food supply.”