17 May 2002

Vision of the future

Next month Northern Ireland agriculture minister, Brid

Rodgers, will publish her Vision action plan, the next

stage in a process she launched with the Vision steering

group in 1999. Europe editor, Philip Clarke, kicks off our

Northern Ireland special by asking the minister about

the initiative, and other issues

Q The Vision project has become something of a personal mission for you. What is the thinking behind it?

A When I took office in 1999 it was clear that agriculture was in a semi-permanent state of crisis. It was still reeling from BSE and currency problems. There were also new issues on the horizon – Agenda 2000, the mid-term review, EU enlargement, the next round of world trade talks. It was clear there were many pressures ahead which would force changes in the way we support our farming industry. It would be foolish to wait and then react. So we set up the Vision group to predict the change to help us manage it.

Q The Vision report was put out to four-months consultation in October 2001, identifying 10 key themes, each containing a number of specific suggestions. How did it go down with the industry?

A I was extremely pleased with the response, which included 81 written submissions and 27 meetings with individual groups. In general terms, the comments were very positive, with much support for things like a single Northern Ireland food brand, tighter port controls and better food safety. There were some specific concerns, for example not everyone supported the idea of a uniform quality assurance scheme, while some groups opposed the idea of an early retirement scheme. Neither was their unanimity on our suggestion to establish a Northern Ireland Food Body. Thats why, when I then set up the Food Body working group in February I widened the remit to include the question of whether there is a need for such a body.

Q Have you been able to act on any of the Vision proposals yet?

A We have put in place a number of early initiatives – namely those that are covered by the existing agricultural budget. These include setting up around 100 focus farms to serve as competence centres for other farmers to come and learn about best farm practice. We have also set up ICT training schemes so that, as we move into e-government, farmers can come with us. There has been reskilling to help with under-employment in agriculture and we have recently commissioned a strategic review of the horticultural sector. We have also stepped up our disease controls, including a 30-day individual animal standstill policy and are working towards an all-Ireland animal and plant health policy.

Q What more can we expect from next months action plan?

A Its too soon to give away any of the details. But its fair to say it will focus on agri-environment, animal health and food chain issues. One of the things to come out of the consultation was the lack of trust that exists between different parts of the food chain. There is an urgent need for better integration to prepare the whole food industry for the challenges that lie ahead. There is also the issue of developing people to survive in a more competitive world. The action plan will also spell out priorities for animal health and rural development.

Q Will there be sufficient funding for these new initiatives?

A We have already bid for an additional £8.7m from the Northern Ireland budget for next year specifically for the Vision projects, rising to £13.6m by 2005/2006. More generally, many of the initiatives will fall within the various rural development packages available in Northern Ireland. Of course, there is never enough money for all we want to do and the UK in general is penalised by the fact the EU cake is allocated on the basis of historic use of rural development funds rather than actual need. The UK is lobbying hard to change the basis of this calculation within the mid-term review (of Agenda 2000) and of course I support that. I am less keen on modulating direct aids to top up rural development funds. If that were agreed in Brussels, then I would insist the money was ring-fenced within Northern Ireland and all of it returned to farmers. It should also apply EU-wide and there should be 100% match-funding by the Treasury.

Q What about cutting aids altogether, as favoured by DEFRA minister, Margaret Beckett?

A I am totally opposed to degressivity. Whatever comes out of the mid-term review, and however resources are redistributed within the food and farming sector, there must be no cut in overall support. Farming in Northern Ireland could not survive degressivity.

Q Rural development in Northern Ireland has been criticised because gaining access to funds is too complex. Would you support the one-stop-shop proposals of the Ulster Farmers Union?

A I know the UFU is very keen on this and has been to Wales to see how their Farming Connect system works. My officials have also been to Wales and France to look at their systems. I am willing to consider anything that would make our own systems here more farmer-friendly.

Q You said the Vision report was partly inspired by the need to get ready for enlargement. Does this hold a particular threat for Northern Ireland?

A The biggest danger we face is that we could end up marginalised within the EU. We are determined that the outer regions of the EU, especially in the west, should have more direct input into the decision-making process in Brussels. Our priorities are very different to those that exist in England, where agriculture is much less important to the overall economy. If the English view is taken as the UK view by the commission, then we will have an even bigger problem.

Q Finally, what is the state of play with BSE? Some time ago you were pressing for separate regional status for Northern Ireland.

A That has been put on the back burner, as we have seen many more cases coming forward since we started routine testing of fallen stock and older animals. As such, we are still unable to export beef as we do not yet meet the "less than 100 cases/million" required by the International Office of Epizootics (OIE). The main thrust of our effort, together with the rest of the UK, is to get that threshold increased to 200 cases/million. But that cannot be expected at least until the end of the year. &#42

Our best hope, therefore, is to get a change to the date-based export scheme (DBES) to allow daily dedication of plants to export rather than permanent dedication. This could happen quite soon.

The Vision project has become a top priority for agriculture minister Brid Rodgers.

&#8226 Land area: 1.35m ha (3.33m acres). About 80% of land is used for agriculture, including common rough grazing and forestry.

&#8226 Labour: The total agricultural labour force fell 3% in 2000/01 to 56,400, though the number of farmers was unchanged at 36,000. Almost all farms are owner-occupied.

&#8226 Farm incomes: Average net farm income increased by £1200 in 2001/02 to £7000. Dairy, cattle and sheep farmers led the way.

&#8226 Subsidies: Total direct payments increased £21m to £225m due to the cattle slaughter premium and agri-money compensation.

&#8226 Arable: Just 54,000ha (133,400 acres) is used for arable cropping, including 39,500ha (97,600 acres) of cereals and 6700ha (16,550 acres) of potatoes.

&#8226 Cattle: Despite foot-and-mouth, cattle numbers were stable between June 2000 and June 2001 at 1.68m. There were 4% more dairy cows and 2% fewer beef animals.

&#8226 Sheep: There was a sharp drop in sheep numbers in 2001, down 8% to 2.53m. The breeding flock suffered a similar decline to 1.23m.

&#8226 Pigs: Pig numbers dropped to their lowest level for 50 years in 2001 at 386,000 animals. There are currently less than 700 pig farms in NI.