Poots offers first hints of NI’s new Agricultural Policy

Minister Poots has offered the first hints of what Northern Ireland’s new Agricultural Policy will look like.

It comes as the minister also unveils his Innovation Strategy for the region’s farming industry.

The plan states that big data, artificial intelligence and the transformative bio-economy all set to be prioritised for government support and sets the target that 50% more businesses will harness the prioritised technology by 2025.

However, it now appears the new Agricultural Policy might not be too far off either.

Speaking during his most recent Minister’s Questions slot, Poots said work was now at an “advanced stage”, adding that he hoped to publish the first draft policy framework over the next few months.

“The framework has been defined around the four key outcomes of increased productivity, improved resilience, environmental sustainability, and improved supply chain functionality,” Minister Poots said.

“As that work continues in the years ahead, we will continue to engage with our farmers, land managers and environmental stakeholders to co-design new agricultural policies.”

Making sure land is well utilised

Responding to a question from Sinn Féin MLA Jemma Dolan on the future of entitlements, Poots said he had not yet arrived at any fixed position.

“I want to engage with the industry and, indeed, the Assembly and the [Agriculture] Committee.

“We should have a fit-for-purpose agricultural payment policy. We will also need to reflect that in our climate change policy and ensure that farmers who may lose some of their grazing lands because we need to wet peatlands, etc. are adequately compensated.

“We need to look at the support that is provided for hill farmers, in particular, to keep suckler cows and sheep and to ensure that those hills are well utilised.

“We also need to consider whether we want to support suckler cows on lowlands or whether, because of sexed semen, for example, the beef would come from the dairy herd and there would be no requirement to incentivise farmers to keep suckler cows on the lowlands.

“Those are all issues for discussion and debate. I do not have fixed positions on them. It would be wrong to have those before identifying the views of the public and, indeed, the Assembly,” he concluded.

Agricultural Policy to support climate action

Responding to another question, Poots said he recognised tackling climate change would require significant investment and committed to seeking further funding for future schemes.

“We will seek the Department of Finance’s support in making that significant investment and supporting the farming community, in particular, to engage, where they can, in activities that will significantly reduce the carbon footprint and increase carbon capture. It is critical that we work across the Executive on that course of work,” he said.

However, when asked whether he would draft an Agriculture Bill tailored to Northern Ireland, Poots said it was unlikely a bill would be able to pass before the next election.

“That would be a decision for the next Minister, after the election, whoever that happens to be. Timewise, I do not think that we would be able to introduce an agricultural Bill during the lifetime of this Assembly, which runs to May 2022,” he said.