Thursday of this week (May 5) sees voters in Northern Ireland going to the polls in the 2022 Stormont Assembly elections.

Farming and food represent the largest private sectors within the north’s economy. The turnover of the two industries combined, exceeds £6 billion annually.

So what are the main policy priorities of the main political parties, where these crucially important sectors are concerned?

Ulster Unionist Party bid for Stormont

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) agriculture spokesperson Rosemary Barton said:

"Farming, and the wider agri-food sector, is hugely important to the Northern Ireland economy. It provides incomes for over 70,000 people and families, and we produce some of the highest quality food and drinks in the world. When farming suffers, the Northern Ireland economy suffers.

"The war in Ukraine has visibly demonstrated how exposed the sector is to fluctuating input costs and how difficult it is to remain productive if farmgate prices don't change to reflect the true cost of production.

“That's why the UUP hope an [Northern Ireland] Executive will be restored immediately after the election so that key decisions on a financial package and longer-term agri-food supports can be urgently agreed.
"I am confident that despite the undoubted challenges that lie ahead our farmers and the agri-food sector will rise to challenge. With innovation and modern technology our family farms are becoming ever more productive and efficient.

“Yet they're doing so at the same time as delivering tangible environmental improvements. As the custodians for so much of our countryside, I am certain farmers continue to have its best interests at heart.

"The next [Stormont] Assembly term will be crucial to the long-term future of farming. Key decisions will be made on the finer details of future payments and as international trade negotiations continue, it's never been more important to the local industry that all those in a position of influence stand strong against any compromise on the quality, traceability or high animal welfare standards of its agri-food produce."

Alliance Party

In its Stormont Assembly elections manifesto the Alliance Party states:

"Alliance supports sustainable farming producing high-quality food. Agriculture is a major driver in the rural economy and farmers need support to meet the challenges of change.

"Famers also play an essential role as guardians of the countryside, driving nature’s recovery and protecting our wildlife and diversity.

"With around 25,000 farms in Northern Ireland, most of which are small and family-run, we want to work alongside farmers to build a sustainable farming system producing high quality food and tackles both the climate and wildlife crises."

In terms of farming, the Alliance party states: "By introducing carbon audits of farms, Alliance will support our farmers to embrace environmentally beneficial farming practices, reduce their carbon footprint, and better use and protect natural resources and biodiversity."

If elected to the Stormont Assembly, the Alliance party has said it will introduce an Agriculture Act for Northern Ireland to include bespoke policies relevant to the sector.

Among other policy points, Alliance party said it said it will enable the sector to tackle ammonia emissions by bringing forward a scheme to ensure anaerobic digesters are utilised and do not encourage food waste.

The scheme will promote the purchase of anaerobic digesters and provide funding for Vapogant digestate evaporators to help reduce ammonia emissions.

Democratic Unionist Party

Newry & Armagh candidate for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) William Irwin commented:

“DUP ministers have delivered many key objectives for the agri-food sector.

“We have increased on-farm capital investment by doubling the value of Tier 1 of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme and provided a 4.3% uplift in the Basic Payment Scheme in 2020 and 6.29% increase in 2021 to help farmers cope with unprecedented challenges.

“We want to ensure our farmers are profitable, productive and sustainable in the future. We will continue to drive forward policy that encourages food production, delivers for the environment and provides new and exciting export opportunities for local farms."

According to Irwin, the farming sector requires continued support.

“Our manifesto pledges to deliver financial support to farm businesses to address rising input costs and market volatility as a result of the situation in Ukraine. There is also a fresh focus on food security, which we want to see prioritised alongside self-sufficiency within any policy brought forward by the new Executive. 

“We want to see a replacement for EFS which is outcomes-based and has meaning payment rates for environmental delivery.

“Providing meaningful solutions to our excess nutrient issues whilst improving farmers bottom lines must also be a focus. Farmers can and should play an important role in producing sustainable energy, increasing carbon storage while producing food.”

Sinn Féin policy for Stormont election

Sinn Féin’s agriculture spokesman, Declan McAleer has said that the restoration of the Area of National Constraint (ANC) payment will be a key priority for his party in the new Stormont Assembly.

"I have spoken to thousands of farmers at public meetings and in their farm yards during the past number of months and they have told me that they particularly miss the ANC payment this year with the spiralling costs of fertiliser, fuel and other farm inputs. 

"For many farmers this was their 'fertiliser money' and also helped with the extra fodder and feed costs of the winter season, which is longer and colder in the hills.  

"The decision by a DUP minister to axe the ANC payment has had a serious impact on farms in these areas and the failure of Minister [for agriculture, Edwin] Poots to reverse this decision following the passing of a Sinn Féin motion in the Assembly is particularly regrettable.

"As a consequence, I began the legislative process to restore the ANC payment via a 'Private Members Bill' and whilst I was delighted to receive over 1,000 positive responses to the public consultation and strong support from farm organisations, time ran out and I didn't get it through the legislative process before the Assembly term ended," McAleer added.

"However, the legislation is drafted and will be introduced by Sinn Féin in the new Assembly and I am hopeful that this will be passed by the end of the year and the ANC payment will then become law".