‘Agri-food industry critical to economic recovery’ – Ritchie
SDLP South Down MP Margaret Ritchie this week delivered a keynote speech at the SDLP’s annual Agri-food Conference in Newry.
“The agri-food industry is the lifeblood of the Irish economy, North and South,” she stated. “This growing sector engages not just the agricultural community but the entire rural economy. It is clear that despite the current challenges the agri -food sector will be at the heart of the economic recovery in Ireland.
“This conference comes following an extremely difficult year for farmers. One of the wettest summers on record, followed by one of the coldest springs for fifty years and the outbreak of the food contamination scandal have put the whole agriculture industry under severe pressure.
“It is our duty to help food producers out of their immediate predicament and provide a long-time strategy that will create a sustainable and economically successful market for them in the decades to come.”
Ritchie went on to discuss her role at Westminster, and the importance of having a having a strong voice in the House of Commons standing up for the local interests of our agriculture industry.
“Sitting on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee at Westminster, I see my role as putting the case for farmers and fishermen and the Agri-food sector in its totality in the north of Ireland, and bringing attention to the specific circumstances as they relate to our regional economy.
“The EFRA Committee at Westminster has a crucial role ensuring that the positions the UK government takes up in Europe takes full account of the interests of the devolved areas.
“This is vital given the fact that the EU is the biggest single player in agriculture policy – not only the CAP and the support it provides to our primary producers, but as the prime mover in all sorts of environmental and market regulation which impacts on our competitiveness and growth prospects.
“Also, given that the Northern Ireland Minister does not have a seat at the table in EU deliberations – the DEFRA Committee is a key vehicle for ensuring that our viewpoint is understood – where it matters.
“Since I joined the Committee at the start of this Parliamentary mandate, we have had to deal with the desinewed meat ban, the impact of Bovine TB and most recently the contaminated food scandal, the ‘horsemeat’ scandal.
“These matters, compounded by the exceptional weather conditions, have impacted every supplier, producer and consumer that comprises the overall food chain.
“Indeed the horsemeat scandal is the perfect illustration of why these issues need a co-ordinated, but locally sensitive, approach between Ireland, the UK and across the European Union. This is not a problem that can be solved by one jurisdiction – a point I made emphatically to the committee.”
Ritchie also emphasised the importance of the Irish government’s role in the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. “The issues discussed thus far have all had an immediate impact on our local industry and on all those who make a living from the food chain.
“However through the committee there are also longer term political issues that will shape the future of agriculture for years to come. The most prominent of these will be reform of the CAP and the CFP – both of which will dominate the political landscape and, I don’t think it is a stretch to say, determine the future of the agriculture industry for generations.
“We’ve lived through the disastrous outcome of terrible policy decisions in the past and must avoid doing so again. Again what must be recognised is that the interests of farm and fish producers are often closely aligned in the north and south of Ireland, and often very different from those in England,” she insisted.
“In this light it is extremely re-assuring to have the Irish government and Minister Coveney at the heart of these crucial negotiations with Ireland holding the EU Presidency. My Party has stayed close to the Irish Government in all of this work – and Dublin remains ever receptive – as it does in many policy areas to SDLP advice.
“Farmers across Ireland share this concern and Minister Coveney and the Irish government have displayed leadership in developing an approximation model. Providing a more gradual transition towards, but not completely to, a flat rate system over a number of years would certainly be the more desirable course of action.
“Again here the concerns of farmers and producers in the north are much closer to the Irish government position than the UK’s position, where a flat rate has already been introduced.
Ritchie added, “If we create a long term strategy, as we move out of the immediate crises, and we rise to confront the long term challenges there is a world of opportunity to develop a truly first class agri-food industry across this island that is integrated into our wider rural economy and our national economy.
“It will harness the innovation of our scientists, the capacity of our farmers and the drive our business community to deliver a sustainable agri-food industry for all of our people.”
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