22 September 2016

Committee Chairperson, Linda Dillon, talks Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

Linda Dillon - Chairperson of the Committee for
Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs  
As we enter a new Assembly mandate, the Agriculture, Environment and Rural AffairsCommittee (AERA) is set to face many exciting opportunities as well as its fair share of challenges.

Recent changes to the structure and responsibilities of a number of Executive Departments, including DAERA, has meant that we will effectively start afresh as an entirely new Committee with an extremely important and extensive remit. It is therefore essential that we take this time to re-evaluate how the Committee will work to best support our rural communities.

Agriculture remains one of our most important local industries and one that we are immensely proud of.  And with good reason; we produce some of the finest food in the world.  However, the recent volatility in the agricultural marketplace resulting in lower prices for our meat, dairy and arable produce has had severe consequences for many in our farming communities. The fact that farm incomes here, which are already lower than those in England, Scotland and Wales, decreased by 40% between 2014 and 2015, demonstrates the very real difficulties our farmers continue to face.

While global factors and fluctuations in the exchange rate will continue to be difficult to mitigate and will indeed often be beyond our control, my Committee will continue to advocate on behalf of farmers to ensure that they receive fair prices from processors and retailers.

It is also crucial that the Executive, which has recognised the agricultural sector as a key growth area and future driver for the local economy, continues to develop and sustain a proactive approach towards supporting and progressing the industry and the lives of rural dwellers. This will be of particular relevance following the outcome of the recent EU referendum, which continues to create a great deal of confusion and unease among those in the farming sector.

As the first Chairperson of the new Committee, balancing the needs of the agricultural sector and our farming communities, while at the same time strengthening our commitment to protecting and enhancing the rural environment, will be one of my top priorities.

Many would argue that the two do not always go hand and hand, but of course that would be too simplistic a viewpoint to take.  Advances in agricultural diversity initiatives and agri-environment schemes has provided new and exciting funding and business opportunities for farmers and rural dwellers; as well as helping to promote and protect our natural environment. There may still be some way to go in terms of developing a cohesive approach to integrating agricultural and environmental strategy and policy, but I am determined at the outset that the Committee focus will be on ensuring the best possible outcomes for both sectors.

Brexit will obviously be an extremely important issue for the Committee in the coming months and while we may have very differing views, there is a very real determination that we want to work together to ensure the best possible deal for farmers and rural dwellers.This will not be easy and I make no bones about that statement; the future of our relationship with Europe, as things stand, remains uncertain.

The Committee met with key stakeholders in the wake of the vote and were left in no doubt that there are very real concerns, not only about the future of farm subsidies and environmental protections, but also in terms of the impact possible trade barriers and export tariffs could have on the industry.

There is also unease among rural organisations on how Brexit could affect future funding to tackle rural isolation and deprivation.  The needs and interests of rural dwellers must be at the forefront of all future negotiations.  

As Chairperson, I welcome the fact that the Minister is establishing a senior team to consider the possible implications of Brexit. This is a necessary and proactive step and the Committee will carefully consider and discuss the team’s findings and recommendations.

There can be no doubt that Brexit will, for the foreseeable future, remain prominent on the Committee’s agenda, but we will also be meeting in the coming weeks to develop a range of key priorities for the coming mandate.

Central to the Committee’s objectives will be a commitment to meeting with and listening to as many of our stakeholders as possible. Whether this is through meetings, events or visits, I am determined that we will take every opportunity to connect effectively at a grass roots level and to deliver for the communities and indeed all of the people we represent.

You can follow the Committee on Twitter @NIAAgriEnvRA

This piece first appeared in Farm Week on 1 September 2016.