Northern Ireland

Farmers cannot go over cliff-edge after Brexit, UFU says

Tractors in a field Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Northern Ireland farmers receive about £300m a year in subsidy payments

Farmers in Northern Ireland cannot be "taken over a cliff-edge" without financial support after Brexit, their leaders have told Irish politicians.

The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) said a transition arrangement would be needed when a new agriculture policy is made.

UFU president Barclay Bell and chief executive Wesley Aston were addressing a committee of Irish senators who are looking at the implications of Brexit.

Mr Bell said any new support system should be based on productivity.

Environmental sustainability should also be considered, Mr Bell told the senators in Dublin on Thursday, adding: "The man producing the goods has to be rewarded for that."

He added that he would like to see a UK agriculture bill that would give farmers certainty about the amount of money available for future support.

'Dangling dangerously'

About £300m a year comes to Northern Ireland farmers in subsidy payments.

Current support arrangements have been guaranteed by the UK government until 2020.

Image copyright Oireachtas
Image caption Food imported to the UK after Brexit must meet existing high standards, said Barclay Bell

Sinn Féin senator Niall Ó Donnghaile said he was struggling to see any positives in Brexit and farmers were "dangling dangerously close" to a cliff edge.

Mr Bell said they had been given indications in recent discussions with Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire that the UK would be leaving the customs union.

He said the main issues for farmers in Northern Ireland, in addition to support were future trade arrangements, how farm regulation would work and the agri-food industry's ability to employ migrant labour.

'Red line'

Mr Bell said 65% of workers in Northern Ireland's meat plants were non-UK nationals and the factories would not be able to employ sufficient local staff if they were not available.

The labour issue was "low-hanging fruit", he said, which could be sorted out quickly with a clear statement of intent from the government.

He said a "red line" for farmers was that any food being imported into the UK market after Brexit was produced to the same high animal welfare and production standards.

He used the example of the United States where hormone-treated beef and chicken washed in chlorine are produced and consumed.

Mr Bell said it would be wrong to "export an industry" to countries where the same environmental and welfare standards did not apply.

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