Northern Ireland’s latest budgetary outlook is “bleak reading for a key sector of the local economy”, the Ulster Farmers’ Union has said.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) faces cuts of up to £20 million (€22.6 million) in its annual budget by 2020 according to the report published this week.

Budget cuts

It would represent the loss of more than a tenth of the department’s annual budget.

The £20 million cut was the most extreme of three options; however, even the best case scenario is likely to leave the industry reeling. Under the least extreme option the department’s budget will be cut by £10 million (€11.3 million) a year.

Also Read: Jobs likely to go as ‘ag’ budget faces up to £20m plunge by 2020

In the report, officials had warned programmes would have to be put on hold and staff numbers reduced.

UFU president Barclay Bell said: “We recognise the importance of properly funding health and education but agri-food is one of the biggest contributors to the economy.

“It is worth £4.5 billion (€5 billion) and employs over 100,000 people across Northern Ireland. We need an adequately-resourced government department to support the industry, especially with Brexit on the horizon.”

‘A critical time’

The budget will see a possible 11% reduction in the DAERA budget in 2019-2020.

“This will be a critical time in terms of Brexit and there are significant implications for the department’s strategic policies. It is likely to restrict options for tackling bovine TB.

“Cuts could block sustainable land use measures to improve soil management and deliver environmental benefits.

Environmental and rural development programmes could both be scaled back. It’s a grim outlook for farm families and rural communities.

Bell said CAP payments could also suffer, as pressure on staff reduces DAERA’s ability to process and release payments.

He added that efficiency in making payments has been crucial for farm businesses in recent years.

“This has ensured the viability of many farms and helped with cash flow. We will continue to monitor these proposals and will meet DAERA in the new year to discuss the implications,” he said.