Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) president David Brown attended the 2023 Oxford Farming Conference (OFC), the traditional start of the UK farming year.
OFC23, the 77th conference, took place from January 4-6, at the Examination Schools in Oxford University. This year its theme was ‘Farming a New Future’.
According to Brown, there was also large focus on sustainability across all aspects of agriculture at the event. On this subject, he said sustainability works at “three levels”.
“Farm business must be economically sustainable. At a national level, the issue of food security will always be important,” he told Agriland.
“And, of course, environmental sustainability will always be a critically important issue,” he said.
Future of farming in Northern Ireland
Turning to matters closer to home, the UFU representative said that 2023 will be a very important year for farming in Northern Ireland.
He specifically highlighted the development of a climate action plan and work to agree new farm support measures for farming as being of particular importance.
“Just this week we have seen the launch of a public consultation linked to the draft Ammonia plan, devised by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs,” he said.
“These are all matters that must be actively addressed by the various farming and food stakeholders bodies.
“Thankfully, steps were taken by former farm minister Edwin Poots, which will allow many of these important matters to be taken forward by the department of agriculture officials and representative of the various farm stakeholder organisations over the coming months.
“But final political sign-off will be required on whatever measures are finally agreed at industry level.
“So, yes, the current political vacuum at Stormont is extremely worrying.”
The UFU president fully recognises that continuing disagreements over the Northern Ireland Protocol are holding up the establishment of a new Stormont Executive.
“The mood music around the protocol negotiations is, certainly, more positive now than would have been the case earlier in 2022,” he said.
“The gesture made by the EU to further extend the veterinary medicines derogation for an additional three years has to be recognised.”
Brown feels that the scope to secure a safe landing zone for the protocol can be found.
“This has to be so: Otherwise why continue on with the negotiations in the first place?” he asked.
“The fundamental bottom line here is that politics must be made the art of the possible, where the protocol is concerned.”
Looking ahead, the union president firmly believes that 2023 will be a year of major changes for farming and food in Northern Ireland, many of which could impact on the rural way of life for generations to come.
“Every single one of us is proud to produce some of the best food in the world, and with the right policy framework, we know we can deliver so much more,” he explained.
“We can drive the rural economy, enhance our natural environment, contribute to national environmental targets and care for our cherished countryside so it can be enjoyed by everyone, while producing more home-grown, local food for shop shelves.”
According to Brown, the next 12 months could lay the foundations for a thriving food and farming sector, provided the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs creates a farming policy that has a resilient food supply chain at its heart.
“We have the potential to not only be the number one supplier of choice for UK households, but a firm favourite for markets around the world too,” he said.
“We cannot ignore the challenges of 2022: If we do, we will miss the opportunities of the year ahead.
“The government in London needs to continue to take action to prevent a situation where British food is replaced by food imports: products that could fall way below our own highly valued standards of animal health, welfare and environmental protection.”
The biggest threat to farmers’ ambitions, according to the UFU president, is the industry’s ongoing struggle with the threat that bovine tuberculosis (bTB) represents for the north’s beef and dairy sectors
“I have lost count of the number of farming families I have met who have seen the future of their businesses thrown into turmoil, and in some cases, decimated by this awful disease ravaging through their herds,” Brown said.
“Words cannot do justice to the impact that the emotional strain caused by bTB has had on these individuals, to see their ambitions thwarted and much-loved animals culled because of the disease.
“It is utterly heartbreaking.
“The UFU will continue to put pressure on government to act upon the science and to fully implement its bTB strategy.”