Fears of post-Brexit fall in farm incomes as Michael Gove calls halt to 'hand-outs'
THERE are fears that the north's farmers will face a post-Brexit drop in income after the British environment secretary warned that subsidies will have to be earned rather than just handed out.
Concerns have also been voiced about potential hikes in food prices when the UK severs ties with Brussels.
Tory environment minister Michael Gove said farmers will only get government money if they agree to protect the environment and enhance rural life.
Last year Northern Ireland farmers were paid £283 million under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (Cap), which according to official figures represents more than 80 per cent of the region's farm incomes.
Historically, the north's 25,000 farmers have received a disproportionately large amount of cash compared to their counterparts in Britain.
But that Cap stream will dry up after 2022 if Brexit goes ahead as planned.
In the run-up to last year's EU referendum the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) warned that the cost of food would rocket by at least 30 per cent without subsidy support.
In a speech yesterday outlining his future plans for farming, Mr Gove criticised the current system for giving money to some of the wealthiest landowners, for encouraging waste, and for failing to recognise "good environmental practice".
He described Brexit as "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform how we care for our land, our rivers and our seas, how we recast our ambition for our country's environment, and the planet".
"There are very good reasons why we should provide support for agriculture – 70 per cent of our land is farmed – beautiful landscape has not happened by accident but has been actively managed," he said.
"Agriculture is an industry more susceptible to outside shocks and unpredictable events – whether it's the weather or disease. So financial assistance and mechanisms which can smooth out the vicissitudes farmers face make sense."
Sinn Féin MLA Declan McAleer claimed Tory pledges on agriculture were already beginning to "ring hollow".
"The price farmers receive for their produce is less than the production cost – the removal of subsidy will drive up prices for the consumer," he said.
"Removing the subsidy and placing huge tariffs on their produce will cripple the industry and have a devastating wider impact across rural communities."
The UFU said it would not comment on Mr Gove's plans until after a meeting with the environment minister today.
The president of its sister organisation in England, the National Farmers' Union (NFU), said that after leaving the EU "it is important that we see a broad and innovative range of measures to ensure farmers continue to deliver all the benefits - for our wellbeing, for our economy and for our environment - that the country enjoys".
"Such a policy needs to be comprehensive, providing support to farmers not just for environmental work, but also to manage risk and volatility, and to improve productivity and resilience among farming businesses," Meurig Raymond said.
Friends of the Earth director James Orr warned that Brexit was likely to see the lifting of many environmental regulations.
"A gear shift to strengthen environmental regulations is needed," he told The Irish News.
"Agriculture is the biggest polluter of the air and and water and we need the authorities to do their job to ensure that if you get paid public money you must adhere to environmental standards."
He said Mr Gove's pledges about protecting the environment needed to be "backed up by evidence that words will be tuned into real policy and action to tackle our worst polluters".