Concerns expressed over Northern Ireland farm research cuts

In the climate of cutbacks across most areas of government expenditure in Northern Ireland, the trustees of AgriSearch (Northern Ireland Agricultural Research and Development Council) are seriously concerned that spending by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development on research and innovation will be reduced at a time when the agri-food sector is being urged to increase output for the good of the overall economy of NI.

The concerns of the trustees have been expressed in writing to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD). The competitiveness of the local agri-food sector is at risk if investment in research is scaled down, while governments in other regions are increasing their investment in research.

The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) is set to bear the initial brunt of cuts in this area and negotiations between AFBI and DARD are ongoing. Recently, the decision has been taken to delay the commissioning of new research this year under the DARD-directed work programme at AFBI. Some of the projects in that programme were the result of proposals from the advisory committees of AgriSearch over the past year. These projects would have been co-funded to some extent by AgriSearch but we do not have the resources to fully fund.

These cutbacks and changes in the way that AFBI incorporates overhead costs into its charges for research work are matters for DARD and AFBI to address. AgriSearch has urged them to act for the good of the agri-food industry and the Northern Ireland economy and to grasp the opportunities that are available for Northern Ireland to be at the forefront of agricultural research and innovation.

Co-incidentally, the UK government’s ‘Agri-Tech Strategy’ has made £160m available to support advances in ‘sustainable intensification’ and we have been informed that the livestock sector will be prioritised in the next call for projects. AgriSearch sees an opportunity here and we are working to find ways in which the sector in Northern Ireland can benefit from those funds.

At the same time, the EU Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme (running from 2014 to 2020) has an enhanced budget of over €4bn (euro) to be invested in research and innovation in agri-food. There are opportunities for Northern Ireland to be involved. AgriSearch has been working with research bodies based in other EU member states to put together a project that has been submitted under the first call for Horizon 2020 funding (in June 2014). AgriSearch has been asked to provide a deputy work programme leader for ‘pilot farms’ under that proposed ‘EuroDairy’ project, if it gains the approval of the EU Commission.

AgriSearch supports the Agri-Food Strategy Board’s recommendation on research, which urged government to commission research into ‘best practice’ systems for sustainable intensification on-farm and double the draw-down of European funding in support of agri-food innovation over the next three years. We are working towards that objective. The method of operation of AgriSearch is in line with the concept of ‘Operational Groups’ which are a key feature of the forthcoming EU Rural Development Programme.

These opportunities are changing the ‘environment’ in which AgriSearch works to obtain the maximum research payback from the investment of levy money collected from producers of milk, beef cattle and sheep.

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