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FARMERS in Northern Ireland have been left at the mercy of "civil servants with no understanding of business" because there is currently no minister overseeing agriculture in the Northern Ireland assembly.

The Ulster Farmers’ Union has accused DAERA officials of using the absence of a minister to "ride roughshod" over farmers and ignore their legitimate concerns about how some policies are being implemented, particularly the Farm Business Improvement Scheme.

UFU president, Barclay Bell, reported that negotiations to find solutions to problems with the FBIS had ended in deadlock, with some applications in peril because of the civil servants' approach to reducing ammonia levels.

“We have been trying to work with DAERA and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency to find a solution," said Mr Bell. "We want to work with them on the extent of the problem and how to tackle it, but there seems to be no movement within the Department. Some of the science and models being used are at best questionable and at worst fundamentally flawed and this is not helping to reassure farmers."

NIEA is seeking to tackle ammonia emissions by adding requirements to the agricultural planning process, but the UFU believes it would have more success if it improved its engagement with the industry and recognised progress already made.

“Many have jumped through NIEA’s hoops, paying out thousands for ammonia modelling," said Mr Bell. "But NIEA is refusing to give credit for the many steps taken to tackle ammonia emissions. These include trailing shoe/dribble bar tankers, biomass boilers in poultry houses, farmyard management and major diet improvements.”

If there was an elected minister in place overseeing the work of DAERA and NIEA, the UFU reckoned that the issue would already have been resolved: “The FBIS is part of the government’s ‘Going for Growth’ plan to develop and expand the industry. NIEA’s refusal to budge means many Tier 2 applications are now in jeopardy, putting the Going for Growth strategy at risk.

"Funding will go unspent and progress will stagnate," warned Mr Bell. "Our major competitors are blazing ahead, while we are held back by civil servants with no understanding of business or what it will take to make this industry deliver growth and jobs in food processing."

Responding a DAERA spokesperson defended the tough stance on ammonia emissions: “There are potentially significant environmental impacts from a small number of planning applications associated with FBIS, where critical levels of ammonia for sensitive habitats have already been exceeded.

"Where insufficient information is provided or absence of adverse impact has not been demonstrated, the department is legally required to make a recommendation on that basis within the statutory deadline," insisted the spokesperson.

“Mitigation measures are taken into account by NIEA when advising on applications, but the pollution/emission reductions attributed to the proposed mitigation must be scientifically robust and evidenced and enforceable," added the department, which said that this approach was in line with the position taken by equivalent bodies in the rest of the UK.

“The Department is working with an industry group, at the request of the previous DAERA Minister, to develop an Ammonia report. This report will inform the Department’s thinking on how best to tackle the Ammonia issue," it added. "We will continue to work closely with UFU and other stakeholder organisations to set out the roadmap for addressing ammonia emissions and look forward to further dialogue on this issue.”