Since Brexit Northern Ireland’s farmers have faced a lot of challenges including the controversial NI Protocol and foreign trade deals. In his next exclusive interview for The Scottish Farmer, Chris McCullough discussed these issues with Daera minister, Edwin Poots, from Lisburn, in Co Antrim.

This year has been quite a challenging one for Edwin Poots who was first appointed the Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for Northern Ireland in January, 2020.

Although taking time out to recover from cancer surgery and then being left somewhat politically scarred after a leadership battle within the Democratic Unionist Party, Mr Poots has continued to fight for the agricultural industry throughout all of the uncertainty.

What is your background in farming?

I was educated at the Wallace High School, in Lisburn, and went on to study at Greenmount Agricultural College, in Antrim. I’m married with four children and I come from a farming family and previously farmed hens, beef cattle, sheep and cereals.

How big is the NI agri-food sector?

The agri-food sector employs approximately 100,000 people and generates more than £4bn in sales and exports. It is in a unique position to positively impact and influence not only our economy, but also our environment.

Those working in the sector are the custodians of our green lands and must be at the very core of any future policies to protect and enhance our environment.

How highly rated do you consider food produced by NI farmers?

We produce some of the best food in the world at the highest quality. Northern Ireland agriculture has an excellent reputation around the world from our traceability to environmental standards.

For example, we sell fish to Dubai and Hong Kong; pork and dairy to China and beef to Canada.

What can be done about the controversial NI Protocol?

Northern Ireland is in an unacceptable position. Goods which stay in the UK single market should not be checked. Of course, those that enter the EU single market should.

What is your opinion on the UK free trade deal with Australia?

I have been clear in my discussions with UK ministers that tariff free access to the UK market for Australian farm produce is a very serious threat to our farmers even if that access is phased in over a number of years.

It is absolutely vital that Northern Ireland’s agriculture sector is protected and the integrity of our food standards are maintained. Consumers rightly expect high welfare standards and high quality food.

That means that all imports must meet our standards. That is what they will get with locally produced and reared food.

Bovine TB is a scourge on NI farming. What are you doing about it?

Bringing forward a new TB Eradication Strategy is a top priority for the department. We need to take decisions on implementation of a new approach to tackle this disease as soon as possible.

The strategy will build upon the recommendations made by the independent TB Strategic Partnership Group in 2016 and the public consultation on the department’s response to these recommendations.

A business case considering the strategy has been finalised and I have considered officials’ recommendations. I now will consult on my preferred approach and will then move forward with the implementation of the strategy as soon as practicably possible.

What do you regard as your three top achievements as NI Agriculture Minister?

The work this department does affects and impacts on everyone in Northern Ireland, from the food we eat, the air we breathe, our wonderful landscape, our rural communities and our agriculture sector.

Daera boasts one of the most important, diverse, wide-ranging and interesting portfolios and it is a privilege for me to hold this post. We have supported the agrifood industry through the Covid-19 pandemic.

As well as that we have supported the rural community through the pandemic. I have also recently received NI Executive support for a science based Climate Change Bill for Northern Ireland.

You are quite vocal about the Climate Change Bill – but farmers are against it. What is the latest?

We need a just position. The Climate Change Committee way offers a just pragmatic approach which forms the basis of my Climate Change Bill for Northern Ireland.

Are you for or against a bridge or tunnel connecting NI to Scotland?

Definitely for. From an engineering point of view, there are no problems. A transport link like this would be good for UK and RoI as a result of the scheme. However, it all depends on future public finances from the UK Government.

What’s the next big agri issue sitting in your in-tray to deal with?

Future agri support for Northern Ireland farmers and climate change. I want to increase resource efficiency and improve farmers’ bottom line.