Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen I am delighted to be able to speak to you at Farmers Club dinner this evening.
For 160 years the Club has stayed true to Mr Shaw of the Strand’s founding vision of providing a platform for: “all that was good in farming”.
It’s good to see such a big turn-out of from members of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society as well as so many distinguished guests from Northern Ireland politics and public life.
It’s an honour to be addressing you at the Balmoral Show’s magnificent new home here at the Maze.
While I’m sure there always be nostalgia for the King’s Hall, I’m certain this move will greatly enhance the experience enjoyed by the 70,000 visitors expected this year.
There’s no doubt that recent months have seen some difficult times for many farmers and producers.
The horsemeat scandal dented public confidence in food labelling and the agri-food sector.
From the outset, I was keen to work with Michelle O’Neill at DARD and with DEFRA colleagues to support local farmers and producers.
The horsemeat crisis has made it more important than ever to broadcast the real facts about food production here in Northern Ireland.
Those facts are that our farmers produce some of the finest food in the world to the highest standards and with rigorous traceability.
The Farm Quality Assurance Scheme developed with considerable effort and expense is a model of good practice and will continue to provide the bedrock of consumer confidence.
Then a few weeks after the horsemeat scandal we had some of the worst spring weather Northern Ireland had seen in many decades.
The Government acted swiftly in response to the request by the Northern Ireland Executive for RAF helicopter support and working with DARD was able to deliver much needed help to farmers in difficulty.
Fixing our economy:
Of course many responsibilities for agriculture and the economy now rest with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive.
But Northern Ireland is also greatly affected by the decisions we take in Westminster.
The Government shares the aim set out by the Executive of rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy.
We all understand the historic reasons behind over-dependence on public spending but we can’t go on as we are.
We need to create the conditions in which the private sector can flourish and drive economic growth, investment and jobs.
And we are seeking to do this against the backdrop of an economic legacy that saw the Government inherit the largest budget deficit in the UK’s peacetime history.
Our efforts to deal with the deficit and put the UK back on a path of sustainable economic growth are essential to the long-term health of the food and farming industry as they are to the whole of the economy.
There are tentative signs that the economy is healing.
We’ve cut the deficit by a third which has kept interest rates at record lows.
Across the UK, over 1 ¼ million jobs have been created in the private sector.
And last month we had the welcome news that the UK economy had returned to growth.
The road ahead will be bumpy we are dealing with problems built up over many years.
But by confronting those problems head on, we are starting to recover.
We’re backing those who want to work hard and get on in life and we’re making our country competitive again so that the UK can pay its way in the world and compete in the global race.
Growing the NI Agri-food sector:
Here in Northern Ireland the agri-food industry is the largest part of our private sector.
It employs over 3% of the population, well above the UK average.
It supports around 100,000 people through a vast supply chain across Northern Ireland.
As a £3.7 billion industry it’s the region’s biggest manufacturer and leading exporter.
A key element of the Government’s strategy to fix the UK economy is a relentless focus on exports.
We need to sell more of our goods abroad not just to Europe but to the wider world as well.
And earlier this year our trade with non-EU countries accounted for the largest proportion of UK exports for the first time.
Figures released by the Office for National Statistics last Friday showed a narrowing of the UK’s trade deficit as our exports beyond the EU continue to rise.
Here in Northern Ireland the agri-food sector has demonstrated a strong track record of export growth.
Over 70 per cent of its output is currently sold to markets outside Northern Ireland including Europe, the US and Asia.
So the Government believes that it is vital that farmers here and across the rest of the UK have better access to overseas markets.
There has been real progress.
Russia has recently lifted its ban on British beef and lamb imports in a deal potentially worth £80 million over the next three years.
And China has opened its doors to British pork, with a potential value of £50 million a year.
But there is no doubt that much needs more needs to be done to give farmers here the opportunities they want to export their produce far and wide.
My predecessor, Owen Paterson, is working hard on this in his new role at DEFRA.
The joint statement between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in March 2012 reaffirmed the commitment of UK and Irish Governments to work together to promote our respective agri-food industries around the world.
And David Cameron wants trade and opening markets to be a centre-piece of discussions when the G8 leaders meet here in Northern Ireland in just a few weeks time.
At a time when we’re in a global race for jobs and investment we need to use every opportunity to market the best of Northern Ireland.
Year after year the Balmoral Show food pavilion provides a great way to showcase Northern Ireland produce.
Just the other week I visited John Best’s farm in Poyntzpass and Hannan Meats in Moira, where I saw for myself some of the brilliant work being carried out by the agri-food sector here.
Northern Ireland can also be proud that Comber early potatoes, Lough Neagh eels and Armagh Bramley apples have joined Champagne and other elite products in being granted protected geographical indication status by the EU.
And promoting all the best that Northern Ireland has to offer is one of the reasons why the Prime Minister took the personal decision to bring the G8 Summit Co Fermanagh.
This offers global branding for Northern Ireland that money simply could not buy.
And I’m confident that the G8 leaders will be able to sample some of the best of Northern Ireland food and drink as part of their visit.
And later in the summer, members of Food NI will provide food and drink to the World Police and Fire Games. This is the third largest multi-sport event in the world.
It will attract tens of thousands of participants and visitors and provide a unique opportunity to present high quality locally produced food to a whole new audience.
Careers, technology and innovation:
But if success in the agri-food industry is to continue, it needs to provide attractive career opportunities for young people.
I therefore warmly welcome initiatives like the student prizes at the Farmers Club Pinnacle awards which aim to do this and I applaud the work being done by the farming sector to review barriers and opportunities for new entrants.
And farming also needs to be at the forefront of innovation and new technology.
Farming in Northern Ireland has a long history of pushing forward with new processes, technologies and land management techniques not least Harry Ferguson with his pivotal role in the development of the modern agricultural tractor.
We must continue to champion innovation.
That is why the UK Government invests over £410 million a year in research in the agriculture, food and drink sector.
This is in addition to the food and drink industry’s plans to invest around £1 billion by 2020 in plant, equipment, training and innovation.
And we will continue to make the case for GM, with a balanced understand of the risks and benefits.
I strongly believe that this technology has huge potential to improve efficiency in food production and deliver real environmental improvements.
Reducing red tape:
One of the Government’s key priorities for economic reform is reducing red tape.
DEFRA is looking at regulatory burdens on farmers to see where they can be removed or simplified in relation to things like farm inspections paperwork and the movement of livestock.
In England, we have been removing £13 of compliance costs for every pound we’ve added and here in Northern Ireland, DARD has a three year Action Plan to tackle bureaucracy.
But let me also say that there are a many current rules and regulations will continue to be essential for example to ensure compassionate treatment of animals.
But that means that it is vital that animal welfare rules are enforced consistently across Europe.
That’s vital for animal welfare reasons but also because our farmers should not be asked to compete with one arm tied behind their back against producers from around Europe not subjected to the rules which we enforce so rigorously here.
That was something I championed when I was an MEP and my colleagues in Government continue to do so.
But of course the biggest change on the agenda is reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.
We have been very clear in opposing measures which distort the market, which are anti-competitive or which increase costs to the consumer.
Farmers are best placed to make decisions about the crops they grow and the animals they raise so we’ll always advocate reform which moves away from distorting interventions which create costly and unwanted surpluses.
But there is an important a role for taxpayers’ money in compensating farmers for the work they do in enhancing the environment and providing public goods for which there is no market mechanism.
It is right to reward farmers for the part they play in managing our landscapes and conserving the countryside which is such a draw for tourists.
And it is crucial that lessons are learnt from past problems to ensure that the greening element of the CAP is simple for farmers to understand and easy to implement.
I was in Brussels and few weeks ago to press the case for Northern Ireland on a range of issues and I know the strength of feeling felt here on the crucial importance regional flexibility on implementing CAP.
This was one of the UK’s top negotiating priorities and in March the Agriculture Council agreed each of the four UK countries could continue to implement CAP regionally.
As Owen Paterson said, a one size fits all approach to CAP just doesn’t work.
England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales must be allowed the freedom to deliver outcomes tailored to their own circumstances.
In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, there will soon be 9 billion mouths to feed across the world. With a prosperous new middle class emerging in so many countries all with money to spend on Westernised diets there are huge opportunities for the agriculture sector here in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the UK
Thanks to the hard work of people in this room and thousands of others working in food and farming, Northern Ireland’s agri-food industry is a world leader.
And I look forward to working with you to see it go from strength to strength.