Representatives from various green groups have called on DAERA to expand and speed up the roll-out of new Farming with Nature schemes as part of a new agricultural policy framework in NI.

Briefing the Stormont Agriculture Committee last Thursday, Dr Jonathan Bell from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) argued that just 1% to 2% of the current farm budget goes on agri-environment measures.

He said: “Intensification has not been good for the environment” and suggested that DAERA needs to start transiting farmers to the new Farming with Nature schemes – ultimately these schemes should be the central pillar of the agricultural budget by 2030.

“We want a clear timeline and clarity around how much money will move into these schemes throughout the course of the transition period,” said Bell.

He also pointed out that many agreements under the existing Environmental Farming Scheme have run out, creating a “cliff edge” for farming families who are missing out on vital income. To bridge the gap ahead of the expected full roll-out of Farming with Nature schemes in 2026, Bell said an “interim option” was urgently required.

In the meantime, all farms in receipt of public money should be required to do a biodiversity audit as well as a carbon audit, said Bell, who also called on DAERA to bring forward a new Agriculture Act which would aim to reward farmers for managing their land sustainably.

Long list

However, that was just one of a long list of policy changes, strategies and potential legislation put to MLAs by the green groups last Thursday.

Some of those strategies have been promised, but are yet to be published, including a new environment strategy, a biodiversity strategy, a marine plan, a food strategy and a waste management strategy, said Malachy Campbell from the NI Environment Link.

He also pointed to a range of commitments made in the NI Climate Change Act passed in 2022 and the need for the likes of the NI Environment Agency (NIEA) and the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) to be “properly funded in the long term”.

Added to his wish list is a new independent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which he said should be a “top priority” for DAERA.

When asked by Michelle McIlveen MLA about how much all of this will cost and who will pay, Campbell quoted various documents and studies including by the Institute for Public Policy Research. “They found that greater investment in a green recovery and low carbon jobs could create 1.6m new jobs over the next decade in the UK of which over 40,000 could be in NI,” said Campbell.

“I have to say, a lot of that is ‘could be’ and ‘maybe’ and ‘potentially’, so I have to say all of that is pretty much pie in the sky for now,” responded committee chair, Tom Elliott MLA.