There has been much comment about importation of cheap meat products from America as a part of a post-Brexit trade deal.  What is the risk?

Ethical farming methods and accepted animal welfare practice in Northern Ireland are vastly different from routine practice and procedure in America and across much of Latin America, including Brazil.  In those countries, the injection of growth promoting hormones in beef, the widespread use of antibiotics to control disease and the washing of chicken carcasses in chlorinated compounds are both lawful and necessary.  Why?  The relentless pursuit of profit by meat processors and cost-cutting by American and Brazilian farmers results in the prevalence of disease in American and Brazilian animals from birth all the way through the supply chain.  Poultry raised in humid, poorly ventilated conditions are prone to respiratory diseases and to Campylobacter infection – an infection which, when passed to humans, results in severe, often bloody, diarrhoea.    Rather than address the welfare problems at the farms, American and Latin American meat processors use a chlorine wash on meat for export.

In contrast, Northern Irish poultry farmers have almost universally adopted warm water heating systems which heat the poultry sheds using a combination of fan-assisted hot-water radiators and hi-tech boilers fuelled by wood chip or pellets. These replaced the naked flame liquid petroleum gas burners that had previously heated the sheds.  Gas burners whilst effective and speedy, had multiple drawbacks and disadvantages – they added vast amounts of water, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide to the environment.  Moisture and bacteria acted on poultry litter to produce ammonia – yet another green-house gas.

The theory and practice of hot water heating is proven.  The barriers to change were the additional costs – costs of plumbing, pumps and fans, costs for new boilers and costs of additional fuel – less humid sheds need to be kept warmer if the vulnerable chicks are to survive.  Ethically, it is unsound to replace one fossil-fuelled system with another which produces green-house gases.  For a whole host of reasons, ethical farmers accepted the government-backed renewable heat incentive for what it was.  Now, much derided and vilified, these farmers carry the whole additional cost of the capital investment and carry the additional cost of using renewable energy with the hot water system – in the absence of the index-linked rebates that were guaranteed.  Their investment in the systems, with that of others who signed up for RHI was £109 M at start-up.  Interest payable to banks each year on their investment is just under £5.5M.

Politicians will face all manner of decisions if and when the Assembly gets up and running – not least BREXIT and the need to trade in order to pay for oil imports.   They could act to maintain our ethical, agri-food economy or, they could follow the American and Brazilian examples and set conditions for a race to the bottom in animal welfare, environmental and public health.

Renewable energy should be a core component of our island economy.  It is of huge importance to our rural economy, to forestry, wood processing and to farming.  It helps to keep our food supply chain safe, chlorine and antibiotics free.

For the sake of our environment, our economy and our health, politicians please sort it out.

(Andrew Trimble is the Chair of the Renewable Heat Association, Northern Ireland, a group representing the interests of users of renewable energy)