There has been much discussion over the last number of weeks regarding the debate of whether the UK should remain within the European Union.
That debate has involved various sectors and disciplines within society, and clearly emphasised that there have been considerable gains in terms of economic and social cohesion from being a member of the European Union.
That membership has had clear benefits for those of us who reside in Northern Ireland and there would be a concern that an exit from the European Union would have clear implications for the island of Ireland in terms of the free movement of people, goods, services and capital.
From the perspective of the farming and food industry indications would suggest that there is a growing and compelling imperative for the British Government to remain within the European Union.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed at the Select Committee hearing some weeks ago and again in a Parliamentary Written Answer to me that her Department has not made an assessment of the potential financial effect of leaving the European Union on agriculture in Britain and Northern Ireland.
Why would anybody want to put their foot into the dark without clear knowledge of where they were going?
With particular reference to Northern Ireland, the UK needs to remain within the European Union for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, the farming industry and farmers receive subsidies directly from the European Union.
No guarantees have been given from the British Government that these would be replaced by them.
In many cases, these subsidies are the sole income for farmers. Furthermore, farmers and the farming industry in Northern Ireland is able to access the ready market of the European Union for exporting food products.
Northern Ireland exports around 80% of food products on an annual basis. Therefore having access to the European Union makes it able to forward exports to other nations.
Our most immediate export region is the island of Ireland with similar climatic and soil conditions – it is important that this market is accessible and open to all our food producers.
Finally, to negotiate new and individual trade deals with other nations/countries can take a considerable time.
Evidence of this exists with the ongoing trade discussions with the Mercosur countries in South America which is being pursued by Commissioner Hogan who has told me that his earnest desire is to safeguard EU agriculture and food products.
In light of the foregoing information and in the interests of Northern Ireland farmers: to guarantee and protect farm incomes and food export trade deals and markets it is vitally important that the UK remains within the European Union.
Margaret Ritchie, SDLP MP, South Down