The Minister for Agriculture, Mary Coughlan, has said that although the economic character of rural Ireland is no longer synonymous with farming, the agri-food sector remains a major contributor to the economic and social viability of rural areas.

Speaking at a conference in Oxford, Ms Coughlan said that while the importance of agriculture has been declining, the sector continues to play a defining role in the rural landscape and is the means by which major public support is channelled into rural areas.

The Minister said the continued development of the agri-food sector remains a key component of the overall Government approach to national and rural development.

Ms Coughlan said agriculture should not be treated in policy terms like other sectors, and she warned that the family farm structure in Ireland, and many parts of Europe, would largely disappear if public support was discontinued.

The Minister rejected criticism that the Common Agricultural Policy represents a disproportionate burden on the EU budget.

She called for the immediate simplification of the administrative and bureaucratic burdens imposed on farmers and governments by the CAP.

However, Ms Coughlan said there should not be further radical policy change in the short term.

She also insisted that the EU's agricultural policy should be decided on what is needed for European farming and not on the basis on what would satisfy partners in negotiations on World Trade.

Minister Coughlan insisted she would not accept a new WTO agreement which threatens other sectors in relation to recent reform of the EU's sugar regime to meet WTO obligations led directly to the closure of Ireland's sugar industry.