Calls for export marketing body
While recognising that previous calls have been made for such steps to be taken, the Dale Farm chief executive made it clear that Northern Ireland’s food and drink industry had reached a tipping point.
He said:“The case for Northern Ireland to have its own food marketing body is proven. The experience gleaned by the other countries making up the UK and the Republic of Ireland has confirmed the tremendous benefits that a national food marketing body can deliver.
“In contrast to the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland is a food exporting region. We need a body that is sufficiently well resourced to effectively promote our produce throughout the UK and in other markets around the world.”
Whelan made these comments while speaking at this year’s NIFDA Annual Dinner. It was held as a virtual event.
He also called on political leaders to urgently address the need for a capital support scheme for Northern Ireland food manufacturers.
Whelan added: “2020 has been a year like no other. As an industry, we have faced unique, unprecedented challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Our food processors redesigned factories to ensure, where physically possible, social distancing was enabled and continuously reshape how we do things to improve the welfare of our employees. Put simply, our industry has demonstrated its critical importance, and shown its ingenuity.
“At the same time, our industry is also facing the very real challenge of EU exit, which is less than 80 working days away. NIFDA has been working to get clarity on new arrangements, and provide input. EU exit has the potential to be highly positive or negative for the Northern Ireland agri-food Industry. If it is to be a success; and if we are to recover from Covid-19; the ability of the industry to reshape and retool, to adapt to new market demands must not be curtailed.”
Whelan continued: “We therefore have three critical asks of the Northern Ireland Executive. Firstly, we are the only nation in the UK today that currently does not have a processor capital grant. This is competitive disadvantage in its starkest sense, and magnifies the twin challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit. Delivering a capital support scheme for Northern Ireland processors would drive innovation, productivity and win value adding new business to our food and drink industry.
“Similarly, with an added value export marketing body, we can boost exports and turn our unique post-Brexit position into an opportunity for the industry. Northern Ireland food and drink is known for its innovation, quality and integrity in terms of animal welfare and sustainability. Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland already have such support structures and they are producing results.
“We are not asking for special treatment: we are simply asking for a level playing field. With our competitors benefiting from capital grant support and dedicated export bodies, the industry here has had to work with two hands tied behind its back. This unfair situation cannot continue, and all we seek is fairness.”
Whelan also wants to see real collaboration between government and industry. NIFDA and the Ulster Farmers’ Union have established a new strategic partnership to re-engage with the Northern Ireland Executive.
“We call on ministers to work with farmers and processors, and realise the immense opportunities that lie ahead for the industry,” said Whelan.
“Despite the challenges we face at present, the industry remains strong. Agri food is the largest part of the local economy, representing around 25% of all NI manufactured output and supporting some 100,000 jobs. We have the potential to grow further, to double our growth and match that of the Republic of Ireland, create sustainable jobs and make EU exit a positive opportunity for the Northern Ireland economy. But to deliver it, we need support.”