Taking a ‘business as usual’ approach will be the immediate response of Northern Ireland’s food sector to the challenge of Brexit.
This was the unanimous view expressed by the directors of 20 leading agri-food companies, who attended a recent Brexit round-table discussion in Belfast.
The event was hosted by Grant Thornton, the leading advisors to Northern Ireland’s the agri- food sector.
Concerns expressed by the group moving forward included the envisaged fluctuation in Euro/Sterling exchange rates over the next couple of years, the potential implications of a hard border being established on the island of Ireland and the implications for food companies if they can no longer source migrant labour, on either a long term or casual basis.
There was general recognition, however, that the recent strengthening of the Euro against Sterling is helping to boost food exports from Northern Ireland – at least in the short term.
All the members of the group confirmed that the Stormont Executive must communicate the specific needs of Northern Ireland’s agri-food sector to London as part of the formal Brexit negotiating process.
And this work must be done now: leaving it to the last minute could have catastrophic consequences for both the agri-food industry and the economy as a whole.
All of this will entail Northern Ireland having the strongest possible voice at Westminster.
Charlie Kerlin, Head of Agri-Food for Grant Thornton Northern Ireland commented: “Agri-food is a major sector in Northern Ireland and one with plans for significant future growth.
“The sector has and will again react resiliently to the inevitable changes due to Brexit however it is imperative that the unique needs of the Northern Ireland agri-food market are understood by policy makers particularly at Westminster.
“Our clients want to grow their businesses but uncertainty of the future shape of the Brexit deal could be a drag on future investment plans.”
Deep concern was expressed at the possibility of the UK allowing tariff-free food imports from countries such as Australia and New Zealand, once Brexit becomes a reality. Such an eventuality will, it was felt, place significant pressure on local food companies supplying customers in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
There was total unanimity on the need for all future UK food imports to meet the quality standards and traceability requirements which indigenous food processing businesses already meet. The need for there to be no weakening of the food security criteria, now taken as the norm in the UK, post Brexit, was also highlighted.
Conversely, the necessity of finding new export markets for locally produced food on the back of the unique quality and traceability measures already operating in Northern Ireland was unanimously endorsed.