Food and drinks processing sector continues to grow

Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen
Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen

DAERA Minister Michelle McIlveen has welcomed newly released figures highlighting the growth of the local food and drinks processing sector.

The figures were published in the annual report ‘Size and Performance of the NI Food and Drinks Processing Sector, Subsector Statistics 2014, with provisional estimates for 2015’.

The Minister said: “The food and drinks processing sector figures released today indicate continuing growth in the industry and that is welcome. As would be expected given the difficulties in key agri-food commodity markets, the rate of growth was lower than in previous years. However, this industry has shown resilience and entrepreneurship in the face of these challenges and continues to make a very important contribution to the wider manufacturing sector and regional economy.”

Minister McIlveen added: “The food sector has been, and continues to be, a real force within our economy and has potential for further growth. I will work closely with the Economy Minister and with the industry itself on our key priorities to deliver growth for the agri-food sector and benefits to the wider economy.

“My Department is working hard to facilitate the export growth of our food sector. China is an export destination that has been developing and I want more opportunities to be realised in the months and years ahead. Officials continue to work with industry to prepare approval and maintenance inspections by potential and current trading partners across a range of commodities. I welcome the inward approval inspections that have recently been completed for pork exports to Australia and I look forward to the final report which is due before the end of 2016.

“Going forward we will have opportunities to open up new markets with other parts of the world, create new trading arrangements with the EU and sell more to GB. I intend to engage with colleagues in Westminster to safeguard and promote the best interests of our industry in the forthcoming negotiations.”

The Minister concluded: “We are all aware of the challenges facing the agri-food sector at the moment and especially the financial difficulties that farmers are experiencing. In my recent meetings in Brussels with Commissioner Hogan and Defra Minister George Eustice, I highlighted the unique and extreme market conditions affecting the sector here and I will continue to press London and Europe for effective support for our hard-pressed farmers. I have committed to issuing 70% advance payments from 16 October this year and to ensuring that 95% of the basic payment is paid by the end of the year. My Department will continue to work to build the resilience and competitiveness of the sector through a range of support, including education, training and research. We are also providing support through the new Rural Development Programme to help build a strong and resilient industry that can deal with challenges and take advantage of the opportunities going forward.”

UFU president, Barclay Bell, said it was encouraging that food and farming remain central to the Northern Ireland economy, as a major source of exports, growth and employment.

However, he highlighted the plight of many farmers who are suffering at this time.

“We cannot ignore the reality that the farmers who supply the raw materials on which the industry has built its quality image are suffering badly – and in most sectors have been losing money since 2014. This is not sustainable – and it is not the foundation we need to have for a successful food industry,” said Mr Bell.

The largest sectors contributing to the total gross turnover of Northern Ireland food and drink processing industry continue to be beef and lamb, dairy and poultry, which ultimately help to drive the food industry in terms of exports and employment.

Despite the growth of the overall agri-food sector, beef and lamb farmers, and dairy farmers have suffered heavy losses in recent years. Northern Ireland’s pigs, arable and vegetable producers have also fallen victim to dysfunction in the supply chain and low farm gate prices.

Mr Bell continued: “The weakening of the pound in recent weeks will improve the competitive position of the industry and farmers. While there are opportunities, Brexit does pose a huge challenge for the entire industry so it will be important that we work together and tackle it with a collective voice.

“Continuing support for farmers is a big issue – but market access is just as great a challenge. Without that we will not have markets for our food, and that would be disastrous for farmers, processors and the entire Northern Ireland economy.”

The UFU president underlined that he was not trying to take away from the successes of the food industry, particularly in the year of celebrations for Northern Ireland food and drink.

“As farmers we are immensely proud of what the industry does with the quality raw material that comes off farms. But we are realistic enough to know that the food chain can only succeed if everyone in it is profitable. That is not the case for farmers now and has not been for some time,” said Mr Bell.