Key role of local agri-food sectors profiled in Brussels

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The head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service, David Sterling, has told a conference in Brussels that the local agri food industries are particularly exposed to Brexit.

He pointed out that the sectors represent a much more important component of the regional economy than the UK as a whole.

Northern Ireland’s food and drinks processing sector has grown considerably over the last two decades. Increased export sales have been an important element of that growth, reflecting the export-led development strategy for the future development of the local economy.

Since 2005, total Northern Ireland food and drinks sector sales have risen by 74%, while export sales to the Republic of Ireland have risen by 96% and sales within the UK to the GB market (the biggest market for agri-food products originating in Northern Ireland ) have risen by 103%. In 2015, 27% of sales in the food and drinks processing sector were exported, compared with only 11% across the UK as a whole.

According to Sterling, there are also some sectors that are more reliant on exports than others, for example, 42% of dairy processing output is exported. Conversely, the UK as a whole is a net importer of food and, therefore, does not have the same dependence on international markets as Northern Ireland.

He continued:

“Our agri-food sector, and hence our wider economy, is, therefore, uniquely vulnerable both to the loss of EU funding and to potential tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade.”

Meanwhile, Sammy Wilson MP has indicated that Northern Ireland’s economy could survive the buffeting of a no-deal Brexit. Speaking on Radio Ulster he said that many local businesses had already put steps in place to ensure a continuing supply of inputs and components, should the UK and EU-27 fail to secure a final Brexit arrangement, adding: “But the core objective remains that of securing a realistic trade deal with the EU-27.”

Currently, 29% of all raw milk produced by farmers in Northern Ireland is processed in the Republic; 39% of lambs produced in Northern Ireland are exported cross-border on the hoof for slaughter while pigs imported from the Republic account for 31% of total pig slaughterings in local processing plants.

Members of the House of Commons’ Northern Ireland Affairs’ Committee, which includes Sammy Wilson, are currently investigating the potential impact of Brexit on local agriculture. The inquiry’s scope includes an assessment of the potential challenges and opportunities for Northern Ireland’s agricultural sector post-Brexit and if these are being properly reflected in Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) consultations.

It will also assess what level of funding Northern Ireland’s agricultural sector will require post-Brexit; what should future agricultural support in Northern Ireland look like, and what goals should it seek to achieve?

The final report will also address the particular challenges the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland create in terms of future agricultural policy, regulation and trade.