Fane Valley CEO and CBI Northern Ireland chairman Trevor Lockhart has reminded agri food stakeholders that a No Deal Brexit deal remains the worst of all options for farming and food as the UK seeks to navigate a path out of the European Union.
Speaking at a dinner hosted by Deloitte for agri food leaders earlier this week, he said that the prospect of a No Deal and/or a second plebiscite on Brexit had increased in equal measure, given the results of recent elections in the UK.
“I sense that the public have become apathetic about the entire Brexit process,” he added.
“And, to an extent, this is being reflected in the attitudes now held by some within the agri food community.
“However, the last thing we need is a No Deal Brexit by default. No Deal still represents the worst of all worlds for farming and food In Northern Ireland.”
Lockhart went on to highlight the need for continuing innovation within the farming and food space.
“New ideas, combined with a strong export focus and a determination to overcome all challenges are the attributes that will deliver continuing success for agri food in Northern Ireland,” he said.
The Fane valley CEO also highlighted the ‘brain drain’ challenge that continues to confront Northern Ireland’s economy as a whole.
“This matter is of direct concern to the farming and food sectors,” he explained.
“There are not enough university places in Northern Ireland to meet local needs. As a result, many of our best students are heading to GB to meet their further educational needs. Unfortunately, significant numbers of these young people do not come home, once qualified.
“The consequent loss to Northern Ireland’s over the past three years alone has been estimated at just short of £ 1 billion.
“This trend must be reversed and it’s up to the local universities to do something about it.”
Lockhart confirmed that production agriculture is coming under increasing economic pressure at the present time.
“A combination of falling farmgate returns and increasing input costs has squeezed farm margins,” he confirmed.
“Food processers are also facing-up to significant hikes in costs. And their attempts to get a better return from supermarkets have only been partly successful.”
Looking to the future, Lockhart said that change was coming in the way that farmers in Northern Ireland would have to go about their business.
“Consumer preference is changing,” he added.
“These are not fads: they are sustainable, long-term trends. And our farming and food sectors must adapt accordingly.”
This latter point was further emphasised by Deloitte’s new CEO for Ireland, Harry Goddard, who also speak at the dinner.
He said: “Consumers are changing their consumption patterns. They are also more interested than ever before on a range of issues that directly impact on farming and food. These include animal welfare and the levels of food waste generated by society as a whole.”
Turning to Brexit Goddard said that the UK’s departure from the European Union would throw up a number of opportunities for Northern Ireland’s farming and food sectors. He concluded:
“But only those businesses with the ability and ingenuity to quickly identify what these opportunities are and then act accordingly will flourish into the future.”