Report shows growth in food and drink sector

Ulster Farmers' Union president Ivor Ferguson. Picture: Cliff Donaldson
Ulster Farmers' Union president Ivor Ferguson. Picture: Cliff Donaldson

The Ulster Farmers’ Union says DAERA’s annual report on the size and performance of the Northern Ireland food and drinks processing sector, reinforces just how important the agri-food industry is to the NI economy and how much is at stake regarding Brexit.

In 2017 the NI food and drinks processing sector has grown with a sales increase of 10.6 per cent. GB remains the largest outlet for the NI food and drinks processing sector representing 49 per cent of total sales and the ROI, is the most significant export destination accounting for £716 million in 2017 – an increase from 2016.

Michael Bell has been appointed an independent trustee of AgriSearch, the Northern Ireland Agricultural Research and Development Council. A QUB food science graduate Michael has over 25 years experience in the food industry and is currently executive director of the NI Food and Drinks Association.

Michael Bell has been appointed an independent trustee of AgriSearch, the Northern Ireland Agricultural Research and Development Council. A QUB food science graduate Michael has over 25 years experience in the food industry and is currently executive director of the NI Food and Drinks Association.

UFU president Ivor Ferguson said, “The statistics in DAERA’s report provides further evidence that the Northern Ireland agri-food and drink sector is a very major contributor to the local economy and reinforces how important it is that a no-deal Brexit is avoided.”

Mr Ferguson says it is encouraging to see an upward trend generally and especially in employment. “We are immensely proud of our industry, including our ability to provide new jobs, and the quality raw material that is produced on our family farms across Northern Ireland, which is the solid base on which this industry is built. However, the UK is due to officially leave the EU on the 31st October and the date is fast approaching with a solution to avoiding a no-deal still to be found.

“A no-deal Brexit will inevitably end the current free trade arrangements across the island of Ireland by introducing export tariffs and additional controls and checks which will also add cost. The introduction of differential import tariff arrangements within the UK will also undermine our home and GB markets.

“The combination of all of these would be disastrous for farmers, processors and the entire Northern Ireland economy.”

NIFDA Executive Director Michael Bell said the local food and drink sector has continued to perform strongly despite a challenging environment, enjoying significant growth of over 10% between 2016 and 2017.

He added: Employment also increased by almost 5% in the same period, and estimates show a similar increase between 2017-2018. Whilst these figures refer to direct employment in the sector, it is worth noting that when including indirect employment, the sector accounts for over 100,000 jobs - almost a fifth of our overall private sector employment.

“The figures highlight the NI food and drink industry’s position as the region’s largest manufacturer. The contribution of the sector to total manufacturing external sales increased from 23.6 per cent in 2016 to 33.1 per cent in 2017, and the sector accounted for 21.8 per cent of total manufacturing export sales in 2017. They also show how critical our export market is, with export sales increasing from £1,099m in 2016 to £1,264m in 2017. The Republic of Ireland is our largest export market, valued at £716m in 2017.

“Whilst these figures are good news for the sector and should be welcomed, we must be frank about the scale of the challenges that lie ahead, in particular the threat of a no-deal Brexit. Our food industry is uniquely exposed by Brexit and a recent report from the Department of the Economy estimated that 40,000 jobs would be lost in a no-deal scenario due to our reliance on EU exports. A no-deal outcome must be avoided at all costs and we continue to lobby the UK government on behalf of our members on this pertinent issue.

“Meanwhile, the lack of a local assembly continues to stifle innovation and impede further investment in the sector, as other competing nations forge ahead with productivity improvements. Now, more than ever, we need the Executive to fight our corner.

“If we are to achieve future growth, we need continued access to our important export markets, access to migrant labour, the establishment of a food marketing body, and government backing to foster further automation within the food processing sector. With the right support I am confident that the food and drink industry will continue to perform well and be a leading light in the local economy.”