Posted on Wednesday 11 April 2012 by Ulster Business

Tony O Neill

Tony O’Neill, recently appointed chair of the newly created Agri Food Strategy Board, speaks to Ulster Business about the potential for Northern Ireland to be a leading food producer over the next decade

Tony O’Neill admits that he’s spent a lot of time on his soapbox over the past few years about the potential of Northern Ireland’s food and drink sector.

The Group Business Development Director of Moy Park, who holds several industry association positions including that of Chairman of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, was recently asked to chair the Agri-food Strategy Board, a new group formed by the Executive.

Agri-food was recognised in the recent Economic Strategy as key to Northern Ireland’s future prosperity, and the Board was established with the aim of ensuring the potential of the sector is maximised.

O’Neill told Ulster Business the industry has been “strategised to death‚” and he doesn’t want it to be just another talking shop.

“There have been lots of reviews of the different sectors of the agri-food business over the years, lots of recommendations put on the shelf, but none of them really carried through to execution and doing things,” he said.

“We have significant strength in the agri-food sector and the objective of the Agri Food Strategy Board as far as I’m concerned is to build on that strength and try to exploit what we are good at – and we are good at food and drink in Northern Ireland. We don’t as a people, go out and talk about how good we are. We need to exploit that and build for the future.”

The former O’Kane Poultry boss notes that the sector is one of the few that has continued to grow and increase employment through the recession.

“It is one of the sectors that was neglected for a long time and considered not to be sexy, which you went into if you failed at everything else. But I think it underpins the Northern Ireland economy. We represent over 20% of private sector jobs and generate a huge commercial benefit to the economy. We’ve kept our head down for so long a lot of people don’t know we exist,” he adds.

In another role as part of the Future Skills Action Group, O’Neill is trying to make sure that, as well as being back in vogue with the politicians, the industry is the radar of young people planning their careers. Most are unaware of the breadth of career options in the sector, whether that be for computers engineers or accountants, he says.

The changing dynamics of global food markets means the opportunities for Northern Ireland agri-food businesses will only keep growing, both in terms of far flung markets like China and near export markets including Great Britain and Ireland.

“We have a deficit of food production in the UK, which imports £18.5bn of food. That is only going to get worse because many of the countries that supply the UK have become more affluent and will increasingly eat that food at home or go to the export markets in Asia because of the huge volumes they can sell there,” he said.

“The big picture is one of tremendous potential. We have world class companies here and we’ve shown we have the ability to flourish in this sector. That has allowed us to have exports around the world.”

One of the major issues facing the sector is the need to join up the supply chain across producing, processing and distribution more effectively. Only then will the sector be able to meet its goal of increasing business by 40% in value terms by 2020.

“There is a strategy in Scotland and there’s a strategy in the south of Ireland to grow their food sector, and we’re all looking at the next 10 years. The fact of the matter is our neighbours are ahead of us and if we don’t take this seriously they will take our biscuits. We have to go out and compete and keep ahead of them,” said O’Neill.

“We all have to consider long-term sustainability. The price of food is changing and I know that the UK government and Brussels think they will be short of food in the next 10 years. With the growth in population around the world we need to effectively double our production in the next 20-30 years,” he adds.

“We see the opportunity to grow over the next 10 years and this food strategy board can hopefully accelerate that.”

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