Posted on Friday 24 August 2018 by Ulster Business
The significance of the Northern Ireland food and drink industry really cannot be overstated, writes Michael Bell of the Northern Ireland Food and Drinks Association.
It is a central piece in an eco-system, and the eating eco-system, as I like to call it, includes farming, farming supplies, haulage, packaging supplies, haulage to customers, cold stores, laboratory services, stainless steel engineering services, laundry services etc.
Like most ecosystems, it is complex. In total, the eating eco-system in Northern Ireland supports approximately 100,000 jobs or about 20% of our entire private sector. Those jobs are spread fairly uniformly across Northern Ireland and tend to be non-urban, historically based on where raw material was available.
In total, our output is approximately £5bn of which some £4bn leaves Northern Ireland, destined in the main for Great Britain, but also to 70 other countries around the world.
The industry is hugely important to Northern Ireland, much more so than for our friends in Scotland, Wales or England.
It is even more important given the sad and unfortunate demise of some other large manufacturing industries in recent years.
We face, of course, some challenges and some great opportunities. Our challenges at the minute are principally Brexit, and our ability to move goods and access labour in the future. We are hopeful that our government will come up with pragmatic and sensible solutions to these problems.
The industry continues to perform very well with output, employment and all key metrics inching up.
Unfortunately, however, we still struggle to get the level of support that we need to take this industry forward. Currently in the UK you can get up to 40% capital financial assistance if you are a food processor based in Scotland, Wales or England but not in Northern Ireland.
We recently joined with 11 other business bodies in Northern Ireland to call on the Secretary of State to remove the decision-making logjam that we have endured now for over 16 months, so we can deal with some of the most pressing issues in the governance of Northern Ireland. In the continued absence of devolution or any signs of its likely return anytime soon, we believe we now need some creative thinking to ensure some form of decision making is possible in the interim.
There is a distinct danger that some of the great work that this industry has done, could be undone, putting our young peoples’ jobs in jeopardy.
Innovation is increasingly important for the sector and does not just relate to new product development. Automation is developing, and it will have a role to play in transforming the sector. Innovation will also help respond to particular policy issues such as health, wellness and wastage. And responding to consumer choice, the industry is reacting to trends towards convenience and reducing single use plastics. As ever Northern Ireland food and drink is exciting.