Michele Shirlow – Farm Week Column 2nd August 2018

Brexit uncertainty poses serious threat to our ambitious food and drink producers

There was a timely reminder last week of just how important Great Britain is for our buoyant food and drink industry. It came in the latest provisional estimates on the industry from an HMRC report issued by the Department for Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs and showed that Great Britain now accounts of just over half of the total sales of our food and drink output, more than £2 billion.

It’s a particularly significant reminder at this time when we are all trying to comprehend just what Brexit will mean for food and drink producers here.

We need to ensure that whatever agreement is reached does not undermine the industry’s growth potential in this vitally important marketplace. And we need to be just as vigilant in other markets in Europe, especially the Republic of Ireland, and further afield. The industry continues to be a key player in Northern Ireland exports.

Overall, the total turnover of food and drinks processing here increased by an encouraging 2.6 per cent last year to around £4.5 billion, an increase of £113 million. Most sectors experienced growth. Also significant was a 4.8 per cent rise in manufacturing employment to almost over 26,000. The industry continues to strengthen as a key employer particularly in rural communities.

Food NI has been active in promoting the industry and in increasing awareness among retail and foodservice buyers as well as consumers in Britain of the great food and drink being produced here over the past few years in association with Invest NI, Food NI and Tourism Ireland and aim to be able to step up our campaign in the years ahead.

It was also encouraging last week to see our endeavours recognised in the prestigious International Travel and Tourism Awards (ITTA). Our work in driving the hugely successful Year of Food and Drink in 2016 led to a shortlisting in the Best Food Destination category. Northern Ireland is in the top 4 against the likes of San Sebastian and ‘A Taste of West Cork’.

What the shortlisting has done is raise the level of awareness of our food and drink among key influencers in the international tourism industry. It’s recognition of the food and drink industry’s dedication to the production of deliciously tasty and innovative products.

And it showed the extent of support across most sections of the community here for this most important industry, one which has a pivotal role to play in drawing even greater numbers of visitors here, because research shows that tourists generally spend around a third of their holiday budget on eating and drinking.

Destinations are frequently chosen on the strength of their reputation for great food and drink that’s locally produced. It’s essential that we continue to grasp every opportunity to promote our richly flavoured local produce in external markets like Britain as well as internationally.

The universal recognition across Northern Ireland of the role of food and drink in driving economic growth through sales abroad and in supporting tourism is just one of the most significant legacies of our Year of Food and Drink.