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Michele Shirlow – Farm Week Column 26th July 2018

Food and drink key source of start-up enterprise and export growth

The huge contribution of the food and drink in international sales was showcased earlier in the month in a research study for Food and Drink Technology magazine.

The research found that the food and beverage industry is now the UK’s fastest growing export sector. Commissioned by Wyelands Bank, the research reveals that exports are expected to grow at 6.3 percent a year to 2021, ahead of the aerospace, precious metals, automotive and pharmaceuticals sectors respectively. Who would have predicted it?

It also found that UK food and beverages is the sixth largest export sector, and the second largest food and beverage exporter globally after the US.

Overall in the UK, food and drink manufacturing businesses accounted for £243 billion in turnover and created more than 800,000 direct jobs in 2017. Significantly, the UK continues to import an estimated 48 percent of the food and drink it consumes. The UK is the second largest importer of food and beverage by value – second again to the US. Although it is already our largest market there should be scope for greater import substitution from suppliers in Northern Ireland.

Clearly food and beverage businesses are important to the UK economy, especially Northern Ireland, and are projected to be a significant source of growth over the next five years in particular – provided, of course, Brexit is sorted out sensibly sooner rather than later. Also significant is the fact that most of the most successful food and drink exporters are in the small and medium sized category (SME). Food and drink, therefore, is a tremendous source of business start-up. We’ve certainly seen a large number of start-ups joining our ranks for the expert advice and support to help them prosper.

This support includes opportunities to reach out to local consumers at food events here and to participate with us at shows in Britain such as Speciality and Fine Food Show at Olympia. In addition, we are able to call on expert advice to help them in pitching for business with local supermarkets, independent stores and delis. Our communications platform, especially our website of information about producers, is another important marketing vehicle for them within our successful Taste the Greatness strategy document.

The report also shows the importance of SMEs – they account for more than half of the businesses in the food and beverage industry. Smaller, more innovative companies in food and drink play an important part in the UK’s global supply chains. We have many excellent SMEs in food and drink in Northern Ireland.

A developing challenge to food and drink and other industries, of course, is the current confusion over Brexit and especially what the borders between Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland will look like after April.

We’ve been lobbying strongly to ensure that access for our food and drink manufacturers between Northern Ireland, Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and other parts of Europe should be unfettered. Britain is, after all, our single most important market and vital for SMEs in particular. It has long been the springboard for greater international success for our SMEs.

We know that our politicians appreciate this and are working to support the industry’s growth. Food and drink’simportance to the local economy was certainly communicated to the Prime Minister during her visit last week.