Michele Shirlow Farm Week Column 2nd Jan

New Year is a great time to cast a glance back at what happened in the year now ended but more importantly to look forward to the 12 months ahead.

2019 saw us closely involved in delivering Invest NI’s Small Business Food Programme in helping smaller companies here explore and grasp new business opportunities in Britain and the Republic of Ireland…and many were quick to exploit this important opportunity afforded by Invest NI.

The past year also saw local companies continue to rack up a host of awards in national and international awards for premium quality food and drink. We also saw our standing as‘World’s Best Food Destination’ celebrated in Britain and the Republic with Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland. 2019 also sawsuccessful engagement between TourismNI, Failte Ireland and Tourism Ireland in the imaginative ‘Taste the Island’ programme, the latter set to continue in 2020 and 2021. We also look forward to continuing to support the visionary Tourism NI initiative Embrace a Giant Spirit to grow our reputation as an outstanding food and drink destination.

As I look ahead to 2020 – and the start of another new decade– it is clear that sustainability is increasingly important for our food and drink companies. And it’s a trend being driven by growing consumer concerns here, and all our key markets,about the environment that must be embraced as soon as practicable by companies both large and small and across all food and drink categories. We are entering an age where consumers are mindful about the environment and health and the vital role of food and drink to influence both.

I am convinced that sustainability and health need to be top of the agenda of our 500 smaller food and drink producers. They are themes that keep recurring again and again. As consumers become much more mindful, the food and drink industry must respond to these societal changes. FoodNI are keen to contribute to initiatives that provide practical support to companies as they meet these challenges and embrace opportunities from the developing ‘green agenda’. It’s a market trend the food and drink industry here just cannot afford to ignore.

The issue of sustainability featured strongly in a recent report by The NPD Group, a UK retail specialist, I read recently. The report, just one of many, suggested that the industry will be influenced increasingly by consumer concerns around waste, packaging and carbon emissions.

While packaging that retains freshness is likely to be essential, “this needs to be balanced by suppliers using more acceptable, recyclable forms of packaging”, the report says. Suppliers will also “need to moderate their carbon footprint through greateruse of low-carbon and zero carbon means of delivery….”

A number of our member companies, I am delighted to say, are now factoring sustainability into their operations. Some have eliminated single use plastic, others are using compostable packs and a number are now implementing zero waste strategies.

While this is immensely encouraging, we need to see an industry-wide strategy on sustainability to increase our international competitiveness as a supplier of quality, healthyfood and drink that continues to be regarded as outstandingly tasty while meeting the higher expectations of consumers to safeguard the environment as well.