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Michele Shirlow MBE – Farm Week Column 2nd May

A recent report from the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) emphasised the “strategic importance” of the agri-food industry to the economy. It was a timely reminder to politicians grappling with the Brexit chaos, that they should give priority to safeguarding an industry that contributes £122 billion to the UK economy. The industry contributes around £5 billion to the local economy
and especially to the wellbeing of rural communities.

Figures in DEFRA’s new ‘State of the Farming Economy’ report show that UK food and drink exports increased by almost three percent to £22.6 billion last year. And that there are also even more people now employed in the UK agri-food sector, with the number surpassing four million.

The industry here is also a major employer of some 100,000 people across the extensive supply. Some 20,000 people work in local processing units and around 50,000 on farms here.

Agri-food is our still biggest manufacturing sector, a key exporter of a broad range of produce and one which continues to prosper in the dynamic and fast moving grocery sector. It’s become a market-focused industry strongly committed to and successful in coming up with ideas for new products in tune with customer demands for outstandingly tasty and consistently high quality produce with provenance.

And it is keeping pace with demands for products lower in sugar and fat and from those seeking vegan and vegetarian options. Among the most striking recent innovations is the successful launch of nitrite-free bacon, ham and pork sausages by Finnebroque and the launch of vegan cakes made by Grahams Bakery Dromore. Both presented at Borough Market London in March.

Rural communities here depend on a successful and dynamic agri-food industry. That is why it was so significant for Northern Ireland to win Best Food Destination 2018/19 at the World Travel Market in London. Regular readers of this newspaper will be well aware of the industry’s huge and strengthening contribution to the economy beyond food and drink processing to key sectors such as tourism, the
environment and engineering.

Our world leading expertise in crushing and recycling engineering began on a farm in Co Tyrone. Today, around 40 percent of the world’s recycling and crushing equipment is still produced in Tyrone and Derry by international pace setters such as Terex, CDE, Fleming Agri and Edge Innovate, the latter a recent and deserved winner of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the Export category.

I share the view of National Farmers Union President Minette Batters that the industry’s value must be front of mind as we head back into Brexit discussions. “Farming is the bedrock of the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, food and drink, which provides the nation and wider world with safe, traceable and affordable food produced to world-leading animal welfare, environmental and food safety standards.”

She added: “Given farming’s value to the UK economy and the huge number of people it employs, we must ensure that food and farming in Britain is at the forefront of Brexit negotiations.”

The data also comes as Food NI is finalising plans for our Food Pavilion at the RUAS show at Balmoral Park now one of the biggest and most inspiring of showcases of farming and food in the UK. It’s always an immensely important event, our biggest annual showcase of local food and drink and one which continues to go from strength.

We’ll have a number of innovative companies, making their first appearance at Balmoral. They can expect to be extremely busy during the four-day show and to do worthwhile business in what will certainly be a packed Food NI Food Pavilion.