Food and drink contribute £4.42 billion to Northern Ireland economy
THE food and drinks sector's contribution to the Northern Ireland economy has fallen marginally to £4.42 billion after 15 years of unbroken growth.
But the total number of direct employees in the sector rose by more than five per cent from 20,486 to 21,524 full-time employee equivalents.
However, there are fears it could further diminish in the aftermath of Brexit.
The figures, released by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera), cover the 2015 calendar year.
That doesn't take into consideration the anecdotal uplift which came in the specially-designated year of food and drink in the region.
But even with that, industry bodies fear the UK's departure from the European single market after March 2019 will impact heavily in Northern Ireland.
Daera's ‘Size and Performance' study contains comprehensive data on the values of sales, exports, value added and number of employees for each of 10 constituent sub-sectors of the food and drinks processing sector (half rose in value while the other half fell).
The largest decreases occurred in the beef and sheepmeat (down £29.6m) and pigmeat (down £12.2m) sub-sectors, but these were largely offset by increases in the drinks (up £16.6m), bakeries (up £13.9m) and fruit and vegetables (up £11m) sub-sectors.
The figures came as representatives from the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (Nifda) met Britain's rural affairs minister Michael Gove to discuss the ongoing Brexit negotiations.
Nifda's executive director Michael Bell said: “We outlined the main enablers to growth which were published in our November Brexit report, and reinforced how it is imperative that the local agri-food industry access new export markets, and gains access to a trade deal that facilitates a soft border with the Republic, maintaining the movement of people and goods, free from tariffs and border control delays with the EU."
He added: “Prioritising the interests of the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland during the Brexit negotiations is vital to the future economic success of this region.”
Commenting on the Daera report, Charlie Kerlin, head of agri food at business advisory firm Grant Thornton Northern Ireland, said the statistics show the continuing strength and importance of the food and drink processing sector to the local economy.
“The sector makes a major contribution in terms of the volume of export sales and the number of people it employs locally," he said.
Among the report's other key findings were:
• The food and drinks processing sector contributed 2.3 per cent of Northern Ireland's total economy in 2015 (up 0.2 per cent on the year before);
• The sector contributed 23 per cent of external sales, 21 per cent of export sales and 25 per cent of total sales in the Northern Ireland manufacturing industry;
• Britain remains the largest outlet for the north's agri-food sector with sales increasing to £2.1 billion, representing 47 per cent of total sales in 2015.
• Ireland is the most important export destination, despite an 11 per cent decrease (worth £625m) in 2015.