'North's environment has paid the price for agri-food success'
AN independent review of the north’s agri-food sector commissioned by two DUP ministers has concluded the environment has paid a price for the success of the local meat industry.
In the report, presented on Wednesday by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots and Economy Minister Gordon Lyons, former NFU president Sir Peter Kendall said the combination of Brexit, the current GB-NI trading arrangements and the climate emergency, had created an unprecedented challenge for the north’s agri-food industry.
In an extensive 100-page paper, he urged the sector to embrace environmental policies and innovation to ensure its long-term sustainability.
“In terms of its environmental credentials, Northern Ireland agri-food does not have a positive story to tell right now,” he wrote.
Sir Peter, who served as NFU president for eight years, also criticised the lack of food brands present in the north, stating that it did not reflect the level of production here.
“Northern Ireland does not have a culture which supports entrepreneurship and innovation,” he said.
Sir Peter also warned that free trade agreements between the UK and third countries post-Brexit “pose a significant potential threat to NI agri-food trade to GB”, due to the potential flood of cheaper meat into the British market.
Among his 11 recommendations is for the north’s agri-food sector to look beyond trade with Britain in order to bring more certainty and stability.
Unlike the two DUP ministers who commissioned the report, Sir Peter concludes that Northern Ireland’s access to both the EU and GB trading blocs under the NI Protocol is a positive.
But he said Brexit had “drastically reduced” the availability of EU workers in the local sector
“It is difficult to overstate the extent of the labour supply crisis,” said Sir Peter.
His report said while immigration remains a reserved matter: “Northern Ireland’s unique situation should merit special treatment.”
Urging everyone from government to food businesses and farmers to take his environmental recommendations seriously, Sir Peter said: “We have a sector at a fork in the road. One option is to take the safe route, repeating its traditional rallying cry at every step (we feed you, protect us from competition); the other takes it on a demanding but ultimately rewarding collective journey towards sustainability and increased competitiveness.”
While they both welcomed the publication of the report on Wednesday, both Edwin Poots and Gordon Lyons said they would take time to consider it fully.