As an industry we are in the midst of some very challenging times, milk prices are near all-time lows and currently standing at levels that are unsustainable for Northern Ireland farming. Our pig industry continues to struggle and we still have no idea when and if we will get access to the Chinese markets. Our Beef farmers are now losing in access of over Stg 1 million per week.

What has caused these price reductions? , World Milk production increased by 1.8% last year. Cheaper commodity prices following years of good crops, reduced demand caused by poorer economic conditions in China and Africa and Trade restrictions especially in Russia have all led to the current situation.

Our industry faces challenges, lack of profitability in certain sectors and economic uncertainty around the outcome of the Brexit poll. We also have significant strengths – not least the family farm structure – the husbandry skills – the stockmanship - the dedication and our work ethic. 

We have a well educated workforce at farm level which should be the foundation of a highly successful food industry. We as an industry need to build on this foundation, we need communication, integration, a market focus and a common purpose throughout the food chain. 

The Northern Ireland food industry has to step up its game and become more competitive, better at marketing and more innovative.  Most importantly we have to build on our strengths, our climate, our green pastures, the strength of our people in farming, processing and the wider supply chain.   

Speakers at the NI Grain Trade Association Annual Dinner. From left: Robin Irvine, Chief Executive, NIGTA; David O'Connor, President, NIGTA; Brent Pope and Paul Sloan. Photograph: Columba O'Hare
Speakers at the NI Grain Trade Association Annual Dinner. From left: Robin Irvine, Chief Executive, NIGTA; David O'Connor, President, NIGTA; Brent Pope and Paul Sloan. Photograph: Columba O'Hare

Our island status gives us a natural barrier that makes it much easier for us to control our agri inputs and also to prevent the spread of disease. This has allowed us to create a food fortress with one of the highest integrity food supply chains in the world. We have world class expertise in our local Universities, including the internationally recognised work on food safety at the Institute for Global Food Security at Queens, in AFBI and in CAFRE. 

An even greater challenge facing our industry is the upcoming referendum on UK membership of the EU. The UK is a net contributor to the EU budget. This means it pays in more money than it directly receives from the EU. Northern Ireland however is a net beneficiary -receiving more in the form of CAP support payments, research and development (R&D) funding and regional development (structural) funds than it pays in.  

We as NIGTA do not believe that a UK exit from Europe will benefit Northern Ireland Agriculture, as recently stated by some industry leaders within Europe. UK companies have open access to 500 million consumers and in the event of an exit no one has been able to guarantee our continued access to those consumers or markets. 

The Northern Ireland feed industry imported almost 3million tonnes of raw materials through our ports last year. Of this over 1.5 million came from Mainland Europe. We in Northern Ireland are the only part of the UK with a land border with Europe and every day substantial volumes  of animal feed move across this border, raw materials and finished feed. 

NI Agriculture relies on the free flow of labour from inside and outside Europe to help keep our costs competitive whilst we trade in a global market. Will we keep this free flow of labour if we are outside the EU? 

Over the past twelve months NIGTA has seen its membership increase so that we now represent over 95% of all Feed manufactured in Northern Ireland, we have continued to tirelessly lobby for our members in all areas of our industry. Our executive members hold seats on every major industry body including  the GAFTA raw material committee , AIC Sustainability and Feed committee ,  Food Fortress, NIFDA ,the Agri Food Strategy Board. Our Chief executive Robin Irvine attended well over 150 meetings in the calendar year 2015 lobbying in Brussels , London , Stormont and Dublin bringing NIGTA and its members influence to all of the relevant forums.

FOOD FORTRESS has, under the watchful eye of Queens Institute of Global Food Security, continued to see its membership grow to cover the Island of Ireland. FOOD FORTRESS now boasts 78 feed manufacturers and all the major importers as members bringing an unparalleled level of assurance to our food industry. This remains a unique selling point for producers of goods in Northern Ireland and gives an advantage in a highly competitive Global Market Place.

 

In conclusion yes we are in difficult times, but I am convinced that through the entrepreneurship,  dedication and tenacity of our members we will be capable of facing and overcoming these challenges.  2016 is the year of food and drink in Northern Ireland and will showcase the results of the fine business we are all involved in.