The world spotlight is currently on Dubai as the United Nations annual climate change summit, COP28, kicked off this week.  Bringing together over 70,000 people from around 200 countries, delegates will perform a global stocktake of the progress made by countries towards the 2015 Paris Agreement of keeping global temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius, aimed at avoiding the most damaging impacts of climate change. 

Closer to home, climate change remains high on the agenda with various events taking place over the past week, notably the packed-out ruminant methane mitigation conference hosted by the British Society of Animal Science (BSAS). 

Methane is a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas, belched by ruminants as a result of enteric fermentation.  The complexity of the biological processes involved were clearly outlined by Professor Sharon Huws of Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), who indicated the opportunities for further research and development of potential solutions.  

However, it was reassuring to note that a wealth of research is currently underway and that various proven technologies already exist and are available on the market, such as feed additives.  Whilst there are currently difficulties with implementing some of these feed additives in grazing systems, the science is constantly evolving in this space and solutions are on the horizon. 

The policy challenge that remains is how all of this research and development will be accounted for within our national inventory to incentivise and credit those using the different technologies at farm level.  

The Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association (NIGTA) is the first link in the food chain and as such is cognisant of the environmental impact farm inputs can have along the supply chain.  NIGTA is fully committed to supporting the industry in developing and deploying a range of solutions to reduce environmental emissions.  Many NIGTA members are engaged in research and development, as well as providing professional and targeted advice at farm level on precision nutrition and better nutrient management, which are integral components of the toolkit needed for reducing environmental emissions as well as improving productivity and efficiency on farm.  Generally speaking, a more efficient farm tends to be more profitable with a lower environmental footprint, which is the ultimate goal.

The need to recognise the interconnectedness of agriculture and the importance of food security was highlighted by Lord Deben during his keynote speech at QUB, which followed the BSAS conference.  He remarked that food should be seen as a public good and to achieve food security will require agriculture to become more efficient as well as adapting to changing weather patterns.  To produce food properly, Lord Deben made clear that livestock are needed, but at the same time emissions must be reduced. 

Luckily many of the solutions exist, and more are on their way, providing the local agricultural industry with opportunities to make a positive contribution to food security and the wider environment.

A recent dairy stakeholder workshop facilitated by the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) highlighted the need to focus on cash flow management and forward planning.

By now we are all well attuned to the old adage, “if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”  Typically, this has been used in the context of productivity and farm performance, but it also rings true from a financial planning perspective.  Despite the many factors beyond our control, namely volatile markets and the unfavourable weather conditions experienced this year, forward planning, particularly for cash flow, is an essential component of a resilient business.   

Establishing a cash flow position is the first thing a business needs to trade profitably.  It is not only important during challenging price years but should be a firmly instilled discipline all year round to allow for proper financial and business planning.  By tracking the cash flow in and out, it allows for better decision-making, enabling action to be taken early to avoid any cash shortages. 

It is also worth noting that banks are increasingly asking customers for cash flow forecasts so that they can understand the size of the funding gap and how long it is likely to last, to be in a better position to offer the right support.

Early communication with both your bank and accountant can make a real difference in understanding the options available for the likes of restructuring debt and tax bill planning.  Delaying the inevitable by not having a firm grasp of the cash flow situation, thereby allowing credit terms to slip beyond control, can cause the situation to deteriorate even further and induce stress.  Cash flow management, good credit discipline and being proactive can therefore make a big difference to your business and mental well-being.

CAFRE have resources available to help with preparing a cash flow forecast and are hosting two meetings to outline the options available to dairy farmers at 8pm on Monday 6th November in Greenmount Campus and Tuesday 7th November in Loughry Campus.

Help is also available from your local FAR adviser who will be able to provide targeted nutritional advice to assist with feeding plans so that the focus is on feeding to yield and not overfeeding.  However, it is also important to be cautious of the longer-term consequences of short-term decision-making.  Indiscriminately reducing feed rates might save cash in the short-term, but risk future fertility and the growth of young stock if the nutritional requirements are not met.

It is important to seek advice early, whether nutritional or financial.  Support is available.

Summer well and truly arrived in June with the sunshine and warm weather providing a welcome break after a relatively cold spring.  According to the Met Office, June 2023 is on track to be the hottest June on record in a series which goes back to 1884.

Meanwhile, climate change and carbon emissions continue to dominate the policy agenda.  The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) recently published plans for a new programme of Farm Support and Development including measures on Farming for Carbon.  But what does farming for carbon mean?

Confusingly, the term carbon is often used to describe all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including methane and nitrous oxide as well as carbon dioxide.  Reducing these GHG emissions is needed to alleviate the so-called greenhouse effect of the earth warming, which is contributing to climate change. 

Under the Climate Change Act (NI) 2022, ambitious targets have been set for reducing GHG emissions which all sectors of the economy in Northern Ireland are required to meet.  DAERA will be publishing its first Climate Action Plan later this year which will outline what actions are needed to meet the interim targets.

Agriculture must also play its part in reducing emissions, but the good news is that there is still a lot of low hanging fruit to be picked.  Generally speaking, a more efficient farm tends to be a more profitable farm with a lower carbon footprint.

To be able to identify areas for improvement it is important to first measure the carbon footprint of the farm and help is now available to do so. 

Working in partnership with DAERA, a Carbon Steering Group has been set up, comprised of the various agri-food industry trade bodies, to help create a programme which allows all farm businesses to understand where they are on the carbon journey. 

The Carbon Steering Group has been helping to test the concept of whole farm data collection, starting with 100 farms, whereby data has been collected following NI Beef and Lamb Farm Quality Assurance Scheme (FQAS) inspections.  The data collection for this testing phase is almost complete and is said to have been positively received by those participating.

It is important to note the results generated from providing this data will not cause a farm business to ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ so there is nothing to fear from doing so.  Instead, the purpose is to better inform the farm business of where there may be areas for improvement, which may in turn improve the overall efficiency of the business and boost profitability.  To do so, professional advice will be essential.  In the agri-supply sector in NI there are around 130 sales and advisory personnel who are members of the Feed Adviser Register (FAR).  FAR members undergo continuous professional development, ensuring that they are up to date with current issues related to whole farm feed planning, nutrition, health, welfare and fertility, and environmental policies. 

Going forward DAERA have indicated that participation in the Carbon Benchmarking Programme, which is due to commence in the Autumn, will be a condition of receiving future farm support. 

Last month, the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association (NIGTA) had the pleasure of welcoming Martin Mulholland, Head of Carbon Reduction Branch in DAERA, as the guest speaker for the Association’s quarterly lunch.

Martin updated NIGTA members on the new Farming for Carbon measures.  Members were particularly interested to learn of the forthcoming Livestock Dietary Emission Challenge Fund, which will open in Autumn 2023 and will provide funding for industry, researchers, advisers and their farm business clients to work together to formulate and test livestock concentrate diets which reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ammonia emissions and phosphorus losses to the environment. 

Precision nutrition is an integral part of the environmental emission reduction strategy and the Challenge Fund should provide a valuable platform for testing and validating new and existing concepts for reducing emissions while maintaining or enhancing performance.

Mr Patrick McLaughlin, Chief Operating Officer with Devenish, has been elected as the new President of the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association (NIGTA) for 2023 following the Association’s Annual General Meeting which was held last week.

Having joined Devenish in 2012 as Chief Executive for Devenish UK and Ireland, Patrick subsequently took up the role of Chief Operating Officer in 2017 and also oversees the joint venture, Yem-Vit, in Turkey.  He has a BSc in Psychology from University College Cardiff and is a qualified Industrial Engineer.  Prior to Devenish, Patrick held senior commercial and supply chain roles with Westland Horticulture, Asda, M&S and Desmond and Sons.

Patrick thanked outgoing President, Mr Niall O’Donnell for all of his efforts over the previous two years and said that it was a great privilege to be elected President of NIGTA.  Commenting after the meeting, Patrick said, “Despite the challenges of the past couple of years, NIGTA and the wider agri-food industry in Northern Ireland have demonstrated great resilience and drive.  Looking ahead, continued collaboration between agri-food stakeholders and government departments will be key, particularly as we navigate the sustainability challenges of carbon and ammonia emissions.   

“As a member of the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group, NIGTA has been deeply involved in discussions around EU Exit and the Northern Ireland Protocol.  We welcome the recently announced Windsor Framework as a step forward and are reassured that in striving to resolve the East-West trade issues, Northern Ireland’s access to the EU single market remains intact.”

Mr Gary McIntyre, Live Operations Manager with Moy Park, was installed as Vice President for 2023-2024 with Kieran Shields from Tullyherron Farm Feeds and Mary Preston of Moy Park both elected to serve on the Executive Committee.

Outgoing President, Mr Niall O’Donnell, reflected on the activities of the Association over the past year, which had been dominated by the volatility caused by the war in Ukraine, sustainability, and the ongoing discussions around the Northern Ireland Protocol.  NIGTA positively engaged with stakeholders to bring understanding and influence on these issues, and he commended the individual efforts of Declan Billington in representing NIGTA with Brexit related matters, Lorraine Colgan and Mary Preston for their work on the Scientific Committee, Amanda Orr for representing NIGTA on the UFAS Working Group and Jim Uprichard for convening the new NIGTA Sustainability Committee alongside his work on the industry driven Carbon Technical Working Group.

Following the AGM, NIGTA hosted its quarterly lunch for members and was delighted to have the pleasure of Dr Esther Skelly-Smith, newly elected as joint BVA Northern Ireland Branch and North of Ireland Veterinary Association President, as the guest speaker.  Dr Skelly-Smith highlighted the importance of the One Health agenda and the need to focus on animal welfare as well as health.  She reiterated the benefits of collaboration and the valuable links between the animal nutrition and veterinary sectors.



By Gill Gallagher

The recent Women in Agriculture conference, organised by the Ulster Farmers’ Union, was a sold-out success with a welcome presence from school pupils, the next generation of our industry.  A diverse array of topics were covered, including an important panel discussion by Rural Support on the difficult topic of succession planning.

As NIGTA Chief Executive, I was pleased to be involved in the event and took the opportunity to highlight the wealth of exciting career opportunities available within the agri-supply trade, which are open to everyone.  A plethora of roles suitable for all kinds of skillsets and interests exist, with excellent career prospects attached.  From the thrill of trading commodities to researching and developing novel feed products to improve performance, animal health and the environment, there is something for everyone.  And it is important to highlight that within the NIGTA membership there are already women thriving in all of these positions and playing key roles at all levels within their respective organisations.  Furthermore, they are in those very positions because they have earned their place and been identified as the best candidate for the role, which is a key principle when it comes to gender inclusivity.  That being said, there is of course room for more talented individuals, particularly at a senior level, which is why events like the Women in Agriculture conference are so valuable for showcasing the different career paths and opportunities that are available, as well as providing support to anyone interested in pursuing them.  Afterall, we are an important part of one of Northern Ireland’s most important industries, worth over £5 billion. 

Providing networking opportunities is essential for building contacts and relationships within the industry and as a means of peer support.  As well as organising an annual dinner, NIGTA host quarterly lunches for members as a means of networking and while these have tended to be male dominated in the past, things are changing, and it is encouraging to see many more women and younger members attending.

At the end of the previous week, I was delighted to be invited to join the judging panel for The ABP Angus Youth Challenge Exhibition 2022, a competition open to secondary level pupils from all backgrounds, whether rural or urban.  The excitement in the Eikon Centre was palpable on judging day and it was energising to experience such enthusiasm from the young people, eager to explain the research behind their chosen project on farming and food production.  And, significantly, there was a natural equal gender mix of pupils participating, demonstrating that the young women of the future are every bit as capable, interested in and committed to farming and the agri-food industry as their male counterparts.  After a year steeped in volatility and uncertainty, it was refreshing to be inspired by the next generation and the future of our industry.


It is difficult to remember back to a time when we were truly offline and not at the beck and call of our smartphones - the incessant buzz signalling a call, message, email or some other kind of notification.  However, not all that long ago smartphones and the internet simply didn’t exist, as members of the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association (NIGTA) were reminded of at the Association’s recent quarterly lunch when they were treated to a different and very special guest speaker. 

Mr George Starrett, a true stalwart of the local animal feed industry, gave his reflections on his career as a nutritionist spanning almost half a century, detailing the changes, challenges and significant improvements that have been made since he started in the trade in 1975.  

Back then, there were no computers for formulating diets.  Everything had to be done manually without the clever software that exists today. 

George regaled members with many tales of his adventures over the years, including an expedition to England in the late 1970s to bring back the first Format formulations software package, complete with floppy disc, in the back of a Ford Cortina.  This would have been state of the art technology at the time.     

Members were reminded of just how far the feed trade and farming sector in Northern Ireland have come over the last number of decades.  In the broiler industry, the feed conversion ratio (FCR) has been reduced from 2.4 to 1.4 kg of feed per kg of bodyweight.  The number of eggs produced per hen has increased by approximately 90 eggs and FCR has reduced from 3.1 to 2.1 kg of feed per kg of egg mass, while the number of pigs produced per sow has increased from 20 to 30 during the same period.  As a result, Northern Ireland is now capable of feeding around 10 million people – providing protein for a further 8 million  consumers in addition to our local population.  All of these improvements have been achieved by advancements in genetics, nutrition and management.  Not only have they helped to increase efficiencies, but they can also help to reduce the carbon intensity per unit of output, a key focus of today’s sustainability agenda.  Research and innovation have been at the heart of much of this progress and will be key to developing future solutions.

George also recalled a number of events and crises that had happened during his career, beginning with the introduction of milk quotas on 2nd April 1984.  The low protein, high fibre ‘quota nut’ was subsequently introduced with the aim of not increasing milk production.  Nowadays this would be an unthinkable proposition from a precision nutrition and environmental perspective given the resulting increase in carbon emissions per litre of milk.

Four years later in 1988 Edwina Curry crashed the egg market with claims about eggs containing salmonella, causing egg consumption to fall by 60%.  All layers are now routinely vaccinated for salmonella. 

Then the BSE crisis of the mid-90s hit when it was revealed that BSE could be transmitted to humans in a variant form of CJD.  As a consequence, meat and bone meal was banned from use in animal feed and restrictions on cattle over 30 months were imposed.  The fallout from the BSE crisis lasted a considerable length of time with British beef banned from export to numerous countries around the world, with some bans remaining in place until as late as 2019.

In the late 1990s the pig sector suffered significant hardship and loss when a pig factory in Ballymoney burned down, resulting in lack of processing capacity for pigs. 

Then foot and mouth struck in the early 2000s which had a huge impact on the local farming community and affected feed deliveries as well as anyone going onto farm.

Recent challenges which the industry has had to grapple with have been the fallout from EU-exit, the covid-19 pandemic, avian influenza outbreaks, supply chain disruption caused by the war in Ukraine and environmental issues related to climate change, ammonia and water quality. 

George’s history lesson teaches us that throughout the last 50 years, no sector has been without its challenges, and arguably there have been bigger crises in the first 25 years than the latter, but in spite of the many incidents that have occurred, the local agri-food industry has remained resilient and found a way through.  We have weathered many storms and we are capable of weathering what comes our way in the future as well.

NIGTA would like to take this opportunity to thank George for his enormous contribution to the Association and to the local animal feed trade over the past five decades and wish him a long and happy retirement. 

Last week the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute held a Pig Technical Seminar outlining the current advances in pig research, with a strong focus on environmental sustainability.  This is not a new topic for the sector, as demonstrated by Dr Elizabeth Ball, who succeeded in packing fifteen years of research into a fifteen-minute presentation on reducing the nitrogen, ammonia and phosphorus emissions from pig production through precision nutrition. 

The pig sector has been proactive in horizon scanning for challenges and utilising research to advance solutions.  Consequently, the collaboration between feed companies, producers and academia has delivered a positive news story to tell.

The research undertaken at AFBI by the Pig Research Consortium, consisting of John Thompsons & Sons, Devenish Nutrition and PCM, revealed that the secret to reducing nitrogen excretion is optimum production, achieved by precisely meeting the protein requirements of the animal while maintaining or enhancing performance. 

Pigs require a precise combination of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, and are essential for growth and normal body function.  However, excess protein in the diet, which is not utilised by the animal, is excreted as nitrogen and can contribute to nitrate leaching, acidification, ammonia emissions and nitrous oxide (a potent greenhouse gas), thereby damaging biodiversity, air and water quality.

One of the first trials conducted proved that dietary crude protein levels for growing pigs could be reduced from the standard level of 23% at that time to 19% without any adverse impact on performance or carcase quality.  If applied across all of Northern Ireland this would reduce the total amount of nitrogen excreted from growing pigs by 750 tonnes per year.

Later research honed in on the finishing phase, the most critical period from an emissions perspective, applying the ideal protein concept to ensure that the amino acid requirements of the pig were appropriately balanced, enabling crude protein levels to be lowered to 15% without impacting performance.  Dr Ball was at pains to point out the absolute necessity of ensuring performance is not compromised by lowering the crude protein level too far, which would otherwise increase nitrogen excretion and ammonia emissions. 

This research has led to revisions to the nitrogen excretion figures for pigs in the Nutrients Action Programme and has provided a robust evidence base for updating the national inventory which models ammonia emissions for Northern Ireland.

From a carbon perspective, Professor Ilias Kyriazakis confirmed that over the past 20 years the pig sector has dramatically reduced its carbon footprint by 40%, which is a huge achievement, driven by performance improvements and efficiency gains. 

Emissions associated with feed, particularly from land use change, and manure management, are key hotspots for delivering future improvements.  As such, there has been a lot of focus on alternative protein sources, which gained attention in the recently published Rapid Evidence Assessment from the Food Standards Agency.  There is undoubtedly potential for many of these alternative protein sources, including insect meal, as was outlined in a talk by Dr Katerina Theoridou.  However, challenges with legislative barriers, societal acceptance, cost, availability, quality, consistency etc. must be overcome to induce widespread uptake. Furthermore, it was noted that not all of the alternative protein sources will have a lower environmental footprint, especially where there is a high energy requirement for production or processing.

Tough targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions have been set under the Climate Change Act (NI) 2022, while DAERA’s draft Ammonia Strategy consultation is proposing NI agricultural ammonia emissions should reduce by at least 30% by 2030 based on 2020 levels.  It is clear that significant change will be required going forward, but the proactive steps taken by the local pig industry through collaboration and research, show that there is great potential to find win-win solutions.  Precision nutrition and feeding strategies, coupled with professional nutritional advice, are all part of the toolkit that will be needed to help the local agri-food industry meet the challenges that lie ahead.

With the closed period for spreading organic manures having come to an end, attention is now turning to this year’s growing season and planning nutrient applications.  Optimising nutrient use efficiency is the key to success in this regard and was the focus of a webinar hosted this week by CAFRE and AFBI in conjunction with Agrisearch and supported by the Rising Cost Taskforce, which the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association is part of.

Growing more, and better quality, grass ultimately starts with paying closer attention to soil health.  A holistic approach focusing on the physical, biological, and chemical needs of the soil will ensure that the nutrients supplied are available for uptake and can be properly utilised.  This involves addressing any compaction or drainage issues as well as assessing the pH and nutrient status of the soil via soil testing. 

Soil pH is critical because it determines the availability of most nutrients.  It is therefore alarming that an estimated 64% of soils in Northern Ireland are below the optimum soil pH of 6.  This means that a significant proportion of the nutrients applied by organic manures or chemical fertilisers can be underutilised by the soil. As such, applying lime to correct soil pH is essential and one of the best investments a farm can make.  

Investing the time and effort in developing a farm nutrient management plan is a worthwhile exercise.  By matching the nutrient inputs from organic manures and fertilisers to crop demand, informed by soil analysis results, this helps to optimise the use of nutrients.   Not only should this benefit grass yield and quality, it should also help to reduce costs by avoiding wastage and lessening the risk of losses to the environment through nutrient leaching and run off as well as volatilisation into the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gases and ammonia emissions.  It is therefore a win-win economically and environmentally.    

Getting to grips with nutrient use efficiency may seem like a daunting task, but help is available.  Professional advice can be invaluable and is something the NIGTA membership has in abundance though FAR qualified feed advisers, agronomists and fertiliser reps.

It has been a year like no other for markets, which have been impacted by a swathe of disrupting factors that have led to prolonged volatility and difficult trading conditions.

Recent currency moves in response to the UK government’s mini-budget have resulted in the value of sterling dropping to historic lows, particularly against the US dollar, which is the world’s reserve currency.  With most global transactions taking place in dollars for the likes of animal feed materials, fertiliser, oil and gas, the weakening of the pound has placed further pressure on raw materials and energy prices.

Since February, the value of sterling has dropped by around 20% and this is having the biggest impact on higher value products like soya and fertiliser.  Taking an approximate price for soymeal of $600 per tonne, the weaker pound by itself has added around £116 onto the cost per tonne, as illustrated by the chart below.

 22 10 01 Feed Forum

Electricity and gas prices are both substantially higher than the same period last year with the effect of the plunging pound liable to make these increases even more pronounced.  This is having a significant impact on feed manufacture, particularly for the more energy intensive pelleted products.  Higher energy prices had already been adding to the cost of feed manufacture by anywhere between £10-£20 per tonne, despite businesses taking steps to improve energy efficiency where possible.  In addition, haulage rates have gone up by around 20% due to higher fuel costs and wage inflation.

Just over a week ago the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy announced an Energy Bill Relief Scheme with discounts to be applied to energy usage between 1st October and 31st March 2023 for businesses in Great Britain.  There was mention within the statement that a similar scheme would be established in Northern Ireland, providing a comparable level of support, but as yet no further details have been released, so it remains unknown how businesses in Northern Ireland will be supported and when.

Similar pressures are being felt across Europe as FEFAC, the European Feed Manufacturers’ Federation, have warned of the growing threat for a number of SME manufacturers to be driven out of business as a result of the escalating energy procurement costs. 

Meanwhile, there has been a continued reduction in fertiliser production across Europe and supply lines have been greatly reduced as a result of gas prices and sanctions, which have been further complicated by the influence of currency.

July collected the accolade of being the wettest on record for Northern Ireland, leading to a difficult start for the local harvest.   Eager for a sustained break in the weather, farmers will be hoping that the remainder of the St Swithin’s day prophecy does not come true, allowing for some much-needed field work to get underway.

Elsewhere, weather patterns have been creating challenging crop conditions.  Parts of western, central and northern Europe witnessed persistently higher temperatures and drier than usual conditions, while a rainfall surplus in parts of Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary delayed harvesting with a potential knock-on effect on grain quality.  There are some concerns regarding the quality of milling wheat in particular.  Despite the extreme weather conditions across various regions, the European Union’s Monitoring Agricultural Resources unit suggests that the yield forecast for most crops remains at or slightly above the 5-year average.  Fresh news of rain and cooler weather conditions in the United States is also lending confidence to grain stocks.

Meanwhile, the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues to cause fluctuations in the market.  On 17th July Russia announced that it would no longer participate in the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which had allowed Ukraine to export grain through the Black Sea ports.  Since then, Russia has stepped up an offensive on Ukrainian ports and key infrastructure, turning its attention most recently to the Danube ports of Reni and Izmail, thus interfering with Ukrainian efforts to find alternative transport routes for grain via the Danube to the Romanian port of Constanta.  Some of the Baltic countries, Croatia, Greece, and Bulgaria have offered their ports to export Ukrainian grains and oilseeds.  However, these alternative routes remain challenging due to the costs and logistics of transport via road, rail or the Danube, as well as the ability to cope with the additional capacity needed to enable the flow of Ukrainian grain to the global market.  Whilst there are currently no concerns regarding supply for the NI animal feed market, volatility remains with the market trading news headlines on a daily basis.

The conflict is also continuing to affect the fertiliser market with the curtailment of UK and European ammonia production, a key component of fertiliser manufacture, due to gas prices and lack of Russian ammonia.  Alternative sources of ammonia are being sought to allow fertiliser manufacture to continue but are still dependent on the gas market.  As such, temperatures this winter could be part of the driving force behind next year’s fertiliser market.    

The new post-Brexit deal, known as the Windsor Framework, has now been formally adopted by the United Kingdom and European Union following ratification by both parties in London just over a week ago.  The Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association (NIGTA) has been heavily involved in discussions with various officials and stakeholders on EU-Exit trade issues, including the UK Prime Minister, and welcomes the recently announced Windsor Framework as a step forward. 

Following the announcement of the Windsor Framework, the UK Government confirmed that it would not proceed with the NI Protocol Bill.  This is a positive development given that the dual regulatory regime proposed within the Bill threatened to impinge on NI’s access to the EU single market, which the local agri-food industry relies on due to the level of cross border trade. 

Nevertheless, outstanding issues are being worked on and it is hoped that with an improvement in UK and EU relations pragmatic solutions can be found.  Access to Tariff Rate Quotas and managing regulatory divergence are key priorities for NIGTA to maintain business competitiveness for the benefit of the local agri-food sector.

Regulatory divergence is an inevitable consequence of EU-Exit without some form of veterinary agreement allowing the UK and EU to mutually recognise each other’s standards as sufficient.  It should also be noted that regulatory divergence impacts the whole of the UK, not just NI, for access to the EU market.

One of the first examples of divergence in agri-food is the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which recently received Royal Assent and has formally become law.  The Act creates powers for a new regulatory framework for precision-bred food and feed products, but only applies to England as the Scottish and Welsh devolved governments do not currently support it, preferring to remain aligned to the EU for access to the EU market.  Precision bred feed cannot be placed on the market in NI unless the precision bred organism is authorised, and the product labelled, in accordance with EU Genetically Modified Organism legislation.  However, the EU is considering proposals for new EU rules on new genomic techniques (NGTs) which are expected to be published later this year.

The UK Government’s Retained EU Law Bill which seeks to revoke certain retained EU law with a sunset clause set for legislation to expire by the end of 2023, unless actively retained by ministers, threatens to rapidly exacerbate regulatory divergence. 

Managing regulatory divergence effectively through properly developed structures and communication channels, which allow for business engagement and two-way free flow of information is critical.  The Windsor Framework makes provision for structured sub groups composed of UK and EU officials, but it is vital that the voice of stakeholders and business is also heard.  NIGTA will continue to engage on finding solutions to the divergence challenge for the benefit of the local agri-food industry.

Uncertainty and volatility dominated the agri-supply trade in 2022, largely driven by the impact of the war in Ukraine which broke out on 24th February 2022.  Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had a profound effect on the global economy and caused significant supply chain disruption, particularly in the grain, fertiliser and energy markets.  Despite the challenging trading conditions, local importers and traders worked tirelessly to ensure supplies of raw materials were not disrupted to the local agri-food industry. 

The humanitarian impact of the invasion cannot be overlooked, and it is desperately hoped that a resolution to the war can be found soon.  Following the NIGTA Annual Dinner, NIGTA members donated £5,000 to the Disasters Emergency Committee Ukraine Appeal to help DEC charities deliver the necessities of food, warmth, clean water and medical care to people in Ukraine.

Fluctuations in the currency market further contributed to the volatility.  The fall in the value of the pound had a direct impact on increasing the cost of many imports, including feed materials and fertiliser. 

Disruptive weather was also a feature of 2022 with heatwaves spreading across Europe, drought in parts of America and flash flooding elsewhere.   This not only impacted crop yields but also interfered with transport networks.  Low water levels in Argentina prevented vessels from being able to load to full capacity and there was a large barge backlog in the Mississippi River, a critical transport waterway, due to drought.

Northern Ireland’s first Climate Change Act received Royal Assent in 2022 following a combined effort from the agri-food sector to ensure the targets laid down were science and evidence-based.  The targets set are ambitious and will require collective action to achieve them.  In 2023 NIGTA will be focusing even more of its efforts on the sustainability agenda by setting up a new NIGTA Sustainability Committee and engaging with stakeholders on how to address the various environmental challenges affecting the local agri-food industry.  Professional advice will play a key role in delivering important environmental messages and the Feed Adviser Register training will be central to this.

NIGTA focused much of its efforts in 2022 on dealing with the outworking’s of Brexit.  As a member of the NI Business Brexit Working Group, NIGTA engaged with politicians, officials and stakeholders to highlight the practicalities and impacts of proposed measures, such as the NI Protocol Bill, and will continue this work into 2023 in the hope that informed policy will lead to a sustainable resolution.  

The challenges of the past year have not faded away, but our world-leading agri-food industry has a proven track record of resilience, and through collaboration we will be able to overcome them together.

The current turmoil in world affairs and indeed in our local politics is having a significant impact on global supply chains.  In addition, the recent heatwaves have impacted crop yields, adding further pressure to a very finely balanced supply and demand situation, with the European maize crop forecast to be reduced by around 15 million tonnes.  This highlights the risk posed to the food system by climate change. 

Northern Ireland’s unique feed surveillance scheme has proved invaluable in ensuring that quality is not compromised, or animal performance impaired, in the event of supply chain disruption. The Food Fortress network involves all of the Province’s feed producers collaborating in a program of sampling and testing for contaminants which present a threat to food safety for consumers or have the potential to impact on livestock performance.

Expert guidance as to the contamination risks from feed materials is supplied by the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, whose researchers are constantly scanning for emerging risks to the food and feed chains. Mycotoxins are a major threat - with grain and grain by-products the most common source. Background levels will be low in a healthy crop harvested in good conditions but in wet seasons moulds develop on the grain and mycotoxins will flourish.  As temperature and moisture are the most important factors influencing mould growth, climate change is expected to exacerbate the presence and risk of mycotoxins.

According to Robin Irvine, Director of Food Fortress, measurement and mitigation of the mycotoxin risk is a major priority for feed producers - it is the key to feed efficiency and consistent livestock performance. “We analyse around 30 samples of finished feed every month for mycotoxins and the results are shared with Food Fortress members. Guidance on the safe use of raw materials and the formulation of rations to ensure optimum performance from the target livestock is also issued as appropriate. This level of surveillance and management of the mycotoxin risk is unique to Northern Ireland and brings significant benefits in terms of efficiency and profitability of production. The environment is also a winner as mycotoxin management prevents performance and animal health being compromised, thus lowering emissions from livestock production.  We are committed to developing our awareness and understanding of the mycotoxin risk to be in a better position to mitigate it.  The Queen’s University risk assessment highlights the top 10 mycotoxin risks occurring in feed materials and these are covered in the monthly screening program with an extended horizon sweep for masked mycotoxins and emerging strains carried out on a regular basis”.

“The program extends to cover the risk of contamination from heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury. Dioxins are also included as well as an extensive sweep for residues from over 300 plant protection products,” says Robin. “We are very aware of the potential threats from a wide range of contaminants and work closely with DAERA Feed Inspectorate and FSA as well as Queen’s University to assess emerging risks. The relationship with DAERA is particularly important and involves a formal protocol for sharing information and for dealing with contamination events which breach the feed regulations to ensure swift action to protect the integrity of the supply chain”.