Review finds Northern Ireland agri-food sector needs to up sustainability focus and embrace innovation

Northern Ireland’s agri-food sector needs to quickly become more sustainable, should embrace big data and adopt innovative processing techniques if it is to thrive in the future.

Those are just some of the recommendations laid out in a wide-ranging investigation into the province’s agri-food sector led by respected farmer and former President of the National Farmers’ Union Peter Kendall and commissioned by DAERA.

It praised the progress the sector has made in recent years but warned that structural change is needed to meet strong headwinds in the future from climate emergency, Brexit and the data revolution.

The report – Independent Strategic Review of the Northern Ireland Agri-Food Sector – said some parts of the agri-food sector – such as livestock – have been successful at the expense of the environment and if action is not taken soon to redress the balance, it may be forced to contract in the coming years

Mr Kendall recommended the formation of a sustainability body to measure and certify the environmental credentials of all Northern Ireland produce and advocated mapping soils to help in the drive toward net zero carbon. He also suggested the formation of a circular economy in which the region’s nutrient surplus is repurposed to decarbonise energy supply, replace imported fertiliser, peat compost and more.

He also called for the creation of the Northern Ireland Diamond – similar to the successful Dutch Diamond – which would bring together government, business, society and the knowledge base to deliver on green growth.

The report also called for government to offer capital grants to support investment to boost investment from large food processors. Such a move would, it argued, prevent the shift of production facilities to the Republic, to address the demands on the sector from the Executive’s Green Growth Strategy and to boost investment in automation to overcome the scarcity of workers.

Other recommendations include focusing on trading globally and not just with Great Britain; to tackle the labour crisis by working with government to open Northern Ireland up to migrant workers and to upskills at all levels; and that the sector should embrace the use of smart data.

“This is a game changing moment for Northern Ireland agri food, which demands that our recommendations are worked on by everyone – from food businesses and farmers to knowledge centres, tech entrepreneurs and, critically, environmental champions,” Peter Kendall said. “I’m not saying it will be easy; re-booting after Brexit, meeting climate change targets and repairing the environment are enormous asks.

“It can be done. The smart use of data can revolutionise the sector’s competitiveness and enable NI agri-food to stand squarely behind a ‘best certified food in the world’ claim.”

He said the region has huge potential, if it can build on its close relationships.

“Northern Ireland’s agri-food has a unique advantage – your ‘everyone knows everyoneness’. If you can pull together to build multi-functional circular food systems, to challenge traditional processes, to build world beating technology, whilst partnering with Government and the Assembly, you have an exciting future. I want to see an industry that can brag with real authority about its unrivalled provenance.”

Agriculture minister Edwin Poots welcomed the report.

“I very much welcome this review which identifies the strategic priorities for the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland. The report produced by Sir Peter and his team is considered, demands our attention and I believe contains much that the industry will support.”