On 27 April, NI Chamber, in partnership with Barclays, hosted an online agri-food event as part of the NI Chamber Sector Club with Barclays series.
The agri-food sector in Northern Ireland is key to the development of our economy, but the sector continues to face challenges, made even more prevalent in 2021 by Brexit and the NI protocol. However, the sector remains resilient and has proven its adaptability by flexing to meet changing consumer demands with an increased focus on health, nutrition and meat free diets. Indeed, across NI, we continue to see a multitude of food businesses producing award winning and quality products. Sustainability and the net zero target continues to be at the forefront of minds and we can see from our members that NI agri-food businesses are being very proactive in committing to achieving this objective.
These are just a flavour of the themes discussed at The Agri–Food Sector Club in which 40 delegates from a broad range of agri-food businesses in NI, attended to discuss challenges, opportunities and growth within the sector.
NI Chamber were delighted to host Trevor Lockhart, Group Chief Executive of Fane Valley Group who shared his experience of growing an agri–food business in Northern Ireland, and his thoughts on what lies in the future for the sector. A key takeaway from Trevor was that the future of the sector can no longer rely on volume growth, it now needs to pivot and move up the value chain.
James Hague, Sub Sector Lead of Food and Drink Manufacturing, Barclays Corporate Bank, also shared insights as an expert in the sector covering current trends, the future outlook for the sector and key learnings from working with successful agri-food companies. James re-iterated that companies within the sector need to deliver more efficiently, more intelligently, more sustainably and healthier with ultimately less risk.
Key learnings from the event are discussed below:
The changing consumer
Discussions from a range of attendees reflected that generation Z have a much more bespoke approach to nutrition, a focus on traceability and an expectation that sustainability has been a key consideration by their food source. These are a tech savvy generation with a need for data transparency and companies within the sector need to be responsive to this to allow for continued growth.
The Impact of Covid-19
Like all sectors, Covid presented the agri-food sector with a range of challenges and issues. Covid highlighted the need for a resilient supply chain and the pandemic allowed the sector to monitor areas of risk more quickly and remain resilient when faced with shortages and delays. Comments from the event highlighted that a supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and with NI selling 75% of products outside of NI, a resilient supply chain is essential. National lockdowns also led to a rise of direct to door delivery services and companies pivoting to meet this Direct to Consumer model. This trend has been seen across a number of sectors and going forward it is likely to be a hybrid offering. With more time at home, consumers had a revived interest in nutrition and home cooking, causing a rise in online nutritional foodstores and an increase in meat and protein alternative products.
The Importance of Sustainability
Sustainability continues to be a hot topic across all sectors, and the agri-food sector is not exempt from the challenges this creates. Learnings from the Sector Club indicated that the NI agri-food sector should approach the collective climate strategy in a way which is manageable and achievable. To do this, farming will be required to use data more efficiently, consider livestock genetic advancement, improve land management strategies and the types of energy used. To achieve optimum outcome, the supply chain will need to collaborate more effectively and adopt evolving best practices. Large Co-Ops like Fane Valley are directly employing soil specialists and vets to drive advancement in this area. As well as commitment to the environment, today’s consumers now look to brands who communicate trust and traceability, so embracing sustainability targets is essential to remain relevant in today’s competitive market.
Brexit has created significant costs and complexities for the agri-food sector in NI and this was an important area of discussion at the event. Whilst trade from NI to GB/EU/ROI is largely unchanged, trade from GB to NI has experienced the largest impact. In the agri-food sector the controls implemented through Brexit are cumbersome and discussions highlighted that it is important to keep communicating with the EU to identify more practical solutions for the sector.
The Future of the Agri – Food Sector in NI
NI agri-food companies have found themselves spending significant time on recalibrating vision and strategy to meet the new trading environment driven by consumer expectations, the need to be sustainable, to attract the right labour force and trade within the NI Protocol. The growth of the sector looks to value growth rather than volume, and to grow in the sector in the next 20 years agri-food companies should consider:
– How do we move product up the value chain?
– How do we align with trends in nutrition and focus on health?
– How do we invest in research and development and innovation to identify the next level of value add?
For more information on The Sector Club with Barclays, please contact Catriona Henry on Catriona.firstname.lastname@example.org