Despite the challenges of growing labour shortages, rising inflation and strengthening input costs, there is a general feeling that the farming and food sectors in Northern Ireland can look forward with confidence.

This was the specific view expressed by Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) chairman, and Dale Farm CEO. Nick Whelan, in the wake of a recent conference held by the organisation.

Specifically, where production agriculture is concerned, he highlighted the need for farmers to become more aware of the challenge posed by the environment.

In this context, Whelan specifically confirmed the need for producers to be more data driven, when it came to quantifying their response to those issues that have a direct bearing on the environmental footprint of their businesses.

NIFDA on food sector labour

Commenting on the challenge of securing the labour required by the food processing sector, the NIFDA chairman said that increased automation must be brought to bear across the sector.

Former National Farmers' Union (NFU) president and Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) chairman, Peter Kendall, also spoke at the conference. He is currently heading up six-month strategic review of food and farming in Northern Ireland.

Kendall told attending delegates that diversification will become an increasing priority for farmers, adding that Northern Ireland is extremely well placed to make this happen.

NIFDA executive director, Michael Bell commented:

"This is a pivotal time for Northern Ireland food and drink. Our largest manufacturing sector is currently facing a multitude of challenges – including labour shortages, Brexit, Covid-19, new food policies from government; and more.

"At the same time, firms here are operating in an ever-evolving market environment and adapting to new consumer, retail, and regulatory demands relating to healthier diets, reduced carbon footprint and continuing affordability of food.

Our theme for this year's conference was 'fresh thinking for future growth', and each of our speakers touched on how the industry in Northern Ireland can, and must, innovate its way through these challenges, and further boost growth.

"One of the key messages to come out of the conference is the importance of enhancing the industry's environmental credentials. For our customers and consumers, sustainability is no longer something that is nice to have - it is a must have," he added.

Likewise, improving our environmental footprint is likely to form a key pillar of future government food policy and support for the sector.

"While improving sustainability is a necessity, it also provides great opportunity for innovative firms.

As our diverse range of expert speakers from across finance, retail, farming and government highlighted, Northern Ireland food and drink is already world leading when it comes to sustainability, animal welfare, quality and commercial success.

"Working with government and partners across the food supply chain, we can be part of the solution on climate change, while continuing to grow and remaining competitive internationally," Bell concluded.