Environment: Northern Ireland’s agri-food sector ‘does not have a positive story to tell’ right now

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/M-image
© GettyImages/M-image

Related tags: Brexit, greenhouse gas emissions, Northern Ireland, circular economy

The main challenges facing the Northern Ireland agri-food sector, according to an independent review, are the environmental footprint of NI agriculture, particularly emissions associated with cattle farming.

An additional hurdle to progress is the new trading landscape brought about by Brexit, including knock-on effects on labour shortages. These labour problems were found to be compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, found the report: Independent Strategic Review of the Northern Ireland Agri-Food Sector.

“Farm businesses, feed companies, food manufacturers, artisan producers, tech suppliers, entrepreneurs, knowledge institutions, representative bodies – need to own the challenge and work with government to make the changes that are needed.”

Lead author is Sir Peter Kendall, a former president of the National Farmers’ Union (England and Wales) and former Chairman of the UK’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). The review was commissioned by the NI Departments of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA); and the Economy (DfE).

“In terms of its environmental credentials, Northern Ireland agri-food does not have a positive story to tell right now,”​ noted the publication.

This is particularly the case in relation to the impact of agriculture’s surplus nutrients on water quality, and of ammonia on sensitive sites and biodiversity generally, it noted. “A scaling back of the livestock sector is a real possibility if this is not turned round.”

Total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture in NI have risen by almost 9% since 2009, the majority coming from enteric fermentation in cattle. “Agriculture accounts for 26% of Northern Ireland’s GHG emissions. Again, the sector is under threat unless the direction of the dial is changed.”

Recommendations 

The review makes a total of 11 recommendations, including the establishment of a ‘Northern Ireland Diamond’ partnership, linking government, society, business and education and research institutions. Such an approach is based on the ‘Dutch Diamond’ model in the Netherlands. 

Other recommendations made by the report include the setting up of an industry-led sustainability body to measure and certify environmental and carbon credentials of NI agri-food; and the development of more ambitious targets, and ways of delivering, around carbon Net Zero.

A “data revolution”​ embracing digitisation and hi-tech in relation to farming and food processing is also recommended, along with a major investment in innovation and entrepreneurship, to create a more circular economy.

Food and feed companies are told to seriously consider engaging with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), within DAERA, to develop sustainability focused initiatives and DAERA must allocate sufficient resources to them.

Director of IGFS, Professor Nigel Scollan, said the report provided a positive roadmap. He said: “While the scale of the challenges facing and opportunities for agri-food are large, this report offers constructive and timely recommendations, including the Northern Ireland Diamond. In effect, this would mean ‘NI PLC’ working together and creating a ‘one-team’ approach to support our agri-food sector​.”

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