Prosperity deal a taste of things to come for North’s agri-food business

Agri-Food Strategy Board believes Northern Ireland has the potential to grow its agri-food sector to a £7 billion-a-year industry by 2020

Agri-Food Strategy Board believes Northern Ireland has the potential to grow its agri-food sector to a £7 billion-a-year industry by 2020

Agri-Food Strategy Board believes Northern Ireland has the potential to grow its agri-food sector to a £7 billion-a-year industry by 2020

Tue, Aug 26, 2014, 01:01

The next time you are about to take a bite out of a bacon sandwich, please stop and take a close look at it.

What do you see? Hopefully nothing out of the ordinary – just generous amounts of bacon, possibly smothered in ketchup, on two slices of crusty bread.

But it is what you cannot see that is the problem with your sandwich. Whether you grab a sandwich out of a fridge in a corner shop or order a deluxe version in an upmarket deli, you will not know the journey that sandwich has taken before it reaches your mouth.

As a consumer, you simply buy the sandwich hoping it is going to taste good. You probably don’t stop to think about where the bacon or the bread came from, or the kind of conditions it was packaged in, or where it was stored before it arrived at the retail outlet.

Food provenance

You may not know the provenance of your sandwich but, for Northern Ireland’s £1 billion-a-year agri-food sector, food provenance is crucial, particularly in light of recent scares such as the horse meat scandal.

Tony O’Neill, chairman of the North’s Agri-Food Strategy Board and marketing and business development director of Moy Park, believes the “traceability, safety, provenance and sustainability criteria of the ingredients which go into products” are becoming increasingly important. He says companies need to understand the operations of their entire supply chain to have confidence in the provenance and safety of their products.

In the North an estimated 47,000 people have farming-related jobs, while a further 27,000 work in the food and drink processing sector.

The Agri-Food Strategy Board believes Northern Ireland has the potential to grow its agri-food sector to a £7 billion-a-year industry by 2020. According to the board, it could achieve this by developing a “single and resilient supply chain”. But the local agri-food industry also has to embrace innovative ideas, such as the “world’s first prosperity agreement”, which was signed in Northern Ireland last week.

This is a new initiative from the North’s Department of the Environment that, according to Minister of the Environment Mark H Durkan, aims to transform environment issues from “barriers to business into economic opportunities”.

Durkan has given the Northern Ireland Environment Agency the go-ahead to come up with ways to reduce red tape for companies that want to invest “heavily in the environment”. He says the aim is to help businesses identify opportunities for growth that reduce their reliance on “finite resources”, and he believes a better environment means a stronger economy.

Last week Durkan signed the prosperity agreement between the Department of the Environment and Tyrone agri-food firms Linden Foods and Linergy.

As part of the deal, the two companies have agreed to reduce their carbon emissions by 25 per cent and invest in their supply chain by improving farm sustainability and finished-product logistics.

Redirect resources

Durkan says that, as a result of the agreement, the environment agency will redirect resources from “bureaucratic processes that create no value to actions that support Linden Foods and Linergy”.

Both companies are optimistic that joining forces will boost their business and give them an edge in the agri-food sector.

The initiative has already stirred some interest outside the North from the likes of Alison Austin, an independent sustainability consultant and formerly head of environment at Sainsbury’s.

She believes it could be a “genuine step change in how businesses and regulators should work together”.

“It has enormous economic potential for the companies, benefiting farmers in their supply chain as well as local communities and their environment,” she says.

The world’s first prosperity agreement is not going to make your bacon sandwich any different. But initiatives like this might help create better food provenance for consumers – and that is going to be to everyone’s taste.

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