How NI’s food sector is working towards a sustainable future

12 October 2021, 07:10 AM

Food and drink is one of the key drivers of economic growth in Northern Ireland. We are the region’s largest single manufacturing industry, supporting 113,000 jobs across the supply chain and feeding millions of people across the UK, EU and beyond. 

This is a pivotal time for our sector. We currently face 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.

Addressing the climate crisis is the single biggest challenge we face across all industries, and across society, in the coming decades. The drive towards net zero and decarbonising our economy is something that we all need to play our part in, including the food and drink sector.

For our customers and consumers, sustainability is no longer something that is nice to have – it is a must have. Equally, the need for industry to continue to improve its environmental footprint will form a key pillar of future government food policy and support for the sector. We welcome moves by Northern Ireland agriculture minister Edwin Poots MLA to put green growth and sustainability at the heart of his department’s vision for future agriculture policy locally.

While improving sustainability is a necessity, it also provides great opportunity for innovative firms. We are already world leading when it comes to sustainability, animal welfare, quality and commercial success. Those credentials, combined with the innovative spirit that defines NI food and drink, will see the industry be part of the solution on climate change, while continuing to grow.

Indeed, our food and drink companies in Northern Ireland continue to develop more sustainable products, and make their processes more energy efficient – with a range of initiatives from improving the recyclability of packaging, to introducing greener farming practices to using clean and renewable energy to power production. 

Through our NIFDA packaging forum, major companies across the food and drink sector in Northern Ireland are exploring ways in which government and industry can work together to deliver practical solutions on plastics and packaging. Plastic waste is an issue the industry is taking seriously. As a society we need to rethink our use of plastics, and at a government level there needs to be investment in better recycling infrastructure, and a reform of the system to drive up recycling rates. 

On farm, great work is being done to improve biodiversity and introducing renewable energy. Extensive research is also being carried out measuring levels of carbon sequestration and looking at how farms can further lower their carbon footprint. On the transport side, firms are looking to decarbonise their fleets with some introducing vehicles powered by natural gas which will have a significant positive impact on emissions. 

The food and drink industry here – and the wider ‘eating ecosystem’ of sectors linked to it including farming, transport, cold storage and retail – is firmly committed to reducing its carbon footprint and becoming more sustainable, and combined with good national and local legislation, these measures are making a real difference.

There is much more still to be done but we are making good progress. Looking forward, the key to making our industry more sustainable is innovation. It is also vital that we continue to invest in research and development in these areas to develop new solutions that enhance both sustainability and profitability.

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