Agri-food Set To Be A Key Driver In Economic Recovery When Virus Beaten

What will Northern Ireland be like when all of the Covid-19 crisis is over? It’s the question that I’ve been thinking about following tele-conferences and telephone calls with our member companies and other agri-food industry bodies.

While I’ve been impressed by the inspirational dedication of so many food and drink processors to keep on supplying the best local products for consumers here, I’ve also been greatly concerned about the plight of dozens of artisan and smaller enterprises which have ceased production due to a collapse in cash flow over the past few weeks.

Many of those companies, mostly sole traders or husband and wife teams, are unable to access government support packages and are finding difficulty in securing funding from local banks. Some smaller companies have adapted to the challenge by investing in e-commerce and others have developed new home delivery services targeted to meet the specific needs of local people, especially the elderly and vulnerable. It has been heartening to see the ingenuity and compassion that people possess.

I fear, however, that we may lose a number of smaller ventures, including some with very original products, stimulated to start up during our Year of Food and Drink. Most of these have very limited resources and have been dependent on the now closed street markets across Northern Ireland. They haven’t the funds to invest in e-commerce or home delivery, which can be a hard way to make money.

I’ve urged the supermarkets to consider developing some opportunities for artisan and smaller businesses especially when the panic buying phase ends…and there are signs that it has. There’s also anecdotal evidence from companies I’ve talked to that consumers are coming back again to smaller local shops influenced partly by restrictions on going too far from home. Several companies providing van deliveries are also ready now to include artisan products from other suppliers. I’d certainly like to see more of this.

Many of our delis are doing their best for artisan producers but have had to limit opening hours to trim costs because of the sharp decline in footfall and unwelcome pressure from some landlords.

Food  NI continues to present a strong case for the agri-food industry, especially artisan and smaller companies, to the Executive. I was greatly encouraged by the joint statement from Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots and Economy Minister Diane Dodds, both long-time supporters of the industry in which they recognised the essential services being provided to this community particularly at this very stressful and unpredictable time.

Both are aware of the serious challenges currently being experienced by the industry and smaller enterprises.

As Minister Poots remarked: “Food production is sometimes taken for granted, but in this time of crisis, we are starkly reminded that it is an absolutely essential service and is a vital part of the government’s response to COVID-19.”

I am sure that everyone engaged in the industry appreciates greatly their support at this time….as well as in the future. The industry will need further support to recover from the Covid-19 outbreak and to emerge more strongly in the new normal, whatever that looks like.

Hopefully when this is over, people will have a better understanding and appreciation of the power of food in our society, in terms of its impact on health and the environment.

I believe that agri-food could be a major generator of our economic, environmental and societal recovery post-Covid-19.