Immense Economic And Social Challenges Northern Ireland Post-pandemic

Regular readers of this column will know that I am an avid reader of surveys forecasting future impacts on our dynamic food and drink industries and in truth to all of us. It is so important to look forward and plan. Large businesses invest significantly in market studies and research, as does Invest NI’s Consumer Insights team.

While we may all be concerned with day-to-daychallenges, particularly in the run up to Christmas, it’svital to take time to look ahead as best we can. I once heard that a defining characteristic of an entrepreneur is an ability to foresee the future and this is especially true of the new and emerging producers which make such an important contribution to our local food and drink. We’ve seen that contribution grow substantially during the coronavirus pandemic and we have seen how food and drink producers are quick to pivot and adapt.

A recent study on consumer behaviour in Europe has important findings for food and drink producers here and especially for those already doing business in Europe or planning to do so in both short and long-terms. At this stage, it’s not clear how Brexit will impact on our food and drink processors.

Our red meat sector, a significant exporter to Europe and further afield, has already warned that companies won’t be ready when Brexit dawns on 1st January. Understandably, the sector has demanded a further 12-month period of ‘grace’ before the new procedures are implemented to enable them to prepare for the far-reaching changes ahead. I would supports such an initiative and would recommend it should be widened to include all export-focused businesses here.

The survey I’ve been studying pinpoints changes in consumers in Europe, especially in the youngest 18-35-year-old group. This group has seen lifestyles altered more than any other group during the pandemic and its associated lockdowns which left food retailing open for business. Across Europe, according to the survey- conducted in September – “we are witnessing significant shifts in food shopping habits, the products that we are buying and consuming, and the way we cook and eat.

European consumers in the survey said that many of the changes in their lifestyles will be lasting. The study found that: Enjoying food and having a wide variety will matter more post-pandemic; cooking skills and equipment and having time to cook will become more important; accessible food stores and access to food at affordable prices are increasing as priorities; nutritional knowledge; healthy foods; and using food to control weight will matter more than ever.

Significantly for producers here and elsewhere peoplesaid they plan to buy more local food and reduce unsustainable packaging and food waste.

Also interesting is the comment that general consumers say they have been more concerned with local provenance, packaging (tensions between hygiene and the environment here), freshness, avoiding additives, and searching for value. Our companies are geared to meet these requirements especially in freshness and provenance.

Across the board people reported an increase in enjoying cooking and experimenting with recipes, a reduction in using ready meals and a shift towards proper meal times and eating with other household members.

Most pronounced overall was an increased focus among consumers on food affordability and value and with this comes the risk of widening inequalities and behaviour gaps around healthy and sustainable eating.” The focus on affordability is an inevitable outcome of the pandemic due to the worrying rise in unemployment from the lockdowns. I was shocked, for instance, by the television pictures of the main arena at the SSE Odyssey Centrein Belfast converted in a vast hub for food and other products to be distributed to the growing network of food banks across Northern Ireland. It reminded me of leaving university in the 1980’s, when UB40 sang about one in ten being unemployed, in fact unemployment peaked at 12% then. It seems that more people than ever before are now dependent on food banks and the generosity of producers.

While it’s encouraging to see a focus on health and sustainability in the future, it’s clear that one of the most alarming outcomes of the awful pandemic is spiralling unemployment and poverty. Our policy makers are up to their eyes at the moment fighting the pandemic, but they really do need to address this crisis as a matter of urgency. There are methods of intervention they need toenhance, such as employment and entrepreneurialschemes. The economic and social situation facing Northern Ireland post-pandemic and post-Brexit, I fear, could be extremely challenging for everyone here if we don’t see creative and effective interventions quickly.