The chair of the NI Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), George Mullan, delivered a blunt message at the organisation’s annual dinner in Belfast last Thursday, warning that ignoring environmental sustainability and climate change legislation is not going to be an option.

Mullan, the managing director of ABP Food Group in NI, referred to the recent issues in Lough Neagh, arguing that these proved environmental sustainability does matter to the general public.

With much of the initial blame targeted at farmers, it left the industry trying to explain how nutrients had built up over many years, and what was being done to tackle the problem.

“But there is a saying: if you are explaining, you are losing – we can’t afford to lose our reputation,” said Mullan.

He argued that improving sustainability (for example, by making best use of nutrients) can be a win-win situation for both farmers and the environment, and that if we can get it right, we can safeguard the next generation and beyond.

“If we get it wrong, the reputational damage will take a generation to fix,” he added.

A key part of the wider sustainability agenda is the target for net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, as set out in the NI Climate Change Act passed by Stormont politicians in 2022.

Mullan said that delivering against those targets requires political drive and policy co-ordination, both of which are currently lacking while the Stormont Assembly is in limbo.

He also maintained there are “exciting projects” coming forward as part of DAERA’s future agricultural policy, but “some unfortunate delays”, including the roll-out of the carbon footprinting of local farms.

“It hasn’t happened as quickly as it should have. We have missed an opportunity. We have wasted many months – we could have got ahead. We need local ministers back,” said Mullan.

Sustainability body

However, he also had a message for those within the industry, pointing out that there is much more that can be done, irrespective of the political impasse, to put “our house in order”. Within that, there remains a level of frustration that a new Sustainability body is yet to get off the ground.

Proposed as a new umbrella organisation to co-ordinate activity around carbon benchmarking and environmental performance of local farms, the new entity was strongly endorsed in a 2021 review by a group led by former NFU president, Sir Peter Kendall.

A shadow board made-up of agri-food industry leaders has been operating in recent months.

Kendall is due back in NI at the end of the month to meet with the shadow board and finalise the details, confirmed Mullan.

“The ambition is an industry-led focal point to demonstrate we are serious. It is exciting and game-changing for the sector,” he added.

Dairy back within the Sustainability fold?

As reported in the edition of the Irish Farmers Journal dated 9 September, it has taken many months to get a new Sustainability body in NI operational.

It has been a frustrating process, with dairy industry chiefs considering dropping out of the shadow board and pursuing their own sustainability agenda.

However, the latest indications are that all parties could yet sign up to a new Sustainability body, to include the NI dairy sector.

Windsor Framework working for NIFDA members

The Windsor Framework deal agreed between the UK and EU in February 2023, which amends the post-Brexit NI Protocol, is broadly welcomed by the NI agri-food industry.

“We support the framework, but we are not blind to the strains it puts on the political system,” George Mullan told attendees at the NIFDA dinner.

KPMG assesses readiness for climate challenge

Business consultancy firm KPMG Ireland has been tasked with finding out how ready the NI food and drink sector is for the climate and sustainability challenge that lies ahead.

Russell Smyth from KPMG told the NIFDA event that a report will be released next month that will highlight the work done to-date, and the further steps which need to be taken by the industry to meet the emissions targets set out in the NI Climate Change Act.

Outlining some of the “emerging findings” from this work, Smyth said the continued success of the sector was predicated on securing the long-term health of the wider environment.

He said over 80% of survey respondents already have dedicated teams working on sustainability, with the number one focus being on lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

However, he maintained that no one can underestimate the challenge, pointing out NI agri-food does not have proven pathways to de-carbonisation.

He also referred to a KPMG study in the Republic of Ireland, commissioned by the Irish Farmers Journal, which suggested that widespread adoption of existing and new technologies on farms can only deliver emissions reductions of 18% to 20%.

“It leaves room for the argument there is a need to destock as the solution,” said Smyth.

Economic impact to farms

In 2021, KPMG was asked by NI agri-food representatives to assess the economic impact on farmers of a net zero GHG target being set for 2045 in NI.

The work highlighted that NI farmers would have to reduce their livestock numbers to those seen in the 1800s if NI is to achieve net zero, with the lost economic output between 2021 and 2045 amounting to £11bn.

“It is hard to conceive that is the right answer. I believe this is the defining topic for the sector over the coming decades,” concluded Smyth.

Sainsbury’s chief upbeat on NI agri-food

Despite all the talk of challenges facing NI agri-food, Sainsbury’s CEO Simon Roberts came with a positive message, underlining his company’s commitment to NI agriculture and the need to work in partnership.

He said NI was “taking hugely impressive strides towards more sustainable production”, referring specifically to work done by Queen’s University on the global origin of soya and the roll-out of the Soil Nutrient Health Scheme across NI farms.

“Forty percent of our food is produced outside the UK and it takes a lot of carbon to get here – surely, our shared goal should be to produce more here, while doing it sustainably for the environment?” he suggested.

New campaign

Roberts also highlighted a new Sainsbury’s campaign starting in November under the heading ‘Good food for all of us’, which comes with a promise to provide good food for all customers irrespective of budget or diet requirements.

Part of the commitment is to bring new products to customers. Roberts quoted the example of higher welfare chicken being supplied by Moy Park, where the birds have 20% more space than industry standards.

In beef, Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Aberdeen Angus products have a 25% lower carbon footprint than the industry average, said Roberts.

All the Angus beef is exclusively sourced from the dairy herd, via ABP Food Group. The new ‘reduced carbon beef’ range was launched by Sainsbury’s last month, with the claim around emissions verified by consultants at the Scottish Agricultural College.