Irish Minister claims agri-food sector needs a rethink

The current agri-food supply chain needs to be rethought in order to rebuild trust in the food industry. That was the key message today from Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill to delegates at a high-level conference of producers, processors and retailers.

Speaking as she opened the first meeting of the Supply Chain Forum, the minister said the current structure of the industry wasn’t working as well as it could. “The challenges we face provide a sharp focus on the nature and structure of the industry, particularly its vulnerability to the volatility of the global market,” she said.

Alluding to the falling global market prices for products including pork and milk, which have led farmers across Europe to stage protests in Brussels, O’Neill added: “While the current crisis is caused by factors beyond our control, their impact can be influenced by what we do. While we produce world-class food and drink, there are things that we can do better to ensure we are rewarded for the quality of our products.”

The Minister said she decided to convene the Supply Chain Forum, held at the Food Innovation Centre at CAFRE’s Loughry Campus in Cookstown, because she was determined to improve effective communication and collaboration across the agri-food supply chain.

In her opening remarks, the Minister said: “Supply chains have become fragmented. This leads to insufficient margins for all. I want to see all players in the sector sharing equitably in the risks and rewards for their hard work.

“There is a need to revisit the traditional understanding of a supply chain: to build strong relationships between producers, processors, retailers, the foodservice industry and other key players, such as banks and feed merchants; to improve transparency and communication; and to rebuild trust and confidence across the supply chain.”

The Minister told those gathered that many of the industry’s long-term competitors come from outside Ireland, and it was only by working together that the industry could seek to compete globally.

She added: “We have a clear strategy called Going for Growth. It is based on the premise of a single supply chain - integrated, sustainable and profitable - focused on delivering the needs of the market. It calls on government and industry to work together and is about adding value across the supply chain by meeting the customers’ needs.”

The Minister said the Supply Chain Forum must be the starting point in improving communication within the industry. Delegates at the conference received a number of presentations designed to illustrate the market context and to highlight what it is the market wants.

The Minister concluded: “Be in no doubt, I am committed to the long-term sustainability of the entire agri-food sector. I am working hard to open up new markets. I have secured the largest ever Rural Development Programme funding, which will provide farmers with the skills, training and investment they need to improve how they produce and will provide processors with financial support to innovate. I will continue to promote and represent the interests of the sector, whether at home or abroad. But it is only in partnership with the industry, that we can deliver the full potential of our agri-food sector.”

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