The food and drink industry will be a "linchpin" of Northern Ireland's future economic growth strategy, Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster assured the business and farming communities yesterday.
Speaking at the Balmoral Show, the Minister said that food and drink processing is currently a £3bn industry that generates exports in excess of £750m - 19% of the province's total manufacturing sales.
She believes the sector's importance is likely to increase in the years ahead.
"The importance of the food and drink sector will strengthen as we face the looming challenges of food security, sustainability and the effects of climate change.
"By increasing premium, natural food production we can propel our economy in to a new era. In a world facing shortage and decline in food production, our own landscape and the skills of our people have the potential to deliver a virtual goldmine of future prosperity," Mrs Foster said.
The Minister said that the food and drink industry had become a "high-value" and "resilient" sector that was demonstrating world-class capabilities in terms of production, hygiene and new product development.
She said: "The industry's hugely impressive achievements in key markets such as Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland are bringing benefits to the community. It is sustaining employment and creating new and rewarding job opportunities, especially for young graduates, in added-value activities such as new product development, R&D, international sales and marketing, design, hygiene and engineering.
"The industry also provides tangible benefits to a broad range of suppliers in transport, packaging, marketing, construction, technical support and retailing."
Mrs Foster also said that DETI and Invest Northern Ireland are working closely with the industry to improve performance, particularly in productivity, external sales, marketing, innovation, supply chain development, and energy and waste.
Henry Elvin, head of business banking at Ulster Bank, added: "We are very upbeat about the prospects for Northern Ireland's food processing industry, which generates export sales of more than £750m each year and is one of the most innovative areas of our economy. It is an extremely important sector for Ulster Bank, and many of Northern Ireland's most successful food companies are currently Ulster Bank clients.
"This is a sector on which we are placing a high priority, given its importance to the economy and potential for growth."