Global population growth gives farmers lots of food for thought
Tony O’Neill is the chairman of the NI Food and Drink Association (NIFDA). In 2010 companies within the sector sold £3.2bn of local produce
With six billion people on the planet, Tony O'Neill has identified a simple gap in the market. "We have a problem feeding the population," he states firmly. "As the population grows, sustainable food production becomes more and more important".
"Emerging markets have increased their meat consumption and we're now at the stage where Irish beef is cheaper than Brazilian beef and UK chicken is cheaper than Thai chicken.
"The change in consumer preference in these markets provides a unique opportunity for farmers and the food business in Northern Ireland to further grow export markets," says Tony.
"Domestic demand in China, Brazil and other emerging markets has increased prices in those countries, meaning our farmers are no longer under threat from their lower prices.
"The threat from cheap imports has decreased and it's vital that the government realises this and understands the importance of our agri-food sector."
Could a reduction in corporation tax be a major benefit for the agri-food sector?
"The potential for the agri-food sector cannot be overestimated. Already governments in the Republic of Ireland and Scotland have measures in place to increase the size of their export markets for agri-food products," he explains.
"The lowering of corporation tax has two benefits. Firstly, it allows large agri-food companies who are based here to maintain levels of investment as they scale-up in size. That increased investment means a greater ability to meet the increase in demand for poultry, beef and other farm products. The spill-over benefits will be huge," he adds.
While a reduction in corporation tax is important, it is not a panacea Tony insists. Food and drinks companies have enjoyed strong growth for a number of years and between 2007 and 2009 grew turnover by £429m to £3.2bn - an impressive performance given the downturn in the economy during the same period.
"This success is due to a wide range of factors, including an educated workforce with a broad skills set, proximity to major markets in the UK, Republic of Ireland and Europe, as well as a commitment to world-class standards in food production and processing," he says. The importance of agri-food to the Northern Ireland economy is clear. The sector buys 90% of the region's agricultural output and supports one in five private sector jobs.
How does Tony see the future for the Northern Ireland economy?
"The agri-business sector and the wider Northern Ireland economy are both at a crossroads. Northern Ireland is too reliant on the public sector.
"We must focus on growing an enterprise culture by creating an environment where business is encouraged and promoted and where more of our brightest young people will see a rewarding future.
"The food sector can become a major driver of this change because it is an area where we already excel. It is simply a case of putting the right stimuli in place and facilitating growth.
"With the right level of government support, including, but not limited to a reduction in corporation tax, and a focus on ensuring that we increase the private sector, we can ensure a sustainable and prosperous future for the economy," he says.
"Everyone has a role to play. We need to do as much as we can to ensure that Northern Ireland stays as competitive as possible.
"Our sector has an opportunity to take advantage of increased global demand for food - with local and national support we can grow our international name in food production."