UK exit from EU would be a "disaster" for Northern Ireland's agri-food industry
A UK exit from the European Union would be a "disaster" for Northern Ireland's agri-food industry, it's been claimed.
And it would "effectively shut the door on a major source of funds" for rural regeneration and business, Tony O'Neill of the Agri-Food Strategy Board has warned.
"Doing business for our food and other companies in one of the most important markets would be more difficult than at any time in the past 40 years," he said.
"It just doesn't make economic sense to try to turn our back on Europe.
"Leaving the European Union would be a total disaster for the agri-food industry - in particular in Northern Ireland."
And it comes after a think tank report also claimed Northern Ireland could be hit harder than almost anywhere else in the UK if it exited the EU.
"Over the past five years, for instance, rural communities here have benefited from upwards of £500m from Europe," Mr O'Neill said.
And Tracy Hamilton, director of Mash Direct, said an exit from the EU would "totally destroy" the industry.
"It would totally destroy it, and it's the wrong thing to do - we would be concerned," she said.
It's not the first time concerns have been raised over the impact a so-called Brexit could have on Northern Ireland.
The Centre for European Reform claims pulling out of the EU could result in UK manufactured goods being hit by trade tariffs.
And Northern Ireland continues to rely heavily on export trade to the Republic - with sales south of the border making up the bulk of our exports, many of which are within the food industry.
Earlier this year, another report warned a Brexit could cost the NI economy a shocking £1bn a year. And its cross-border business could also be seriously hit, business groups have warned.
Mr O'Neill - who is also deputy chief executive of meat processing giant Dunbia - said the UK should be "working within Europe to sort out the things we don't like or aren't working properly such as the bureaucracy, imperfect single market and weak currency".
"Divorces are often messy and a British withdrawal is likely to be very acrimonious and could impact adversely on living standards," he said.
But Ukip MLA David McNarry said the business case for leaving the EU was strong.
"I am a great supporter of our agri-food industry and have been delighted to see it grow," he said.
"The short calculation is that I can make a case to spend £55m a day, better, than giving it to Europe. I'd ensure the agri-food in Northern Ireland would get more than its fair share of funds on an equal, or even better basis, than it currently receives from Europe."