As he prepares to speak at the opening of Queen's University's new Institute for Global Food Security, Tesco chief Philip Clarke writes about how the supermarket wants to give farmers a better deal
It's an honour to have been asked to open the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen's University, Belfast. Northern Ireland can be proud that it is to be home to what I'm sure will become a world-leading centre for the study of an issue which all of us in the food industry need to pay close attention to.
We employ 9,000 colleagues in Northern Ireland, but we see our contribution being about more than investment and job creation.
Tesco is the number one customer for food produced on the island of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, we spend more than £500m a year, with more than 90 Northern Irish suppliers. I see a bright future for the Northern Irish food industry and I'm determined Tesco plays its part.
I'm proud of the way our team, based in Newtownabbey, has worked with small Northern Irish suppliers. Companies like Mash Direct, based in Comber, or Genesis Bakery in Magherafelt, have grown their businesses alongside the growth of sales through Tesco.
Of course, we work with big Northern Irish suppliers, too: Moy Park in poultry and Foyle Meats in red meat. Many of our biggest suppliers here don't just supply our Northern Irish business, but export to the UK and Republic.
That's where I see the really exciting opportunity for Northern Irish food. The Northern Ireland Agri-Food Strategy Board's aim of producing 30-40% more food here by 2020 will only be achieved with an increase in exports.
Tesco has strong businesses in central Europe and there is no reason why supplying those countries with competitively priced Northern Irish products shouldn't be an ambition.
Of course, food has been in the news lately. The horse meat issue, which we and other retailers have been confronted with, has shaken consumer confidence in the food industry. I have set out our measures to restore that confidence.
Over the years, the food retail industry – and I include Tesco in this – has allowed the sourcing process to become too complex and too adversarial. The connection between farmer and retailer has become too distant.
One way for us to regain that proximity is for as much product as possible to be produced closer to home. It's what customers want.
We will offer farmers whom we work with two-year contracts if they want them, to give them certainty in planning their business. We will be opening up how we source our food.
Ultimately, the customer needs to be absolutely sure that what's on the pack is what's in the pack.
It won't happen overnight, but if we can restore consumer confidence, everyone wins. By bringing more of our sourcing closer to home, I see exciting opportunities for farmers and growers here.