Belfast Telegraph

Agri-food sector will drive economy, says bank chief

By Margaret Canning

The agri-food sector could become an even more important driver of the Northern Ireland economy in the future, the head of Ulster Bank has said.

The bank, which is the chief sponsor of the Balmoral Show, held an event attended by companies from the food and drink sector.

Speakers included Dr Chris Brown, senior director of sustainable business at Asda, as the supermarket announced its biggest ever own-label deal in Northern Ireland. Finnebrogue in Downpatrick is set to produce a new range of Asda sausages using meat supplied by Karro in Cookstown.

Dr Brown said the multi-million deal was "the biggest own-label contract to be won by any Northern Ireland Asda supplier". Ellvena Graham, the head of Ulster Bank's operations in Northern Ireland, said the UK's trade deficit in food, and growing global demand for produce like red meat and dairy products, all represented opportunities for the sector.

"Agri-food is a vital and growing part of the Northern Ireland economy, sustaining up to 92,000 people in employment, according to one estimate," Ms Graham said.

"It contributes roughly twice as much to the Northern Ireland economy in percentage terms as it does to the UK economy, and it has the potential to add more jobs and more value."

She added: "Alongside demand, one of the main drivers of the future success of the local agri-food and drink sector will be access to finance for growth.

"Ulster Bank has £1bn to lend to businesses this year, and the agri-food sector is a key priority."

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster also addressed the event, and said Invest NI had supported a large number of agri-food projects in the last year, adding that there would be more "extremely important" announcements in the sector in coming months.

She said the food sector accounted for one-fifth of exports in 2013, and was the second-largest manufacturing sector – and that exports of food had increased by 54% between 2008 and 2013.

"To maintain this momentum in overseas markets we need to ensure that our agri-food sector at home, at all levels of the supply chain, is sustainable.

"The industry impacts on every town and village."

92,000

The number of people employed in the agri-food industry here

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