A reliance on a sustainable and self-sufficient food supply chain has never been more important, with Northern Ireland recovering from the ‘biggest supply chain challenge since the Second World War’ and with a potential ‘no deal’ Brexit still on the cards. John Mulgrew speaks to the industry and those on the food front line about keeping it local in changed times
‘Early market mornings and chatting to the producers, walking around picking new seasonal produce that’s just arrived, hearing the hustle and bustle of growers, suppliers and other chefs is a little gift in these crazy times’, Stevie Toman says.
Stevie is one of those who is already well informed about the importance of local produce – one of the keys to the success of his Michelin-starred Belfast restaurant OX, co-owned by Alain Kerloc’h.
“The situation has given us an even deeper appreciation towards our growers and amazing local produce... it’s great to be back,” Stevie told Ulster Business.
But while it’s far from surprising that amid some of the highest levels of cooking to be found on the island, a strong focus on both seasonality, and ingredients found close to home are key, now, the issue of our food supply has never been more important.
The last few months has shone an ever brighter light on our ability to have increasing self-sufficiency and self-reliance, especially in a worst case scenario again, or with the looming uncertainty around what a Brexit deal could look like for Northern Ireland and beyond.
“This pandemic has shown us how insecure our ability to import food is and how the food chain, our supply of food that is needed to feed the nation, could be severely impacted if we were too heavily reliant on such goods coming into the country,” Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) president, Victor Chestnutt, says.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has emphasised the importance of local food production and food security here in Northern Ireland as it exposed our vulnerability as a society very early on.
“After initial panic buying scenes across the country prior to lockdown, shelves where filled as quickly as they were emptied because of our local farmers and producers who continue to produce high-quality food farmed and grown to some of the highest environmental and animal standards in the world.
“However, there are issues within the current policy that need to be addressed to make sure that going forward, the UK has adequate food security. In particular, farmers and growers need better returns from the market place and this can be achieved without increasing the cost of produce for consumers.”
He said there must be additional support for our food sector here “so it can develop allowing us to become more self-sufficient post Covid-19”. “Currently the UK is approximately only 58% self-sufficient in food and expansion policies will help us to improve this,” he said.
“The UFU is a proud promoter of our local high-quality produce and we will continue to encourage consumers to buy local food and support local food production. We won’t see a dramatic increase in our self-sufficiency right away but in time with the right policy in place it will strengthen not only benefiting our farmers but the people of Northern Ireland, the economy and the environment.”
According to Stevie Toman, his team at OX have had to develop their own skills over lockdown, having less access to some of the produce they normally rely on.
“Some of our growers have had to limit their productivity too – fewer hands to help with the planting and harvest due to the restrictions, so my crew and I have been learning new gardening skills over the lockdown – lots of the herbs, flowers and even some tomatoes and courgettes are arriving from our own chef’s gardens, which is another silver lining to these difficult times.
“This has giving us an even deeper appreciation towards our growers and amazing local produce. It’s great to be back.”
Michael Bell, executive director, Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), echoes calls for increased focus on a sustainable supply here as “we recover from the biggest supply chain challenge since the Second World War”.
“Covid-19 has demonstrated both the necessity and the ingenuity of our food manufacturing industry, and the wider ‘eating ecosystem’ of other co-dependent industries along the supply chain, such as farming, transport and logistics, cold stores, packaging, catering, food service and retail,” he says.
“In March, as the country went into lockdown, the eating ecosystem had to keep going. We needed to ensure quality food could continue to make its way to supermarket shelves, and into people’s homes. The situation we faced was unprecedented, and as a sector we had to adapt to it at a rapid pace.
“Both industry and government had to take bold decisions to address the challenge of Covid-19. Now we need to deliver a pathway to recovery for food and drink, as we recover from the biggest supply chain challenge since the Second World War.
“In the short term we need to protect our capacity in food production, ensuring our domestic food and farming industry is able to emerge from this crisis intact. Initiatives such as the Chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme have gone some way to kick-start the foodservice market, but there is still more to be done.”
But he says, looking towards the longer term, the UK Government “has the opportunity to rethink its approach to food and drink”.
“For too long, successive governments have been content to witness the continual decline in the UK’s ability to feed itself.
“The strain that Covid-19 has put on the food chain has exposed the weaknesses in this approach, and now we have the opportunity to reverse that trend. It is hard to argue with the economics – the UK currently has a trade deficit of some £24bn in food. Assuming 30% of this could be produced efficiently in the UK, a balance of trade benefit of up to £8bn could be realised.
“We should address balance of trade in food as well as move the public towards healthier diets, minimise the environment impact of food production and maximise animal welfare. Investing in automating and up-skilling, expanding our exports and increasing our domestic food security will help us achieve these goals while keeping prices to low.
“A successful recovery for food and drink will require a new collaborative approach between industry and government, as well as serious investment – but the economic, public health and environmental gains would be immense. Doing nothing will only invite success for our competitors.
“Local food production is the only way we can guarantee that no matter what is happening in the world, we still have access to high-quality local food when we need it which is why it is so important that everyone supports local, helping the agri-food industry to flourish enabling NI to become more self-sufficient.”