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Joint approach needed for Stormont's 'Food Fortress' to take root

Anyone attending this week's Balmoral Show will have sensed the new air of optimism from Northern Ireland's agriculture and food industries.

The publication yesterday of the Agri-Food Strategy Board's (AFSB) long-awaited report on how our industries can grow over the next decade must be viewed as a road-map that cannot be ignored and should not be deviated from.

Previous reports penned by industry leaders stimulated plenty of discussion, but little action. Failure to act on this report will only send out the message that Northern Ireland can't keep up with the direction and pace with which farming and food production is moving globally.

It must be acted upon because the AFSB has produced a road-map that will not only increase the agri-food industry here by 60% and exports by 75%; it will also create 15,000 new jobs.

The report provides the opportunity to move forward in a way that hasn't been possible for a generation. As stakeholders in the Northern Ireland economy, we must all insist on a policy of "less talk and more action" from Stormont.

The AFSB also strongly endorsed Queen's Institute for Global Food Security and its 'Food Fortress' approach in their report.

When our institute was launched recently, I spoke of how it was time to build a 'Food Fortress', ensuring that everything we import is of the highest quality and that what we sell locally and internationally is 100% safe, nutritious and authentic. This will require a joined-up approach from industry, Government and academia.

With an investment of more than £33m and the expertise of world-leading scientists, the institute is committed to working alongside the food sector to improve the integrity of the food chain.

Next year, we will welcome experts from around the world for the second Food Integrity and Traceability Conference, where we will showcase Queen's ground-breaking research and our role in building an international Food Fortress in Belfast. A fortress that will not only protect, but will create jobs in our agri-food sector and, most importantly, provide citizens with food we can trust. And that issue of trust is not going to go away. Each week, I am contacted about food scares around the world; salmonella contaminated vegetables in America poisoning consumers, dioxin contaminated fish in Sweden, rat meat being passed off for pork in China.

Food production has become more complicated. Food supply chains are complex and prone to problems, including fraud.

I am not alone in predicting that more scandals involving food fraud, like 'Horsegate', are just around the corner – and next time we may not be so lucky. (Lucky in the sense that no one became ill or, thankfully, died as a result.) The AFSB in its report recommended that the Institute for Global Food Security be commissioned to review the Northern Ireland supply chain.

Such a review would be a vitally important piece of work, as for decades we have been able to speak with great pride about our agriculture industry.

Generations of farmers have worked tirelessly to maintain the land and deliver the very best in traditionally strong food commodities, such as milk, eggs and meat.

Those producing fruit and vegetables also deserve recognition for their outstanding efforts to deliver products of the highest calibre.

More than anyone, these mainly family-run businesses deserve to be rewarded with access to markets that will make their ventures both sustainable and profitable.

This is easier said than done. Northern Ireland is one small part of a small island competing in an ever-growing global marketplace.

Our efforts to market our produce are far behind other regions, especially the Republic of Ireland.

Unless we come up with a unique brand and a single marketing strategy, our efforts to produce food of the highest safety and quality standards will go to waste.

It is an opportunity Northern Ireland simply cannot afford to miss.

Belfast Telegraph