DAERA Minister Edwin Poots has raised the challenges facing the agri-food sector with his counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales during a meeting of the Inter-Ministerial Group for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (IMG EFRA).
The IMG EFRA was attended by George Eustice MP, Secretary of State, Defra (Chair), Victoria Prentis MP, Minister of State, Defra, Mairi Gougeon MSP Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Islands, Lorna Slater MSP, Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy, and Biodiversity and Lesley Griffiths MS Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd.
During the meeting, Minister Poots highlighted the difficult and unpredictable trading conditions that many Northern Ireland agri-food companies are operating in, citing the Ukraine crisis and the suspension of P&O ferry sailings as particular causes for concern.
Speaking after the meeting, Minister Poots said of the Ukraine conflict: "Northern Ireland's agri-food industry is facing extreme challenges right now. The shocking crisis in the Ukraine is having a knock-on impact in our part of the world as businesses struggle to deal with the escalating costs of grain, energy and fertiliser in particular. We need to be as prepared as we can be for further disturbances to our supply chains as a result of a prolonged conflict in Ukraine or else we will see a real and damaging impact on our local industries.
"I also believe there is a strong case for a national intervention to prevent the possible collapse of the pig sector. While the pig sector is the most acute concern, we must also be prepared to step in to help other sectors if output prices do not respond adequately or quickly enough to offset the large increases in input costs.
"We must act quickly to ensure our capacity to produce food is maintained. That is why I have asked the Secretary of State, George Eustice MP, to urgently consider a range of measures, including financial assistance for UK farmers to support them through the crisis. I have also asked that our local Agri-Food Industry Forum meetings take place weekly so that we have up to date information directly from the sector.
Regarding the suspension of P&O ferry sailings, Minister Poots said: "Northern Ireland faces a challenge due to its geographical dependence on the supply of critical goods (food and medicines) carried on GB-NI ferries across the Irish Sea. An interruption to those crucial import and export supply lines has the potential to cause short term disruption to Northern Ireland businesses and ultimately to consumers.
"I have asked that food is prioritised on any sailings coming to Northern Ireland to ensure food continues to make it onto shelves.
"My officials are urgently working across government and with key stakeholders including the Belfast Harbour, the British Retail Consortium and the relevant ferry companies to identify the issues and mitigations that will offer support to the resolution of this issue."
Minister Poots concluded: "It is essential that we provide all the support we can to our agri-food industry during these difficult times. I have also met with our supermarkets, retailers, industry representative bodies and banks to assess the current situation and discuss how we in Government can help.
"I have urgently written to a number of my Ministerial colleagues to ask for financial assistance for the agri-sector and support in the movement of critical goods in and out of Northern Ireland. Our food sector is absolutely essential and it is vital that we support it."