Northern Ireland’s food and drink sector needs to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) and ammonia emissions, improve water and soil quality and also reduce packaging and food waste, according to a new report.

The Balancing Act report published today (Tuesday, November 14) by the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) claims the sector has been one of the North’s “real success stories”.

But the association also warned that the sector’s future is dependent on “securing the long-term health of Northern Ireland’s natural environment”.

This means, according to NIFDA, that the food and drink sector now needs to “transition” to a more sustainable operating model.

Michael Bell, executive director, NIFDA and Russell Smyth, head of sustainable futures, KPMG Ireland Source: NIFDA

The new report, produced in in collaboration with KPMG, also underlines that in Northern Ireland “agriculture does not currently benefit from a clear decarbonisation pathway”.

“This presents a threat to the industry and illustrates why the food and drink sector, even more than others, needs to drive a programme of real innovation and new technologies to allow Northern Ireland to decouple food production from GHG emissions and other environmental impacts,” it was stated.

According to NIFDA its members are “committed” to responding to the sustainability challenges now facing the sector.

Michael Bell, executive director, NIFDA, said: “As the largest single manufacturing industry in Northern Ireland, food and drink is the jewel in the crown of the local economy.

“For decades we have shown consistent growth, and today we contribute £4.9 billion value added and support some 113,000 jobs across the supply chain.

“Key to that success has been the industry’s commitment to quality through data, science and innovation”.

But he also said that producing food in the most sustainable way will be crucial to its continued growth.

“We know that addressing our carbon footprint is the biggest long term challenge we face as a society.

“The food and drink industry wants to play its part, working with academic and research partners to leverage new technologies that make processes more efficient, productive and sustainable,” he added.

But Bell also warned that “ongoing political instability” is constraining the sector’s continuing progress.

“While emissions targets have been set out under the Northern Ireland Climate Act, without ministers we don’t have the policy coordination nor political drive to meet these goals.

“Similarly, transformational sustainability projects also require investment, yet Northern Ireland remains the only jurisdiction on these islands without a government capital investment support scheme.

“Net zero won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be cost-free, but we will get there with stable politics and the right support,” he added.