Bord Bia figures highlight how much Ireland's food producers rely on UK market

Irish food producers have become more reliant on Britain as a market despite a growing threat from Brexit, new figures show.

While the value of Irish food and drink exports fell by 4% in 2018, the agri-food sector became more dependent on the UK market which accounted for €4.5 billion, an increase of 2% compared to 2017, a Bord Bia report shows.

Agriculture Minister Michael Creed has warned that farmers must now look beyond Britain to ensure they are protected against Brexit.

Agriculture Minister Michael Creed.

The Bord Bia report revealed that while the volume of Irish exports was up by 2% that did not translate to extra profits for those working in the agri-food sector as the value of Irish food, drink and horticulture exports reached €12.1bn in 2018, down 4% on the previous year.

Although the meat and dairy industries, which account for two-thirds of total exports, remained stable, other produce which is exported to the UK suffered marked reductions.

Edible horticulture and cereal exports were worth €208m in 2018, a reduction of 10% on 2017, mainly due to UK market volatility.

The major elements of Irish edible horticulture exports are mushrooms, which account for 40% of the total, and cereals, which account for 36%.

Bord Bia said the only market of significant value for both is the UK, accounting for 88% of all cereal exports and 99% of all mushroom exports.

But Bord Bia CEO, Tara McCarthy, said she remains optimistic about the industry’s prospects for the year ahead, notwithstanding the uncertainty and challenges posed by Brexit.

“Demand will continue to outstrip supply and new consumers tend to be in countries with low dairy or animal protein self-sufficiency.

"In line with Bord Bia’s market prioritisation work, growth in dairy, meats and seafood, in particular, will come to a great extent from emerging economies in Asia and elsewhere," she said.

Minister Creed also remained positive and said that the agri-food sector has repeatedly demonstrated that it is both durable and innovative. However, he warned that increasing the possibility of a disorderly Brexit poses an unprecedented strategic challenge.

"In circumstances such as these, it is more important than ever that we redouble our efforts to extend our reach in the global marketplace, that we continue to strive for the highest quality and improve the marketability and quality of our produce," he said.

Reacting to the figures IFA President Joe Healy said the decline in value underlines the price pressure on farmers.

IFA President Joe Healy.

“Volume growth is all well and good, but the primary producer has to see a decent price return for their work and investment," he said.

Mr Healy said the report reinforces the importance of the UK market and, by extension, the catastrophe that a hard Brexit outcome would mean for Irish farmers.

"The figure shows in stark form what is at stake for farming and food in this country. As the March deadline looms, we need to see a comprehensive support package in place for our sector”, he said.

A number of sectors recorded significant growth last year including Irish whiskey which had another record year with the value of exports increasing by €45m to €623m.

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