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Brexit will demand innovation in the Irish agri-food sector


Orla Battersby

Divisional Manager – Food, Enterprise Ireland

The momentous structural shift that Brexit will bring creates additional challenges for the food and drink companies around competitiveness, innovation and market diversification.

Irish compaies will want to gain a competitive advantage in international markets

The agri-food sector is critically important to the modern Irish economy, accounting for 8% of GDP, employing 58,000 people directly (160,000 in total) and contributing €26 billion to the Irish economy. The biggest single challenge to the Irish food and drink sector is Brexit, which represents the most significant economic challenge in the last 50 years.

Cost competitiveness is key and Irish companies will face increased competition, not only in the UK market but also in the domestic market. Closely related to staying competitive is the real need for companies to invest more in innovation, which is a critical component of competitiveness. Innovation is a key enabler for diversifying into new products and in turn, new markets.

Market-led innovation is at the heart of gaining competitive advantage in business. It is central to Irish companies’ ability to compete in international markets. Innovation in the food and drink sector is driven by very strong collaborations between industry, academia and government.

The recently-launched national Revised Research Prioritisation Strategy identifies food as one of the six key national research themes. The national approach to food research is very much aligned with the EU initiative emerging in Food 2030.

In addition, the Irish research and enterprise agri-food agenda aligns on a global level to the changing demographics (such as an increasingly elderly population), the increase in diet-related disease and the global consumer demand for sustainable, ‘natural’ health and wellness food products across the life stages.

Converging tech across food, life sciences and IT will help us stay ahead

A convergence of technologies across food, life sciences and IT will support our response to these trends with advancements in ingredient and packaging technologies, genomics, data analytics, robotics and manufacturing 4.0 of critical importance.

One example of consumer-led scientific research is Food Health Ireland’s health cheese programme, which is focused on scientific evidence demonstrating the health benefits of Irish dairy products. This research showed that cheese has many heart-healthy compounds and may not have the effects we once thought on LDL-cholesterol levels.

In order to grow and scale their businesses, evolving Irish agri-food companies need to focus on their customers’ needs and ensure they are innovating to produce products – competitively and profitably in a sustainable way – that delight their customers.

My advice for these companies is to seek help from the relevant agencies to help them on their journey. Supports like Innovation Vouchers and Mentors (EI and LEOs) can be invaluable at an early stage as well as the Food Academy (Bord Bia/LEOs), FoodWorks (EI/Bord Bia/Teagasc) programmes and EI’s High Potential Start Up programme. 

Finally, I know that there is still great uncertainty around Brexit and it may impact companies seeking to enter and/or grow in the UK market, but my advice is to focus on the areas they can influence and seek help to build their resilience through competitiveness, innovation and market development.

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