When I met up with Aidan Cotter last week, virtually his first word to me was “pancakes”.
He works in the Irish food industry, so you’d expect that matters edible would be on his mind most of the time. But his utterance was surprising, until he explained that he’d been on a radio show that morning and had been stumped by an unexpected question about Irish cuisine from a presenter, the answer to which was “pancakes”.
He says: “I should have known that,” and quite right too. After 10 years at Bord Bia, the Irish government food authority, he should know everything there is to know about the business, including obscure local recipes. “Maybe it was too early in the morning,” he offers.
That was the end of his uncertainty, however, as for the next hour or so he took me through the intricacies of Irish agriculture, food manufacturing, processing and export with expertise and statistical ammunition.
I came way with three essential messages: the Irish economy, after a long period of Brussels-driven austerity, is firmly back on track and outperforming most of its neighbours in the European Union; food export has been at the heart of this recovery; and the Middle East, and the UAE in particular, will feature prominently in the next phase of export-led expansion.
“Ireland exports 90 per cent of the food it produces; the UAE imports 90 per cent of the food it consumes. It’s a perfect trading match,” he says.
He was in the UAE, not for the first time, to promote that match, speaking at the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture in Abu Dhabi, a prelude to this week’s Gulfood 2016 exhibition in Dubai, where Irish food firms have a big presence.
There has been something of a new swagger about Irish politicians and businessmen visiting the UAE recently. The bad old days, when some came to seek financial assistance for the country’s ailing banking system, are well and truly over, and the economy is growing again – fast. Last year, GDP increased by 7 per cent, the best in the EU. This year it will outpace most of the continent again, with about 4.5 per cent forecast.
“The exporting sectors kept the economy going through difficult times, food in particular. Now Irish consumers are spending again, which gives the economy the impetus to go for the next stage,” Mr Cotter says. Food exports have increased 50 per cent since the financial crisis, rising even during the austerity years.
Ireland has some natural advantages in the food business, which have helped make it the biggest indigenous industry, he says. “Around 80 per cent of farmland is grass which has plenty of rain, so that’s perfect for meat and dairy produce. It’s made us the largest net exporter of beef in the northern hemisphere, and one of the biggest dairy exporters. Ireland is the source of 10 per cent of all the infant milk powder in the world,” he says.
The dairy side of the industry has increased dramatically since last year, when 30-year-old EU quotas on Irish milk production were lifted. “Now Ireland can produce as much milk as we want. We have the fastest growing dairy industry in the world,” Mr Cotter says.
The UK is still the largest market for Irish food exports, with Europe next. But the rest of the world, the Middle East included, is regarded as having the biggest long-term potential in the Irish government’s “national road map” for the next decade of strategic development in the food industry.
“The UK and Europe are not exactly ex-growth, and are still very important markets, but the long-term trend for most of Europe is population decline. That’s not the case in China or Africa,” Mr Cotter says. Ireland has made inroads into China, which is now the second-largest market for dairy produce.