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.
Those same demographics – a young, hungry population – is very much the situation in the Middle East. The region accounts for only about 4 per cent of Irish food exports at the moment, which he sees as a great opportunity.
“The region has all the right indicators for us – expanding wealth and population, and it must import most of its food because of the weather and geography,” he says.
The growing market for halal food is also being addressed. Ireland can easily supply food that has been prepared in accordance with Islamic custom. There are several food manufacturers already doing this, and more could be halal-certified very quickly, Mr Cotter says.
All the meat currently exported to the GCC region is halal. “There is no restraint on halal production as far as we’re concerned. It all depends on demand,” he says.
Irish food has a generally high reputation in the rest of the world, not least because of the “Origin Green” initiative launched in 2012. By this, all farms and food manufacturers in Ireland have signed up to a programme of sustainability in the food business, involving national standards in safety, traceability, health and welfare, and environmental effect. “It’s the first national sustainability programme for food in the world. This is the right thing to do, because our reputation as an exporter depends on it,” says Mr Cotter.
Its worth was proved in 2013 during the meat adulteration scandal, when Ireland “blew the whistle” on a pan-European problem. “We rely on expert advice, so we have to take measures that others are not required to do. When the customer says to us ‘jump’ we have to say ‘how high?’ Then do it straight away.”
The Origin Green initiative currently operates only in the wholesale side of the business, but it could eventually become a consumer marketing strategy too. Mr Cotter has had discussions with UAE retailers, as well as importers and other potential partners in the Emirates. Irish produce, which already has a presence in branded form in UAE supermarkets, could be about to get a bigger boost.
Whatever happens regarding food, Ireland is going to be in the world’s headlines in the coming months. Next week there is an Irish general election. Mr Cotter, appropriately from farming stock in County Cork in the country’s south-west, does not give away his political affiliations but goes along with a consensus that some form of coalition is again likely.
Then, after the annual jamboree of Irishness that is St Patrick’s Day, comes the centenary celebrations of the Easter Rising of 1916, effectively the birthday of the independent country.
The experts are expecting a spike in consumption of Irish produce round the world, food included – maybe even some pancakes.
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