OF all of Ireland's sectors that stand to gain from trade with booming China, agri-food was always likeliest to bear the fastest fruit. And so it has proved, after a week of activity among a delegation of Irish companies, led by Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, and Chinese buyers.
Mr Coveney and representatives from 51 business and State agencies, like Teagasc, returned from China yesterday, and they have brought home the bacon. The cities they visited -- Beijing, Shanghai, Hohhot, Tianjin, Qingdao and Nanjing -- are hotbeds for domestic and international trade, and the Irish left their mark in every one.
Demand for dairy products in China has rocketed in the past decade, and last week saw the launch of Kerrygold UHT Milk in the Chinese market, after the Irish dairy giant secured a distribution agreement with a major Chinese player. The product was launched by the Irish Dairy Board, and it enters a market worth about €8bn, 10 per cent of which is imported.
Glanbia concluded agreements to supply the Chinese market with 9,000 tonnes of dairy and nutritional ingredients including a whey protein for infant formula.
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Quality concerns are huge in China after several scandals involving melamine contamination, and Glanbia's success here is encouraging for other Irish firms that want to leverage their reputation as makers of safe, high-quality produce when accessing the Chinese market.
Killybegs company Atlantic Dawn secured a deal to ship 12 tonnes of boarfish to China. Previously turned into fishmeal, boarfish is now being used for human consumption in a country where fish is traditionally regarded to bring luck as well as protein. Used as fishmeal, boarfish fetches about €200 a tonne, but that will rise to €1,000 a tonne if it starts appearing in number on Chinese dinner plates.
UCD and Dairy United inked a plan to set up a working model of an Irish dairy farm, with its hi-tech, clean production processes showcased in the heartland of China's dairy industry. This will open doors for Irish dairy producers and technology specialists and help deepen education links between the two countries.
And there was more to this mission than mere sustenance, as Coolmore Stud Farm landed a deal to help China's racing industry get off the mark with the development of a "centre of excellence". The Irish-stocked complex, which will be based in Tianjin, will facilitate China's ambition to bring international horse-racing events to its shores. The deal will also see Chinese buying horses to race in Ireland, as well as Chinese jockeys training here.
Irish businesses have been toiling away in China for a decade now, but this bounty-laden trade mission on a full-sector scale bodes very well for further success in others set for development -- including education, tourism and financial services. We now have a strong foothold in the fastest-growing large economy today and one that's likely to dominate the global scene for the rest of this century.