The prospect of targeting China with Irish dairy and meat products took centre stage at the ‘A World of Opportunity for Irish Agri-Food’ discussion at the recent ASA annual conference.

Nicola Byrne, president of the Irish Exporters Association, questioned: “Why China at all? It’s 108th in GDP (gross domestic product) in the world. Why are we looking at that one billion people? We’ve got established markets and brands that are already communicated and educated.

“We have no experience and we are the other side of the world from them (the Chinese). Ireland doesn’t need to look to China.”

Noting that Ireland is a small market, she proposed that we could make a lot of money in markets such as the US, the UK, France and Germany.

Commenting on the achievement of opening the Chinese market for Irish beef earlier this year, she said: “I was jumping around the house when I heard the announcement. I knew it was coming as everyone was talking about it.

But when it actually happened and I realised it was the back-end of the cow that nobody else wanted, I suddenly thought, why? We’re better than that.

“We’re four million people. The problem is we see ourselves as big as the US because we are as educated and talented; but we don’t have the scale. We don’t have to go to China. Why do we keep focusing on China?”

Responding to Byrne’s comments, the director of Goodbody Capital Markets Joe Gill said:

“My argument is that we are way too low in our ambitions and that we should be thinking about having a food industry – whether it’s producing food on the island of Ireland to export or whether it’s Irish enterprises owning enterprises around the world – that should be 20-30 times bigger than it is today in 25 years time.”

He added: “The Chinese market is growing faster than any other market. It is the most populous growth market in the world at the moment.

“They are rapidly developing a middle-class cohort and each and every one of them has ambitions to eat better, eat more, travel more and internationalise and that’s a tremendous market opportunity for somebody.

“Maybe you’re right, maybe it’s New Zealand that does it and not us; but I’d like to think that Ireland has the capability, the ambition and the imagination to go after that as much as we want to go after the US.”

Replying, Byrne said: “I think that’s the problem. I think we feel we can go anywhere and we do and if we don’t cooperate and decide we are going one place then we are going to be a Jack-of-all-markets and a master of none.

I think there’s a huge amount of opportunity that we are missing sitting on our doorsteps. I think we have amazing relationships. I think brands are going to be the key.

“The reason that we can put plants in other factories and make Dairygold or Kerrygold in other markets and sell our butter over there is we’ve spent 30 years creating a brand and investing in that market.

“It’s the brand that’s sold – a bit like Coca Cola sells here. The Americans spent 30 years working on it to make Coca Cola the number one drink in the country.

“We can definitely do it. We just have to decide either we farm or go and explore,” she said.