The green and grassy Lynch dairy farm at Sixmilebridge in Co Clare made a good impression on TV audiences among China’s 1.3bn population — including those who buy €85m per year of Irish baby food, which includes products made from the Dairygold milk pool.
The leader-in-waiting of the world’s second-biggest economy would have been well briefed on Ireland’s skill at attracting foreign investment, and on our EU presidency next year, as Europe is China’s biggest export market.
But Mr Xi also said Ireland is famous for its agriculture and animal husbandry, and he wanted to explore co-operation with Ireland in these areas.
He acknowledged the role of Ireland’s unique natural conditions, and diligent effort in the agri-food sector, with scientific and advanced management.
He commended Ireland for still attaching great importance to agriculture, after completing the transformation from an agricultural to a knowledge-based economy, and said Ireland’s industrial structure is more balanced as a result, and better able to survive the financial crisis.
He said that co-operation in agriculture, animal husbandry and food processing can benefit both countries, and contribute to safeguarding global food security — which is of course a key challenge for a huge, growing economy such as China’s.
He was impressed by the Lynch farm, a good example of how Ireland can produce enough food for more than 10 times its population, with much more to come when dairy production is rapidly expanded, after EU milk quotas are abolished.
His words of praise give EU farmers hope of an end to the Chinese ban on EU beef, in place since the BSE disease flare-up in 2000.
EU farmers also want China to reduce import tariffs on EU food products.
Tariffs help to explain why less than €200m of Ireland’s €9bn food export trade goes to China.
China imported nearly €1.75bn of agri-food products from New Zealand in the first nine months of 2011, and has signed a free trade agreement which will make New Zealand exports to China tariff-free by 2019.
Hopefully, the trade agreements signed by Mr Xi in Ireland will increase our food sales to his country.
At the very least, TV coverage of his visit will win more customers among the prosperous classes in China for Irish food, and bring more Chinese tourists to our shores.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has promised preferential treatment for Chinese investors. Fortunately, they are unlikely to respond in Ireland as they have in New Zealand — where 16 of the largest dairy farms have been purchased by a state-owned Chinese company in a controversial deal which many objectors say will bring no economic benefit to New Zealand. The deal is still held up in the courts.
However, the Chinese bidder is getting the land for €750 per acre; such farms in Ireland would probably cost 15 times more.
The Chinese government and Chinese businesses have purchased a large amount of agricultural land and facilities around the world to feed their growing population. There are estimated to be more than a million Chinese farmers in Africa, and some of the best farmland in Australia is now primarily owned by Chinese purchasers, apparently primarily interested in the underlying mineral and coal resources.
They are unlikely to be interested in buying up Irish farms, but will be interested in acquiring Irish agricultural know-how, and importing more Irish food, after the vice president’s visit.