Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Michael Creed holds what seems to be one of the most crucial cabinet portfolios in the republic at the moment.
Ireland exports some 40 percent of its agri-food produce to the United Kingdom; the sector being most susceptible should Britain exit acrimoniously from the European Union. Therefore, securing new markets outside the UK is high on the agenda for Creed, in a bid to diversify into markets that can offer best potential for growth.
During Creed's visit to Malaysia, high level discussions, including with Minister of Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry Datuk Salahuddin Ayub had borne fruit. A veterinary health certificate for the exports of Irish pig meat to Malaysia has been agreed upon.
Ireland has established a reputation as ‘Food Island’; despite just having over five million population, the republic has the capacity to produce food to feed a population six times over
Ireland has established a reputation as ‘Food Island’; despite just having over five million population, the republic has the capacity to produce food to feed a population six times over.
Dairy products make up one third of all its food and drink exports. Ireland’s Food Board, Bord Bia has identified Malaysia as a great potential for export growth in the segment.
At the moment, Malaysia’s dairy production covers only about five percent of domestic needs. New Zealand is the largest dairy supplier to Malaysia, carving for itself half the market share, followed by Australia and the United States.
“We export 85 percent of our dairy production. In Malaysia, where there is a growing middle class with more disposable income, we see significant opportunities for our dairy products,” says Creed.
“One of our leading dairy companies, the Kerry Group." Among the nine Irish firms operating in Malaysia, Kerry Group is by far the largest employer. Its five factories in Malaysia employs 2,300 people.
"So, that’s an important statement of intent. They are a global leader in dairy and food ingredients and as we grow awareness of the Irish dairy industry and food sector, it is likely we can see more investments.”
Other notable Irish firms operating in Malaysia include software firm OPENET that employs over 300 people, providing solutions for telecom and banking sectors. While Klang-based Steripack manufacturers medical devices and employs about 200 staff. Other Irish companies based in Malaysia deal with telecom software and construction materials.
According to the Embassy of Ireland in Malaysia, total trade between both countries hit RM3.1 billion in 2017 (exports made up RM926 million; imports RM2.2 billion).
Opportunities in Dairy Segment
Creed spoke to Astro AWANI at the launch of the Irish Chamber of Commerce in Malaysia, an establishment that, he sees, will further strengthen and support Irish companies to do businesses in Malaysia.
It is a really important opportunity to heighten awareness of what Ireland has to offer, not just in agri-food but a whole range of other products
“It is a really important opportunity to heighten awareness of what Ireland has to offer, not just in agri-food but a whole range of other products such as in the industrial sectors and information technology,” says Creed, adding that he sees education as a potential collaborative sector too.
“I’ve only been here for a short time but what strikes me is the remarkable similarities. Both countries place great emphasis on education. There’s been a long tradition of Irish De La Salle Brothers who came to Malaysia over many years.”
“A good education foundation is critical to economic development; we both have highly educated, mobile and flexible workforce. I think it's a critical ingredient for success in today’s economy,” says Creed.
There are currently some 1,400 Malaysian students studying in Ireland, with medicine being the main area of interests. Others include agricultural science, aircraft maintenance and technical and vocational training education.
In addition, there are over 200 students studying for Irish medical degrees in Malaysia at The Perdana University-Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and University College Dublin Malaysia Campus (RUMC) in Penang.
“We may be geographically removed. Nonetheless, I think the opportunities are great.”
Make Farming An Appealing Career Choice
Creed has his work cut out since being appointed as minister in May 2016; just a month later, the UK voted to quit the European Union following a referendum on its membership.
A testing period, no doubt, for Creed as he seeks to secure the best outcome possible for Ireland’s agriculture sector from the Brexit negotiations. Yet, the longer term challenge for him as minister, he says, is to work towards helping ensure sustainability of global food production.
To feed the growing population - that’s one challenge. The other challenge is the environment. We need to make sure that in feeding the population, it is imperative we do it in an environmentally sustainable way.
The United Nations predict global food production will need to increase between 25 to 70 percent by 2050 to meet growing demand, as the global population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by then.
“To feed the growing population - that’s one challenge. The other challenge is the environment. We need to make sure that in feeding the population, it is imperative we do it in an environmentally sustainable way. And the question is how we meet those two objectives together?”
Creed, who grew up and worked in his family farm before venturing into politics, says there is an urgency to attract more young people into the agricultural sector.
“The challenge for the years ahead will be, in a way, to ‘glamorise’ farmers and food production, says Creed.
“From my travels around the world, there is a problem of an ageing profile of farmers.”
“I think farmers of the future will be scientists, they will be familiar with big data, they will innovate and apply new technologies to make sure they are the most efficient users of the resource and do it in an environmentally sustainable way.”
“So, we need to make the industry globally more attractive to young people because it is only by attracting new blood into any industry that you can meet the challenges of the future.”