Ireland's richness in food and drink has as much to do with its climate as anything else. The high quality of its dairy produce and beef is attributed to grass-fed cattle which take advantage of a pastoral landscape that is oft to be found "dreeping in rain", as James Joyce would put it.
Agriculture and food manufacture are still critically important to the Emerald Isle, representing 8.4% of its gross domestic product (GDP) despite the nation's emergence as the 'Celtic tiger' of IT. And Britain is Ireland's biggest customer for both ingredients and processed food products, accounting for 40% of agrifood exports.
In fact, agrifood is more important to Ireland than any other European Union (EU) state, claims John McGrath, consumer foods and marketing director for the Irish Food Board, Bord Bia. There are around 700 companies working in the food and drink sector, directly employing some 51,600 people. And the country's agrifood output amounts to euro 16bn, of which exports represent euro 6.7bn.
As with other EU states, Ireland faces the prospect of major change under reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). However, its government is investing heavily in research and development to make its agribusinesses more competitive and its agricultural and food minister Joe Walsh is confident that the nation will cope well with CAP reform.
"The greater emphasis on the marketplace will attune producers and processors to the need for awareness and understanding of changing consumer preferences and requirements and this, together with a focus on efficient, high quality production, will position them to be rewarded by better returns from the marketplace," he told an international food conference in Dublin in June.
Nevertheless, CAP reform is likely to have a dramatic impact on some sections of its farming community. Ireland has around 136,500 family farms with an average 32 hectares, of which around half are involved in specialist beef production and 19% in dairying. The dairy sector in particular "will have to change dramatically", says McGrath.
Ireland's sugar beet sector also faces serious challenges under future deregulation of the EU's sugar regime. It grew around 1.339mt of sugar beet in 2003 which was processed into an EU quota of 199,000t by Irish Sugar's two processing plants in County Mallow and at Carlow. Deregulation will "impact on us quite severely", says Bridie O'Neill from the Crops Policy Division within Ireland's Department of Agriculture and Food.
While meat (28%) -- mostly beef and live animals -- and dairy produce (22%) have traditionally been the main exports, prepared foods (27%), including products such as ready meals, pizzas and snacks, are now growing fast, says McGrath. "We are the largest net exporter of beef in the northern hemisphere," he says. But he adds: "There are 100 farmhouse cheese companies now in Ireland which are adding value to get into the premium end of the market." Despite this, Bord Bia estimates that exports of prepared foods decreased by around 5% in 2003, reaching a total value of euro 1.52bn. The fall was primarily due to adverse currency movements with the euro appreciating against the pound and the dollar, together with retail price deflation in the UK and increased competition from elsewhere in Europe.
Britain is also the main export market for Ireland's frozen food products, which consist mainly of ready-prepared meals and pizzas, and its confectionery, comprising chocolate, sugar, snacks and bakery.
Exports of beverages from Ireland increased by 8% last year to reach an estimated total of euro 1bn, helped by strong sales to the UK and US. With Guinness planning to close its Park Royal Brewery in London next summer and transfer production of 4m kegs a year to Dublin, those figures are set to rise further.
Everyone recognises Irish brands such as Guinness, Jameson, Baileys and Kerrygold, and most in the business are aware of Glanbia and Kerry. But fewer, probably, realise that Boru vodka, Kepak Convenience Foods, Largo Foods, hot beverages company Bewley's or Cuisine de France are Irish owned. And hands up how many know that Goodfella's pizzas, sold throughout the UK, are made at a Northern Foods' Green Isle Food Group plant in Naas, County Kildare?
None of them is small fry -- Kepak, for example, which owns the Rustlers brand of chilled microwaveable meat snacks, has just opened a new £30m production plant at Kirkham in Lancashire, while Largo sells own-label crisps and snacks into the UK, including to Tesco and Morrison.
"We need more brands and less own-label because they really bring home the profits," says McGrath.
But at the same time, smaller Irish companies in the speciality food sector have seen strong sales growth over the past year, targeting not only the domestic market, but Britain in particular.
Food research in Ireland
The National Food Centre (NFC) in Dublin, part of Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority, for example, serves the meat and prepared foods sectors and is involved with a number of research projects on meat quality and safety.
Projects include work to control E.coli 0157 on the killing line and in secondary meat processing using steam and lactic acid decontamination; the creation of a food agrochemical and veterinary drug residue database; and work on various techniques to improve the quality of beef and new forming and packaging systems to improve the eating quality of cheaper cuts, among other things.
A beef tenderness project, for example, is looking at carcass suspension by the hip to increase tenderness, and so-called 'hot boning and wrapping' where the best cuts are removed soon after slaughter, wrapped and subjected to electrical stimulation.
Other projects are investigating new products from under-utilised fish species; work on freeze-chill technology for ready-meal components; and technology for pizza flour. The NFC has also recently opened new facilities which will concentrate on developing healthy meat products using novel fat-replacers and reducing the need for artificial preservatives in, for example, breakfast sausages using techniques such as high-pressure processing.
The NFC has also been carrying out extensive consumer research, including acceptance of genetically modified foods.
Since 1994, Ireland has successfully participated in various European Union Framework research programmes. Irish researchers secured around euro 50m from the first round of FP6 contracts, including the priority area of food quality and safety, while Trinity College Dublin won euro 2.5m for the euro13.5m Lipgene project, dealing with disorders associated with obesity.
For a rurally based economy the challenges are enormous, but given Ireland's belief in the special qualities of its food, its ingenuity and wealth of scientific expertise, I'd happily put money on its continuing success as a food and drink exporter. FM
Food Manufacture's Guide to IRELAND
GDP euro 102bn
Value of Irish agrifood and drinkeuro 16bn
Companies in the sector700
Value of exportseuro 6.7bn
Value of UK exportseuro 2.7bn
Value of EU continental exportseuro 2bn
Dairy products & ingredientseuro 1.60bn
Prepared foodseuro 1.52bn