Ireland has the natural advantages to be a global leader in food production but we need a 'unity of purpose' and single-minded commitment to excellence if we are to fulfil our potential.
That was the message from Owen Killian, chief executive of international food group Aryzta, speaking at an event in University College Dublin to mark the 70th anniversary of the Agricultural Science Association (ASA).
The Roscommon native, who graduated with a degree in agricultural science in 1976, said that most foreigners know Ireland for Bono, U2 or Guinness.
"Wouldn't it be great if people responded `excellence in food', when asked what they knew of Ireland," he said.
"To live up to this potential, it will take an enormous change in our commitment: will we have the unity of purpose required and the passion and commitment to see it through?
Can Ireland become the most sought after location for sourcing natural ingredients? Can Ireland become the silicon valley for research in food? If we do, it won't happen by chance."
He added: "The opportunity is enormous but the world does not owe us a living. By any standards, Ireland has strong competitive advantages, in terms of soil, climate and water."
He told the attendance of over 100: "Carbon is a real issue for agriculture. We will be challenged to produce more from less. Agricultural science holds the key."
He described water as key to Ireland's advantage. With 50% of the global population now living in cities, there will not be enough water everywhere for water intensive agriculture.
"We should not be discussing carbon without discussing water," he said. "People talk about peak oil but we will soon be discussing peak water."
Owen Killian explained that countries like China effectively import water when they import water intensive commodities such as milk powder and meat.
He said that one billion hectares of the world's soil has to feed seven billion people. "It had to feed three billion when ASA was formed and it will have to feed nine billion by the time ASA celebrates its 100th anniversary."
He said that supply and demand balance is very fragile, with cycles getting shorter. Near term volatility is a new norm, he said.
"Volatility is with us. It's bad for consumers and bad for producers, but its disastrous for farmers." As a result, he said farmers cannot sustain a high level of borrowing.
When asked if speculators were to blame, he said that 'the underlying reason for volatility is a tight balance between supply and demand. Speculators exaggerate the peaks and troughs.
A more disciplined approach to hedging is the best solution'.
Owen Killian said that Aryzta spends around €1 billion per year purchasing one million tonnes of ingredients from 32 countries. It produces over one million tonnes of baked goods that are sold through 290,000 points of sale.
Aryzta was formed when the former IAWS merged with Swiss company Hiestand. It is based in Zurich, Switzerland, with operations in north America, South America, Europe, south east Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Sales in 2011 were €2.6 billion.
Aryzta is also the majority shareholder (71.4%) in Origin Enterprises plc, the Dublin-based agri services and inputs business.
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.
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