Beijing-based agri-tech high flyer on the challenges facing Irish exporters


Allflex's Ian Lahiffe speaking at Alltech's One Conference in Kentucky
Allflex’s Ian Lahiffe speaking at Alltech’s One Conference in Kentucky

A decade ago, farmer’s son Ian Lahiffe took the brave decision to up sticks to Beijing – and it has paid off, as he has risen to make his mark in China’s agri-tech industry.

He is now head of operations at one of the world’s most innovative firms, Allflex Livestock Intelligence.

His role focuses heavily on traceability and he has been closely monitoring Irish exporters’ efforts to break into the Chinese beef market, having observed the frustrations of some US firms.

“Hormone issues and traceability are huge issues for Chinese consumers. The Chinese want to know where the product comes from,” he says. “There’s no tagging in the US, so a lot of investment has to be made, and since it’s such a political market, a lot of US beef producers there are questioning whether it is worth all the investment and hassle.

“McDonald’s announced that it would be going antibiotic-free on its products, but not in China yet, so this made the Chinese consumers very angry. These are issues that the Irish have to be cognisant of.”

While Ian feels that Ireland has been very good at marketing its story in China, he says it will be a challenge to compete with the likes of New Zealand and Australia, who have established themselves in the market.

“There are different challenges for Ireland. We don’t have full access. We can only export unboned and under 30 months, and we’re at a cost disadvantage because these are very expensive types of cuts,” he says.

“Australia and New Zealand have unrestricted access and by 2022 the tariff on Australian beef will be lifted, which will make them more competitive – Europe will still have one.

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“Yes, beef producers like ABP, Dawn Meats and Kepak have done and are doing great work on the ground in China, but marketing is so expensive there. It’s very competitive.”

He warns that initial optimism about meat industry trade deals does not always translate into an unblemished success story, citing the example of the US.

“The US had been pushing for access for a long time so when Trump got into power, there was a two-way concession,” he explains.

“The Chinese wanted access for chicken breast meat into the US and then they let the US beef in, so there was a lot of excitement around it when the agreement was signed.

“However, the volume hasn’t reflected that initial excitement and hype. The US has been disappointed.”

Ian’s own story, though, is very much on an upward curve.

Hailing from a dairy and beef farm in Gort in south Galway, he has never been one to follow the crowd.

Ian studied music and modern Irish in Trinity College Dublin, where he met his now wife Shan, a Chinese native who “sounds more like a Galway woman” from her time boarding at Kylemore Abbey secondary school.

He was organ scholar and conductor of the orchestra at Trinity and spent time as a lay clerk at the Christ Church Cathedral in the capital.

Having completed a masters’ in International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London in 2009, Ian moved with Shan to China, where he learned Mandarin and took a job as a political section intern for the EU Delegation in Beijing.

“Things weren’t great at home in 2009 with the economy so I decided to make the jump – and I wanted to go,” he says.

“I’d consider myself fluent at this stage in Chinese, but it’s so hard. At least with a European language you can read it, but with Chinese there are no reference points. You have to completely retrain yourself.

“So many people at the time said, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why are you heading out there?’. But now people are more interested and say, ‘Did it take you long to learn the language? How would I go about that?’. It’s funny how things change.”

After working in various jobs, Ian joined international animal feed company Alltech in China, rising to become sales director and new business development director.

He now works as head of operations for Allflex, which focuses on identifying, tracing and monitoring millions of animals through visual and electronic methods.

He is also an industry mentor to Bits x Bites, China’s first agri-food accelerator, and is a mentor for China Agricultural University’s Elite Cattleman Programme.

While Ian no longer works with Alltech, he recently spoke at the company’s One Conference in Kentucky, where he expressed his sadness at the death of Louth-born founder Pearse Lyons earlier this year.

“I worked at Alltech for three and a half years and I am still one of their supporters and mentors,” he says. “I’m good friends with Pearse’s son Mark and would’ve known Pearse – he was a huge loss and will be very much missed.”

Asked if he ever gets homesick, Ian says he misses his friends, family, the music of Ireland – and, of course, the family farm.

“There was always a job to be done when we were younger on the farm, especially when we had the cows. My dad got out of them a few years ago and now we just have sucklers,” he says.

“I suppose when the oldest son moves to China and doesn’t think he’ll come back, my dad didn’t think there was much point. Farming has changed so much and if you want to expand in Ireland, it is much harder than other countries. You can only farm the land that you have in most cases.”

 

Russian threat to Irish dairy exports

While Irish infant formula has been a success story in China since the milk scandal there in 2008, Ian Lahiffe feels there could be challenges down the line that may halt this country’s success in the Chinese dairy market, writes Claire Fox.

According to Ian, the Russians could soon be one of our major competitors in China as they make a surge towards building mega-farms.

“The biggest impact on Ireland would be the Russians’ mega-farms to build their own dairy industry – they have a huge advantage in terms of price and forage,” he said.

He added that New Zealand milk processing giant Fonterra’s control over world milk price means it will be difficult for Ireland to gain a strong foothold in the Chinese market.

“Fonterra control the world milk price and have such a close connection with the Chinese and have factories there.

“They are the biggest supplier of dairy to China and will continue to be.”

Capacity

Last month, China released a governmental plan to implement structural reform of the dairy sector over the next two years and aims to increase production capacity.

However, Ian feels that since the “domestic dairy industry is getting smaller in China”, this plan won’t affect Ireland or other countries exporting there.

Indo Farming

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