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Speech by Professor Gerry Boyle, at the Moorepark Food Research Centre Open Day

9 June 2009


Introduction
 

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests and colleagues, today’s Open Day is about Ireland’s most important indigenous industry and the role of cutting-edge innovation in its development. This research centre at Teagasc Moorepark is at the service of Irish industry and I want to see its contribution expanded and deepened in this regard in the years ahead. That will only happen with a collaborative endeavour by all of us involved from our R&D partners in the universities but especially UCC, our food companies and farmers that supply the vital quality raw materials and the industrial development agencies, especially Enterprise Ireland.

The agri-food sector accounts for over half of Ireland’s indigenous exports and represents one-tenth of the Irish economy. The agri-food and wider bio-economy contributes an estimated 30% of total national net exports – which is a good overall indicator of the sector’s contribution to GNP. For every €100 of exports just less than €50 goes directly to GNP in contrast with less than €20 for the pharma and ICT sectors.

Unlike many other sectors of the economy, the long-term outlook for agricultural commodity markets is positive and Ireland is ideally placed to exploit these market opportunities. In particular in relation to milk production, Ireland is leading Europe in terms of the cost competitiveness and major capacity exists to increase production once quotas have been removed. Our climate is ideally suited to a low cost, grass based milk production system, similar to New Zealand, and research from Teagasc has shown that over the last 10 years Ireland continues to be one of the lowest cost milk producers in Europe.

The dairy sector could play a key role in re-invigorating the Irish economy and with dynamic leadership from the industry and appropriate support from the government sector it can provide a pathway out of recession.

While the majority of food exports from Ireland are in commodity form, the agri-food sector has been rapidly moving up the value added chain. As we do this the role of research and especially innovation plays an ever larger role in competitiveness.

A good example is the infant formula industry. Infant milk formula manufacturers in Ireland supply about 15% of the global requirement and in 2008 had a combined turnover of €667m, of which, nearly 100% was exported. In excess of 120,000 metric tonnes of infant formula is produced utilising over 100,000 metric tonnes of Irish dairy ingredients. These ingredients must be of top class quality to satisfy a highly demanding and sensitive market.

The current level of R&D spend in the Irish food sector is very low. On average, it spends 0.2% to 0.3% of sales on R&D. This low level is explained by the large incidence of SMEs in the sector, which do not have the resources, background or culture to engage in R&D and this is why Teagasc, in partnership with Enterprise Ireland, is today launching a new SME Technology Transfer Service.

A small number of large Irish-owned companies do, however, have significant R&D activities. Nonetheless it is now generally agreed that the science base underpinning the sector needs substantial development if it is to deliver its potential contribution to national economic recovery. Teagasc is prepared to play its role along with all relevant putative partners in realising this potential.

Teagasc is the national body providing integrated research, advisory and training services to the agriculture and food industry and rural communities.

Our mission is to support science-based innovation in the agri-food sector and wider bio-economy so as to underpin profitability, competitiveness and sustainability.

The combination of research and innovation support in one organisation uniquely positions Teagasc to ensure knowledge transfer and to deliver value for money invested. The organization structure facilitates Teagasc to not only generate/procure the appropriate knowledge, but also to transfer the knowledge through its extensive advisory service and create the capacity within the community to use this knowledge through focused educational programmes. A renewed emphasis on innovation within the organisation aims to ensure that the knowledge is used in rural areas to create sustainable wealth. This marks Teagasc apart from other knowledge providers, e.g. in the higher-education sector and we see our role as to complement rather than duplicate the knowledge-generation activities of our partners (universities, government and associated agencies, agri-food industry).

Above anything else – this is where we clearly differentiate ourselves – here at Moorepark and in our sister centre at Ashtown in Dublin, we are an applied research centre containing applications people. Scientific curiosity is not what drives us but rather innovation based on science which can lead to product innovation in the dairy sector. We want to and do work closely with industry. We now think that imaginative mechanisms should be put in place to ensure this happens to a much greater degree than in the past.

We can be rightly proud of our scientific achievements and industry impact over the years.

On an annual basis Moorepark publishes 73 scientific papers which is quite impressive from a relatively small permanent research staff of 18. Moreover the impact factors of the journals where we commonly publish has continued to rise over the last ten years, for example in the biosciences publications from this centre have appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Nature Reviews, Journal of Biological Chemistry, Molecular Microbiology and so on – all these Journals have impact factors greater than 5. We have also made major strides in recent years in our understanding of the importance of Intellectual Property and in its production. So far 12 patents in have been produced in the biosciences alone with many licensed or optioned. Two of our staff were recently awarded D. Sc. Degrees based on published work – this award is the highest given out by the NUI and a refection of their international standing. On any scientific metric you choose this centre does well – peer reviews, international committees invited keynotes, number of Walsh Fellowships and so on.

In terms of industry impact there are several examples that can be noted:

  • the development of defined strain starter systems for cheese manufacture in the early eighties
  • the development of new cheese products such as Dubliner and probiotic cheese
  • the development of new ingredients for infant formula manufacture
  • the development of numerous hydrolysed protein as a basis for new ingredients
     

Following on the successful commercialization of the Alphalac project by the infant milk formula sector, our increasing scientific understanding of whey protein structure and functionality has enabled us recently to file a patent application for scaled-up preparation of the anti-cancer promoting HAMLAT complex (Human Alpha-Lactalbumin Made Lethal Against Tumours). This breakthrough was welcomed as a major development when leading international HAMLET experts met recently in Lund, Sweden.

We bring this capability also to the scale-up work package during recovery of bioactive components in the Foods for Health Ireland project.

With an understanding of cheese chemistry that is on a par with the best internationally, we are now driving the development of functional ingredient cheeses for which market growth rates are outstripping those for traditional table cheeses, and presents the Irish dairy industry an opportunity to make up for lost ground for not engaging in large scale diversified cheese manufacture over the years.

The establishment of Moorepark Technology Ltd (MTL) on the campus in 1993 demonstrated a commitment by Teagasc and our dairy companies to developing a food research programme on this site with a strong basis and link to food processing and ingredient development. The presence of MTL on the campus and its close links with the centre has ensured that this mission has remained to the forefront of our thinking to this day.

Teagasc at Moorepark also now works with many major International Food companies on collaborative or client contract basis. This is a very important aspect of the Teagasc food programme in that it provides support for the national drive, spearheaded by Enterprise Ireland, to attract a range of Foreign Direct Investment companies to establish in Ireland.

During a recent visit to Finland, I had the opportunity to see at first hand how a commitment to R&D by Finland’s leading dairy company, Valio, has brought real value to consumers and customers and to the Valio milk suppliers. The most striking aspect of Valio is its commitment to research and innovation. Operating to a value-driven innovation pipeline that stretches from long-term strategic research right through to short-term product development, the company releases more than 100 new products every year, of which more than 20% are science-based products. Its commitment and success in this area enables it to reward its milk suppliers with one of the highest milk prices in Europe in a physical environment that, to put it mildly, is highly challenged in the production of milk. Furthermore, in-house technology development and active patenting produce new innovations and products that create the capacity to license technology around the world.

Valio benefits from being embedded in an environment that openly embraces innovation. Its role and value to economic development is unquestioned. We are not yet at that stage in this country and we face greater challenges in getting to that stage. For one our industry has a more fragmented structure that militates against the development of the kind of scale economies that are required to fully exploit the benefits of research and innovation.

As innovation providers, Teagasc recognizes that it has to strive to generate the critical mass that will yield economic dividends to industry at the level that will be required in the future. The enhancement of our long-standing partnership with UCC will be critical in this regard. The cement that has created this strong partnership is the trust and commitment that has been created through collaborative research based on strong personal relationships between Teagasc and UCC scientists. This partnership embraces a number of joint programme areas including food processing, cheese science and technology, ingredient development and in particular the joint programme in Food and Health which exceeds 40 million over the next five years. It is worthwhile to emphasize what this partnership embodies a number of joint programme areas including food processing, cheese science and technology, ingredient development and in particular the joint programme in Food and Health which exceed 40 million over the next five years. This partnership, I think it is fair to say, has yielded an internationally recognized critical mass in the Southern access, if not nationally, in the functional and dairy-based food development. More recently, plans are taking shape which will hopefully bring this relationship to a new formal level to facilitate and nurture the concentrated joint efforts of both institutions particularly in the biosciences as they relate to food and health.

But industry too has to change. The capacity of industry to absorb and thus exploit the benefits of research and innovation needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. A realization that scale and critical mass are vital to fully exploit the benefits of innovation is as vital for the users of technology as it is for us providers. We recognize in Teagasc, as do our partners in UCC, that we benefit from significant public funding and that this has to be deployed to the greatest possible extent for the benefit of Irish industry. We are prepared, for our part, to consider all possible avenues in order to create a fully functional innovation value-chain that bridges the public and private sectors. I look forward to actively engaging with all of the major food companies over the next few months to plan a way forward.

The Finns have shown us the benefits of having such a value chain. I don’t see any reason why we can’t do likewise though we face very different challenges. What is required I think, is not so much a leap of faith, as a leap of ambition