Speech by Professor Gerry Boyle, Director, Teagasc Launch of Teagasc/UCC Strateg
Minister, President, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests and colleagues, I am pleased to be here today less than twelve months after the President and I agreed to begin a process of deepening and formalising the strong relationships that have existed between UCC and Teagasc in the area of food science and technology.
Minister, President, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests and colleagues, I am pleased to be here today less than twelve months after the President and I agreed to begin a process of deepening and formalising the strong relationships that have existed between UCC and Teagasc in the area of food science and technology. Today’s launch represents the outcome of the work of dedicated people from both institutions under the chairmanship of Michael Dowling. The fact that we have reached this stage so quickly reflects both Michael’s wise abilities and the commitment of managers and staff at all levels within Teagasc and UCC to bring an already vibrant relationship to a new and higher level.
But today’s launch is not just about UCC and Teagasc. It is primarily about Ireland’s most important indigenous industry and the role of cutting-edge innovation in its development. This new Alliance is designed to be a driver for streamlined and more effective engagement with our food. It represents a critical step in putting in place a coordinated R&D support system between the two major providers of food R&D in the country that industry will find to be more efficient and easier to deal with.
The Food Industry in Ireland
Significant potential exists for the growth of the Irish agri-food sector arising from increasing demand for high-value food resulting from rapid global population growth, income growth in developing countries and the impact of climate change on limiting the expansion of food production in many parts of the world. Opportunities are arising for food businesses capable of growing and innovating to meet the increasingly sophisticated demands of consumers who place high value on quality, taste and provenance of the food they eat. In this regard, I wish to compliment the Minister for his Department’s initiative in developing the Agri-Food 2020 Strategy and I look forward to the launch of this new strategy, which will hopefully chart a new and ambitious course for Ireland’s future agri-food industry. I can assure the Minister of our wholehearted commitment to playing our role in the successful implementation of the new strategy.
Role of Research and Innovation
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. We need to enhance our scientific research and development if we are to make the best use of the finite resources we have to produce more food to feed a growing population, while improving health and nutrition, and ensuring high standards of food safety.
This enhanced commitment to research must be shared between the public and private sectors. In this regard, for example, the New Zealand Government as part of its renewed commitment to the food industry as the key engine of economic growth, has adopted a partnership approach that aims to invest a total of up to NZ€2 bn. over a ten-year period, equally shared by the public and private sectors.
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. In recognition of this, Teagasc, in association with Enterprise Ireland, launched a Food Technology Support Programme for small and medium-sized food companies in 2009. As we launch the 2020 Strategy, we must again examine how best to ensure an enhanced level of investment in research by our food companies.
Teagasc Food Research Programme
Teagasc is prepared to play its role along with all relevant putative partners in realising this potential. Recent new investment under our Vision Programme involves significant investment in upgrading our human resource and infrastructure to underpin a new programme in food and health. The objective is that Teagasc in its own right, and in collaboration with UCC and other institutions, becomes an international leader in this area, with a clear focus on the creation of opportunities for commercial exploitation by Irish food companies.
Above all, it is important to stress – this is where we clearly differentiate ourselves – that Teagasc is an applied research organisation containing applications people. Scientific curiosity is not what drives us, but rather innovation based on science which can lead to product innovation in the food 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 our Food Programme generates around 120 scientific papers, which is quite impressive from a relatively small permanent research staff of under 40. Moreover the impact factors of the journals where we commonly publish has continued to rise over the last ten years. We have also made major strides in our understanding of the importance of Intellectual Property and in its production. So far 15 patents in have been produced in the biosciences alone with many licensed or optioned.
In terms of industry impact there are several examples that can be noted:
- the development of defined strain starter systems for cheese manufacture
- 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
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).
With an understanding of cheese chemistry that is on a par with the best internationally, we are 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.
The establishment of Moorepark Technology Ltd (MTL) in 1993 demonstrated a commitment by Teagasc and our dairy companies to developing a food research programme with a strong basis and link to food processing and ingredient development.
Teagasc 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.
Importance of Collaboration
As an innovation provider, 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. More and more, we realise that the issues surrounding food are frequently complex, inter-connected and multi-faceted. Often they extend across organisational responsibilities. Solutions must take account of this complexity to be coherent, and if they are to succeed need to draw on the breadth of knowledge and understanding that is available from many disciplines, organisations and sectors. The enhancement of our long-standing partnership with UCC will be critical in this regard.
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 to plan a way forward.
In this regard, it is important that we acknowledge here in the presence of the Minister the role of his Department through the FIRM Programme in helping to build the internationally-competitive research capacity Ireland now enjoys in food research. The partners in this Alliance alone have benefited to the tune of over €80 million over the past ten years or so from FIRM. Without that national investment in capacity building, we would not be here today launching a service with the potential that this Alliance has in terms of driving forward an internationally competitive industry.
Finally, may I return again to the theme of collaboration. Ireland’s future success across the board will depend on building a new culture of organisational collaboration: this has to be the way of the future. Organisations that are small by international standards competing for resources and prestige will not provide the solutions needed to resolve Ireland’s current economic difficulties. At the recent Farmleigh Food & Drink Summit there was a call for our food companies to work together as partners, not as competitors for the good of ‘Food Brand Ireland’. How much more important is it for our public agencies to do likewise?
The launch of the UCC/Teagasc Alliance today represents a further step in my goal as Director of Teagasc in ensuring that Teagasc plays its part in building this culture of collaboration. Today’s launch is a first step. We can envisage this Alliance going on to take in new partners. The Alliance being launched today can be a new model of how two equal partners can come together while retaining their core identities and missions, but bringing their diverse skills and approach to create a new critical mass for the betterment of both organisations, the industry we serve and the taxpayers who fund much of our activities.
In conclusion, I wish to acknowledge the positive spirit of collaboration brought to bear in the course of the discussions in recent months by the President, Professor Pat Fitzpatrick and his colleagues. I also wish to reiterate the thanks offered by the Minister and President to Michael Dowling for the highly effective manner in which he has helped bring this day about. I also wish to thank our former Head of Food Research, Professor Liam Donnelly, who played a critical role in moving the process forward. His successor, Professor Paul Ross has skilfully overseen the conclusion of the process on our behalf. (I wish to offer my congratulations to Paul, who is being received as an elected member of the Royal Irish Academy.)
I wish to thank Mary McCarthy-Buckley and my colleague Dr Lance O’Brien who led the organisation of today’s event and to thank the President for making this excellent venue available for this important event.