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Speech by Teagasc Director, Professor Gerry Boyle to the ABIC 2008 Conference Mo

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. You are all very welcome to the ABIC 2008 scientific conference and I am delighted that Teagasc has organised this event in conjunction with colleagues at University College Cork.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. You are all very welcome to the ABIC 2008 scientific conference and I am delighted that Teagasc has organised this event in conjunction with colleagues at University College Cork.

This conference provides a unique opportunity for Irish academia and business sectors to discuss the issues, options and challenges being met by the biotechnology industry. The conference combines the business of science with the latest discoveries and trends in research and technology development, and gives the research and business community opportunities to meet and exchange ideas. I am looking forward to hearing from the many distinguished and internationally-acclaimed speakers that will be speaking at this conference.

The emergence of biotechnology however, has raised many questions of enormous public interest including the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food production, the effects of GMOs on the environment but their record to date internationally has been very good. Currently, the debate in Europe around the risks and benefits of biotechnology is quite polarised and it is widely accepted that the debate should be more open, transparent and inclusive with a greater level of understanding by all the stakeholders. Openness and transparency are also required in policy making process. In the absence of independent and credible information on biotechnology, the general public is not given the opportunity to gain an understanding of, and make informed decisions on, the use of biotechnology in the agricultural and other sectors.

A number of years ago a national consultation debate took place on “Genetically Modified Organisms and the Environment” in response to the increased level of public interest and concern around GMOs. This debate highlighted the lack of independently validated information that would inform the public as consumers. The reporting panel recommended that “a greater effort must be make by the State to inform the general public about developments in the modern biotechnology which involve risks, however small, for human health and/or the environment. Such information should be based on the needs of citizens and provided in language understandable to lay persons” I am pleased to say that Teagasc has invested significantly in this area in recent years and will continue to do so in the years ahead as is evidenced by our new vision research programme. Teagasc’s role is to provide science-based innovation support, requiring partnership, leadership and accountability. We are adapting and ready for change. A number of critical initial steps have already been taken, including the establishment of bioscience research centres to ensure that science technology and innovation are at the heart of the development of the agri-food sector.

So the question as to what is the best position for Ireland should be on this issue, is a politically sensitive one. It is not Teagasc’s role to get involved in the politics of this issue. However, it is our job to examine the science involved. It is our job to research the technology, to evaluate its use in other countries, to determine the benefits and faults of adopting GM technology. It is our job to use forums, like the one today, to stimulate debate on the issue.

We are entering an exciting new era in farming and food production and Teagasc estimates a doubling in the value of the sector to €40 billion by 2030. A vision of the agri-food sector playing a wider role in a broader Knowledge-Based Bioeconomy is one of the central themes of our new foresight report published recently. Agriculture is on the cusp of profound change. There are immense challenges and opportunities but we can look with confidence to a good future in farming. An internationally competitive Irish dairy industry, exploiting the natural advantage that grass provides, is set for substantial expansion as the EU milk quota system changes.

Developments in science including biotechnology have over many years led to improved human nutrition; safer food; improved animal health; better soil management; improved use of fertilizer; enhanced varieties of crops; advanced control of insects, diseases and weeds; and superior methods of harvesting, storing, transporting farm products and many other contributions. Investment in agricultural research and development is one of the prime drivers of growth in agricultural productivity.

Productivity studies in Ireland and worldwide indicate that the rates of return to investment in agricultural R&D are high in developed as well as developing countries. If we are going to meet the world’s future needs for food, feed, fibre, and fuel, we will need all the science and technology tools available. In this context The theme for the plenary sessions "Ag-Biotech: The sustainability challenge facing society and the economy" will set the tone for what promises to be a very important conference in progressing the debate on the use of biotechnology in European agriculture and I very much look forward to hearing the various presentations.