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Innovation drivers in horticulture

TResearch Summer 2023

Dermot Callaghan, Head of the Horticulture Department, examines some of the challenges and opportunities facing the horticulture sector.

With a €521 million farm gate value, the horticulture sector is spread across two key sub-sectors: horticulture food (€417 million) and amenity horticulture (€104 million). The sector is diverse and fragmented, making it challenging to provide research and advisory services.

Most Irish horticulture produce is consumed in the domestic market with only two sectors having significant export trade: mushrooms and amenity horticulture. Horticulture is the fourth largest sector after dairy, beef and pigs in terms of gross output value.

The operating environment for Irish horticulture has changed significantly in recent decades. There has been consolidation in grower numbers but the value and volume of the sector has remained relatively static.

Brexit, Covid and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have negatively affected input prices, labour availability and supply chains, but there are positive drivers: an emphasis on healthy eating, more sustainable supply chains, and the importance of flora in our built environment.

A policy for sustainability

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) set the wider policy agenda for Ireland’s horticulture sector. The key policy document Food Vision 2030 directly requires stakeholders to identify areas for research “in order to enable innovation, technology adoption, strategic development and alternative growing media”.

It’s imperative to set specific environmental targets for the sector. Lifecycle and environmental footprint analysis is required to provide metrics and an evidence base for sustainability claims and mitigation strategies.

New targets to reduce the environmental impact of agricultural activities help highlight possibilities for diversification and alternatives for land-use, further providing opportunities for horticulture food and plant production. Horticulture is one of the most carbon-efficient sectors; expansion could contribute towards achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

Teagasc is developing an apple research orchard for the development of the eating apple sector in Ireland, looking to elucidate variety suitability in the Irish climate, alongside consumer and market acceptance of these varieties.

Finding alternatives

Given current trends, which are likely to intensify over time, such as increased demand for plant-based foods, there’s opportunity to expand the horticulture sector. Utilising horticultural outputs in consumer foods has accelerated, and is likely to continue as the research environment focuses on new product development and waste valorisation.

Research on peat alternatives for horticultural growing media has attracted international attention and is expected to be a key focus for research across Ireland and elsewhere in the coming decade. Teagasc is currently conducting research to find peat alternatives through DAFM-funded project Beyond Peat. Peat alternatives will need to match quality and consistency and be able to achieve equitable yields, while remaining affordable and available.

Technology adoption will to be a key trend for the sector, with a need to apply technical solutions to emerging problems in the horticultural business model, targeting inputs such as labour efficiency. There will be continued investment by growers and producers in leading-edge technology, such as increased automation and precision engineering.

Image credit: John McElroy.