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Celebrating 60 years of research

TResearch Spring 2022

60 years on since the first issue of the Irish Journal of Agricultural and Food Research was published, a special issue highlighting the scientific advancements made over this time has been published.

To celebrate 60 years of Teagasc’s peer-reviewed Irish Journal of Agricultural and Food Research (IJAFR), we’ve created a special issue. In it we highlight scientific advancements made over the last 60 years, and look to the future to see how current knowledge, methods and tools can help us to meet the grand challenges facing agricultural and food sectors and wider society.

In this article, we share snapshots of three key areas of Teagasc research that feature in our special issue.

Irish landscape complicates nutrient run-off

When too much nitrogen or phosphorus flows into a local river, it seems logical to think that this is directly linked to nearby farms. However, over a decade of research in six water catchments has revealed why this approach is not so straightforward. Known as the Agricultural Catchments Programme and funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, this long-term study has shown that nutrients flow off some fields easier than others, because of differences in soils and bedrock, as well as farming practices and weather.

Research Officer Per-Erik Mellander, whose paper in this special issue charts the knowledge gained from the study, says: “There are many different factors that impact nutrient loss and influence nutrient flow. We need to consider variability in the landscape, the scale we are observing and changing weather.”

More intensive farming inevitably results in more nitrogen inputs, but the complexities uncovered by the catchment programme make it more difficult to introduce countrywide measures that will be effective everywhere. 

According to Per-Erik, the situation is best dealt with by interacting with individual farmers.

Giving farmers maps with soil types and nutrient concentrations is one way forward, and tackles another observation from the study – that there is often a mismatch between how much phosphorus is added and what a crop requires. Maps allow farms to better tailor fertilisation inputs to crop needs within the same farm.

“We don’t want the nutrients leaving the soil around the roots,” says Per-Erik, “we want to keep them in place. Farmers don’t want to lose nutrients to waterways, especially at a time when fertiliser prices are rising.” 

TResearch Spring 2022

The motto ‘In Scientia Copia’ – meaning ‘In science is the abundance’ – as it appeared in the first issue of the Irish Journal of Agricultural and Food Research.

Systems-based approach to research

The research landscape has changed for many reasons, including the need to develop more holistic solutions to complex challenges relating to climate change, food security and health and nutrition.

Maeve Henchion, Head of Agrifood Business and Spatial Analysis Department, explains: “There is an increased emphasis on the production of knowledge to achieve impact, rather than as an end in itself. Other changes in the research landscape include the recognition given to different types and sources of knowledge, and an appreciation that innovation can have unintended and undesirable consequences.”

These changes have increased the role policy makers, funding bodies and organisations such as Teagasc play in science governance. As a result, policies relating to research impact, responsible research and innovation and the multi-actor approach have been developed.

Food systems thinking, emphasised in the Food Vision 2030 strategy, is closely aligned to such developments, and requires us to think about the whole system of actors – their different values, expectations and interactions. “This has resulted in changes to how researchers do science,” says Maeve, “but also some confusion as to the ‘right’ way to do it.”

Based on an understanding of concepts such as social networks, power and trust, social science enables the development of practical tools to engage diverse actors, incentivise collaboration and facilitate
co-creative innovation.

Maeve’s co-authored paper provides practical examples of how social science-based thinking has been deployed in a range of transdisciplinary and multi-actor projects. “It illustrates the complexity of the process, but also outlines the practical tools that can be used by all researchers to implement it in practice,” says Maeve. “It also signals caveats, qualifications and provisos, emphasising the need for ongoing reflection.”

TResearch Spring 2022

Nutrients flow off some fields easier than others, because of differences in soils and bedrock, as well as farming practices and weather

Accelerating genetic improvements

The rate of genetic improvement for the Irish dairy, beef and sheep sectors has accelerated over the last 20 years, resulting in improved sector profits and carbon efficiency. This could only have been achieved through the fruitful and synergistic collaboration between Teagasc and the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF), followed in 2009 by the development of its equivalent Sheep Ireland.

Senior Principal Research Officer Donagh Berry, whose paper in this special issue discusses genetic improvements, says: “Although creating a shared repository of verified data was an ambitious and arduous task for both organisations, the developed infrastructure is now the epicentre of breeding and many management decisions made on Irish dairy, beef and sheep farms.”

However, a repository of genetic information needs to be useable in practice, warns Donagh: “Ireland has a farming system based on grazed pasture – the animal being bred must be fit for purpose for this system. If management systems are being developed to facilitate earlier age at slaughter, then breeders must breed the type of animal that is genetically more conducive to earlier slaughter without any repercussions for other traits.”

Looking to the future, the traits likely to grow in importance in breeding programmes include product quality, efficiency of production and health and wellbeing.

“What influences their importance is their direct or indirect contributions to the sector’s bottom line,” says Donagh. “However, there is an argument for putting selection pressure on traits with no current explicit value – often referred to as public-good values.” 

Visit the Irish Journal of Agricultural and Food Research website: ijafr.org


Catriona Boyle

Editorial Consulting and Marketing

Irish Journal of Agricultural and Food Research.

Deirdre Hennessy

Senior Editor

Irish Journal of Agricultural and Food Research.