Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Teagasc Annual Report 2018: Discussion

Professor Gerry Boyle:

We have 250 researchers and another 250 PhD students and that is where the figure of 500 comes from. The PhD students are junior researchers and are a very important resource for us.

Approximately half of the 250 researchers are contract staff. Horizon 2020 funding, for example, enables us to recruit contract staff and implement research programmes. The PhD programme is globally unique. We have the highest concentration in Ireland of PhD students in a single subject area. It is a fantastic way for us to break open new frontiers. That is the way it is done. A student would devote perhaps four years to a new research programme. We do work on antimicrobial and anthelmintic resistance and use a PhD student to look at new frontiers of research.

The Deputy asked about the breadth of research. Our research activity addresses Irish agriculture and food processing. We have a programme on animal production and grassland which covers all of our ruminant agriculture and the monogastric pig sector. We have a programme on tillage and land use which covers all the cropping programmes plus forestry. We also have an environmental programme which addresses issues such as water quality, climate change, biodiversity and so forth. We also have a rural economy programme to address the economic issues. We also have a food programme to address challenges around food processing, mainly in dairy and meat production, principally beef.

The Deputy asked about Brexit and we have a role in that. Companies are, and will be, diversifying but products that are going into new markets often must be modified. I give the example of China, which is important for us because it consumes a lot of our infant formula. Thankfully, that sector is growing in double digits, but the Chinese do not seem to like our cheddar cheese. We have a cheese for China programme and a laboratory in Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University. That is an example of what our investment in Moorepark will allow us to do.

Our investment at Ashtown relates to what is called prepared consumer foods, which is quite a heterogenous sector. That sector is very much dependent on the UK market and we will be helping companies in that area. That relates to the likes of pre-prepared meals. Our innovation will be supporting such companies to develop more competitive production and processing lines. For example, we have a beef programme under way where we are looking at the relationship between the breed of animals and the taste and tenderness of the meat.

That is what we mean by innovation.

The important issue of carbon farming was raised. My colleagues may wish to comment on that. A lot of the issues raised, such as regenerative agriculture, cover crops etc., are very relevant to tillage systems. We are well aware of those developments. One aspect of the programme that we developed in recent years concerns the soil microbiome. That is very similar to work on the human microbiome that we have been engaged in for several years with collaborators in University College Cork. We have now extended that analysis to animals and soil. The heart of regenerative agriculture is understanding the microbial life of the soil as well its physical structure and the role of nutrients. The main aspect of carbon farming that we advocate concerns grasslands and how to manage them to enrich their carbon content. That is a central plank of our work regarding nutrient management on farms. That includes the old recommendation around the use of lime to improve organic matter and so on.

The management of wetlands was mentioned. That features strongly in our marginal abatement cost curve. It is a very important area and we are not the only body with an interest in it. Bord na Móna is doing a lot of interesting work and has many interesting ideas. We are certainly involved as well. I might ask Dr. O'Mara to comment on research on antimicrobial resistance, AMR, and anthelmintic resistance.

I take Deputy Pringle's point. Perhaps climate action did not get enough prominence in my opening comments. It forms a massive part of our work now because it cuts across all areas. We talk about sustainability in a holistic sense. We are not just concerned with environmental sustainability, although that is obviously central. We also talk about economic and social sustainability, as well as another dimension that does not get enough mention, namely, farmers' capability to change. That is really at the heart of sustainability. That is what it is all about.

We have already invested substantial resources at both advisory and research level. Dr. O'Mara set out the programme we will be rolling out next year. It will require significant additional resources, particularly in the advisory area. We are talking about persuading people to change. That is what our advisory role is all about.

I have discussed the issue of hedgerows with Deputy Fitzmaurice on a couple of occasions. We strongly encourage farmers to put woodlands on their farms, especially on dairy farms. We are strongly encouraging the establishment of hedgerows. We will be doing that on our own farms. At the moment they are not included in the so-called national inventory. There is a lot of research to be done on the calculation of carbon sequestration contributions. That work has not really begun in earnest. There are a couple of sites around the country where that is happening and we certainly hope to accelerate it, particularly where hedgerows are concerned.

The Agricultural Consultants Association, ACA, was referred to. Dr. Kelly might address that as it comes into his area of responsibility.