With the world’s population set to increase to almost nine billion by 2050, coupled with an estimated 6°C rise in temperatures based on current energy usage and CO2 emissions, the planet faces food shortages on a major scale unless we make changes now. This was the take-home message from the UCD Engineering Graduates Association’s Autumn Panel Discussion on ‘Future Challenges to Food Production in Europe’, which took place in the university on 20 November. Larry O’Connell, senior economist with the National Economic and Social Council with particular responsibility for climate change and agriculture, emphasised the necessity for innovation in helping to address these problems. “Lack of investment, particularly in fiscally constrained countries, is an obvious issue,” he said. “To drive Ireland’s transition to carbon neutrality, we need to create processes and entities that can animate, learn from and push networks of public and private actors to ever-greater decarbonisation. “The thing is, nobody knows exactly how to do this, but we need to build on and encourage the innovation and progress that we know is already happening,” he continued. “We have to focus on ‘how to’ and problem-solving orientation, rather than ‘threaten’ countries with details of ‘how much’ they need to improve. Short-term, measurable ‘stretch’ targets have a critical role.” The good news, however, according to Sean Molloy, director of strategy and supplier relations with Glanbia Ingredients Ireland Ltd and one of the speakers at the event, is that Ireland can turn this challenge into an opportunity. “It’s likely that we’ll have more events such as the horse-meat scandal or BSE [bovine spongiform encephalitis] in the future, as there’s forensic attention to quality and supply-chain integrity these days – coupled with advancements in low-cost-analytical technology and the ability of social media to spread the message,” said Molloy. “Brand owners are focused on supply-chain visibility and Ireland can take advantage of this,” he continued. “It was Ireland that brought the horse-meat issue to the world’s attention and we’ve a reputation for the highest-quality produce. We must build on our work and our reputation. We must close the ‘loop chain’ and facilitate supply-chain visibility, from selling fertiliser to farmers to buying back the end product from those same farmers.”

Growth opportunities in new markets

Irish Farmers Association president, Eddie Downey, addressed the challenges in food production likely to be met by the farming community in this country, including the current crisis in the beef sector with regard to cattle prices. However, he agreed that an increase in the middle classes in countries such as China and India, and the resulting growth in demand for meat and dairy, meant that there were opportunities for Ireland. “We’re obviously not big enough to fully supply the likes of China and India, but what we can do is corner the niche markets in these countries and supply perhaps a more discerning or affluent customer who only wants the very best produce,” said Downey. “Ireland has a reputation for quality and ‘greenness’ and we should try and capitalise on that.” Prof Colm O’Donnell of UCD’s School of Biosystems Engineering told those assembled what the university was doing with regard to improving the quality of Irish food. With 210 researchers involved in the UCD Institute of Food and Health – from Biosystems Engineering; Agriculture & Food Science; and Public Health, Physiotherapy and Population Science – the facility is ranked seventh globally for research impact in this field. Prof O’Donnell highlighted some of the innovations that have resulted from the Institute’s research, including the Smartmilk prototype, an alternative treatment method for milk pasteurisation based on thermosonication and pulsed electric fields, and Babysafe, a light-based technology that is effective in microbial inactivation and maintaining nutritional quality. “We’re also developming and evaluating process analytical technology [PAT] tools for improved monitoring and control of milk powder manufacture,” he added. “Our projects include: the development of PAT sensors and chemometric models; characterisation of the drying process to enable model predictive control; and demonstration studies in industry too.” Prof Dolores O’Riordan, director of the Institute of Food and Health, spoke about the challenges associated with the manufacture of healthy, safe and tasty foods. “These include: balancing health attributes and sensory attributes such as mouthfeel, aroma, taste and appearance; providing healthy solutions across all life stages; the length and complexity of the food chain, which is only as secure as the standards of the weakest supplier; consumer understanding of food – where it comes from and its nutritional properties; and the challenge of trying to communicate scientific-based policies,” said Prof O’Riordan. She predicted that targeted nutritional advice would become more common in future. “Getting the right message across to the consumer is vital; a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach isn’t working in terms of tackling obesity and related conditions such as hypertension and type II diabetes. I think we’ll move from population dietary advice towards ‘clustered’ dietary advice, which will be gene based. People will similar genetic dispositions will be clustered together for dietary and healthcare-related purposes.”

Keynote address

The evening’s keynote presentation was provided via videolink by Phil Hogan, former Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and now European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. “To feed the estimated world population of nine billion in 2015, the Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that world agricultural production will have to exceed its 2005-2007 level by 60%,” said Hogan. “The rise in global food demand will undoubtedly be accompanied by rising public expectation with regard to the safety, quality, value, traceability and diversity of food. “ In recent years, agriculture has experienced good yield growth, but this trend has slowed down in developed countries and is expected to remain below past performance for the foreseeable future, according to Hogan. “These gains were achieved partly by putting serious strains on natural resources and the environment. So it leads to a range of environmental challenges, such as improved resource efficiency for water, energy, fertiliser and pesticides, renewable energy, mitigation of soil depletion, loss of wildlife habitats and biodiversity, and a reduction of waste.” These challenges will be further exacerbated by climate change, he continued, with agriculture accounting for 9% of EU greenhouse gas emissions. “This,” he said, “puts the potential of our agriculture sector at risk in the long term. The challenge for the EU, therefore, is to increase productivity with a finite resource, which is land. We need to do more with less. And all the while, we need to remain competitive and viable and maintain our rural livelihoods.” In the context of increased demand for food, Hogan said the time for production restraints was coming to a natural conclusion with restrictions on sugar production ending in 2017 and milk quotas ending next spring. He said that in the coming months, he would focus on job creation in rural areas and funding of start-ups and local development. “On a wider scale, the European Commission will focus on expanding into new markets and making the most of new opportunities at global level,” Hogan continued. “We have form in this area. In the last five years, for example, the EU increased the value of its food exports by 70%, which is faster than overall EU exports. In Ireland, in 2013 alone, some 61,000 new jobs were created and agriculture, forestry and fisheries contributed 30% of those jobs.” The Commissioner said that the new EU research programme, Horizon 2020, would play a key role in agricultural research and innovation. Under this programme, the EU has doubled the budget in agri-food research to €3.85 billion. In addition, Hogan concluded, the new European Innovation Partnership on Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability is designed to speed up the transfer of relevant research results into practice.