Friday, April 17, 2015

Food for thought

With the world population set to reach 9 billion people by 2050, it’s no surprise that governments and societies are beginning to rethink how they will produce food for all these extra people. 

In Ireland, we’re lucky to have some of the most ideal conditions to produce lots of healthy, nutritious food; with a benevolent climate, committed producers and a world-class ‘food infrastructure’ built up over time. 

In Cork – ‘Ireland’s food capital’. Someone who wanders around the cathedral to food that is the English Market cannot fail to notice the importance of food to this region and the central place it has within our city. With a proposed new food innovation centre on the Grand Parade, it looks like that moniker of Ireland’s food capital is being assured.

Ireland’s exports of food and drink reached nearly €10.5 billion in 2014, with the industry making up about 9% of total employment in the country. The Irish food industry has been one of the success stories of the Irish economy throughout the last number of very difficult years. The challenge, as we seek to grow this sector and produce more food for a growing world population, will be to do so in ways that are sustainable and do as little damage to the environment as possible.

English Market, Cork. (Image: William Murphy, Creative Commons)

There are many ways in which this sustainability can be achieved. For example, both industry and consumers have a real obligation to ensure that food waste is minimised as much as possible. Some estimates put the total percentage of food wasted and lost before it gets in our stomachs at between 30 and 50% globally. That means that up to half the food in our fields never reaches a human mouth and is lost either under attack from pests and diseases in the field or binned by suppliers, supermarkets or consumers for a variety of reasons. 

How we grow food crops is the subject of much debate. And so it should be. Consumers have an obligation to be informed about the way in which their food is produced. Hence the recent debates around issues like pesticide residues, genetically-modified crops, organic production, etc. These are good conversations to be having. If nothing more, a country like Ireland which relies on the food industry for 9% of its total employment must be informed about the best food production and plant protection techniques.

At University College Cork, we have a long history of studying plants and crop production. We are also the second ‘greenest’ university on the planet and the first third-level institution in the world to fly the green flag for environmental policies. So, the production of food crops in an environmentally sustainable way is a central tenet of our teaching and research at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at UCC. 

In 2012 we launched Europe’s only MSc course in organichorticulture to service a growing demand for higher qualifications in the sector. Organic horticulture (and organic production in general) is often defined by what it isn’t rather than what it is. For example, most synthetic chemical fungicides and pesticides are not permitted for use by organically certified growers so they must employ alternative plant protection techniques like biological control. 

From a scientific point of view, that poses some really interesting research questions like how we can increase yields of plants in ways which don’t rely on synthetic chemical inputs. For example, conventional potato growers often apply between 15 and 20 applications of fungicide each season to control late blight of potato (that’s the same disease which caused the Irish famine). That works for now, but there are clear drawbacks to this approach, putting all your eggs (or potatoes) in one basket. Research on ‘organic’ control techniques for late blight means that we might be able to expand our options for controlling this important disease in one of our most important crops. This sort of research can have benefits for both organic and conventional agriculture.

Organic horticulture is not without its challenges. The lack of conventional chemical fertilisers and pest control means organic yields are often lower than that obtained through conventional means. Additionally, and despite a premium paid for organic produce, small organic growers can often find it hard to balance the books. By recognising the main challenges, we can focus our research strengths accordingly so that we improve the lot of organic growers as well as farmers in general. This will ensure that the organic produce that consumers want is on the shelves and, where possible, is produced in Ireland.

At the moment, the organic sector in Ireland accounts for just less than 1.2% of our useable agricultural area (PDF). The retail value of the sector is about €100 million annually. The current government aims to increase this area under organic production considerably. For example, the Food Harvest 2020 plan seeks to have 5% of our useable agricultural area under organic cultivation by 2020. To do this, significant training of new organic growers is required along with upskilling of current growers. Additionally, there is a need for significant research and development in the area of organic crop production in Ireland. The MSc Organic Horticulture programme at UCC has the dual aims of training scientists and producing a body of Irish research on organic crop production techniques.

From looking at alternative methods of controlling slugs with coffee grounds and seaweed, to using computer software to monitor disease outbreaks in potato, to the study of charcoal as a soil additive, we’ve already produced a range of research through this MSc programme. This is the sort of research which is needed to ensure that growers have a variety of tools at their disposal to produce the food we want, when we want it.

This article first appeared in the Evening Echo on April 14th 2015.

Dr Eoin Lettice is a plant scientist and lecturer at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University College Cork.


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