Article appeared in issue 3, 2020

Funding agri-food research

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Ongoing investment in food systems research and technical innovation is vital. Here are some of the research programmes and inititatives supported by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) has been providing support for early-stage research in the agri-food sector since the mid-1980s. The most recent research funding programmes include the Research Stimulus Fund (RSF), the Food Institutional Research Programme (FIRM) and the CoFoRD (forestry) programme.  

Since 2012, almost €150 million has been awarded to various institutions such as Teagasc, universities and Institutes of Technology under the DAFM’s competitive funding programmes. The awards cut across a broad range of life science disciplines; encourage collaborative research across institutions; and are ‘public-good’ orientated.
 

In recent research awards, there has been significant investment in areas related to sustainable food production and processing. Additionally, there has been an increasing focus on the need to reduce the environmental impact of food produced in Ireland while ensuring the long-term sustainability and competitiveness of the Irish agri-food sector. Other frequently supported research areas include novel production and processing solutions with a view to enhancing the nutritional value of food and minimising food safety risks. There will always be a continuing need for investment in research and innovation in delivering on these goals and realising Ireland’s potential in terms of protecting our environment; improving production and processing systems; and increasing citizens' health and wellbeing while strengthening economic competitiveness.

In relation to food research, there is a demand for research that can be applied and used by industry to facilitate new product development, exploit emerging market opportunities and enhance processing techniques that will assist with addressing current production and processing challenges. While a primary focus of the DAFM’s research programmes is to support early-stage institute-based researchers in low- to mid-stage technology readiness level (TRL) research, increasing efforts are constantly being made to facilitate industry engagement to ensure that research outputs have, where appropriate, practical applications in commercial settings. 

 

All-party engagement

One of the main methods used to ensure that funded research has relevance and is likely to be impactful is by engaging with all stake-holders such as farmer representatives, food business operators, consumer and business groups as well as academic research scientists in the design and preparation of strategic research and innovation agendas (SRIA) that then inform the content of calls for proposals. The two of most relevance to DAFM-funded research are the Sustainable Healthy Agri-Food Research Plan (SHARP) and Forest Research Ireland (FORI). These documents are due to be updated following publication of the new industry-led Food 2030 Strategy now in preparation and reviews of other related national and EU research and innovation strategies. 

The direction of future funding will also be influenced by the food system and circular bio-based approach favoured at European level as outlined in recent reports and communications from the European Commission, such as the European Green Deal, the Farm to Fork Strategy, and the Biodiversity Strategy 2030. An overarching objective of these strategies is to transform Europe into a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy while becoming a global leader for sustainability and reversing biodiverity loss.

Furthermore, the DAFM strongly encourages the involvement of industry partners in research projects, and the agri-food industry is involved in numerous projects through the provision of  raw material, facilities, expertise and, occasionally, funding. In some cases, industry partners provide opportunities to test and validate research outputs in commercial settings and this can be a particularly meaningful method of industry engagement. Investment by industry in projects provides a useful indicator of relevance and likely impact during the evaluation process as it can signal a potential to yield commercially valuable outputs. With a view to facilitating a greater level of collaboration between academia and industry, the DAFM introduced an Innovation Platform Funding Instrument into recent research calls, which provides real opportunity for industry to be in the driving seat of funded projects for a modest financial contribution. 

The DAFM often co-funds research with other national funders such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). Examples includes the VistaMilk Centre, which has received considerable government investment through SFI and the DAFM. This centre and other SFI and Enterprise Ireland-funded centres including Microbiome Ireland, BioOrbic, Food Health Ireland, Meat Technology Ireland and the Dairy Processing Technology Centre provide for the practical application of research to assist with innovation and problem solving at industry level and are proven outlets for facilitating the transfer of technology by building on previously funded research outputs.

The DAFM also actively engages in facilitating and funding transnational research calls, European Research Area Networks (ERA-Nets), Joint Programming Initiatives (JPI) and the US-Ireland R&D Partnership Programme. Participation in transnational research calls provides excellent opportunities to collaborate with other world-class institutions and to build on our own knowledge base with a view to facilitating further innovation and growth within the agri-food sector. 

The DAFM provides the national delegate and national contact point for the agri-food and bio-based materials elements of Horizon 2020 where Irish research institutions have been particularly successful in drawing down European research funding, with approximately €86 million secured by Ireland since 2014. Going forward, the new Horizon Europe programme is expected to make €10 billion available for research relevant to the agri-food sector over the period 2021-2027. It is critically important that our institute and industry-based research and innovation community make use of the DAFM support to continue to pursue EU funding opportunities. 

Of course, none of this is a substitute for direct investment in research and development by agri-food companies. Pilot facilities are available through Teagasc’s Moorepark Innovation Centre and the Ashtown Prepared Consumer Foods Centre which can assist SMEs in testing new products, the application of novel processing, or packing technologies.

Going forward it is likely that there is going to be even greater emphasis on sustainability in all its forms – environment, economic and social – enabling a greener approach to agricultural policies and food production and food security. In the context of Covid-19, there is increased awareness of the importance of protecting public health and the environment while ensuring the stable supply of affordable, safe and nutritious food. An increasing focus on circularity, reduced food waste and having an end-to-end bio-based ‘systems’ approach to food production, processing and consumption can help address many of the current and emerging challenges facing the global population, including health challenges around obesity, poor nutrition and healthy ageing. Continued high levels of investment in food systems research and technical innovation can greatly assist with this endeavour, creating new opportunities for all operators in the food value chain.