Karina Pierce 2019 Nuffield Scholar.

Karina Pierce 2019 Nuffield Scholar. Picture: Finbarr O’Rourke

Karina Pierce has no doubt that rigorous research will continue to play a central part in driving innovation, competitiveness and the necessary transition towards more sustainable farming practices.

Karina Pierce is a 2019 Nuffield Scholar. She grew up on a small suckler and sheep farm in Co. Wicklow. She studied Agricultural Science at UCD and following this completed a PhD in swine nutrition, focussing on gut health and replacing sub-therapeutic antibiotics in pig diets. She is currently Professor of Dairy Production and Director of External Relations in UCDs School of Agriculture and Food Science and she has spent time in the animal feed industry and with Enterprise Ireland during her career to date.

Research is a significant part of my job in UCD and I wanted to explore further the role research plays in addressing agri-food challenges and as a driver of innovation and competitiveness of our agri-food industry. The sector faces many challenges, including our environmental commitments, climate change, growing anti-agriculture sentiment and consumer concerns around animal welfare. Many of these challenges are global and therefore Ireland can learn from the experience of others. The overall aim of my Nuffield study was to evaluate if the future needs of Ireland’s agri-food sector are being addressed through current research.

During the two years of the programme, I reviewed the research landscape in Ireland including the main funding agencies and research organisations, I investigated current and future research priorities in Ireland and other major agri-food producing countries. My focus was on pasture-based production systems and I identified key concepts and actions required for the development of a future-focussed research and innovation agenda. I visited and met with a broad range of researchers, farmers, publicly funded organisations, government officials, entrepreneurs and businesses. I travelled to 11 countries including, the USA, China, New Zealand, Australia, France and Belgium.

My main findings were that the Research, Development and Innovation (RD&I) system has a key role to play in providing solutions to transform the food system into more sustainable, resilient, responsible, diverse, competitive and inclusive pathways. However, the Irish agri-food sector, when benchmarked against its global competitors, underperforms in terms of RD&I expenditure. To be transformative, there needs to be a move from component research to a systems approach incorporating all elements of the food chain, from primary production through to the health and behaviour of consumers. Given the complexity of the issues facing the sector, fostering a collaborative environment around key industry issues is critical. Strong partnerships between industry, policy-makers and research providers will be required to ensure that science is translated into strong business, policy and management decisions.

My study recommended that there is a need for a national agri-food research and innovation policy to give direction to strategy and investment decision-making by funders, research and development providers, industry and government departments. A ‘mission led’ approach could be beneficial to ensure that funded research is targeted to solving the grand challenges facing the industry. Greater oversight and coordination through a single government Department or committee, or by appointing a Head of Agri-food RD&I could be beneficial in this regard.

From this study it is evident that cohesion, collaboration and communication are key to the development of the future-focussed research agenda necessary for a sustainable agri-food system. The graphic below outlines the key concepts and actions required to facilitate this.

My Nuffield scholarship has been one of the best experiences of my life in terms of the people I got to meet, the places I got to see, the network of contacts I developed and the many unintentional friends I made along the way. It helped me gain new perspectives on the opportunities and challenges facing the agri-food sector globally and the important role R,D&I will continue to play in sustainable agri-food systems.

You can read Karina’s Nuffield study topic and download her full report – click here