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HomeFarming NewsNuffield Scholar: Future proofing the Irish agri-food sector through robust research
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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Nuffield Scholar: Future proofing the Irish agri-food sector through robust research

As part of a new series, That’s Farming interviews 2019 Nuffield Scholars. In this article, editor, Catherina Cunnane, speaks to Karina Pierce.

How long have you been involved in agriculture?

I hail from a small sheep farm in Co. Wicklow and had an interest in agriculture from a young age.

I went on to study ag science in UCD and also did my PhD there. I worked in the feed industry before returning to UCD, where I lectured and researched in dairy production for 13 years.

This year, I moved to Enterprise Ireland as a Senior Development Advisor in Dairy. Here, I work with dairy processors and infant milk formula companies.

What influenced your decision to apply for a Nuffield Scholarship?

I was aware of Nuffield Scholarships throughout my career and of the many leaders in Irish agri-food that completed scholarships during their careers.

Their achievements, drive and positive view of the role Nuffield played in their careers influenced my decision to put my name forward.

What was your topic?

My Nuffield study focussed on Future-Proofing the Irish Agri-Food Sector Through Robust Research.

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The overall aim was to evaluate if the future needs of Irelands agri-food industry are being addressed through current research.

  • Review the research landscape in Ireland;
  • Investigate current and future-focussed research priorities in Ireland and other major agri-food producing countries, with a focus on pasture-based production systems;
  • Identify key concepts and actions required for the development of a future-focussed research and innovation agenda.
Why did you select this topic?

The agri-food sector is Ireland’s largest indigenous industry. However, substantial challenges lie ahead in the coming decades.

Agriculture globally must produce more food for a growing, increasingly affluent population, while competing for access for increasingly scarce natural resources, preserving biodiversity and water quality, mitigating the effects of climate change, adapting to new plant and animal disease threats and addressing consumer concerns around issues such as animal welfare.

Given the pasture-based nature of Irish agri-food production, Ireland is well placed to meet the challenges of feeding a growing global population.

However, consumers of Irish food are asking more about the sustainability of our production systems and therefore, the rapidly increasing demand for food must be met in sustainable ways.

Given the scale of the challenges faced by the industry, a collaborative approach by all stakeholders involved will be essential if solutions are to be found.

Research seeks to address these agri-food challenges and is critically important as a driver of innovation and competitiveness of the sector.

From a business perspective, RD&I (research, development, and innovation) proactive companies have been shown to generate higher exports and sales.

Many of the challenges are not specific to Ireland but are indeed global challenges, as expressed through the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Ireland can, therefore, learn from the experience of others. By having this information, we can make more informed decisions about the best direction of our own RD&I investment.

What did your experience entail?

I applied for the Scholarship in July 2018 and had two interviews after that.

I was told I was successful in September and it was all official at the Nuffield Conference that year. The application process isn’t just about your study topic. It is also about your contribution to the sector, work local communities and what you plan to do with the learnings when you return home.

Nuffield experience and travel:

I had the privilege of travelling to 11 countries over 12 weeks during 2019 and early 2020 as part of my experience.

The first trip was in March 2019 to Ames, Iowa, USA for the Contemporary Scholars Conference (CSC). Nuffield International hosts an annual CSC. This is a week-long program for newly selected scholars, held in member countries and rotated between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

The 2019 conference was held in Ames, Iowa with the 67 new (2019) Scholars. The CSC offers an important opportunity for new Scholars to meet and network with their peers and make contacts for their study topic and future travels.

The Irish Scholars participate in a six-week ‘Global Focus Program’ (GFP) world tour to develop a greater understanding of local and international agricultural best practice and meet with progressive businesses, organisations and government.

The first stop on my GFP was to Singapore, and the following 6 weeks saw me in Japan, Indonesia, France, Canada, and the USA. The GFP was an amazing experience and one that challenged me every day.

The challenges presented were sometimes less about the technical information we received and tried to absorb each day. They were more about the personal challenges of being away from home, being part of a group of 10 individuals who didn’t know each other before we set off, getting to know one another as we moved around the world and learning new things about myself daily.

As I reflect now, the GFP is one of the most rewarding and memorable events of my life.

The Nuffield journey also involves personal travel where you focus in more depth on your own study topic.

The United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Committee on Food Security (CFS) meeting takes place in October in Rome, and I attended this event last October.

The CFS develops and endorses policy recommendations and guidance on a wide range of food security and nutrition topics. It is an international and intergovernmental platform for stakeholders to work together towards food security and nutrition for all.

As a result, it is a forum that attracts an extensive range of stakeholders, from diplomats and ambassadors, with significant representation from the private sector and civil society also.

There are important decisions made during this annual event that influence policy, that will eventually impact all of us working in the agri-food sector.


I travelled for a further four weeks late October/November 2019 and visited China (Beijing), New Zealand and Australia (Victoria).

The Chinese market is one of growing importance for Irish agri-food exports. I spent time in The Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science (CAAS), based in Beijing. CAAS is like Teagasc here but has 42 Institutes and has responsibility for carrying out both basic and applied research, as well as research into new technologies impacting agriculture.

New Zealand has long been a focal point for Irish dairy because of its grass-based nature. New Zealand has, in recent years, been struggling with growing environmental issues and anti-dairy sentiment. With similar concerns in Ireland, we can learn from the focus and direction of their research to tackle these issues.

Following years of decline, there is a renewed focus on grass-based dairy production within Australia. However, the dairy industry remains in difficulty, and the focus of future research programmes to address the key issues facing the industry is of interest from an Irish perspective. My final trip was to Brussels in February this year.

Brussels, as the home of the European Commission, provides not only funding but also direction to agri-food related research programmes in Ireland. The EU Green Deal and The Farm to Fork proposals will strongly influence RD&I programmes here over the coming decade.

What were your key findings?
  • The 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.
  • The Irish agri-food sector, when benchmarked against its global competitors, underperforms in terms of RD&I expenditure. To successfully compete in international markets, there is a need for greater investment by the industry in RD&I to close the gap with our competitors.
  • To be transformative, there needs to be a move from component-type research to a more systems approach that incorporates all elements of the food chain, from primary production through to the health and behaviour of consumers.
  • There needs to be a major focus on fostering a collaborative environment around key industry issues. While there is significant public investment in agri-food RD&I, there have been missed opportunities to align investments across the range of funds and funders in our science system.
  • 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.
  • The increased requirement for private sector funding in major research programmes may increase the utility of the research among those companies; however, an effective communication strategy is critical to prove transparency and build trust with consumers.
  • The research system needs to capture wider stakeholder opinion in the planning phase to help identify possible issues (public/consumer, for example) at an earlier stage.
  • Most research is focussed on short to medium term issues, and there is not enough focus on longer-term, strategic issues. In this regard, levy-funded research is very focussed on immediate concerns. Still, as a vital source of funding for applied research, there needs to be a greater allocation of funds to strategic areas of research.
What does your report recommend?
  • Common themes arising were that to achieve the ambition of a sustainable agri-food system, there needs to be greater cohesion, collaboration and communication amongst all actors and organisations within the system.
  • Cohesion between Government, the various national and international agri-food policies and funders of RD&I is a critical first step in the development of a future-focussed research and innovation agenda. This could be achieved through having more coherent oversight through one Department, Committee or a Head of Agri-Food R&I. A cross-sectoral steering council could also ensure greater engagement across the entire sector. A ‘mission-led’ approach could be beneficial to ensure that funded research is targeted to solving the grand challenges facing the Irish agri-food industry.
  • Solving the problems within the food system will require meaningful collaboration amongst all actors involved, including the main Government departments and agencies, universities and Institutes of Technology and the SFI, DAFM and EI-funded Technology Centres. In combination with this, involvement from primary producers and the wider agri-food industry will be critical as will insight from social scientists. While more difficult to obtain, insights from citizens and consumers will help to future proof any RD&I strategy. Achieving this could be aided through innovative funding mechanisms that promote meaningful collaboration.
  • Finally, while communication is often lower down the priority list, it is vital to the success of any strategy. This communication needs to be focussed both towards those working within the agri-food industry and also to the wider public. Communication would be easier if there was a single sectoral RD&I strategy document for the industry with a communication strategy built around that.  A lead department, committee or head of agri-food R&I to coordinate this would also improve communications efforts.

Would you recommend a Nuffield Scholarship?

100%! The scholarship has given me an amazing opportunity to travel the world, to broaden my perspective, to challenge myself and open my mind to many different types of agricultural systems around the world.

As a result, it has given me a greater appreciation of the opportunities and challenges faced by the Irish agri-food sector.

What was the most enjoyable aspect of this experience?

Travelling the world and meeting so many inspiring people along the way who were willing to share their experiences with me.

I made friends for life in the group I travelled with. I look forward to being able to see them again when the world opens up.

What was difficult?

Preparing to leave home for over six-weeks was difficult. There is such a mix of emotions – guilt and fear (of the unknown) but also great excitement.

Where to from here?

I have recently moved jobs from UCD to Enterprise Ireland. As with any new job, there is a period of steep learning; therefore, my plan for the coming year is to work hard on my new brief.

I have discussed my Nuffield report and findings with some stakeholders, and I want to continue those conversations in 2021.

Sum up your experience as a Nuffield Scholar

I enjoyed every minute of my Nuffield Scholarship. It has been a fantastic journey, where I got to meet amazing people and see unique places. I am incredibly grateful to Nuffield Ireland and FBD Trust for the opportunity.

Lunch and learn series 

Nuffield Ireland will host a week-long virtual ‘lunch and learn’ series, hosted by the returning 2019 Nuffield Scholars.

The lunchtime series will be free to attend and will feature a 10-minute presentation at 1.30 pm. Each day, scholars will outline the key findings of their report.

Karina will present the findings of her studies at 1:30 pm on Thursday (November 26th) – See here.

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