Kennedy points to a slimmed down future

AFBI's Professor  Seamus Kennedy.
AFBI's Professor Seamus Kennedy.

A more stream lined version of the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) will continue to play a key research role at the very heart of the farming and food sectors in Northern Ireland, according to the organisation’s CEO Professor Seamus Kennedy.

Commenting on this week’s announcement that the institute’s plant testing station at Crossnacreevey is to be closed as part of a wider cost cutting exercise, Kennedy said that AFBI will continue to focus on its core strengths.

“These are research and development-related activities and analytical testing in the areas of animal health, plant science, economics, food, the environment plus marine and fresh water fisheries,” he said.

Kennedy also confirmed that there would be no direct job losses resulting from this week’s announcements.

“There is already a well advanced voluntary exit programme aimed at reducing our total workforce from the current figure of 800 to 600 this year, subject to the required funding becoming available,” he said.

The AFBI representative wants to see the vast bulk of the organisation’s research commitments retained intact.

“Loughgall will remain an important centre for plant science R&D and diagnostics although the extent depends on the future availability of industry and government funding for the top fruit, mushroom and other work carried out there. And we will be transferring a significant proportion of the work currently undertaken at Crossnacreevy to Loughgall or Hillsborough,” he said.

Kennedy also highlighted the dual nature of the work carried out by AFBI staff.

“We are the frontline defence in the event of a pandemic animal disease outbreak in Northern Ireland, as well as providing an independent research resource. But it is not possible to have one without the other.

“For example, AFBI scientists must be directly involved with cutting edge research if they are to retain the skills necessary to provide the highest calibre of response, should we find ourselves confronting the likes of a Foot & Mouth, swine fever or avian influenza outbreak.”

Looking to the future, Professor Kennedy believes that AFBI will access additional revenue streams from a range of new sources.

“This will include the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme where we have already been successful and specific research budgets that are available within the UK,” he said.

“But there is a case to be made for the various agri food stakeholder groups here in Northern Ireland committing additional funds towards research and development. And this will include primary producers, the food processing sectors and government departments, in addition to DARD.

“Greater collaboration with kindred organisations, such as Teagasc in the Republic of Ireland, will also be part of our blueprint for the future.”

Kennedy also confirmed that the institute is developing a business case to develop a new headquarters complex which is likely to be located at AFBI Hillsborough.

“Our current facility at Newforge Lane in Belfast is dated and too large for our current needs.

“For one thing, the overheads are far too high. Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill is supporting the principle of a move from Newforge and an eventual bid to get the required substantial capital spend agreed by the Executive at Stormont.”

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