Science is key to giving farmers and the agri-food industry a competitive edge in demanding markets, Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen told an international conference in Belfast.
Opening the 67th Annual Meeting of the European Federation of Animal Science (EAAP) at the Waterfront, the minister told the 1,400 delegates she has ambitious hopes for the local livestock sector and is looking to science to help support policy and innovation.
She said Northern Ireland was fortunate to have highly skilled and internationally renowned researchers at AFBI, Queens and University of Ulster and dedicated educational and advisory services at CAFRE.
“In areas where scientists, advisors and local industry partners work together, we create an uninterrupted flow of knowledge and innovation from the research laboratory to the farmyard. That gives us a strong edge in competitive global markets,” she explained to the audience at Europe’s largest animal science conference, which include representatives from 66 countries and EU Commissioner Phil Hogan.
The minister noted the vital role of science in seeding new innovations for the agri-food sector, in particular the new and exciting possibilities arising from ‘big data’, which allows extremely large amounts of information to be analysed, to underpin new livestock genetic evaluations and benchmarking information.
“In Northern Ireland the livestock sector is moving closer to being a world-leader thanks to the use of the latest research, technology and genetic testing. These aspects give us a cutting-edge when it comes to improved production and use of resources as well as enhanced animal welfare,” she added.
Ms McIlveen concluded: “I have no doubt that the science developments raised at this conference will help create opportunities for our next generation of farmers to work in a modern, information-driven and advanced sector.”
Also addressing the opening ceremoney, European Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan said the agricultural sector needed to become smarter, leaner and cleaner.
“That requires more and better knowledge that allows us to build a more competitive and sustainable food production system, and creates new value chains in rural areas,” he said.
Mr Hogan said that agricultural science had taken a backseat in Europe for a long time, but there was a recognition that research was vital to the industry and that trend had to be reversed.
“These days we expect farmers to do much more than produce food,” he told delegates. “We expect them to generate jobs and economic growth and contribute to environmental targets. Innovation within the sector is key to helping balance these different priorities.
“As a result of various crises in the EU we have fallen behind our targets and allowed agricultural research to become a lower priority than it should be,” he added.
“But there is a resurgent ambition to change this. We doubled our investment in the field under Horizon 2020 [the EU programme for research and innovation] and we have made research and innovation a central plank of the rural development programme.”
Speaking after the conference, YFCU president Roberta Simmons said she was delighted to have had the opportunity to address delegates.
Ms Simmons commented: “Alongside UFU president, Barclay Bell, and our Macra counterparts, president Seán Finan and CEJA president, Alan Jagoe, on Tuesday afternoon I was delighted to have the opportunity to present at Europe’s biggest animal science event on the Land Mobility initiative in Northern Ireland, with the session being chaired by UFU CEO, Wesley Aston.
“Our aim was to highlight the implications of the ageing profile of European Livestock Farmers and the high proportion of farmers with no identified successor on farming practice and the challenges facing young farmers in relation to access to land.”
Roberta added: “I would like to sincerely thank the organisers of EAAP for the opportunity to present and deliver on what we are doing here in Northern Ireland to help generational renewal and sustainability of the industry for the next generation.”