By Dr. Vanessa Woods
(Grant Thornton, May 2019)
Q Can you provide a brief overview of your experiences of the agri-food sector?
Vanessa was raised on a beef and tillage farm and always had a great love for farming. She holds a BSc in Microbiology and a PhD in Animal Nutrition. The data from her PhD research at Teagasc and UCD, formed an integral component of the Irish net energy feeding system, which is used to formulate rations for ruminant animals in Ireland.
She worked as a senior scientist at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) in Hillsborough, Co Down for a number of years, horizon scanning for global research (in many areas, including adding value to meat, milk and eggs, bioremediation of farm effluents, novel energy crops and novel uses for animal by-products), carbon footprinting and animal nutrition research. Leading the Global Research Unit, Vanessa’s work focused on horizon scanning for novel ideas from across the globe, in countries with a similar climate and similar agri-food production systems, with the aim of facilitating the transfer of this research to Ireland, striving to make the industry more competitive. She also developed a rapid response unit to address emerging industry issues, providing solutions for industry through relevant peer-reviewed science from across the globe.
During her time with AFBI, she also delivered lectures for Agricultural Technology and Animal Science degrees at Queens University. In 2011, she joined Agri Aware, the independent agri-food consumer engagement body, as Chief Executive. Vanessa secured Agri Aware’s first and only European Communications Award since its establishment in 1996, for Communication to the General Public.
She first started engaging the public in science five years ago, telling the story of the unique attributes of grass-fed Irish food and the importance of key nutrients in beef, lamb, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and dairy products for proactive human healthcare.
While with Agri Aware, she also led the delivery of the new agricultural science curriculum for leaving certificate students. This is the first curriculum that was shaped by industry leaders and includes equine science for the first time in the history of its teaching. Vanessa worked with a farming, food and human health company as Director of Communications, before launching her own business, Vanessa B. Woods Communications, the first Science Communications Consultancy in Ireland.
Q Along with Brexit, what are the major opportunities and obstacles faced by the agri-food community in the coming years?
With every challenge comes an opportunity and it is both the challenges and opportunities that keep the Irish agri-food industry progressing, with innovation at its core. As the global population continues to grow, the world will constantly change. Feeding a growing world population with finite resources requires a sustainable approach and Ireland is well placed in this regard, but we must continue to do more to compete in a global marketplace. At home and right across the globe, governments recognise that planning for the future brings the responsibility of ensuring that future generations are not compromised and all generations are now vocal in this regard. In a recent interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, veteran broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough, urged us to care for the natural world, warning that a healthy world is absolutely essential to human life. He warned that since the Industrial Revolution, the connection between the natural world and human society has been remote and widening. In recent months, students across the globe have taken to social media as their core communication tool, in an attempt to flag to world leaders, the impact that climate change will have on their generation and the generations that follow, demanding action now.
Our farmers have been farming in the natural world for generations, working in harmony with nature, being custodians of the landscape for future generations. Farmers must now deliver sustainably produced, quality, safe and traceable food at an affordable price for the consumer, whilst caring for the environment, the landscape, the waterways, soil, plants, animals and farmers themselves. Farmers and the agri-food industry are embracing this requirement via innovation, collaboration, technology and peer-reviewed science, among other strategies, but the industry as a whole must continue to innovate in this space, as consumers continue to demand more and more. The requirement to inform consumers has never been greater, and as an industry, we are all in the business of connecting with consumers.
Food awareness and education, right back to the farm, is of growing interest and importance to consumers. This offers many opportunities to the agri-food community, because we have a great story to tell about Irish food and we have world-class research to support our story. The language that we, as an industry, use to tell the story of Irish food also has an impact on our story. We speak of the supply chain, when we should speak of the value chain. We focus on price, when we should focus on value and price. If we, as an industry, continue to speak of food as a commodity, how can we expect non-farming consumers to appreciate the value of food to the health of nations across the globe?
We need to continuously engage consumers, giving them every possible reason to buy Irish. We are now in a new era, where consumers want more and more relevant information and we have an opportunity to marry the science of farming, food and health. This approach can help to empower consumers to make more informed purchasing decisions, buying on value and price, as opposed to buying on price alone. Retailers have a key role to play in this regard, if we are to focus on value and price, rather than competing on price alone, which can only facilitate a race to the bottom.
Our farmers have always produced nutrient-rich food for consumers, but farmers also need to be empowered with relevant information, to appreciate just how important they are to society. Without farmers there is no food, without processors there is no market, without retailers there is no opportunity to purchase food, and until consumers buy the food, nobody gets rewarded. The importance of collaboration right across the value chain has never been greater and more engagement is required at all levels. Our farmers also need to understand the science of farming, food and health, to fully appreciate how each and every non-farming consumer relies and depends on them every single day.
Brexit has created a lot of uncertainty and there is a great need for clarity, so that businesses can continue to plan and deliver. Brexit has automatically created a greater focus on identifying new opportunities for Irish food outside the UK, in a range of countries across the globe. With the Brexit challenge, comes an opportunity to tell our great story in many new markets that are not impacted by Brexit.
Q What role can the agri-food sector play to combat obesity and how can the public be educated on this in a way which leaves a lasting impression?
The agri-food and health sectors need to collaborate more, because food and health are inextricably linked. We are all familiar with the age old adage, ‘your health is your wealth’, yet our approach to healthcare is often more reactive than proactive. The Irish health budget reached €17 billion this year and over the past two years, Ireland has seen the highest level of health investment in the history of the state.
‘Cheap’ food could be the most expensive food that one would ever purchase, where consumers will pay more in later life, when their health is compromised. We need to help prevent illness through good nutrition and this can only be achieved by educating consumers of all ages on food quality and its impact on health. We have world-class, peer-reviewed science and that science tells us what ‘quality’ and ‘healthy’ actually mean. We must communicate this science and stop treating quality food as a commodity, merely focusing on price.
There is a growing need to pro actively engage today’s information hungry consumers in the science behind our food, but this requires a common sense and simple approach to communication. Our farmers produce nutrient-rich, high-quality food, that consumers require for sustenance and health. The Food Pyramid guides consumers in adopting a healthy balanced diet. Farmers and processors produce the high quality food, the Food Pyramid guides consumers on intake and consumers make the choice at a retail outlet.
We must remember that many of today’s consumers have a greater choice of food than ever before-from meat eaters to vegans, vegetarians to flexitarians, for example. With many myths and conflicting messages around food, this can cause confusion. The art of marrying science with marketing will be required by industry, as food choice and messaging around food continues to grow.
Q How can we position ourselves with the likes of Teagasc and Origin Green programme and how can we maximise their potential?
Consumers are increasingly interested in grass-fed food. Considering that only 10% of global milk production originates from grass-based systems, we are fortunate that some 80% of Ireland is covered in grass and our cattle generally graze the lush green pastures for up to 300 days each year.
Teagasc estimates that some 96% of the cow’s diet (fresh matter basis) comes from forage, while 74-77% comes from grazed pasture. Consumers typically consider grassfed food as healthy, with high animal welfare standards, along with being an environmentally sustainable method of production. Teagasc recently published research on the nutrient content and processing characteristics of milk from grass-fed cows, compared to cows offered a total mixed ration while indoors, which showed some interesting variances between the two production systems.
Bord Bia’s Origin Green, Ireland’s food and drink sustainability programme, is the envy of many countries across the globe. Showcasing the unique selling point of Irish food, being predominantly grass-fed, the high standards of food production at farm level are becoming increasingly evident to consumers across the globe, who want to buy Irish food because of its high quality, safety, taste and trust. Ongoing research on grass-fed Irish food will build further support for our story.
Food tourism is growing in Ireland and Fáilte Ireland also plays a pivotal role in showcasing our high-quality food and our beautiful landscape, attracting tourists from across the globe. We must be cognisant of the fact that our farmers produce this high-quality food and the beautiful Irish landscape that people travel to see.
Collaboration is key to positioning ourselves with Teagasc and Bord Bia’s Origin Green programme. We can maximise the potential through delivering innovation through collaboration, building on existing and developing new public-private partnerships.
Q Where do you see the industry in ten years’ time?
Supply and demand determine the success or failure of many things in life. The world population is growing and aligned with this, is an increasing demand for safe, traceable, sustainably produced, high-quality nutritious food. Knowledge is power and consumers have access to more and more knowledge and technology each and every day. As such, the industry will continue to be shaped by consumers at an ever increasing pace and we must be cognisant of the positive impact that we can have in influencing that knowledge through effective, relevant and sound communication. There is a continuous requirement to communicate the positive strategies adopted in Irish agriculture to deliver sustainably produced nutritious food and to articulate the positive contribution that agriculture makes to the economy, the landscape, the health of nations. Furthermore, we also need to continue communicating our ambition and drive to become even more efficient and sustainable.
In a world where every phone is now a shop window, recognising the importance of identifying better ways to lead consumers to sound knowledge will be the challenge and the opportunity. There will be a growing requirement to continuously adopt novel strategies of consumer engagement and communication, and farmers will have a key role to play in this regard. The importance of essential nourishing nutrients in our high-quality food, for proactive human healthcare, must be recognised by urban and rural consumers of all ages.
A more holistic and innovative approach to sustainable food production will be adopted through greater collaboration across the farming, food processing, health, energy, RD&I, technology, retail and tourism sectors. Farmers will become even more innovative and efficient. They will be empowered with relevant information to appreciate just how important they are to society, in terms of delivering traceable and high-quality, safe and nutritious food, whilst optimising soil, plant, animal, human and environmental health, being key and interlinked components of the value chain. Farmers have a crucial role to play and we must recognise this and reward them for their ambition, commitment, drive, determination and delivery. Consumers will also have a key role to play in delivering a sustainable world, reducing food waste and placing a greater value on food and its nourishing nutrients for proactive human healthcare.
In driving an holistic approach to sustainable food production, packaging is and will continue to become a much bigger consideration for consumers in the future. Processors and retailers will have to be proactive in this space, identifying novel solutions for a growing issue. Science and technology will once again play a pivotal role in delivering sustainable packaging. Some experts are predicting that families will eat the packaging on foods as part of their meals in the future, which would present some interesting challenges and opportunities.
There will most likely be an even greater focus on water, in terms of appreciating, conserving, protecting and utilising it efficiently. Climate change is a reality, but we must adopt a common sense and scientific approach to communication, highlighting the importance that we, as an industry, place on measuring, managing and measuring again. The carbon sequestration capacity of our soils, trees and hedges must also become a core part of the equation and the message. Equally the benefits achieved from the adoption of genetics, soil, plant and animal health optimisation strategies must be communicated.
The future of the industry is bright, with exciting times ahead.