Change One Thing: We need better interaction between agri-food sector and graduates

Tue, Nov 12, 2013, 12:55

The agriculture and food sector is the most important indigenous industry and it is presently enjoying the highest growth rate of all the industries in the Irish economy.

The industry needs a long-term vision and an operational roadmap for training young PhD students to the highest level if it is to compete with old competitors such as New Zealand and newer ones, such as Africa. This is not being done and it is the one change I would like to see.

For the majority of food companies, research is dominated by very short-term needs and the high-risk, long-term research is deemed to be simply too expensive. Only the top-branded companies such as Nestlé, Danone, Unilever, Coca Cola, Pepsi, Kraft and Mars can focus on innovation.

This raises a challenge for young researchers in food and health and it requires some level of innovation in their training to ensure that they maximise their career prospects.

Irish PhD students are, fortunately, privileged in having a programme funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine which provides intensive training designed to give a breadth of knowledge of the food chain to PhD students whose research interests are, by definition, extremely narrow. Topics include food entrepreneurship, food regulation, food engineering and global food supply. But the huge success of this oversubscribed programme ( raises further challenges.

The interaction between students and industry must step up a pace. Three- to six-month placements of PhD students in industry and in related stakeholders such as the FSAI benefit all players involved. There is a relatively low level of blue-sky research in the agri-food sector, so the long-term employment prospects of agri-food PhD students will be in various aspects of management.

Placements don’t have to be solely research-based. For example, they may involve marketing or strategic planning. Each PhD student would agree, with the industry and academic partners, a work programme with milestones and deliverables, one of which would be a final report which would form a chapter in their PhD thesis. Students would still be expected to attend a designated number of accredited courses within the existing agri-food graduate development programme and funding would have to be within the budgets of all agencies funding PhD studentships and postdoctorates in agri-food. We need to change our approach to training graduates in this key sector of the economy.

Yesterday’s PhD graduates will soon be past their technical sell-by-date unless a programme of continuing professional development (CPD) is developed in parallel with a graduate training programme for the agri-food sector.

In the UK, the BBSRC (Basic Biological Sciences Research Council) has seed-funded an advanced training programme for CPD for the UK food sector. Backed by more than a dozen leading food companies and with a consortium of universities and food research associations, this initiative will deliver CPD to the food sector, ranging from short modules through certificate, diploma, masters and right up to professional doctorate levels.

It is unthinkable that comparable CPD is not needed by the Irish agri-food sector, but presently it seems to escape the imagination of the movers and shakers in the Irish food sector. We have an opportunity to develop the best food sector in the world. Let’s take it.

Mike Gibney is professor of food and health at UCD and professor of nutrition at the University of Ulster

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