UCD Dean of Agriculture: “Innovative graduates will leave agriculture prominently”

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Professor Frank Monahan has succeeded as Dean of Agriculture and Director of the UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science at a time of enormous change and unpredictability in the Irish agricultural sector.

From radical changes in agricultural policy and the transition in consumption patterns to the threat of misinformation about food production and the dramatic impact of the coronavirus on higher education, his tenure is already paved with challenges incomparable to many others. educational fields.

Yet speaking to Independent Agriculture, the widely published scholar (over 200 papers) is clear on the way forward for the next generation of agricultural scientists who he says will be “more comfortable with change than ever before.”

Professor Monaghan worked at UCD for 25 years and from an early age was obsessed with how science could be applied to food.

“The public’s understanding of the connection between science and food was not there at the time. Food science was just beginning to flourish, ”he says. “The emphasis was on the quantity of product, the size of the carcass, the shape, the confirmation, not so much on the quality.

“We’re now talking about grass-fed beef, grass-based production and the compositional benefits of the meat.

“We want to be able to analyze it and say something about the way the animal was raised – information necessary for ‘food authenticity’ that is of increasing interest to consumers.

“And that’s really important in an Irish context if we’re going to market our beef on its grassy nature versus more intensively produced beef.

“We have applied the same thinking to dairy so we can assert what is different about Irish milk signature. “

Professor Monahan says it is vital that “everything we do in agriculture and food is backed by science”.

“It’s very easy to say something but actually can you prove it? Consumers are more and more curious about the food chain, it has become so much more complicated.

“My childhood diet was not very varied. It was a good diet, but we didn’t have the complexity and variety that we have now – people are asking more about the source.

“Once the consumers react, the supermarkets react and the producer is informed. If consumers want more information about the environmental profile of their food in the future, it will be up to the farmer to prove their environmental credentials.

“It’s going to become more important, especially in Ireland, where there is a lot of focus on our agriculture right now. We know our production systems are good, we just really need to be able to back them up with science. “

Recognizing the significant contribution of agriculture to Ireland’s national carbon footprint, Professor Monahan says agricultural GHG emissions per capita are higher than in other countries due to the sector’s importance to the economy. country.

“It’s a very big challenge and there is quite a negative discourse on agriculture and the environment in the media. The pendulum has probably swung too far in that direction – I hope it will come back.

“What we need is to understand that agriculture is absolutely necessary for food production. In Ireland what we do very well is animal production from grass milk and meat (among horticulture, crops etc.) – we cannot grow avocados or peas chick.

“The race is on to find ways to mitigate the effects so that we can reduce emissions and reverse biodiversity loss and land degradation, areas where we were not as focused in the past. “

Professor Monahan insists this is a huge challenge, but also an opportunity.

“We need to become more aware that farmers are the stewards of the landscape and the environment, and we need to work with them to overcome the challenges.

“We can’t just assume that ‘everything is fine’. Whether it’s carbon footprint, life cycle analysis, carbon sequestration, we need to get the data.

He says UCD’s School of Agriculture is beholden to the industry for making sure graduates have the skills and knowledge to adapt.

“The graduates who leave are tech-savvy, innovative and much less constrained by the conditions of yesteryear. They are more comfortable with change than the predictable environment in which they grew up.

“All of our degrees are science, from soil (animal and plant production) to business, horticulture, forestry, food and nutrition.

“Sustainability is at the forefront, environmental, economic and social. It is not the case that they leave here knowing everything, but knowing where to find the information when they need it.

“Whether they work in industry or operate a farm on their own, this generation will leave farming in a very good position. “

“People can eat less meat, but it will not threaten agriculture”

Consumers are likely to eat smaller portions of meat over time, but this should not be seen as a threat to Irish agriculture, says Professor Frank Monahan.

The highly trained food scientist believes consumers will become “much more demanding” about their shopping cart and predicts that eating habits will become “more food pyramid-friendly”.

“People will consume less of certain products over time, in line with the food pyramid and a growing awareness of the relationship between diet and health.

“A serving of meat is actually supposed to be half the size of the palm of your hand, so that’s not a lot.

“The dietary guidelines say we should eat a mixture of fruits and vegetables with meat. So we need to increase the consumption of fruits, vegetables and plant products – and when we do, animal products will decrease a bit.

“But I don’t see this as a threat to Irish agriculture as the world’s population is growing. There is a demand for our animal products.

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Irish meat may get more expensive, but people will likely reduce their portion sizes to keep it affordable

Irish meat may get more expensive, but people will likely reduce their portion sizes to keep it affordable

He says the quality of protein in Irish meat and dairy products is “very high”.

“It has all the amino acids you need – not all protein from other sources does.

“If you decide not to consume animal products, and that’s fine, then you need to make sure you’re getting the plant products that meet those needs.

He says consumers should pay more for these high-quality products, especially given the increasing environmental demands on production.

“Sometimes the opinion is that farmers are given a handout, but the reason food is cheap is that it is kept artificially low by subsidies – the price consumers pay does not reflect the cost to it. farmer to produce it. As consumers, we cannot have it all. We cannot have cheap food and then expect farmers to survive on low income for their high quality produce.

“It’s going to be more expensive, so maybe you buy less and therefore it becomes more affordable, which comes down to portion size.

“Farmers need to be helped, with whatever support they can get, to adopt the technologies they need. Farmers are always open to innovation. The search for other ways to generate income must also be in the foreground.

“But more than anything else, it is essential that the family farm survives. It is the very fabric of Irish society, of the Irish landscape. If we don’t have our farms, what do we have?

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Professor Monahan is proud of the diversity of UCD


Professor Monahan is proud of the diversity of UCD

Professor Monahan is proud of the diversity of UCD

University has seen the number of female academics surge for 25 years

There was only one female scholar (out of a staff of 50) when Professor Frank Monahan joined UCD’s School of Agriculture and Food Science over 25 years ago.

Today, over 50% of the school’s 130 academic and research staff are women.

The new dean of agriculture proudly points to this fact when he talks about how the school has evolved (right) over the years and its plans to strengthen its reputation during his tenure.

“There is a very positive positive attitude in the school which is really encouraging and made it very easy to take on the role. I am deeply honored to hold this position, ”he said.

“Embedding a culture of equality, diversity and inclusion is very important – 33% of our students now come from non-traditional backgrounds, mature students, students from disadvantaged backgrounds and this brings its own richness of experience. “

UCD Agricultural Science is ranked number one in Ireland, fifth in Europe and 20th globally. The demand for its programs is increasing by three percent year on year, and the school is also seeing an increase in less traditional subjects.

“Interest in environmental science is growing – it’s more in demand than ever before; In addition, we expect the numbers to increase in forestry and horticulture over the next several years.

“We also need to develop opportunities in the lifelong learning space and offers for continuing professional development. Innovation and entrepreneurship will also be very important for the success of Irish agriculture. We need to give students more exposure to ‘teaching and learning’ environments as opposed to the old ‘pencil and talk’.

“From Covid, it is clear that online virtual learning must now be acquired. Students want multiple opportunities to listen to material. I would like this to be integrated throughout the school.

“One of my ambitions is also to move up the rankings. We are well placed, but we can always do better and international collaboration will be really important for that. “

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