James Maloney, senior regional development executive with Enterprise Ireland, looks at Ireland’s emergence as a key centre for global agritech innovation.
The dominant mega-trend in global agriculture for the foreseeable future will be sustainability; the need to produce enough food for a rapidly growing world population over the next half century and beyond, at the same time as reducing environmental impacts from chemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides.
That is possibly the greatest single challenge facing the world at present: how to feed a population set to grow from 7.6 billion today to 8.6 billion by 2030, 9.8 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100. The Irish agritech community will play a key role in meeting that challenge.
The word ‘agritech’ tends to conjure up images of drones patrolling farms, autonomous tractors and harvesters, robotic milkers, and other pieces of futuristic technology. While these are accurate, the most important developments in agricultural science and technology will be those that allow us to do more with less as we continue to produce high-quality food.
Ireland’s role in the global agritech sector
Today, machinery produced by Irish manufacturers is harvesting grass throughout the world and is responsible for feeding cattle in every continent.
Ireland might be a relatively small agricultural producer globally but what we do in the sector, we do extremely well. Ireland has the highest standard of agricultural education in Europe. The country has established a deserved reputation for innovation across the entire agricultural value chain.
Ireland also competes with the very best globally in terms of food quality, with extremely low rates of antibiotic usage, no hormone usage, very high standards of animal welfare, and full traceability from fork to farm.
Ireland is enormously efficient when it comes to food production. Our population currently stands at 4.7 million people but enough beef and dairy produce for roughly 35 million people is produced. Approximately 50% of the food produced in Ireland is exported. That is the standard of efficiency that other countries must attain if the global food challenge is to be met.
None of these developments have occurred by accident. Getting the balance right between increased production and high standards of animal welfare and sustainability requires a combination of best farming practice and innovative agricultural technologies.
World-leading research carried out by Teagasc along with ongoing investments in R&D by Irish firms have helped create a thriving agritech sector. For example, Irish agri-engineering exports are now worth a quarter of a billion euro annually to the Irish economy.
The sector includes companies primarily concerned with metal and plastic processing and machine manufacture. Irish manufacturers are world leaders in the specialised production of machinery, such as mixer wagons for feeding cattle, high-quality baling and wrapping systems, slurry spreaders, agricultural trailers, and handling equipment for grain.
Irish agritech companies to watch
Companies such as Dairymaster have led the way with significant investments in in-house R&D and a strong customer focus. Dairymaster’s latest innovation is a smartphone app which allows farmers to remotely control their milk tank.
Another innovative company, Moocall, has developed a collar worn by bulls that detects which cows are in heat and monitors the bull’s activity.
Keenan Systems’ InTouch service uses telematics to connect its mixer wagons in the field to a data centre in Ireland’s County Carlow, allowing for remote adjustment of feed mixes to optimise yield or milk production.
Equilume’s technology, which was originally developed to manage fertility in horses, has been proven to boost milk yields by up to 9% per annum.
In another area entirely, MagGrow has developed a technology which magnetises the droplets from a sprayer, causing them to bind better with plants, thereby reducing the amount of liquid required.
Enterprise Ireland, the government’s national export agency, works with Irish agritech companies to help them innovate and win in international markets, connecting with them from start-up stage and helping them to grow to the point where they become established players internationally.
A new €20 million investment fund established by the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF) and Finistere Ventures also aims to support Ireland’s development as an “agritech island”. The Ireland AgTech Fund will invest in start-up and early stage companies that can generate significant economic impact in the Irish agriculture and food sectors.
The need for change in traditional agricultural systems is being driven by a range of powerful forces, including pesticide reduction initiatives, the need to reduce antibiotic use, increased scarcity of water, and the challenge to provide sustainable food production systems for the growing world population. As Irish companies develop innovative solutions to meet these challenges, the world is beginning to take notice.