Executive chairman of Devenish Nutrition, Owen Brennan, tells Matt O Keeffe about the advances in food science that are driving innovation at the company.
As one drives up the mile-long avenue to Dowth Hall it becomes clear that this is no ordinary landscape. The Boyne river flows to the left and beneath the roadway. Lime trees are being planted to replace the original ones that lined both sides of the avenue as part of the plan to restore this once-great demesne. Another turn in the roadway brings the centrepiece of the estate into view: the Dowth Henge, a 5,000-year-old earthen banked construction whose origins and uses are now shrouded in the mists of time. Dowth Hall itself was built in 1760. Its siting was planned impeccably. The roof of the hall begins to emerge over the Dowth monument and, after rounding another bend in the driveway, the four-storey building finally comes into full view. Arriving at the front door, one looks back to see a landscape in which several millennia merge into each other. The rolling grassland highlights the agricultural context. The Dowth Henge in the middle distance harks back to a time when even the pyramids of Egypt were not in existence. Further on, the new bridge at Drogheda is a clear landmark for 21st-century Irish engineering and, on the horizon, there is a glimpse of the Irish Sea coastline, where Ireland's and Dowth's first farmers would most probably have landed many thousands of years ago.
A landscape shaped by humanity
When Owen Brennan, executive chairman of Devenish Nutrition, first viewed Dowth Hall in 2013 he was immediately taken with the potential of the estate, both as a personal living space and as a showcase for Devenish. Owen's roots in Leighlinbridge, where the family businesses encompassed merchandising and farming, clearly shine through in his plans for Dowth Hall. It will have a commercial aspect, acting as a research centre for Devenish and also fulfilling its original role as a working farm, run in a profitable and sustainable manner: "We are conscious of the historical importance of Dowth and our intention is to ensure modern farming practices can operate side by side with a landscape that has been shaped by humanity, in quite unique ways, for thousands of years. We live in a technological age that has transformed our lives. The pace of that change is increasing all the time. That technology is now more affordable than ever before and allows us to do things that were not previously possible. In Devenish we have chosen to look at how science can be applied to our customer"s needs, helping them to run businesses that are more progressive and better in different ways. That should include the development of products that provide benefits to the ultimate consumer."
The appliance of science
Devenish is now very much an international business with offices and manufacturing facilities across the globe: "We live in a very connected world and there are great opportunities in that. A development in one region or country can have applications right around the world. When we find something that works in dairy we very often find that the solution has applications for other farmed species. Farming and sustainable food production systems are all about common sense, and the common sense position on health is that prevention is always better than cure. Perhaps what is not as widely known is that high-quality food provides high-quality nutrients and they, in turn, promote good health and prevent ill health when used appropriately. We think the promotion of health will become of greater interest as people live longer. Food has a very important role to play in achieving a higher-quality, longer life."
The omega-3 breakthrough
With resounding endorsements from the likes of Dr Paddy Wall, associate professor of public health in University College Dublin's School of Public Health and Population Sciences, and other eminent international scientists, Devenish's breakthrough research into how omega-3 can be delivered as part of the everyday diet marks a new departure in the provision of life-enhancing nutrients in the human diet: "We wanted to start with a nutrient that is well understood in terms of its value in the diet. We concentrated on chicken and eggs and, by providing the nutrient in the diet of the animal, we were able to demonstrate the ability of that food to supply a worthwhile level of omega-3 in the diets of the consumers who ate the finished product. But we also did the science alongside that and demonstrated a strong, statistically significant result in terms of omega-3 intake. It proves that omega-3 can be delivered very affordably in chicken and eggs and it is our ambition to deliver the same in pork and other foods. The research also draws attention to the fact that it is not just omega-3. Food is the best source that we know of nutrients that are important to health. Calcium, for example, in dairy products, selenium and iodine are all nutrients that promote health, whether that is for the brain or the heart. Omega-3 plays a very important role in both heart and brain health. It also provides an example of a much wider principle, which is that good-quality food, used properly, is good for promoting good health and preventing ill health."
Health promotion is boundless in terms of opportunity. Devenish is particularly interested in the concept of one-health. This encompasses the health of the environment, health of livestock, health of soils, health of consumers: "We think of all of these things together so that when we make a change in one area we can provide a measurable benefit in all other areas. One of the advantages of science has been the ability to look more closely at areas of interest and, by looking at the range from soil to society, we can ensure that the impact of those changes is bigger and more widely felt. So, along with our concerns for the health of livestock and consumers, and everything in between, we can work in parallel looking at the health of the environment, soil, air and water. Farmers are the custodians of the environment and practically all of the projects we are engaged in measure the environmental impact and, in virtually all of those examples, we can demonstrate a positive environmental contribution from good farming and food production practices."
Six-thousand years of farming
Back to the importance of Dowth in the Devenish story: â€œOne of the reasons for this investment is that this is a UNESCO World Heritage site alongside the Giantâ€™s Causeway and the Skelligs. So, it is an important location in itself. The people who built these monuments with all of their environmental applications, including the winter and summer solstices and the farming calendar, were Ireland's and Europe's first farmers. "It demonstrates in a practical way that the people who were producing food by farming all of 6,000 years ago were intensely engaged in their environment. Now, thousands of years later, we are looking forward to what the world will be like in 50 years' time We believe that looking back as well as forward is a valuable thing to do. What can we learn from what we have done in the past? What are the mistakes of the past that we want to either rectify or avoid in the future? We have been very pleased by the results that have come from our research to date and we are bringing increased numbers of people to see that work and judge for themselves."
A global innovation centre
"We are a science-based company, ultimately, so the centre of that work is now headquartered at Dowth. We are very pleased with the progress we have been able to demonstrate here but we would make the point that the work is really only beginning,"Owen says.
Looking for the positive in Brexit
A company that has a large cross-border presence, as well as a major international footprint, must be cognisant of the potential impact of Brexit: "In whatever form it eventually takes, Brexit is a political and economic reality that we have to deal with. We must ensure that the opportunities of recent years for the people of this country are not impaired and that unnecessary obstacles are not put in place. We would like the progress that has been made to be safeguarded. In addition, we need to examine how we can continue to work together in changing circumstances and make the best of the opportunities that arise."
An investment in the future
Dowth, by any standards, is a huge investment for the Brennans and Devenish Nutrition: "The investments that are being made here are to save what is best about Dowth, while also developing it as a living landscape. We have already made good use of Dowth in our short time here and there will be ongoing challenges in farming and food production to take what has been provided and leave it in a better condition than it was found. One of the first things that should govern all our efforts is that we should, first and foremost, do no harm. I think, once we satisfy ourselves that we have not done and will not do harm, we want to look ahead and judge the opportunities that can be developed here so that Dowth will have a sustainable and useful future." Based on progress to date, the omens for that are very good.