Driving Collaborative AG-TECH
Catherine Lascurettes was a familiar face and voice for thousands of Irish dairy farmers for 26 years in her role as executive secretary of the Irish Farmers' Association's (IFA's) Dairy Committee. She has now made a career change by setting up a consultancy service, Cill Dara Consulting. In addition Catherine has taken on several other roles, one of which is chief operating officer for the newly fledged AgTech Ireland. This is an organisation representing the broad-based Irish agri-tech sector, comprising businesses spanning all aspects of this newly emerging economic sector.
Discussing the role of Agtech Ireland, Catherine explains: “It has a mission to promote, support and enhance Ireland’s agri-tech community. What we found is that a lot of these companies tend to operate in isolated silos. We wanted to create an opportunity for a supportive ecosystem that would facilitate networking among agtech leaders in Ireland The idea is for the organisation to agitate and lobby on behalf of its members for the introduction of supportive policies in the technical and financial environments, favourable to the further development and growth of the sector.
"We also want to promote collaboration across industry, research and Government departments and agencies because, again, there can be an element of isolation in all of these areas. These connections should help bring agri-tech research and product development into the commercial marketplace to a greater extent, where it can be adopted by farmers and food producers.
"Our aim, in addition, is to shape and communicate the agri-tech agenda in the context of sustainable agriculture because there is a lot it can contribute when it comes to supporting farmers along their sustainability journey. The technologies can assist in making farmers more economically efficient and more labour efficient, to allow them to secure their social licence to produce food.
Point of contact
Catherine asserts AgTech Ireland’s ambition to be a single point of contact for Government departments and agencies: “We also want to speak with one voice to media, to participate on trade missions, and to support our members in a commercial sense, helping them identify routes to market and develop communications with counterparts in other countries.
"We have developed a Memorandum of Understanding with AgriTechNZ [New Zealand] where very similar issues are being experienced by their agri-tech companies and farmers. There are many challenges that can be met through cooperation with our New Zealand counterparts. A joint webinar summit is planned for September to further enhance the benefits of mutual cooperation. Both countries have so much in common: climatically, pasture-based production, and a counterbalancing summer/winter grass-growing season.
“We had a presence at the Moorepark Open Day last month and that raised our profile and illustrated the array of technologies of use and value to farmers. That exposure is important to inform people of the novel, as well as the tried and trusted, technologies that can make a positive contribution to farm businesses.”
Enterprise Ireland has been very supportive in the development of an agtech sector in Ireland, as the Agtech Ireland COO explains: “We work closely with Enterprise Ireland. Many of our member companies have benefited from supports provided by Enterprise Ireland, both in terms of financial supports and also with mentoring and advice on everything from product development to market research and export opportunities.
“By also developing links with French agri-tech interests we can expand our expertise as well as adopt and adapt novel technologies of relevance to our agricultural sector. In summary, our aim is to foster those connections and relationships that can assist us in the further development of the agri-tech sector in Ireland.”
Defining the sector
Catherine continues: "Agri-tech is a multitude of different things. It encompasses areas such as biotech, genetics, chemical, software, hardware, sensors, drones and GPS. The whole artificial intelligence (AI) sector has implications and relevance to agri-tech, which we are going to explore with University College Dublin (UCD) later this year. There is enormous scope in the whole AI arena. I want to emphasise the relevance of agri-tech to farmers and the broader food sector: the challenges around labour, around climate, economic efficiencies… all of these have implications for the sustainability of our agricultural sector.
"The production and delivery of feed supplements, animal health detection and prevention technologies, are an entire area of importance within the agri-tech area. We are uniquely equipped in Ireland because we have so much expertise and interest in agriculture. It is an industry built on tradition and continuous innovation, so we believe that the Irish agri-tech sector has huge potential to deliver solutions to many of the challenges facing agriculture in the coming years.”
While Catherine recognises there are challenges facing the sector in Ireland, she also sees the positive attitude across the various support sectors: “There are challenges and finance is one of them. However, while international technology companies have gone off the boil in popularity across the globe, the interest in and support for agri-tech has not diminished. I believe this is because it is so dynamic and close to the commercial agri-food sector. The flow of highly qualified people coming out of the general technological sector and developing their own ideas within the agri-tech sphere gives great hope and anticipation for the future.
"Outside of the R&D and financing challenges, one of the big hurdles is to bring a viable and potentially commercial product to market. Routes to market, distribution, international contacts; all of these are real challenges to developing a commercial long-term business. Ultimately, that is one of the biggest reasons to bring many of these enterprises into one overall representative organisation, which can raise the profile of all the stakeholders to mutual benefit.
Catherine has long been associated with the Nuffield Ireland scholarship programnme,
in addition to her other varied interests. She is currently executive secretary of Nuffield Ireland, the Irish branch of the international promoter of agricultural knowledge. She describes the scholarship programme: “It is a rural leadership development programme for agri professionals, including farmers and others involved in the agri-food sector. It provides participants with opportunities to research farming and food systems, marketing techniques and other topics around the general theme of agri-food. This is more important than ever in the rapidly changing world of food production globally. We encourage solutions, ideas, better practice identification, and the sharing of those with fellow scholars and the general agricultural population. A bursary assists scholars in that quest. It involves international travel and the preparation of a final report. Applications are now open for anyone interested and interviews will take place in September to establish a successful cohort of Nuffield Scholars for the coming year.”