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Pastures new

Jim Corbett explains why the time is right to launch UCC’s new Food Institute

In conversation with Jane Haynes

16 Jan 2019
L-R: Thia Hennessy, Dean of Cork University Business School; Jim Corbett, Head of the Food Institute; Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed TD; Prof. John O'Halloran, Deputy President and Registrar; Darina Allen.

‘We aspire to be leaders in everything from the blade of grass in the field, to the synapse in the brain.’

This was the sentiment of President O’Shea as he contemplated the meaningful impact of UCC as a connected university, where the traditional silos of academia are broken down for fresh opportunities and ideas to thrive.

This idea of the power of connectivity and collaboration is at the foundation of UCC’s newly-launched Food Institute; an amalgamation of the university’s food-related activities and research.

“We’re essentially repackaging the current food offer within UCC,” explains Jim Corbett, Head of the Food Institute, “From food marketing and entrepreneurship; right through to food technologies, and nutrition and formulations; all the way across to basic research in food molecules.”

To understand the significance of the Food Institute in 2019, you need to reflect on UCC’s rich and historic legacy in food. UCC has always been an influencer in the Irish food landscape; UCC’s Food Science faculty was launched 90 years ago as Ireland’s first food research and learning institution.

As we face into politically and economically uncertain times, in a tech-dependent world where food security has become a key concern, Corbett explains that unifying UCC’s food activities and research under one entity has become essential to leveraging its ‘world-level competence’ in the sector.

"Our future lies in Europe, and UCC intends to play its role in that regard" - Jim Corbett

“The repackaging of UCC’s food-related offering involves a more consolidated approach to our activities and research, and a more defined relationship with the outside world – particularly industry, but also government agencies and other institutions,” explains Corbett.

“For many years it was a national effort, and the companies were small in scale compared to the global food players that are around now. But, following several decades of Irish economic growth, we have some fantastic Irish food companies that are now global in their reach, and working internationally.

“The future of our country as a world-class food producer and for UCC as a research institution has to be about interacting with European- and world-level organisations – not just Irish ones. That level of activity will be ramped up as part of our focus at the Food Institute.”

While the core activity of the Food Institute is working with the existing researchers in UCC’s facilities, there are some exciting new developments up-and-running. Among these is the introduction of the Bachelor in Agricultural Science course which, through UCC’s partnership with Teagasc, Moorepark (the National Dairy Research Centre), gives students practical experience on the farm from the first year.

“There were a number of emerging trends which UCC identified and felt were important,” Corbett says, reflecting on the course’s origins.

“A big part of the motivation for introducing the course is that food production and food research have become broader than just about food as a product. We are now aware, for instance, how the gut microbiome is highly influenced by food and related areas like animal health and welfare, and soil health.

The Food Institute team, L-R: Colette O’Gorman, Dr Joanne Fearon, Jim Corbett, Dr Karen McCarthy, Caroline Seacy, Sharon Murray. (Photos: Gerard McCarthy)

“When you talk about food research and food production now, you have to look at it all the way from the soil to how the food not only satisfies our dietary requirements but also affects the gut microbiome, our nutrition and our wellbeing. We are now also more aware that humankind’s appetite for food needs to be produced in a sustainable way. We felt there was a gap; we needed to extend our reach in terms of research and education beyond the farm gate.”

Beyond the lecture theatre, meanwhile, the Food Institute is generating new activities in research and in support of small food producers and artisans.

Opening up channels of research communication internationally is also important, not only amid the uncertainty of Brexit but also in light of the prediction that the world’s population will almost double (to 10 billion) by 2050.

“The university has to make sure it stays relevant on an international scale, because we do not have a monopoly on good ideas here,” says Corbett. “That is the level at which the game is being played now. Our future lies in Europe, and certainly, UCC intends to play its role in that regard.”

For UCC alumnus Corbett, the launch of the Food Institute marks an exciting development in the university’s history; when a group of senior researchers, boosted by an already strong legacy, come together to create meaningful impact on the highest level yet.

“There is a strong body of colleagues here at UCC who are already working in many of these areas, but one of the most interesting aspects for me is getting them to interact and support each other as a team, both inside and outside the university,” he says.

“UCC will always have a stronger voice when we present ourselves as one entity, and that’s an important emphasis for the Food Institute.”


Follow this link for more information on the Food Institute.

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