Current Systems Issues in Agriculture

revised and updated December 2009

We list these in groups in reverse chronogical order. The grouping is subject to change as the list develops; eventually we will hotlink all entries from the first screen.

Notes and papers contributed by Liam Downey, arising from ongoing discussions with RJ, Nov-Dec 2009.

....Now as regards the sustainability papers (below) see initially RJ's comments:

The overview paper states the problem concisely. I have a problem with it however, in that it suggests that livestock systems and crop systems can be considered separately. I have been arguing that we need an integrated approach to a total system including livestock, crops, horticulture and forestry, taking into account the energy load related to all transport of intermediate products.

The dairy paper, for me, draws attention to the results of perhaps over-emphasis on breeding for milk production, which was perhaps a result of long-term milk price support. We had the complication of the nutrition requirements leading to the BSE disaster. There is a reference to the length of the supply chain, presumably with many bought-in specialised nutrients, usually from afar. Could we not instead breed for economic conversion of locally produced fodder into a milk supply managed for all-year continuity, perhaps less gallons per cow, but with usable meat as by-product? Maximising localised added value, and minimising transport costs? Was the old 'dual purpose cow' after all such a bad idea? Could she not be re-invented, in a modern systems environment, to service the new requirements dominated by energy costs and sustainability?

The organic paper, while being generally favourable to the principle, is sceptical of the differential value of the produce, despite the indication that livestock seem to prefer organic inputs. Perhaps the same unexplained preference exists in humans?

The missing link in both papers is the social organisation dimension. In a managed multi-unit co-operative cluster it would be possible to roster the milking, and to develop specialised skills among te participating members. Missing also is any mention of the source of the soil nutrients. We are going to have to get rid of dependence on mined phosphate, and on nitrogen via Haber ammonia. The problem of recycling of urban biomass waste, including sewage and all food waste including offal and bones, is going to have to be addressed seriously.

I see the potential prime movers as being ICOS and IOFGA, but they are going to need serious energetic and well-informed leadership, fit to pick up where Plunkett left off in 1914 with his model farm in Foxrock. His house being burned in 1922 in the civil war context was a disaster for the movement from which it never recovered, despite the best efforts of my father's generation.

Local government reform is another opportunity. All urban settlements, from village level upwards, need responsible local government, and this could take in hand the problem of biomass recycling and local energy production from renewable resources. This could perfectly well be a bottom-up initiative via the co-operative movement, but this would need to be embedded in Gormley's local government reform legislation. There are things to be learned from the Danish model, which was the stimulus to the IAOS in Plunkett-time. There are currently localised co-operative models in many EU situations, and the problems is how to legislate to give them the necessary favourable environment for maximising the local added value.


I have the problem of how best to use what time remains to me (I was 80 last week) and I have a feeling I am spread too thin and trying to do too much. Perhaps I should concentrate on the Euroscience project and its influence on science policy. I have tended to spread myself over trying to see that Gormley, Ryan and Sargent are all advised as well as possible, and I feel this has been unproductive. I would like to be able to concentrate on one effective NGO, and deal with it mostly via e-mail. The AHSI group is good but not enough focused on the energy issue. Feasta tries to focus on the energy issue but manages to scatter its effort all over the place. An Taisce has possibilities, but lacks depth of scientific understanding of the energy issues.

I put up a paper in the Feasta blog some time ago, with an agriculture orientation, but it aroused no echoes. You can see it at and I see on re-reading it that it arose out of interaction with your good self earlier. I would welcome your comments, preferably by e-mail, rather than by phone; maybe you need someone to help you over the e-mail barrier?

Finally, may I urge you to consider how best to make papers like yours easily referencable. The key tool here is the web-site, organised as access-friendly knowledge-base. If I had your papers in WP format, I could put them up in some suitable location to be referencable from an e-mail, like my Feasta paper as above. I have attempted to make accessible some of my own material, as in the web-site below. It is easy to reference it in e-mails, and I often do, productively.

If you were to select the papers, I could perhaps set up a moderated blog via Feasta, aiming to develop the agriculture aspect of the energy domain. This would be feasible, but I am not offering to do it, until I see how the Euroscience group takes shape. If it stalls, I will perhaps consider concentrating on developing an effective agricultural wing of the Feasta site, provided I can depend on support from your good self. You can get an overall feel for what Feasta is up to via

Concept of Sustainably Competitive Agriculture:

Organic Cattle and Sheep Production

Downey, L.(1) and Purvis, G.(2)
1. Biology Department, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Ireland.
2. UCD School of Agriculture, Food Science and Veterinary Medicine, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland

A sustainably competitive agriculture requires the development of new farming systems that meet five outlined design criteria. Following an overview of the relative environmental, human nutritional and financial aspects of organic, compared with conventional farming, an indicative perspective is developed of the sustainable competitiveness of organic cattle and sheep production.

The European Foresight Report (2007) entitled Foresighting Food, Rural and Agri-Futures, documents the daunting array of challenges facing the agri-food system, in terms of international competitiveness, climate change, energy supply, food security and societal problems of health and unemployment. These challenges and uncertainties point to the compelling need to develop a system of agriculture that is sustainably competitive.

Sustainable competitiveness is a value-adding marketing strategy. It requires innovative knowledge-based farming systems, tailored to optimise the advantages of local conditions, and that provide real market advantages in face of the growing economic, animal health, food safety, environmental and other concerns associated with prevailing farm production systems. Tinkering with the exiting systems of farming will not achieve this. A sustainably competitive agriculture requires the development of new farm production systems that meet the following design criteria:

profitable at farm level
produce marketable food products
are environmentally sustainable
can cope with climate change and
are energy efficient

An indicative model of sustainably competitive livestock production systems was presented at the 2008 Conference of the British Cattle Veterinary Association (Downey, Doherty and Purvis, 2008). An analogous model of sustainable competitive crop production systems would not be markedly different in terms of its constituent components. As further detailed in the paper presented at the above conference, much of the scientific knowledge required to develop a sustainably competitive agriculture already exists. The crucial challenge is to harness and apply the accumulated reservoir of knowledge in the development of customised farming systems that meet the five criteria listed above. The main focus of this paper is the sustainable competitiveness of organic farming, in particular cattle and sheep production. Prior to considering this key question, a brief overview is presented of the environmental, human nutritional and financial aspects of organic farming (Section 1). This is followed by a synopsis of the main outcomes of the organic research programme undertaken in Ireland by Teagasc (Ireland's Agriculture and Food Development Authority), focusing in particular on cattle and sheep production (Teagasc, 2008).

1.1 Environment

Based mainly on peer-reviewed scientific research publications from the UK, northern Europe and New Zealand, Clavin (2008) assessed the environmental benefits associated with organic farming, relative to conventional systems. Overall the review shows that organic farming is more favourable to the environment in a number of respects, notably in terms of biodiversity, pesticide usage and soil quality:

* Organic farms support sustainably higher levels of wildlife, including butterflies and wild arable plants;
* Pesticide contamination of water, soil, air and food products from organic farming is low or negligible;
* Soil quality improvements, in terms of the chemical, physical and biological characteristics, is one of the most valuable benefits of organic farming.

Other environmental aspects of organic farming can also, in certain circumstances, be more favourable than conventional systems. These include water and air quality, as well as energy usage (Clavin, 2008):

* Nitrate losses from organic farms are in general relatively low. However, the ploughing of leys, which tends to be a feature of organic systems, may increase the risk of nitrate leaching. Also, free-range organic pig production can result in higher nitrate leaching losses than conventional production.
* Phosphorous leaching and run-off from organic farms are not well quantified, but seem to be relatively low. Organic systems have, however, been criticised for exploiting phosphorous and potassium in soils.
* Carbon dioxide emissions per hectare are generally reported to be lower in organic systems.
* Although comparative studies are limited, nitrous oxide emissions seem to be lower in organic systems. However, the converse may be true of organic, free-range poultry production. * Methane emissions may not be markedly different between the two systems. However, per unit of output, methane emission potential tends to be higher from organic than conventional systems.
* Organic farming generally uses less energy. It is more energy efficient for sheep, beef and milk production, as well as a range of common field vegetables and wheat. Organic farming is reported, however, to be less energy efficient for poultry and potato production.

1.2 Human Nutrition

Evidence for the view that organic food products are more nutritious than conventionally producted foods has been evaluated by Magkos, et al. (2003). The following general conclusions are drawn from a review of the available scientific literature.

Crops: Organic vegetables, cereals and legumes tend to have slightly less protein, but with a higher biological value than conventionally grown crops. There is little or no substantial evidence for differences in the vitamin C content of organic and conventional fruit and vegetables, apart perhaps from organic potatoes and leafy vegetables, having slightly higher concentrations. No significant differences were identified between organic and conventionally grown crops in respect to minerals and trace-element levels.

Milk and Meat Products: No significant or consistent differences were identified between organic and conventional milk, in terms of specific nutrients (protein, lipids, vitamins, minerals or trace elements), as well as several other characteristics (pH, acidity, microbiological condition and cheese-making). With regard to meat and milk products from organic and conventional systems, no useful conclusions could be drawn from the limited information available. Overall, no evidence was found for a system-related effect on product quality due to the production method.

Animal Feedstuffs: Laboratory animals (including mice, rats, rabbits and poultry) fed on organically produced foodstuffs showed a range of improvements in biological functions. This included higher milk production in rabbits, as well as slight improvements in reproductive performance. Improved performance included increased weight gain in rats and increased egg production in poultry. It is noteworthy that most of the animal species showed a clear preference for organically grown feedstuffs. As noted by the authors of the review, this preference probably does not depend on the nutritional quality of the organic feed, but rather relates to parameters not examined, for example palatability. Further to this, they caution against extrapolating to humans the preference shown by the test animals for organically grown feedstuffs.

The research programme on organic production recently undertaken by Teagasc (Ireland's Agriculture and Food Development Authority) included projects on livestock and crop production systems, and evaluation of the financial performance of organic cattle and sheep production. It also examined market-drivers, consumer preferences and farmers' attitudes to organic farming. The outcomes of the research are published in the Organic Production Research Conference Proceedings (Teagasc, 2008). The principal conclusions pertaining to organic lamb production and the financial performance of organic cattle and sheep systems compared to conventional production are synopsised below.

2.1 Organic Lamb Production

The crucial importance of controlling parasite infection is highlighted in the investigation undertaken by Hanrahan and Good (2008) of lamb production in an organic grass-based system. The main findings of the research project are as follows:

* The number of lambs reared per ewe put to the ram was 1.44 over two seasons. This is well above the average (1.3) achieved in conventional mid-season lamb production systems.
* Lamb birth weight and weight at weaning (average 14 weeks) were below what would be expected from a similar flock under conventional management systems - especially for the period between 10 weeks and weaning.
* Provision of a grazing area for ewes and lambs that had not been grazed by sheep in the previous season cannot be relied upon to prevent a significant parasite build-up on herbage during the grazing season.
* To control parasite infection, ewes should receive an anthelminthic treatment before turning out after lambing.

In a broader context, information in relation to organic farming in pastoral and upland areas is limited. With organic farming in Ireland located mainly in the west and southwest of the country (Connolly and Moran, 2008), this knowledge gap needs to be addressed.

2.2 Financial Performance

The majority of organic farms in Ireland are engaged in drystock (cattle and sheep) production. A detailed appraisal of the financial performance of a select group, representing the more efficient organic cattle and sheep producers, compared to a randomly selected sample of conventional producers, has been undertaken by Connolly and Moran (2008). The main conclusions of the analysis are summarised below.

The organic cattle and sheep farms examined were 24% larger (35 ha), had 50% lower stocking rates (0.5 LU/ha) and 63% lower production costs per hectare than the conventional drystock farms, as well as substantially lower (87%) investment costs per hectare. The organic farmers were typically younger married operators, with off-farm employment.

Gross output on the conventional farms (£21,800) exceeded that of the organic farms by almost £2,000. Total direct payments received by the organic cattle and sheep farms examined (£15,300) were some 40% higher than the conventional. Also, family farm income on organic farms (£12,800) was almost double per farm, or over 50% higher on a per-hectare basis, compared with conventional farms.

The markedly higher family farm incomes on organic farms were attributed to a combination of higher direct payments and lower production costs (Connolly and Moran, 2008).

Per hectare, the gross output on organic farms (£575) was less than three quarters of that on conventional farms. The market output per hectare (returns from animal sales excluding direct payments) was, however, substantially lower on organic farms (£133), amounting to just one third of that generated per hectare on conventional farms. Overall, conventional farms had 10% higher output on a farm basis and 36% on a per-hectare basis.

Having regard to the five criteria set out for sustainable competitiveness in the Introduction, and the overviews of available information relating to the environmental, human nutritional and financial aspects of organic farming (Section 1), an indicative perspective of the sustainable competitiveness of organic cattle and sheep production is presented below.

Overall, neither conventional nor organic livestock systems can be said to be truly sustainably competitive, both systems are crucially dependent on direct payments. This dependence is more marked for organic cattle and sheep farms, where over three quarters of gross output per hectare is from direct payments. Also, the market output per hectare on the organic farms (£130) amounts to just one third of that on conventional farms (£390).

Both systems are grass-based, and hence production is grossly seasonal. This is usually more marked on organic farms where fertiliser inputs are less. Although important in minimising feed costs, grass-based systems give rise to food products, which exhibit marked seasonal variability in quality, storage stability and functionality (Downey and Doyle, 2007). These inconsistencies adversely affect the marketability of the food products derived from both systems.

Increasing consumer confidence in locally produced foods and the associated growth in farmers' markets are important developments in the marketing of organic foods. However, logistical difficulties, which can often be encountered by organic producers in meeting the supply demands of the multiple retail outlets, need to be addressed. Otherwise, imports of organic foods will continue to be necessary, with consequent issues regarding the unsustainability of the 'air miles' involved. Perhaps a market supply system along the lines of that developed for the mushroom industry in Ireland, which involves production contracts, may merit consideration.

Organic cattle and sheep production is mainly concentrated in western counties, which have relatively high levels of rainfall, and thus may not be as adversely affected by climate change as the more intensive milk and tillage systems. The latter are mainly concentrated east of the River Shannon, where there is a risk of future water shortages. Organic farming uses less energy than conventional systems (Clavin, 2008), which is clearly important in terms of long-term sustainability.

Organic farming is inherently more environmentally sustainable than conventional systems, in particular those intensive production systems which have developed to supply the majority of a global market, and which have become a growing environmental concern. Thus, the much higher proportion of direct payments received by organic cattle and sheep producers in Ireland from the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (52%) compared to conventional farms (20%) may be justified, in terms of their lower environmental impacts (Section 1.1). There is, however, a pressing need for a full cost-benefit evaluation of the Rural Environment Protection Scheme. In this regard, an objective framework for evaluation of the environmental benefits derived from EU agri-environmental schemes has recently been developed by Purvis et al (2009). The Agri-environmental Footprint Index (AFI) methodology was designed as a much-needed tool for demonstrating the potentially enhanced environmental quality of locally-customised farming systems with specific environmental objectives. For wider use in demonstrating the sustainable competitiveness of alternative production systems, such methods require the integration of an economic, as well as an environmental quality focus.

In marketing organic food products, undue emphasis should not be given to promoting their tenuous nutritional attributes relative to conventionally produced foods. Without more valid comparative studies, it is difficult to indicate with the necessary degree of confidence whether organic foods have better flavour and texture than conventional products. The organoleptic attributes of livestock food products may, however, be influenced by the feedstuffs given to animals. In this regard, the reported preference of laboratory animals for organic feedstuffs is noteworthy (Section 1.2). It may, as previously mentioned, be indicative of some sensory attributes of the organic feedstuffs. However, pending further research, its extrapolation to human food products would not be warranted.

Given the prevailing level of scientific information, the focus in marketing organic food products should at this juncture be placed primarily on the enhanced environmental sustainability of organic farming systems, for which a substantial scientific basis is being established.Environmental sustainability differentiates organic food products from those produced by intensive production systems, and provides the strongest platform for marketing organic food products.

The information provided by Mr. Gerry Scully and Dr. Catherine Staunton in preparation of this article is gratefully acknowledged. Also, the contributions of Dr. Liam Connolly, Mr. Brendan Riordan, Dr. Noel Cullerton and Dr. Seamus Hanrahan are much appreciated.

Clavin, D. (2008) Organic production conference proceedings. Teagasc, Athenry, Ireland. pp. 3-20.
Connolly, L. & Moran, B. (2008) Organic farming conference proceedings. Teagasc, Athenry, Ireland. pp. 99-106.
Downey, L. & Doyle, P.T. (2007) Cow nutrition & dairy product manufacture - Implications of seasonal pasture-based milk production systems. Aust. J. Dairy Technology. 62: 3-11.
Downey, L., Doherty, M.L. & Purvis, G. (2008) Building a sustainable agriculture & rural economy: Harnessing existing knowledge. Cattle Practice. 16: (Part 2) 72-79.
European Foresight Report (2007) Foresighting food, rural & agri-futures. European Commission (Directorate General for Research), Brussels.
Hanrahan, J.P. & Good, B. (2008) Lamb production: Grazing management, breeding policy and parasite control. Organic Production Conference Proceedings. Teagasc, Athenry, Ireland pp. 55-58.
Magkos, F., Arvantiti, F. & Zampelas, A. (2003). Organic food: nutritious food or food for thought?. A review of the evidence. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. 54: 357-371.
Purvis, G., Louwagie, G., Northey, G., Mortimer, S., Park, J., Mauchline, A., Finn, J., Primdahl, J., Vejre, H., Vesterager, J-P., Knickel, K., Kasperczyk, N., Balázs, K., Vlahos, G., Christopoulos & S., Peltola, J. (2009) Conceptual development of a harmonised method for tracking change and evaluating policy in the agri-environment: the Agri-environmental Footprint Index. Journal of Environmental Science & Policy 12: 321-337.
Teagasc (2008) Organic Production Conference Proceedings. Teagasc, Athenry, Ireland.

Building a Sustainably Competitive Agriculture and Rural Economy: Harnessing Existing Knowledge

Downey, L.(1) Doherty, M.L.(2) and Purvis G.(3)
1. Biology Department, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Ireland.
2. UCD School of Agriculture, Food Science and Veterinary Medicine, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
3. UCD School of Biology and Environmental Sciences, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.

Sustainable competitiveness is a value-adding marketing strategy. It involves a shift from farming subsidies to farming knowledge, by developing innovative knowledge-based farm production and animal health and welfare systems that provide real marketing advantages in the face of the multiplicity of economic, health, safety and environmental issues associated with prevailing farm systems. The main challenge in this endeavour, is to harness, develop and apply the large reservoir of existing knowledge in the development of regionally-customised production and animal health systems adapted to local conditions. Education, including continuing professional development, is key to meeting the challenge of enhancing the innovation capacity of farmers and those professionals engaged in rural business and services.

KEYWORDS: Sustainably competitive agriculture, new farming systems, harnessing existing knowledge, animal health systems, herd health, education and continuing professional development.

As further detailed in the European Foresight Report (2007) entitled Foresighting Food, Rural & Agri-Futures, the agri-food system is "at the beginning of a major disruption period in terms of international competitiveness, climate change, energy supply, food security and societal problems of health and unemployment." Since publication of this report in 2007, what are now commonly referred to as the Energy Crisis and the Food Crisis have become foremost universal concerns, with massive implications for agriculture.

Notwithstanding these global concerns, the increases in food prices over the past year may be seen as beneficial from a farming perspective. Conversely, a daunting array of challenges faces the European agri-food system in the event of further escalations in oil prices, health and safety issues and environmental degradation. The industry faces particularly significant challenges in relation to animal health and welfare in the context of epizootic (Blue Tongue, FMD, Avian Influenza) and enzootic diseases, biosecurity diseases (BVD, BHV-1, Johne's disease) and routine production diseases, including mastitis.

The disruptions and consequential challenges outlined above point to the compelling necessity to develop a sustainably competitive agriculture, the main characteristics of which are summarised in Table 1. The adoption of such a system that allows the development of a value-adding marketing strategy in agriculture will require, as further detailed below:

* a shift from farming subsidies to farming knowledge by developing innovative, knowledge-based farm production and disease prevention systems (herd health) linked to food safety;

* the provision of education and continuing professional development programmes designed to raise the innovation capacity of those engaged in agriculture and associated rural businesses and services.

Table 1: Main Characteristics of a Sustainably Competitive Agriculture

Multifunctional - not just price competitive
Internationally competitive, with assured safety and consistent quality
Ethical foods
Environmentally sustainable
Optimal animal health and welfare linked to food safety
Suited to a value-adding marketing strategy

Tinkering with the prevailing farming systems will not lead to the development of a sustainably competitive agriculture. This requires a fundamental mind-shift from farming subsidies to harnessing knowledge in the development of innovation. As shown in Fig. 1, intensive poultry and pig production systems are already more knowledge-driven than the traditional, heavily subsidised sectors of milk, beef, sheep and crop production. However, this does not of course imply that intensive pig and poultry production meet the criteria necessary for sustainable competitiveness as set out in Table 1.

In the face of increasing pressures brought by both national and international concerns over climate change, energy use, animal health and welfare, food supply and health and safety, a sustainably competitive agriculture requires that all sectors incorporate and integrate knowledge and innovation in the development of value-adding production systems. The central role of strategic and institutional capacities in this process is highlighted in Fig. 1. A fundamental concern in this regard is the capacity of existing organisations, including public institutions and rural businesses and services, to change and respond in a quite unprecedented way, so as to develop innovative farm production systems that meet the criteria set out in Table 1.

Regrettably I dont seem to have figs 1 or 2 yet; perhaps I will get them eventually, RJ.

Based on the design requirements, an indicative model of the holistic livestock production systems that will be required, in terms of the constituent components, is illustrated in Fig. 2. While this model specifically applies to livestock production systems, analogous models for new crop production systems would not be markedly different in terms of their strategic objectives and individual components (i.e. plant genetics/breeding, crop nutrition/husbandry, crop diseases/management, etc.).

A crucially important point to note, as further detailed below, is that much of the scientific knowledge required to develop the concept of sustainably competitive farm production systems already exists. Critically, however, the actual application of that knowledge must be context dependent. Clearly, the relative importance of the constituent components shown in the model (Fig. 2) will vary between countries, regions, farming contexts and enterprises. In any system that is fundamentally dependent on natural processes, sustainability is strongly dependent on the 'local environment'.

Many of the current problems of unsustainability in agriculture stem from a failure to recognise this crucial fact. At an early stage in considering any indicative model relating to the development of new systems of farm production, it is essential that a Group of Business and Scientific Architects be set up to consider the relative importance of the individual constituent components of the new farm production systems in the context concerned, and create a blueprint that recognises and elaborates the building blocks of existing knowledge that must be integrated, and also any gaps in current knowledge that need to be filled.

The concept of developing new, innovative knowledge-based systems of intensive dairy production, extensive beef production, and livestock husbandry in marginal farming areas of high environmental value, is further detailed in the publication entitled Building a Knowledge-Based Multifunctional Agriculture & Rural Environment (Downey & Purvis, 2005). Some important issues relating to the constituent components of an indicative model for milk production (depicted in Fig. 2) are outlined below.

Animal health and welfare, nutrition and genetic health
Despite the significant advances in our understanding of infertility and production diseases, the incidence rates of production diseases in many well-managed herds remain similar to those published decades ago and infertility problems are being experienced in virtually all major dairying countries in Europe and elsewhere (Doherty, 2007). Notwithstanding the widespread investments in animal genetics and breeding in recent decades, the expected improvements are all too often not evident in terms of milk production. Conversely, nutritionally induced stress problems have become more prevalent. This is evident in the post-calving loss of body condition in dairy cows and associated infertility and other nutritionally related health and welfare concerns.

The dairy cow has undergone intensive genetic selection, which has increased milk yield to a level where the demand for nutrients from the diet and body tissue reserves often results in ill-health and infertility. During the same period, systems of dairy production have been significantly developed, within which it could be argued that dairy cow health and welfare have only been considered where very obvious economic benefit results. The objective of increased output per unit cost underpins intensive systems, while 'least-cost' or 'easy-care' dairy farming systems may also be detrimental to animal health in extensive grassland-based dairy farming systems.

Production diseases such as hypocalcaemia, hypomagnesaemia and ketosis may be considered 'man-made' problems resulting from a breakdown of the body under the combined strain of high production and inappropriate husbandry. More recent definitions of production-related diseases have been informed by the influence of high production and management intensity on factors such as animal behaviour, immunity and gene expression. Thus the definition of production-related disease has been expanded to include not only metabolic and nutritional diseases, but also diseases of an infectious nature.

Triggers for production diseases lie at the interface of environmental stressors and productivity and the common theme of all these diseases is their association with management and selection of animals for "efficient" agricultural production. Production diseases of the dairy cow are a manifestation of the cow's inability to cope with the metabolic demands of high production, and/or the unsuitability of the conditions provided for them, and they continue to cause economic loss to the dairy industry and animal welfare concerns (Mulligan and Doherty, 2008).

Genetics creates the potential - nutrition delivers that potential. The challenge is to fully understand and apply knowledge of basic ruminant nutrition in order to achieve the optimum balance in farm system-animal nutrition-genotype interactions. This can only be achieved by developing improved nutritional strategies that match feeding requirements with high genetic potential. Prudent nutritional management of all dairy cows is important for optimal fertility. While herds based on low milk yields are less susceptible to the problems of excessive negative energy balance in early lactation, they are just as prone to the negative effects of poor nutritional management around calving on fertility.

To ensure that the complex array of economic, nutritional and genetic parameters are fully understood, there is a growing and indeed urgent requirement for a concerted research programme on the interactions between the genetic potential and nutritional requirements of high-yielding dairy cows. As shown in the indicative model (Fig. 2), animal nutrition is the keystone to delivering on the potential created by animal genetics and in minimising animal health and welfare problems. It is of central importance to the production of dairy and meat products of consistent quality and enhanced human health attributes. Well-designed feeding strategies can also reduce the environmental overload associated with livestock production, especially in intensive systems. In less intensive and marginal drystock production systems, the model needs to have particular regard to the important interactions between grassland husbandry, forage quality, animal performance and environmental concerns.

Food safety & security
The unrelenting and progressive lengthening of the food supply chain and the lack of transparency and understanding of its detailed workings are a universal outcome of increased globalisation in agriculture, and have major consequences for food safety, security, and ethics, as well as future energy demands. Arguably, this issue of growing public concern presents one of the greatest challenges for European agri-food production. The integration of markets and supply systems across the globe has major implications for food security, which are incompletely assessed and understood.

The largest and most economically damaging events of the recent decade affecting European agri-food industries, and indeed the wider rural economies affected, have been widespread outbreaks of animal diseases in cattle (Blue Tongue, BSE, Foot and Mouth Disease), pigs (Classical Swine Fever) and more recently Avian influenza. In addition to animal diseases, there have been numerous incidences of other food scares, due to the presence of banned substances in animal foodstuffs or chemical residues in food products.

The European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, in a recent mission statement, emphasised the need for 'an integrated approach to food safety', with the objective of 'assuring a high level of food safety, animal health, animal welfare within the EU through coherent farm-to-table measures and adequate monitoring' (

The 'radical new approach to food safety' advocated in the European Commission White Paper on Food Safety, is consistent with the new EU animal health strategy that 'Prevention is better than cure'. This emphasizes a preventative approach to animal disease with a reduced need for inputs such as pharmaceutical therapeutics (Anon, 2000). The White Paper stresses the need for 'an integrated farm-to-table approach' with a requirement for risk management at its foundation. It underlines the importance of integrating animal health and welfare with food policy as well as the need for sustainable agriculture, which achieves profitability in the context of optimal animal health, animal welfare and food safety along with increased environmental awareness.

Multiple causative factors are responsible for the widespread nature of these food safety problems, including reduced EU import controls. However, the unsustainable lengthening of the food supply chain is a common and important underlying cause of the apparently growing incidences of such widespread and indeed global food security problems. As the food supply chain gets longer, the sharing of knowledge, mutual understanding and trust between farmers, food processors, retailers and consumers declines and ultimately ceases. Currently, what is generally referred to as the food supply chain is not in fact a chain. Rather, it comprises a series of virtually independent components, each primarily concerned with its own efficiency and profitability. The absence of overall transparency and accountability is seriously undermining consumer confidence in the prevailing agri-food system. BSE in particular, as well as other recurring food scares, have changed the attitude of consumers to the current food supply chain.

Traceability, stricter controls on animal foodstuffs and new food safety policies and regulations are being implemented throughout Europe. However, given the growing public concern and mistrust of the present system, these adjustments are increasingly seen as insufficient. There is a growing demand for safer, healthier and higher quality food, taking into account animal health and welfare and the environment. European dairy farmers need to be able to demonstrate to the competent authorities, dairy industries and consumer organisations that the hazards and risks associated with animal health, animal welfare and food safety are being optimally managed at farm level. Chemical and microbiological safety is indispensable in the European food supply system, as citizens demand improved food quality. This is particularly important in the context of consumer concerns about food safety and animal welfare and the changing circumstances of agriculture post-decoupling, with a requirement for cross-compliance and an increasing emphasis on sustainable profitability, as opposed to increased production per se.

As stressed in a number of reports, a more radical approach is required, involving in particular a shortening of the food supply chain. This concern strongly underlines the need for sustainably competitive farm production systems based on value-added products with established regional identity and high traceability. In developing new livestock production systems, the opportunity exists to improve the safety of meat and meat products through the use of dietary manipulations designed to reduce the pathogen contamination of beef carcasses. A major food safety crisis may first have to be endured, however, before such innovations are fully availed of.

Food quality
Consistency is the most critical determinant of food product quality. The plane of animal nutrition is a primary determinant of the consistency and storage stability of dairy products (Downey & Doyle, 2007). A similar situation seems to pertain with beef. Accordingly, in developing new farm production systems, attention needs to be given to employing feeding strategies designed to meeting livestock energy requirements, while minimising feed costs. Again, this requires particular attention being given to optimising the nutritional performance of ruminant animals, otherwise, the composition and processing characteristics of milk and meat may be seriously impaired.

Food for health
In developing new systems of production, opportunities exist to enhance human health by raising levels of potentially important health-promoting ingredients in milk and other livestock products through the use of appropriate livestock feeding strategies. For example, milk containing conjugated linoleic acids and vaccenic acid in levels that protect against some cancers can be produced by pasture-grazing, and through other strategic dietary manipulations. Also, selenium-enriched milk may be beneficial to those at risk of colon or other cancers. Weight gain and obesity may be controlled by dietary supplementation with rennet whey, which is rich in the bioactive peptide termed glycomacropeptide, or by supplementation with calcium of dairy origin.

Environment and its RELEVANCE TO THE WIDER Community
In designing new systems of livestock and crop production, particular attention needs to be given, as shown in Fig. 2, to the central importance of the environmental component. In addition to the global implications of climate change and limited energy resources, other crucial concerns include the protection of soil, air and water resources, biodiversity and regional heritage, which have varying levels of importance in different contexts (Purvis et al 2008).

A great deal of the ecological, environmental and rural development knowledge necessary to alleviate many of the environmental issues associated with current agricultural systems already exists. What is lacking, is an economic model that makes it possible to implement this knowledge in the creation of more environmentally sustainable production systems, given the prevailing dictates of increased globalisation combined with the single-minded pursuit of price-competitiveness.

In the current circumstances, agriculture faces a daunting challenge in striking the optimum balance between the economic dictates of internationally competitive farm production and the protection of Europe's rich heritage of natural and cultural resources, allied to the sustainability of rural regions. This points to an urgent need to envisage the environment as a virtual economic entity, within which a dynamic range of competing developmental, environmental, and social pressures have to be systematically accommodated, without the demands of one interest impacting unduly on the others.

By incorporating potential advantages relating to animal health, nutrition and welfare, food security, safety and quality, human health and protection of the wider environment, a sustainably competitive agriculture would create a 'virtuous circle', in which everyone from farmers to the local rural community and the wider general public can gain. The majority of farms are family-run businesses, and represent a vital sector in the EU from a cultural and socio-economic perspective. Agriculture remains a driving force for economic and social cohesion. The close relationship between farmers, their agricultural advisors and veterinarians, represents an important thread in the social fabric of rural communities, especially in remote regions such as Ireland's Atlantic seaboard.

The rural regions of Europe will undergo radical change over the next two decades. In particular, Ireland's rural landscape will be substantially re-shaped by infrastructural developments and spatial differentiation in agriculture (Downey and Purvis, 2005), combined with climate change. In these circumstances, the quality of the environment in rural regions that remain relatively undeveloped will be a critical determinant of their sustained economic viablity. Successful rural areas will have to achieve a sustainable balance between economic, social and environmental aspects in a knowledge and innovation-based development of their rural economies. Some of the immediate issues relating to the successful adoption of such a strategy are outlined below.

With the emphasis given in this article to the development of innovative, integrated farm production systems linked to sustainability and optimal animal health and welfare, it is important to note that, as previously indicated, much of the knowledge required already exists. Notwithstanding the need for continued strategic research in relation to some fundamental aspects of the new systems (Downey, 2006), notably in the areas of animal nutrition, disease resistance and the environment (Table 2), a sustained commitment of the resources necessary to support the application and systematic transfer and uptake of the large accumulated reservoir of existing knowledge would make a more immediate and essential contribution than the generation of new knowledge.

Table 2: Some Indicative Strategic Research Needs
Theme / Focus / Animal Nutrition / Animal Health and Welfare / Disease Resistance / Environment

Integrated Systems
* Establishment of optimal interactions between nutrition-genotype-animal health in dairy and beef cattle, leading to improved feed conversion efficiency

* Development of innovative, integrated health and welfare management systems linked with action research methodologies of social scientists and behavioural economics

* Development of enhanced pest and disease resistance in livestock and crop species

* Elucidation and application of knowledge concerning the complex biological, pedological, hydrological and socio-economic processes involved in the interactions between agriculture and the environment

* Development of sustainable farm production systems optimally matched, economically and environmentally to local circumstances

Knowledge transfer systems
Within the R&D chain, ranging from conceptualisation of the research hypothesis or question, to product and process innovations, knowledge transfer and uptake are all too often the weakest components. With the single-minded pursuit of competitive research excellence, researchers tend to increasingly concentrate on narrow frontiers of highly specialised, 'cutting edge' knowledge creation. In these circumstances, the impression may be created that knowledge transfer is expected to happen by a process of osmosis. This is reflected in the relatively small, if not decreasing, share of national and EU science budgets allocated to knowledge transfer and utilisation, as opposed to primary knowledge creation. The diffusion of knowledge to farmers and the broader rural economy has been adversely affected by the substantial depletion of publicly supported farm advisory services in many European countries. Yet with the emerging disruptions and challenges already referred to, these services were never more required.

Weak technological absorptive capacity is an inherent feature of most small enterprises, including farms and also rural businesses and services. With a view to improving the efficiency of knowledge generation-utilisation, new organisational structures have been put in place in a number of European countries in recent decades. Europe now has a diverse range of organisational structures, ranging from stand-alone public research institutes, to joint university-state research organisations and to integrated research, advisory and education/ training services. While a sizeable commitment of financial and management resources were deployed in establishing and developing the new institutional arrangements, little information is available as to the relative effectiveness of the different models. In particular, it would be beneficial to know whether the expected improvements in knowledge transfer were derived from the amalgamation of research organisations with farm advisory and education services. Such information would be invaluable in considering the most appropriate organisational structures required for knowledge creation and diffusion.

In this regard, Teagasc (Ireland's Agriculture and Food Development Authority) could provide an informative case study. The organisation undertakes integrated agri-food research, farm advisory services and farmer education/ training programmes. Thus, it is well positioned for the effective diffusion of the knowledge generated by its own research programmes, and those undertaken by other organisations. The extent to which the establishment of Teagasc in 1989, from what previously were separate research (An Foras Talúntais) and farm advisory/training (ACOT) organisations, has improved technology transfer to agriculture is, however, difficult to measure.

A compounding factor in this regard is the reduced technology pull in recent decades following the imposition of EU production quotas. Notwithstanding this constraint, it can be said with reasonable certainty that with the establishment of Teagasc, the transmission of research to the farm advisory services has been improved. Also, the diffusion of technology to the end user, especially in the more commercial farming sectors, by the advisory services has been strengthened through the more extensive use of monitor farms, farmer discussion groups and joint industry-Teagasc farm development projects.

Whether, however, the uptake of knowledge by the next generation of farmers has been enhanced to a comparable degree is less clear. In this regard, there is a need to engage with the specialists in the teaching and learning arena to develop systems of optimal knowledge transfer. The inadequacy of current systems in this context is illustrated by the example of footrot in sheep. A huge volume of research has been performed and published over the past 20 years on this disease that remains hugely significant to the sheep industry in the context of economic impact and animal welfare. Despite this, recent large-scale surveys of sheep farmers in the UK for example, revealed that there was little consensus about optimal control methods for footrot and few farmers adopted the practice of segregation of infected sheep and flock entrants; a fundamental component of the control of any infectious, contagious disease (Wassink et al., 2005).

The challenges that we face have clear implications for research in bovine health management, as there will be an increasing need to engage social science methodologies such as action research, as well as behavioural economics. This will facilitate evaluation of the economic benefits of consumer perceptions of novel preventive approaches, as well as conventional cost-benefit analyses. Action research is being employed in agricultural developmental research in many parts of the world and involves the use of the knowledge and experience of farmers, their agricultural advisors and veterinarians in the various stages of the research process from problem identification, design and application of projects to implementation of results. Disease prevention, in its broadest sense is no longer the sole preserve of veterinarians. Rising to this challenge, will require the adoption of a multidisciplinary team approach involving the farmer, the veterinarian and other sources of farmer advice, including nutritional and animal breeding consultants.

The application of research is crucially dependent upon the capacities of applied research organisations to integrate new knowledge into farm production systems, and the capacities of end-users to adopt the systems and harness new knowledge. A key determinant of a sustainably competitive agriculture and rural economy in the immediate years ahead is the vocational third-level education and training of the next generation of farmers and also of prospective providers of associated rural businesses and services. To raise the technological absorptive capacity of future farmers, nationally accredited education and training programmes are being jointly provided by Teagasc and a number of Institutions of Technology. These courses provide opportunities for students to progress to degrees in agriculture and horticulture.

An increasing problem, however, is the escalating range of new disciplines and areas of scientific, economic and business expertise that are perceived as relevant to third level education in agriculture and related professional areas. This makes it increasingly difficult to structure appropriate educational programmes, which need to become more flexible, and cater for potentially life-long learning.

A growing concern with regard to the education of agriculturalists and other professionals engaged in related sectors, is the preoccupation of many third-level institutions with international competitiveness in high profile scientific research that has resulted in a drift away from farm-relevant research. This development clearly has important consequences for education per se, but also for the career prospects of those committed to the proper delivery of the required education programmes. Urgent attention needs to be given to restoring the necessary balance between the research and education functions of third-level institutions. Research creates the potential: education delivers on that potential. Two related issues that require immediate action are research training and continuing professional development.

Research training
The investment in doubling Ireland's output of PhDs in science and technology has to have particular regard to the quality of research training. The capacity of third-level institutions to educate increasing numbers of PhD students (especially from the viewpoint of proper supervision) as well as a range of other issues, has raised concerns about the continued provision of doctoral graduates that match the best international standards (Downey, 2003). A particular problem arises from the previously mentioned preoccupation of many third-level institutions with international competitiveness in 'frontier' scientific research. This has lead to an increasing tendency for PhD topics to be in highly specialised and narrow areas of science.

The effective transfer and uptake of the existing reservoir of knowledge is potentially a more crucial determinant of the continued competitiveness and sustainability of Europe's agri-food industries and rural economies in the immediate decade(s) ahead than the generation of new research knowledge. However, within the R&D chain, ranging from conceptualisation of the research hypothesis/question to product and process innovations, knowledge transfer is all too often one of the weakest links. This is reflected in the general disparity in the relatively small and sometimes decreasing proportion of national and EU science budgets allocated to knowledge transfer and innovation, as opposed to knowledge creation.

The sustained commitment of a sizeable proportion of national and EU science budgets to the systemic transfer of existing knowledge would be likely to result in more innovative developments in Europe's agri-food industries and the rural economies than will be achieved by investing preferentially in the front-end of the R&D chain, especially in fundamental or curiosity-driven research. Weak technological absorptive capacity is, however, an inherent feature of most SMEs and micro-companies, including rural businesses.

Various mechanisms are used to address this widespread problem, including the engagement by companies of knowledge brokers. With the objective of detailing best practices, it would be beneficial to have case studies of such initiatives documented from different countries. For instance, in Ireland, a medium-scale agri-engineering company has relatively recently established an International Scientific Advisory Board of knowledgeable and authoritative experts in economics, nutrition, genetics, agriculture, veterinary and food products. By applying leading-edge knowledge, this company has added a science-based, knowledge-intensive animal nutrition service to its core agri-engineering business.

Successful development of sustainably competitive agriculture systems requires that future post-graduate training provide the necessary breadth of skills and knowledge to enable graduates to contribute effectively in their subsequent occupation. The aforementioned report published in 2003 by the Higher Education Authority, recommended that a national review be undertaken of postgraduate training. Among other issues, the proposed review considered the incorporation of structured courses with modules on a range of generic and real world orientation skills into a four-year PhD programme. In this regard, the inclusion of transferable skills training as part of the structured PhD programme is an important step towards addressing these issues.

Continuing professional development
To capitalise on the highly educated workforce built up in recent decades, continuing professional development programmes are an imperative requirement across a wide range of occupations, in order to continuously upgrade knowledge levels. Only in this way, can the progression be made from a knowledge economy to building an innovation economy. In this regard, the rhetoric that has characterised much of the advocacy in relation to continuing professional development needs to be translated into concerted, durable actions in terms of resourcing, accreditation and delivery.

The overarching strategic requirement is the establishment of a National Professional Development Programme with a dedicated funding system designed to mobilise third-level institutions to develop and systematically deliver accredited courses based on the best models and practices. To cater for the broadening range of professional capabilities increasingly required, continuing professional development should include modules on management/administration, communications, technology transfer, commercialisation of research, innovation and entrepreneurship.

In particular, a high priority needs to be given to communication skills. Continuing development programmes analogous to the MBA, but that are specifically designed to meet the precisely defined needs of practicing farmers and also those engaged in rural businesses and services, would make an important contribution to building a sustainably competitive agriculture and rural economy.

Teagasc is currently investigating the provision of such agri-business degrees in conjunction with third-level educational institutions. Furthermore, numerous international reports have highlighted the critical shortage of veterinarians serving farm animal practice in rural areas. There is a need to increase capacity by assisting veterinary practitioners to play an extended role in disease prevention as part of multi-disciplinary farm advisory teams, instead of acting exclusively after the event, as the individuals who treat sick animals and prescribe veterinary drugs.

Globalisation of markets has lead to many of the serious concerns facing agriculture. New farm production and health management systems are required to resolve the apparent complexity of interacting issues. Global competition based on the exclusively price-competitive model, climate change and recent fears relating to food supply are likely to exacerbate many of the concerns relating to food security, food safety, animal health and welfare and the environment. An alternative strategy based on sustainable competitiveness would address a wide range of these major concerns, and facilitate the development of a 'virtuous circle' of valued-added gain for all involved, including producers, processors and the consumer.


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Doherty, M.L and Mulligan, F. J. (2008) Production diseases of the transition cow. The Veterinary Journal, 176, 3-9. Downey, L. (2003) Creating Ireland's innovation society: The next strategic step. Higher Education Authority, Dublin.
Downey, L. (2006) EU agri-food industries & rural economies by 2025 - Towards a knowledge bio-economy - Research & knowledge transfer systems. Report prepared for the European Commission, Brussels.
Downey, L. & Doyle, P.T. (2007) Cow nutrition & dairy product manufacture - Implications of seasonal pasture-based milk production systems. Aust. J. Dairy Technology. 62: 3-11.
Downey, L. & Purvis, G. (2005) Building a knowledge based multifunctional agriculture and rural environment. Pages 121-139 (Chapter 5) in Science Ireland - Value for Society. C. Mollan, Ed. Royal Dublin Society, Dublin.
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Purvis, G., Louwagie, G. Northey, G., Mortimer, S., Park, J., Finn, J., Primdahl, J., Vejre, H., Kristiansen, L., Knickel, K-H., Kasperczyk, N., Podmaniczky, L., Balazs, K., Vlahos, G., & Peltola, J. (2008) The Agri-environmental Footprint Index (AFI): a harmonised, European-wide method for assessing the performance of agri-environment schemes (AES). Submitted to Environmental Science and Policy.
Wassink, G.J., Moore, L.J., Grogono-Thomas, R., Green, L.E. (2005) Footrot and interdigital dermatitis in sheep: farmers' practices, opinions and attitudes. Veterinary Record. 157, 761-766.

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