Entrepreneur of the Year says farming and food could be a solution to climate change

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Richard Kennedy is about to tuck into a salad when I arrive for our interview at a business park in the shadow of Belfast’s former industrial behemoth, Harland & Wolff. Such is his frenetic schedule, the chief executive of agri-tech company Devenish is forced to eat and talk.

We’re lucky to have caught him at all given what seems to be a never-ending schedule of travel for him – both within and outside Ireland. Last week alone, he was in Liverpool on Monday and Tuesday, Belfast on Wednesday, then Dublin on Thursday and Friday, and that’s a relatively quiet week.

Such is the life of a chief executive targeting aggressive growth for a business that is becoming increasingly more important as our climate expectations shift.

While now an agricultural technology company, Devenish started life as a pre-mix animal feed manufacturer. For every tonne of feed, the company would provide roughly five kilograms of micronutrients and influential nutrients. But even then, they knew that animal feed wasn’t simply a formality: what cattle, pigs and sheep are being fed is of considerable importance given the way it trickles through the food chain.

“If we provide healthy nutritious food for the soil, it, in turn, will be healthy … If we do the same for animals, they will be healthy and their welfare will be better,” explains Kennedy, sitting in a boardroom at the company’s headquarters.

These days, the company’s strategy is to “ensure one health from soil all the way to society”. Think farm to fork, but with added layers.

Devenish isn’t in the business of devising lofty mantras just for the sake of it though. One of its more ambitious projects was delivering omega-3 – fatty acids known to improve eye health and risk factors for heart disease – to consumers through chickens.

We’re used to getting our required omega-3 through fish which, in turn, get it by consuming plankton. Given the mass market appeal of chickens, Devenish partnered producer Moy Park and supermarket group Waitrose – as well as the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) – to come up with a better way to deliver the important nutrient. A clinical trial by the RCSI demonstrated that regular consumption of the naturally enriched omega-3 chicken and eggs is likely to reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, dementia and depression.

Public health

And while these chickens are more expensive than their non-enriched counterparts, Kennedy notes that the potential for them to have an impact on public health – similar to the addition of fluoride to water – is huge. The Government has yet to take notice, he says, but some political leaders are and in several cities Devenish is providing omega-enriched chicken and eggs to schools.

And, as the country watches farmers protest the poor price they receive for their produce, our meeting was timely. Kennedy says innovations like the addition of omega-3 to feed have the potential to change the game.

“The significant thing about this is that this is innovation at farm level because farmers feed the animals and that’s where the value add occurs,” something he compares to supply chain where food becomes more valuable once processed.

Omega-3 wasn’t Devenish’s first foray into innovation in animal feed. In 1998, the company developed a technology that lowered emissions and smells from pig farms by roughly 50 per cent in a study conducted by UCD that was also peer reviewed.

It is now in the process of developing technology that has the potential to wipe out emissions from the State’s cattle herd by 2025. Although light on detail, the company aims to deliver carbon neutral milk and beef within five years.

With agriculture such a focus of the Government’s climate action plan, surely this move by Devenish is a godsend. Are the powers that be paying attention?

“Hopefully they are … we would see that instead of farming and food being the issue, it could be a solution,” Kennedy says.

That will only happen, he believes, if the island as a whole works together. That also applies to those farmers and processors who are at loggerheads over beef prices.

“[Both sides were] more interested in scoring points amongst one and other than actually saying ‘how do we create a world leading industry’,” Kennedy said.

Emissions

Creating a world leading industry, however, is probably lower down the list of priorities for the agricultural sector just now than getting is trying to get to grips with the shifting tide of public opinion. Once the darling of Ireland’s export industry, beef farming is now increasingly blamed for the State’s failure to meet emissions standards. It also has to contend with the possibility that the Mercosur trade deal could flood Europe with cheaper South American meat and, to add insult to injury, vegan diets that are encouraging people to move to plant-based meat substitutes.

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