IN Cork, there are two main topics of conversations — the weather, and food.
Food is synonymous with Cork and remains one of the core areas of industry, education, research and social recreation for its people and visitors.
In University College Cork, where I am the Head of the College of Science, Engineering and Food Science (SEFS), we are proud of our strong identity as Ireland’s Food University, with more than 25 undergraduate and postgraduate courses available to study.
These include our newest offerings for 2019, the bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Science which will be delivered in collaboration with Teagasc, Moorepark Food Research Centre, and the postgraduate diploma in Irish Food Culture, led by noted food historian Regina Sexton. In addition, the Internationalization of the Food programme has included a new undergraduate Food Science degree specifically with Chinese academic partners for Chinese students. These new courses are in response to growing demand for fresh education and innovative learning across our food chain — which is under the spotlight now more than ever.
With increasing environmental challenges around our agricultural and food processing practices, it is vital that Ireland and Cork as a major food hub, take leadership in addressing these challenges in a way that caters for all populations, including producers and consumers. Cork has already taken steps to create a positive and more sustainable attitude toward food production and consumption through initiatives like the Cork Food Policy Council, which is chaired by UCC’s Dr Colin Sage and which champions sustainable food behaviour in the region through its annual awards, which are currently accepting 2019 nominees. This growing positive attitude toward purchasing local produce can be seen at any of Cork’s numerous Farmers’ Markets which take place across the city and county on a weekly basis, and of course is evident in the home of Cork food, the English Market.
Against a background of “fake news” and conflicting arguments regarding nutrition, food origin and production practises, it can be a challenging time for consumers to make informed and educated choices about their food consumption and purchasing. Pressing topics such as food miles, water sustainability and the excessive use of plastic packaging materials are all areas of active interest for UCC researchers in the Cork University Business School (CUBS) and the Environmental Research Institute (ERI), who are delivering pioneering studies on reusing wastewater from dairy processing plants, to allow Ireland to reach sustainability targets while also improving the outputs of our commercial dairy sector.
This attitude of positively working toward a more holistic and sustainable food chain is echoed by a similarly positive approach to protecting our environment. UCC is noted worldwide as a beautiful campus, and this is supported by its green credentials, becoming the only Irish university to feature in the UI GreenMetric World University Rankings top 10 in 2018, out of over 700 global universities.
As Ireland’s most sustainable university, UCC has led the way in ensuring the protection of our Food chain through actions such as opening Ireland’s first plastic-free café and even producing our own honey from bees protected and producing on university land. This has translated across to our students, with researcher-entrepreneur Dr Fiona Edwards-Murphy recently winning €1.5M in seed funding to support her agri-tech business ApisProtect, which uses the internet of things to monitor and manage bee colonies.
This streak of innovation is evident across Cork’s food chain and can even be seen in a different guise through the recent haul of Michelin stars across the county, with three stars awarded across restaurants Ichigo Ichie, the Mews and Chestnut. All of these restaurants have emphasised their roots in serving best local produce with a strong seasonal influence, and Cork diners have flocked to them in their droves to taste the innovative stylings and combinations provided.
This gastronomic success further translates across Cork food products, with over 53 Cork winners in the 2018 Blas na hEireann awards. UCC itself has a long legacy with Blas, which is the biggest blind tasting of produce in the country. The criteria on which the product is judged, as well as the judging system itself, was developed in partnership with the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences in UCC and is now recognised as an international industry standard.
Of course, after the production, purchase and consumption of food, there is another key step; digestion. UCC and Cork have long been established as true leaders in the field of microbiome science and digestive health as home to APC Microbiome Ireland, the world’s largest centre researching the microbiome, which is the community of micro-organisms living in the human body. I myself am the Deputy Director of the centre, which is ranked first in the world for probiotic and bacteriocin research and which has led to a number of successful national and international collaborations with academia and industry.
This breadth of activity, spanning across so many disciplines and areas of application, demonstrates the dynamic identify of Cork as a Food Capital, with UCC at the heart of providing knowledge to support and empower communities to reflect on the importance of our food system.
For us in the university, now more than ever, our research in food, nutrition and the environment is of critical importance and this has been reflected in the creation of our newest research unit, the Food Institute UCC, which will be officially launched by Minister Michael Creed on Friday January 18 next and which is led by director, Jim Corbett. With over 250 staff working and supporting food-related research and education across the Food Institute, the centre will provide single-point access to all the food resources of UCC.
With direct graduate employment from food-related degrees at over 88%, UCC offers the widest and best pool of talent and knowledge for the entire agri-food sector with Cork, the Food Capital, at its heart.