Private money is missing piece of agri-food jigsaw

University College Cork took a big step forward in launching its food institute last week.

The purpose of this platform is to provide a one-stop-shop that can capture the myriad of food-related activities within the UCC eco-system.

For many decades, UCC has had a heritage of leading-edge and innovative food processing academia.

Its work in dairy and digestive science, as examples, are world class and recognised as such.

The stream of high calibre graduates from UCC populate corporations and third level institutions globally and that network provides an invaluable set of contacts which the food institute can tap into for its future development.

What was clear from the launch is that UCC is already well-positioned to advance its credentials as a teacher in agri-food science. But, alongside that, an ambition is forming around the business of food, too.

I would argue, however, that an important part of the jigsaw which has yet to be bedded down is the role of large private flows of capital in supporting and developing the agri-food industry.

The food institute has the potential to put UCC at the heart of that topic which will be instrumental in how the global food and beverage industry moves forward.

It is evident the Government and state agencies are already committed to supporting UCC food research and teaching activities.

Enterprise Ireland, Teagasc, the Department of Food and others funnel significant resources into collaborating and financing R&D through UCC-managed programmes.

What is not yet evident, to this observer at least, is material input from those who manage large amounts of capital worldwide for the food and drink industry.

If the Food Institute can tap into that system it will find both insight and money of direct relevance to how academia should prepare the food scientists and executives of the future.

To this end, the food institute should organise a high profile food and beverage investor event that attracts the best brains and leaders from the world of finance and industry to gather in Cork.

It already has the network in place to trigger this. Gerry Murphy, who spoke at last week’s event, is chairman of the food group Tate and Lyle.

As importantly, he is chair of Blackstone Europe, the gigantic private equity, alternative finance and financial services firm.

The brains trust in Blackstone — who think about mega food themes — would, on their own, attract CEOs and board members of global food companies to visit Cork.

Add names like Fidelity, Allianz and Wellington to that mix to generate a get-together that has money managers explaining where they will deploy billions in the future food and drink industry.

Have leaders of global food companies and co-operatives there, too, to outline their visions and you produce a brainstorming session around how private capital can optimally support the food sector.

I suspect that capital is already planning to invest heavily in food systems and processes that address the impact of climate change while delivering sustainable food solutions that meet changing consumer preferences.

Indeed, it was a common the meat the food institute launch to highlight the challenge but also the opportunity to grow the food and drink industry while respecting the environmental pressures around it.

If the UCC food institute can advance its global reputation as a thought leader in sustainable food production and devise business models that attract the scale of capital needed to achieve that, it will add value not only to its local community and economy but to global food.

Bringing money, science and entrepreneurs together to solve this inter-generational challenge, under the umbrella of the food institute, would be a great achievement over the coming decades.

Joe Gill is director of corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal.

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