“There are always financial and commercial barriers to consider with research and development, so companies such as ours need financial resilience, patience and a willingness to find the right partners."

No-one says that conducting research and development in the farm, feed and food industry is easy. But it's absolutely critical in order to drive innovation and protect human health, says Richard Kennedy, Group CEO of Belfast-based agri-technology company, Devenish

“Good R&D in our sector has the potential to make a positive, pro-active impact on society,” he says. “There are always financial and commercial barriers to consider with research and development, so companies such as ours need financial resilience, patience and a willingness to find the right partners. But ultimately, R&D is vital because it provides new knowledge, new learning and new innovation.”

Of course, R&D may take place in the lab — but it doesn't stayin the lab. Indeed, it can have exciting real-world applications and essential real-world benefits. “As scientists, we're always looking for a win-win for everyone in the farm, food and feed industry, with better food, reduction of disease and a positive effect on farms and agri-businesses,” says Dr Alice Stanton from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and Devenish.

 

The importance of nutrients in the food value chain

 

Kennedy explains that his company's research strategy is focused on finding gaps or inadequacies in the food value chain with regards to the utilisation of nutrients. “We know that nutrients are the basis of life, and that their utilisation is the best way to ensure the health of everyone,” he says. “Nutrients are good for the soil, good for the animal, good for the environment, good for the food and, ultimately, good for the consumer.” 

Essentially, he points out, “we are what we eat, eats.” For example, some fish (such as salmon, mackerel and tuna) obtain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) from the algae and plankton in their diet. Evidence shows that the omega-3 we obtain from regularly eating that type of fish can prevent heart-attacks, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, cancer and diabetes, and it can promote brain, muscle and joint health. 

 

80% of the population is deficient in omega-3

 

Yet, worryingly, 80% of the world's population is deficient in omega-3 fatty acids — and 1.5 million deaths occur annually because of it. A low omega-3 index (less than 4%) indicates a heightened risk of heart and brain disease. Optimal levels should be 8% or above. 

One reason for this deficiency is that there isn't enough oily fish to feed the world; plus, omega-3 doesn't naturally occur in farmed fish. “To become omega-3 rich, farmed fish have to eat plankton, algae or fish oils in their feed,” says Dr Stanton. “But that's not happening because prices have increased.”

 

Omega-3 from chicken and eggs instead of fish

 

So, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, on behalf of Devenish, aimed to discover if omega-3 could be consumed effectively from other sources. To that end it ran a clinical trial, which involved 161 subjects eating at least three portions of chicken and eggs per week, that were naturally enriched with omega-3 (PUFA). Results showed an increase in omega-3-PUFA levels in blood and red-cell levels, indicating that regular consumption of naturally enriched omega-3 chicken and eggs is likely to reduce risk of heart attack, stroke, dementia and depression.

 

It's easy to make up for the deficiencies in our diet

 

Much attention is paid to reducing excessive consumption of the calories, sugar and salt in our diet. That's important says Dr Stanton, but we must address nutritional deficiencies too. “Nutritional deficiencies are causing as much ill health as the excesses. Yet these are easier to address, because we can add nutrients – such as omega-3 – to foods that people already consume, whereas it's more difficult to persuade them to cut down on food. After all, the argument of curbing excesses has been made for the last 20 years, and we're still only seeing small health improvements. We believe addressing deficiencies as well as excesses will have a more rapid impact.”

People are more aware of healthy eating now, says Kennedy. “That puts more responsibility on all of us in this area because consumers want provenance, authenticity and the potential for pro-active nutrition, rather than reactive medicine. And, yes, that's a pressure — but it also presents a real opportunity for the food industry.”