AFBI (Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute) Chief Executive Officer Professor Seamus Kennedy has confirmed that his organisation has entered into detailed negotiations with DARD (Department of Agriculture and Rural Development) to identify how the research funding cuts, which the Department has recently confirmed, can be best implemented. The institute is Northern Ireland’s leading agri-research body.

“This will be a joint process and may well take a number of months. I am not in a position to confirm the actual figures involved, as these will only become fully apparent once the review has been completed, but we are planning for a 6% overall reduction this year.”

But Professor Kennedy was keen to stress that AFBI will continue to represent Northern Ireland’s first line of defence in the event of a pandemic disease outbreak – such as Bluetongue and Foot and Mouth.

“However, this critical level of service can only be delivered on the back of the required calibre of staff, commensurate facilities and ongoing research projects which will continue to hone the skills of everyone involved.

“AFBI has a track record of success in delivering commercially for both the organisation and Northern Ireland as whole. For example, our work has resulted in the development of one of the largest selling farm animal vaccines in the world, protecting pigs from the devastating effects of wasting disease.

“Our participation in international research consortia allowed us to have the skills in place to identify Bluetongue virus, when it was accidentally imported in cattle in 2008. This work was estimated to have saved Northern Ireland £25 million per annum.”

Other research projects cited by Seamus Kennedy as endorsing the key role played by AFBI at the heart of the agri-food sector include the whole genome sequencing of the TB bacterium; the work carried out in helping to secure a Nitrates’ Derogation for Northern Ireland and economic assessments of locally proposed agricultural Greenhouse Gas policy.

He also confirmed that AFBI has managed to increase commercial funding levels from £2 million,  back in 2006, to the current £19 million figure.

“We now secure one third of our total income from the private sector plus other departmental and non-departmental non-departmental sources.

“And we want to build on this for the future. In this context, we are well down the road in developing strong working relationships with a number of consortia in North America. The EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme is another potential funding source. And in fact we should know if we have been successful in securing significant levels of funds under this guise before the end of this year.”

But DARD’s decision to review its research funding commitment to AFBI is not the only weighty economic issue currently under review within AFBI.

“We are also assessing with DARD the future shape of the Institute’s entire estate,” Seamus Kennedy said.

“This will include decisions on the future of our Newforge Lane headquarters, the Veterinary Sciences Laboratory at Dundonald and our Loughgall Horticultural Research Centre.

“Newforge is no longer suitable for our work. It was built to meet the needs of several  hundred students when it was home to Queen’s University’s Faculty of Agriculture and Food Science.

“In reality, we must either down size our presence within the current site or move to a new location. Where Stoney Road is concerned we are in the process of putting a business case to the Department which, if accepted, would see the development of a new, state-of-the-art laboratory complex on the existing site. Our aim is to develop Loughgall into a world leading centre for plant science research.”