Ambassador programme highlights sustainability opportunities for Irish farmers

While based at Teagasc in Mayo, Owen Keogh started to learn more about Bord Bia’s Origin Green programme, and what it could do for farmers.

This led to him becoming an ambassador for the initiative, a process he has just completed.

Keogh comes from a family farm in Rathfarnham in the Dublin Mountains. “The farm is mainly run by my father, Chris, with plenty of help from the family, and is a mixed sheep and beef farm. Our farm is mainly mountain land so sheep are the main enterprise,” he said.

In the late 1990s, his parents also set up an agri tourism business – Tibradden Farm Cottages – family-run self-catering cottages based on the farm. “This works quite well as the farm is about eight miles from the city centre, and about 10 minutes from Dundrum Town Centre,” he said.

“Before the holiday cottages took over, we had about 350 ewes and 25 suckler cows. As the tourism business began to get busier throughout the years we downsized to 120 ewes and about 20 beef heifers. My mother and siblings also keep horses and show-jump around the country,” said Keogh.

After school, he completed a degree in food and agri business management in UCD for four years. Following that, he did a Teagasc Walsh Fellowship Masters in Knowledge Transfer. Based in the Teagasc advisory office in Ballina Co. Mayo, he completed a research project on the use of local radio and podcasts in knowledge transfer. “This was a great experience, and I have a research paper hopefully being published with the Journal of Agricultural Extension in the coming weeks,” he said.

I have always been interested in global food business, and the role the Irish industry plays in this global network.

“When I saw the Origin Green ambassador programme being advertised it became clear to me that it would be a great opportunity to get involved in the global industry, and work with the massive global companies that Ireland Inc. does business with so often,” Keogh said.

“The last two years on the programme have been hugely beneficial, and a great experience for any young professional. The mix of corporate experience and academic modules with UCD Smurfit School but also people like Mary Shelman of Harvard, have been amazing.

“The real benefit of this programme is the opportunity to work with very senior members of global businesses across the globe. They are really open to Origin Green and those who represent the programme. The other added benefit of the Origin Green ambassador programme is the opportunity to live and work abroad for a period of time. I have been based in London for the programme but others have been based in cities like New York, Paris, Geneva, Amsterdam, Beijing and many more.”

Keogh worked on: the Mars global sustainable sourcing team; on the McDonalds global supply chain sustainability team; and in Sainsburys, on its sustainable and ethical sourcing team.

“In Mars, I was working on sustainable sourcing strategy for its global dairy and sugar supply chains. This involved carrying out a number of activities such as supply chain mapping, and then working closely with commercial teams and senior sustainability managers to look at sourcing sustainable raw material,” said Keogh.

“At McDonalds, I was working on its European beef sustainability strategy, alongside its European sustainable sourcing manager. This involved research and looking at the current sourcing strategy. This also gave me the chance to get involved in its global supply chain, and work alongside great organisations such as FAI Farms in the UK, and with the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform,” he said.

In Sainsburys, he worked on the launch and pilot of its new sustainability standards that the company is now rolling out in its value chain. “This was all based in its own brand team, working on interesting projects on UK agricultural projects, but also in areas like tea and coffee in the developing world,” he said.

“The main thing I have taken home from this is the value of the Origin Green programme as a brand for the Irish industry. I know at times markets can be challenging, especially for farmers, but this brand and the work of Bord Bia really does attract these large global players to Ireland and to Irish producers.

“Without this, I think we would be in an even more challenging market, and struggling to keep up with the world. It really does set us apart from many sourcing regions in the world.”

Keogh’s perspective is that Irish farming is in a good position at the moment. “We have a real opportunity to be the leading industry in the world on sustainability. Oncoming requirements of the sourcing teams of each of these global players is sustainability, and we are poised to take advantage of this.

What we need to do next to take hold of this opportunity is to start to show positive improvement at farm level through the Bord Bia quality assurance and sustainability audits.

So will he change anything on his family farm, as a result of the experience as an ambassador? “Our own farm has challenges like any other, but from my experience, we have changed some of our management.

“For example, stock now get out to grass earlier in the year to take advantage of the spring grass, but also lowering their carbon footprint. We still have a lot of improvement to do, but my experience has certainly given me the macro view of why it is important to continually look at our farm practice and try to improve.”   

Martin Hofler, from Galway was another Origin Green ambassador. He undertook international placements with: ZNU Centre of Sustainable Corporate Leadership / Ornua Deutschland in Germany; PepsiCo in the US; and the Dairy Sustainability Framework (DSF) in the UK. He previously worked for Jacobs Engineering within the Sustainable Solutions Business Unit.

“I saw the opportunity to further develop my sustainability knowledge while promoting Irish food and drink products within some of the world’s largest food and drink companies,” he said.

At Ornua Deutschland, he worked with its marketing department, demonstrating Origin Green’s sustainability credentials to German food manufacturers. At PepisCo, he supported PepsiCo’s global sustainable agriculture team in designing an agricultural raw material sustainability improvement pathway and identified associated reductions to PepsiCo’s carbon and water footprints.

His final placement was with the DSF, liaising with its global member base on its reporting commitments. He is continuing to work with Bord Bia in a sustainability role over the coming months.

“The biggest learning for me on the programme has been the opportunity to witness first-hand how sustainable business practices are core to the strategic directions of the world’s leading food and beverage companies.

“The Irish food and drink industry is well positioned to capitalise on companies’ sustainability strategic direction through Bord Bia’s sustainable quality assurance schemes at the farm level, and the Origin Green Charter at the food manufacturing, retailer and food service level,” he said.