UCD third in online Great Agri-Food Debate

Image Credit: Sinéad Mohan

The sixth Great-Agri Food sees students debate issues relating to agriculture, food and the environment.

Six UCD School of Agriculture & Food Science students represented the college in the restructured online Great Agri-Food Debate. Each team participated in only one debate, which was adjudicated by a panel of judges and the teams were ranked according to their combined scores. WIT opposed UCD’s motion, ‘plastic is not the enemy of our blue planet’. The team ranked third out of the six competitors with team member Ciara Fox awarded with the best speaker award for UCD’s debate.

The online Great Agri-Food Debate provided six teams from across Ireland and Wales the opportunity to express their thoughts on a range of motions relevant to agriculture, the environment and food. The event, sponsored by Dawn Meats and McDonalds, is in its sixth year with WIT clenching the title after three vigorous bouts of debating between competing institutions. The incumbent UCD School of Agriculture & Food Science team came third and Antrim’s CAFRE took second place.

Competing against the UCD team in the competition were teams from the University of Aberystwyth, the University of Limerick, the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise, the Dundalk Institute of Technology and the Waterford Institute of Technology. This year saw an institution outside of the island of Ireland take part in the event for the first time since its inception in 2016. Niall Browne CEO of Dawn Meats welcomed Aberystwyth’s participation as “adding a new perspective to proceedings”.

The competition was restructured to allow for the event to proceed online, in lieu of the traditional live competition format. The UCD team faced-off against UL on a motion regarding the impact of plastics on the environment virtually on Tuesday March 23rd with the debate then broadcast via YouTube on Wednesday March 31st. This restructuring of the event only allowed for four of the team members to speak on the motion, with supporting research positions appointed to the remaining team members. . In previous years, each team member had the opportunity to speak over the course of the weekend. The four team speakers were Roisín Scully, Ciara Byers, Ciara Fox and Maria Wall. The research was carried out by students Thomas Howlett and Michael Dever.

The whole experience was a great opportunity to put yourself out there. We were forced to think outside the box and come up with our own ideas from the research.

The teams were then ranked in accordance to the scores delivered by the judging panel which included representatives from DAFM, Dawn Meats, McDonald’s UK & Ireland, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Bord Bia and the UK’s AHDB. UCD won their debate with UL but failed to score high enough to clench the title for what would have been a fifth time. The other motions debated were ‘lab grown meats will not replace traditional livestock farming systems’ and ‘the livestock sector can meet the requirements for net zero’, both highly topical issues for Irish agri-food production.

This UCD team was chosen after interested students participated in debating heats held on the 16th and 23rd of February. The hopeful candidates were divided into two teams to debate the same motions that were to be debated in the actual competition. Following the team selection, varying modes of online communication were used to enable the team to remain in contact through the course of their research and preparation. The team worked late nights and early mornings to ensure preparation did not clash with the presentation of course material, as the team was drawn from differing year groups and degree programmes.

Internet connectivity issues were reported by some team members throughout the preparation period, with a team member from Cavan being particularly affected by the technical difficulties. These experiences highlight the necessity of high-speed internet connectivity to remote study and working environments throughout the country.

Speaking on the experience of the UCD competitors, team captain Roisin Scully commented on the opportunity presented to contestants in preparing for the debate to “break from the online learning that has become the new norm”. Although the move online may have removed some of the social elements of the event, Scully made known the team’s enjoyment of meeting a diverse array of students and industry figures over the course of the competition. Also adding to the allure of participating in the competition was the “social media buzz” which showcased team members to potential future employers in the weeks leading up to the debates. Social media played an important role in this year’s competition with each of the third level team’s institutions updating students on details of the competition throughout the debates.

The teams not only gained enlightening insights into the motions that were researched for the competition, the team captain observed, but bettered their public speaking and presentation skills, “Even though I was talking to a computer, it felt the same as if I was at the top of a lecture hall or on a stage”. Support was provided to the team by Head of Rural Development in the School of Agriculture Dr Karen Keaveney and Programme Director Irene Rose.