Researchers in Ireland and Wales have been awarded €2.7million to explore the development of oat varieties that are climate-resistant and have high nutritional value and superior health benefits.
The ‘Healthy Oats’ project – €2.18million of which has been granted from the European Regional Development Fund as part of the Ireland-Wales Cooperation Programme – will also help farmers and industry prepare for the changes pending under the EU Green deal, including reduced use of fertilisers and pesticides.
Led by UCD, in collaboration with Aberystwyth University, Swansea University and Teagasc, researchers will work with agricultural communities and stakeholders to promote the health, economic and environmental benefits of growing oats – a crop which is ideally suited to the climate of both countries and well-established in their traditional farming systems.
The researchers will test the resilience and performance of different varieties under reduced and targeted input tillage systems, and will work to identify varieties that have a combination of enhanced performance under low inputs and superior nutritional and health benefits.
Project leader at UCD School of Biology and Environmental Science, Professor Fiona Doohan said: “Oats are culturally and historically a very important part of both Irish and Welsh agriculture and there is renewed awareness of their health benefits and the potential of farm-to-fork strategies to deliver innovative, healthy and nutritionally enhanced oat products. This EU-funded project is very timely as it will build on Irish and Welsh oat research to help industries in these regions to capitalise on the growing demand for sustainably produced oat products.
“This project brings together expertise on oat agronomy, nutrition and health science to help Ireland and Wales exploit the maximum value from our oat crops. Work in Teagasc and UCD, in collaboration with our Welsh colleagues, will select varieties and breeding material that has key agronomic benefits under reduced input agricultural systems, and is nutritionally superior. Work in UCD will also test the nutritional and sensory qualities of oat products, while work in Wales will test the health benefits of derivative oat products.”
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Michael McGrath, TD said: “This project marks another successful cooperation between Irish and Welsh institutions supported by the EU maritime cross-border Ireland-Wales programme.” He added: “Joint participation by institutions in Ireland and Wales in EU programmes has been a positive force for deepening the close relationships between us and promoting ongoing and increased engagement across the Irish Sea.”
Consumer demand for oats is increasing with the demand for healthier products, with food manufacturers capitalising on new opportunities in food categories including cereal bars, breads and drinks. The higher protein and oil content of oats mean that they have very high nutritional value and, in addition, are an effective replacement for imported soya.
Leading the research within the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University, Professor John Doonan said: “Oats grow very well in Wales and Ireland and new products will provide the opportunity to increase both production and add value to a traditional crop. We will be working with colleagues on both sides of the Irish Sea to increase awareness and understanding of the potential of this crop.”
Head of oat breeding at Aberystwyth University, Dr Catherine Howarth added: “In addition to examining modern oat varieties, this project will explore the climate adaptability and grain composition of heritage varieties of oats from across Wales and Ireland. To increase the resilience and value of cropping systems to rural communities, we need to improve agrobiodiversity.”
Head of Crops Research at Teagasc, Dr Ewen Mullins concluded that projects such as ‘Healthy Oats’ provide a key research platform from which to address the needs of stakeholders in the sector. “Healthy Oats, in combination with on-going projects, will deliver research-led solutions to current and future challenges. This will support the expansion of the oats market, bringing added value to producers and all actors in the value chain.”
Lastly, the Welsh Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths said: “I am very pleased to see that the ‘Healthy Oats’ project has been supported via the Ireland-Wales Cooperation Programme. Continued co-operation between universities and in Ireland and Wales marks not only our continued commitment to encourage such collaborative research relationships, but also to promote all-important innovation and co-operation within our food sector. Initiatives such as these are vital to our economy and we are pleased to continue to support them.”
A digital platform will be built as part of the project so that information and knowledge can be shared with industry and other stakeholders.