It is difficult to remember back to a time when we were truly offline and not at the beck and call of our smartphones - the incessant buzz signalling a call, message, email or some other kind of notification.  However, not all that long ago smartphones and the internet simply didn’t exist, as members of the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association (NIGTA) were reminded of at the Association’s recent quarterly lunch when they were treated to a different and very special guest speaker. 

Mr George Starrett, a true stalwart of the local animal feed industry, gave his reflections on his career as a nutritionist spanning almost half a century, detailing the changes, challenges and significant improvements that have been made since he started in the trade in 1975.  

Back then, there were no computers for formulating diets.  Everything had to be done manually without the clever software that exists today. 

George regaled members with many tales of his adventures over the years, including an expedition to England in the late 1970s to bring back the first Format formulations software package, complete with floppy disc, in the back of a Ford Cortina.  This would have been state of the art technology at the time.     

Members were reminded of just how far the feed trade and farming sector in Northern Ireland have come over the last number of decades.  In the broiler industry, the feed conversion ratio (FCR) has been reduced from 2.4 to 1.4 kg of feed per kg of bodyweight.  The number of eggs produced per hen has increased by approximately 90 eggs and FCR has reduced from 3.1 to 2.1 kg of feed per kg of egg mass, while the number of pigs produced per sow has increased from 20 to 30 during the same period.  As a result, Northern Ireland is now capable of feeding around 10 million people – providing protein for a further 8 million  consumers in addition to our local population.  All of these improvements have been achieved by advancements in genetics, nutrition and management.  Not only have they helped to increase efficiencies, but they can also help to reduce the carbon intensity per unit of output, a key focus of today’s sustainability agenda.  Research and innovation have been at the heart of much of this progress and will be key to developing future solutions.

George also recalled a number of events and crises that had happened during his career, beginning with the introduction of milk quotas on 2nd April 1984.  The low protein, high fibre ‘quota nut’ was subsequently introduced with the aim of not increasing milk production.  Nowadays this would be an unthinkable proposition from a precision nutrition and environmental perspective given the resulting increase in carbon emissions per litre of milk.

Four years later in 1988 Edwina Curry crashed the egg market with claims about eggs containing salmonella, causing egg consumption to fall by 60%.  All layers are now routinely vaccinated for salmonella. 

Then the BSE crisis of the mid-90s hit when it was revealed that BSE could be transmitted to humans in a variant form of CJD.  As a consequence, meat and bone meal was banned from use in animal feed and restrictions on cattle over 30 months were imposed.  The fallout from the BSE crisis lasted a considerable length of time with British beef banned from export to numerous countries around the world, with some bans remaining in place until as late as 2019.

In the late 1990s the pig sector suffered significant hardship and loss when a pig factory in Ballymoney burned down, resulting in lack of processing capacity for pigs. 

Then foot and mouth struck in the early 2000s which had a huge impact on the local farming community and affected feed deliveries as well as anyone going onto farm.

Recent challenges which the industry has had to grapple with have been the fallout from EU-exit, the covid-19 pandemic, avian influenza outbreaks, supply chain disruption caused by the war in Ukraine and environmental issues related to climate change, ammonia and water quality. 

George’s history lesson teaches us that throughout the last 50 years, no sector has been without its challenges, and arguably there have been bigger crises in the first 25 years than the latter, but in spite of the many incidents that have occurred, the local agri-food industry has remained resilient and found a way through.  We have weathered many storms and we are capable of weathering what comes our way in the future as well.

NIGTA would like to take this opportunity to thank George for his enormous contribution to the Association and to the local animal feed trade over the past five decades and wish him a long and happy retirement.