Machine minds: can AI play a role in mental health therapy? – Irish Times, August 23 2018

A welcome conversation surrounding mental health has arisen but as more people make the decision to reach out, too few find a supportive hand.

Not a week passes without a report on Ireland’s mental health system, where lengthy waiting lists, staff shortages and inadequate facilities are the rule rather than the exception. Minister of State with special responsibility for mental health Jim Daly recently announced plans to pilot mental health “web therapy”; signalling a growing recognition of the need for novel approaches.

The capabilities of technology in the mental health sphere continue to flourish and developing therapeutic applications based upon systems driven by artificial intelligence (AI), particularly chatbots, is one arena that’s rapidly expanding. Yet, if you needed to open up, would you reach out to a robot?

Bot benefits

While not specifically focused on AI, a study from the Applied Research for Connected Health (Arch) centre at UCD shows 94 per cent of Irish adults surveyed would be willing to engage with connected mental health technology.

Study co-author Dr Louise Rooney, a postdoctoral research fellow at Arch, says AI-based systems with a research and a patient-centred focus could be beneficial.

“I don’t think AI is the answer to everything or that it could fully replace therapy intervention but I think there’s a place for it at every juncture through the process of treatment; from checking in, to remote monitoring, even down to people getting information,” she says.

The latest Mental Health Commission report shows waiting times for child and adolescent mental health services can reach 15 months. Rooney believes AI-based therapy could be particularly useful for young people who “respond very well to connected mental health technology”. The anonymity of such platforms could also break down barriers for men, who are less likely to seek help than women.

Prof Paul Walsh from Cork Institute of Technology’s department of computer science feels that AI-driven tools can “improve the accessibility to mental health services” but won’t fully replace human therapy.

“For those who are vulnerable and need help late at night, there’s evidence to show [therapy chatbots using AI and NLP] can be an effective way of calming people,” says Walsh, who is currently researching how to build software and machine learning systems for people with cognitive disorders. “If someone’s worried or stressed and needs immediate feedback, it’s possible to give real-time response and support without visiting a therapist.”

Professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dr Brendan Kelly says AI-based platforms such as chatbots can help people to take control of their wellbeing in a positive manner.

“They can help people to take the first step into an arena that may be scary for them but I feel there will come a point that this is combined with, or replaced by, a real therapist,” adds the consultant psychiatrist based at TallaghtHospital.

Privacy concerns

Using AI-driven mental health therapy doesn’t come without concerns, one being privacy.

“Clearly it’s a very important issue and people shouldn’t use something that compromises their privacy but it’s not a deal-breaker,” says Kelly. “There are ways to ensure privacy which must be done but [fears and challenges] shouldn’t sink the boat.”

Being completely transparent with users about data collection and storage is key, Rooney adds.

Whether AI can determine someone’s ability to consent to therapy is another potential caveat raised by Rooney. However, she feels that forming “watertight legislation” for this technology and ensuring it’s backed by research can help to overcome this and other potential pitfalls.

While most current tools in this field focus on mental wellbeing and not severe problems, Walsh raises the potential of false negatives should AI decide somebody has a chronic illness. To avoid this, it’s important to keep a human in the loop.

“Many machine-learning systems are really hard to analyse to see how they make these judgements,” he adds. “We’re working on ways to try to make it more amenable to inspection.”

As potentially anybody can engineer a system, Walsh recommends avoiding anything without a “vast paper trail” of evidence.

“These will have to go through rigorous clinical trials,” he says. “We need policing and enforcement for anything making medical claims.”

Humans could become attached to a therapy chatbot, as was the case with Eliza, a chatbot developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s. However, Walsh doubts they will ever be as addictive or as great a threat as things like online gambling.

While the sentiment that AI-based therapy will assist rather than replace human therapy is quite universal, so is the view it can have a great impact.

“Achieving optimum mental health involves being open to all different ingredients, mixing it up and making a cake. AI can be part of that,” says Rooney.

If well regulated, Walsh says AI can augment humans in terms of treating people.

“I’m hopeful that benefits would be accentuated and the negatives or risks could be managed,” says Kelly. “The fact that it’s difficult and complex doesn’t mean we should shy away, just that we must think how best to capture the benefits of this technology.”

Brains behind the bots

Stanford psychologist and UCD PhD graduate Dr Alison Darcy is the brains behind Woebot: a chatbot combining artificial intelligence and cognitive behavioural therapy for mental health management.

“The goal is to make mental health radically accessible. Accessibility goes beyond the regular logistical things like trying to get an appointment,” explains the Dublin native, who conducted a randomised control trial of Woebot before launching. “It also includes things like whether it can be meaningfully integrated into everyday life.”

Darcy is clear that Woebot isn’t a replacement for human therapy, nor will he attempt to diagnose. In the interest of privacy, all data collected is treated as if users are in a clinical study.

Not intended for severe mental illness, Woebot is clear about what he can do. If he detects someone in crisis, Woebot declares the situation is beyond his reach and provides helplines and a link to a clinically-proven suicide-prevention app.

Originally from Wexford, Máirín Reid has also harnessed the capabilities of AI in the mental health sphere through Cogniant. Founded in Singapore with business partner Neeraj Kothari, it links existing clinicians and patients to allow for non-intrusive patient monitoring between sessions.

It’s currently being utilised by public health providers in Singapore with the aim of preventing relapses and aiding efficiency for human therapists. As Cogniant is recommended to users by human therapists, decisions on consent capabilities are formed by humans.

“Our on-boarding process is very clinically-driven,” says Reid. “We’re not there to replace, but to complement.”

While not intended for high-risk patients, Cogniant has an escalation process that connects any highly-distressed users to their therapist and provides supports. There’s also a great emphasis on privacy and being transparent from the offset.

“Clinicians are saying it drives efficiency and they can treat patients more effectively. Patients find it’s non-intrusive and not judgmental in any form.”

(First published by the Irish Times on August 23 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/machine-minds-can-ai-play-a-role-in-mental-health-therapy-1.3598546)

Advertisements

Would you trust a robot with your mind? – Asian Scientist, August 3 2018

When it comes to allowing others inside our heads, most of us only crack open the door for a select few, likely close family members or trusted psychologists. But if you were really struggling, would you consider sharing your innermost thoughts with a robot?

Robot therapists aren’t as far-fetched as you might think. In the 1960s, Joseph Weizenbaum of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory developed ELIZA, an early chatbot that could emulate the conversations of a psychotherapist. Since then, many increasingly sophisticated applications bringing artificial intelligence (AI) into the mental health realm have emerged.

The brainchild of Stanford psychologists and AI experts, Woebot combines machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) to assess users’ moods and offer them appropriate cognitive behavioral therapy. Emotionally intelligent chatbot Wysa, developed by Indian entrepreneurs Jo Aggarwal and Ramakant Vempati, uses AI and NLP techniques to track users’ emotions and act as their virtual mental wellness coach. Singapore-born Cogniant integrates AI technology with face-to-face therapy and aims to prevent mental illness relapses by monitoring existing patients and assisting them with therapy goals.

AI and mental health: what are the risks?

In 2018, an estimated 340 million people in Asia will require mental health services. With professional help shortages, rural isolation, high costs and stigma being the main obstacles to treatment, AI-centered mental health innovations could be particularly pertinent in the region. Yet, could involving AI in something as potentially delicate as mental health pose any threat?

Given that AI is currently used for mental health diagnostics and wellness coaching rather than treatment, Professor Pascale Fung of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology says privacy is the main concern.

“For AI to do a good job, it needs access to patient records, past history and family medical knowledge. Security and safety of this data is very important. There are concerns about AI being hacked or data being stolen for other purposes,” she says. “On the other hand, that’s something we should be worried about when dealing with patient records anyway.”

Indeed, researchers have noted that the misuse of sensitive information shared between a patient and AI can have significant consequences, for both the user and the profession’s integrity. To avoid distrust, it’s important for developers to fully disclose data policies to users from the beginning, says Mr. Neeraj Kothari, co-founder of Cogniant. He says that users can then make an informed decision about what they share.

“We have signed an agreement to say we won’t sell data to a third party,” he adds. “The best way we can progress is to demonstrate through action that we are here to help, not to harm.”

Another risk is that humans could potentially become attached to a therapy chatbot, as was the case for many of ELIZA’s ‘patients,’ who believed that they were truly conversing with a human. This led to the coining of the phrase ‘the ELIZA effect,’ which describes the tendency of people to assume computer behaviors are equivalent to human behaviors. However, while acknowledging the need for more research in this area, Fung doesn’t believe this problem is unique to AI—people also become attached to devices such as mobile phones and television sets, she says.

“In every generation, there have always been concerns with new technology. When it becomes obsessive, people go to professionals for help.”

People may also joke with or lie to AI, but such instances can be minimized through the use of deception detection techniques like facial recognition, says Kothari.

“In general, if AI is designed for the benefit of patients and is non-judgmental and non-intrusive, there will be no reason to lie to the AI.”

The possibility of deception has more to do with human responsibility than technological downfalls, adds Fung.

“[AI] is a tool and what people decide to do with it is up to humans.”

Complementing, not replacing

Most researchers in the field acknowledge that AI is not a therapist replacement, but believe that it can be a supporting tool. Professor Zhu Tingshao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his colleagues, for example, developed an AI-based system currently integrated into Weibo that recognizes people who express suicidal thoughts; subsequently, it sends them hotline numbers and messages of support. While the researchers can’t determine if people subsequently seek help, Zhu says the technology is still a proactive step towards suicide prevention.

“Right now when it comes to suicide intervention, we need the [suicidal] people to do the contacting themselves. [But] few people with a problem want to actively ask for help,” says Zhu, who adds that the tool has received positive feedback so far. “We cannot take the place of psychologists or counselling professionals, but we can help people know their mental health status and, if needed, provide some help in time [to prevent suicide].”

Ms. Bhairavi Prakash, founder of The Mithra Trust, an Indian organization that runs wellbeing initiatives combining technology and community engagement, believes that AI can be useful for promoting wellness. However, she too doesn’t think that it can provide complete treatment, especially for severe mental illness. Attempting to apply it to such cases could be dangerous, and should not be attempted until the technology is more sophisticated, she says.

“You don’t know if AI is triggering the person, you can’t see their facial reactions,” says the work and organizational psychologist. “If someone is delusional or hallucinating and talking to the AI, it won’t know how much is real.”

Legislation also needs to catch up before AI is assigned more tasks, adds Prakash. For example, human psychologists may be required by law to notify the authorities if a patient shows signs of wanting to harm others, but it’s unclear how such cases should be handled by AI.

Fung echoes the need for clearer legislation, saying that humans must still remain in the loop for important decisions such as medication prescriptions.

“Machines aren’t perfect. Humans aren’t either, but we do have laws or regulations [to deal with] human error or medical accidents. We don’t really have very good regulations for machine error.”

In the future, Fung envisions AI helping to create better personalized treatment plans, while Zhu says it will make mental health services more efficient. Prakash feels AI-based tools will encourage people to make the initial step in seeking help.

“In conversations people have with [AI], they are so open because there is zero judgment. They can talk about anything. That is extremely liberating and great for mental wellness.”

(First published by Asian Scientist on August 3 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/08/features/artificial-intelligence-mental-health/)

Asia’s best summertime festivals – Zafigo.com, May 16 2018

It’s already halfway through the year, and if you haven’t been to a festival yet, it’s time to get organising! Over the next three months, countries across the continent will spring to life as music, cultural, and food festivals kick off. With so many to choose from, and something for every preference and budget, here’s a taster of what’s out there:

Music magic

For many of us, festivals mean just one thing: Music. There’s nothing better than hearing your favourite band live in the great outdoors while chilling with good friends. Even if you don’t know all of the artists, music festivals give a great opportunity to make some new discoveries.

At the 20th annual Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia (July 13-15, 2018), you’re bound to do just that, as a wide array of international and local artists will converge in the stunning heart of Borneo’s jungle for the occasion. Acts include Tunisia’s Yallah Bye, and home-grown talent SwarAsia Malaysia, to name a few.

The Fuji Rock Festival (July 27-29, 2018) in Japan has the added bonus of a breath-taking backdrop, with the majestic Mount Fuji presiding over the event’s 10 stages. This year’s event includes some big-name acts like headliners N.E.R.D., Kendrick Lamar, Bob Dylan and Vampire Weekend, while drumming circles, workshops, massages and ‘Cinema Fuji’ will ensure you won’t get bored.

Other top music festival picks are the diverse and fun-filled Good Vibes Festival (July 21-22, 2018) in Genting Highlands, Malaysia, and Bali’s Sunny Side Up Tropical Festival (July 20-21, 2018) in Indonesia which offers the perfect concoction of music, art, and sustainability.

Culture vulture

There are plenty of impressive festivals in Malaysia, and the month-long Georgetown Festival (held every August) in Penang is as good as it gets. A true tourist magnet set in the streets of one a UNESCO World Heritage site, this annual event consistently holds an impressive line-up that showcases concerts, art exhibitions, theatre, dance, storytelling… Need we go on?

Another one for Malaysia, but this time in Borneo and cited as a celebration of the promotion of peace through culture, Sabah’s International Folklore Festival (July 23-30, 2018) in Kota Kinabalu is certainly worth a trip.

Dating back to the ninth century, Japan’s Gion Matsuri Festival in Kyoto (July) is one of the country’s most famous festivals; and for good reason. With origins rooted in an ancient religious purification ritual, and a name stemming from the famous Gion District, this is a must-go if you want to get a taste of traditional Japanese culture during your trip. Festival highlights include a float procession (a series of elaborate floats that often require teams of 50 to pull them), the procession of mikoshi (portable shrines) and  Nagoshi-sai (summer purification ceremony).

Other noteworthy festivals are China’s colourful Dragon Boat Festival (known as Duanwu), centred mainly in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Foodie fests

While most modern-day music and culture festivals offer a diverse range of delicacies – one needs energy for all that partying – there are many events where food takes centre stage. For instance, the Singapore Food Festival which runs from July 13-29, 2018, requires an expandable waistband to allow for all of that feasting! Visitors can gorge on many of Singapore’s best local eats, hear the stories behind the dishes, attend the ‘Fifty Cent Feast’ and test their own skills at cooking workshops before dancing off their dinner to the sounds of local musicians.

Meanwhile, fruit fans can rejoice as the Rayong Fruit Festival in Rayong, Thailand is set to return from June 1-5 , 2018. Dine on a delectable assortment of locally-grown fruits while supporting local farmers in the process. Delhi’s International Mango Festival (July 9 and 10, 2018) is also a good choice for fans of the five-a-day.

Finally, the Mogumogu Festival (short for ‘more goods, more gourmet’ and also known as MoguFes) is a mouth-watering celebration of world foods being held in Hokkaido, Japan from August 5-11, 2018.

Weird and wonderful

There are some things that you have to experience once in your lifetime, and Asia’s festival schedule certainly contains a few things worth putting on the bizarre bucket-list.

The Cheung Chau Buddhist Bun festival (May 19-23, 2018) in Hong Kong is a unique cultural extravaganza that culminates in the Bun Grabbing Contest at midnight on the last day of the celebrations. This sees the construction of a 60-foot tower of buns, up which participants scramble in the aim to collect as many buns as possible. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted!

If you’re not afraid of getting a little bit dirty, the Boryeong Mud Festival in South Korea (July 13-22, 2018) is the place for you! Held near Daecheon Beach, the aim of the event is to embrace your inner child and roll around in the mud through activities such as a giant mud bath, mud body painting and mud prison.

Finally, if you’re in need of a good conversation starter, tell friends you’re heading for the Hokkai Heso Matsuri (belly button festival) in Furano, Japan on July 28 and 29 , 2018. The main highlight of this is the ‘Hokkai belly button dance competition’ that attracts entrants in their thousands, and involves painting large faces on your belly. Local restaurants also get involved in ‘belly button gourmet’ by preparing unique dishes that somehow relate to the belly button.

(First published on Zafigo.com on May 16 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/asia-summertime-festivals-2018/)

US considers imposing restrictions on Chinese researchers – Asian Scientist, May 8 2018

The White House is considering a proposal to restrict Chinese researchers from carrying out sensitive research in US universities.

A proposal under consideration in the White House to prevent Chinese researchers from performing sensitive research at US universities has sparked concern within the scientific community. The move stems from fears surrounding intellectual property theft between China and the United States. If enforced, it could prove detrimental for many of the estimated 350,755 Chinese students in the country, as well as Chinese researchers.

China is proving to be a rising force in research and technology; the US National Science Foundation reported that in 2016, for the first time, China released a higher number of scientific publications than the US. The nation’s ‘Made in China 2025’ plan—a blueprint aimed at transforming China into a global leader in high-tech industries such as robotics and aerospace—illustrates the government’s intention to continue to advance. This move has not been welcomed by the US, primarily due to fears over theft of US intellectual property.

A probe into China’s policies and practices relating to technology transfer, intellectual property and innovation by the Office of the US Trade Representative, launched in August 2017, found that Chinese theft of American intellectual property costs between US$225 billion and US$600 billion annually. These findings were largely what prompted the Trump administration to announce plans to place tariffs of US$50 billion on Chinese goods, a move that provoked similar retaliation by China and ignited fears of an impending trade war between the nations.

The proposal to restrict Chinese researchers from carrying out sensitive research in US universities is the most recent manifestation of these tensions.

“[This proposal], in conjunction with some of the other policies that the administration has issued with respect to immigration reform and restricting foreign nationals, has raised concerns among academic institutes and scientists in particular that the US is being seen as an unwelcoming nation,” said Ms. Joanne Carney, director of government Relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in an interview with Asian Scientist Magazine. “Rather than coming here to study, students will go to other places and those nations will benefit from their expertise.”

The AAAS has released an official statement, signed by its Chief Executive Professor Rush Holt, on the travel of Chinese researchers to the US, recommending that the administration “work with the scientific community to assess and develop potential policy actions that advance our nation’s prosperity.” While it remains unclear what kind of restrictions are being tabled, or how much traction the idea is gaining in the White House, Carney noted that universities in the US have been outspoken about their views on the proposal.

“[The universities] recognize that there are concerns and are open to working with the government in order to craft a positive solution that not only helps to protect national security, but still allows for openness and helps to maintain the US as a welcome nation in terms of research,” Carney said.

“Scientific progress depends on the free flow of ideas, openness and transparency. The US in particular has benefitted from the unfettered exchange of information between scientists of many nations. We are very concerned about the possibility of restrictions in terms of science research,” she added.

(First published on Asian Scientist on May 8 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/05/academia/us-considers-imposing-restrictions-on-chinese-researchers/)

Bringing AI To The Masses – Asian Scientist, April 22 2018

Keen on picking up the fundamentals of AI? A community-driven movement known as AI Saturdays can give you a leg up.
It’s often said that knowledge is a form of wealth; in the face of a rapidly changing world, a new global initiative aims to equip people from all backgrounds with such riches. AI Saturdays, also known as AI6, is a community-driven, non-profit movement established to offer education on artificial intelligence (AI) to the masses. Through structured study groups, lectures and project work, the organizers aim to teach everybody how they can use AI in their everyday lives.
With the first chapter established in December 2017 in Singapore by Nurture.AI CEO Mr. Yap Jia Qing, followed by the second soon after in Kuala Lumpur, it could be said that the AI6 movement is in its infancy. Yet within a few months, the initiative has grown to include 103 chapters across six continents, including 47 in Asia. At time of writing, there are over 5,000 participants worldwide, from Kathmandu to California.
A worldwide classroom
AI Saturdays stemmed from a simple realization by the people at Nurture.AI, according to Mr. James Lee, AI research fellow at Nurture.AI and the co-head of AI6.
“Nurture.AI maintains a web platform for discussing academic AI papers. However, we realized that reading academic papers was not an activity that could be easily accessed by many. We created AI6 to help enable people to be comfortable with the technologies behind AI, as well as to build a community.”
Many distinguished universities, including Stanford and Harvard, offer open-source learning material on AI. Through AI6, the founders hoped to give people the opportunity to experience what it’s like to sit in one of these classrooms—from anywhere in the world.
“We didn’t expect to do anything big with it. We just thought we’d get people together to learn some AI by going through the materials available online. Initially this was for Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and it spread from there,” explains Lee, who is also one of the ambassadors of the Kuala Lumpur chapter.
Just like with AI technology itself, the direction of a meeting can be hard to predict, and is often dependent on the preferences of chapter members. However, all chapters center their Saturday lectures around open-access course material from universities like Stanford and Berkeley. The first session, ‘Practical Deep Learning,’ sees participants watch and code along with materials from fast.ai, a free deep learning course. In session two, ambassadors are asked to focus on either computer vision, reinforcement learning or natural language processing. Finally, in the third session, members go through Stanford’s Stats385 course and participate in open forum-style discussions. Group project work is also strongly encouraged throughout the course of these Saturday sessions.
“One of the things we do is encourage every chapter to have a milestone, to tell members to take what you have learned so far and produce something,” explains Lee. “In the Kuala Lumpur chapter for example, one guy took ten years of stock prices and made an algorithm that predicts whether they will go up and down in the next month. Others made a Trump tweet simulator. They downloaded Donald Trump’s tweets and tried to create a neural network that replicates the style.”
AI as a basic skill
Becoming an AI6 ambassador doesn’t require a significant amount of prior knowledge; instead, curiosity is key. Ambassador of the Delhi chapter Mr. Divyansh Jha says it was his interest rather than his experience in AI that led him to get involved in the movement in December 2017.
“I’m from an electronics background, but recently I developed a huge interest in deep learning and AI. For the last year, I’ve been taking steps to learn more and doing projects in this area,” he says, adding that becoming an ambassador has helped him to develop leadership skills that make him more employable.
Expanding his knowledge of AI is of great importance to Jha; why does he think others should learn?
“I think AI should become a basic skill, because within ten or twenty years, everything will involve AI. People should learn this skill so they can move forward,” says Jha, who while happy to share knowledge, says he doesn’t believe in forcing anyone to get involved.
For some, the rapid expansion of AI and machine learning is a source of fear. Indeed, in a 2017 global study conducted by independent consumer research agency Northstar, 22 percent of some 4,000 participants said they felt society will become worse due to increased automation and AI. Yet new technology doesn’t need to be fearsome, says Jha.
“The people who know about the current state of AI aren’t fearful. It is people who don’t know about these things who are very fearful,” he says. “I think the AI singularity is very far from today; I don’t see it grabbing jobs from people in the next ten or twenty years. AI is something that will help humans improve.”
Reaping the rewards
Ambassador for the Taipei chapter Mr. Kuo Ruey-shen echoes these views, adding that one must find a scenario suitable for AI in order to fully understand its benefits.
“You have to know the purpose of AI and why you are using it, and then you decide what type of algorithm and deep learning can help you. It’s a tool to help us do a lot of jobs, not a tool to replace you. I think it will allow you as a human to start to live again, but only if you use that in the right way. A lot of the reports write about the wrong way and make people afraid,” he says.
 AI6 ambassadors help people to understand these benefits. At the same time, troubleshooting and problem solving is done through international collaboration over online platforms. This networking may soon become something bigger as a large-scale international AI6 initiative is in the pipeline for July 2018.
Meanwhile, participants such as Ms. Seema Goel are reaping the rewards. Goel was teaching herself AI and machine learning when she was invited to join the AI6 Bangalore chapter in January. She says that joining the group has helped her to progress with her learning and overcome obstacles she faced while learning alone.
“This meetup helped me in every possible way, be it understanding the concepts, technical glitches, and providing inspiration,” she says. “For me the group is meeting all expectations.”
Delhi chapter member Mr. Rohit Singh has similar views.
“The experience has been phenomenal,” he says. “Some members and especially the ambassador, Divyansh [Jha], do a great job at making the experience enriching for everyone. They go through the material, sharing their experience and clarifying doubts for everyone in a setting that’s quite informal and yet focused and driven.”
(First published on Asian Scientist on April 22 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/04/features/artificial-intelligence-saturdays-asia-ai6/)

We depend two times more on animal feed than our neighbours – Irish Examiner, March 15 2018

Ireland is renowned for rolling green pastures and sought-after food products.

But annual imports of 3.47m tonnes (mt) of animal feed are also part of the picture. Ireland is especially dependent on feed imports because of our high proportion of livestock production compared to tillage area.

About two thirds of the animal feeds marketed here are imported, compared to 37% in the UK, 27% in France, and 26% in Germany.

The main commodities imported are maize and maize byproducts, soyabean meal and soya hulls, and rapeseed meal. Up to 90% of the soyabean and maize products are imported from Argentina, Brazil, and the USA.

Our pig, poultry, and dairy sectors are particularly dependent on imports of GM soybean and GM maize by-products. Almost 1.7mt of soya and maize genetically modified (GM) products were imported into Ireland for animal feeds in 2017, constituting approximately 50% of total feed imports.

Significant quantities of non-GM maize and oilseed rape meal are also imported, from continental Europe, including Ukraine.

About 5m EU farmers raise animals, requiring 450mt of animal feed annually.

Recognising the EU’s over-dependency on imported proteins for animal feed, the EU Commission will publish a plan by the end of this year, with proposals to reduce over-reliance on imports.

Apart from dependence on getting feed from around the world, and the pollution and emissions associated with its transportation, soya is a particular cause for concern.

The worldwide growth of the soybean crop has caused large scale loss of biodiversity and wildlife habitat in already vulnerable places such as the Amazon rainforest.

The World Wildlife Fund recently focused on “hidden impacts that animal feed has on our planet”, and concluded that a reduction in meat consumption could alleviate these impacts. That is a shock for farmers, and others whose livelihoods are rooted in agriculture. But what role can they play?

Soybean production isn’t possible in Ireland, but growing other protein crops on our home soil can reduce demand for imported feed.

Ireland’s EU-funded Protein Aid Scheme, introduced in 2015, subsidises farmers for growing beans, peas, and lupins. Last year, the payment rate was set at €215 per hectare, and 1,200 people applied.

“The area of pulses, primarily beans and peas, grown in Ireland is 12,500 hectares. This is up from 3,500 hectares in 2012,” says head of crops science at Teagasc John Spink. “In terms of bean production, they would be grown on existing tillage land in a rotation with cereal crops.”

“From an environmental standpoint, they provide an important flowering crop of value to bees. They also fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and transfer it to the soil.”

However, as noted by animal and grassland researcher at Teagasc Laurence Shalloo, growing these crops domestically can only get us so far.

“In terms of potential production, we could only produce a fraction of the protein requirements of our livestock industries. If we absolutely maximised bean production on our existing tillage area, we could produce 360,000 tonnes per annum.”

Increasing the number of grazing days for livestock could be a way of further bringing down the reliance on imports, says Shalloo.

“Grazed grass obviously has sufficient protein to meet the requirements of dairy and beef animals and sheep. Maximising the grazing days in livestock production systems will reduce supplemented protein requirements.”

Co Cork dairy farmer Peter Hynes operates a grass-based system. But the 90 tonnes of animal feed he uses annually contains soya, something he’s trying to change.

“One of the big issues we are all well aware of is that the price of soya can fluctuate greatly, and can drive up the price of dairy rations overnight, so we definitely need to steer away from it,” he says.

The fact that most imported soya is genetically-modified (GM) is another incentive to seek out alternatives, according to Hynes, who says there is growing consumer demand for GM-free products in some of Ireland’s biggest dairy markets, such as Germany.

When it comes to reducing soya imports, he says this is likely to be a greater source for concern to Irish farmers than deforestation abroad.

“I do think we need to look at the carbon footprint of our milk, and that includes what we put into the feed, the haulage process and everything else,” he adds. “We can’t discount where our feed comes from. The carbon footprint of soya is huge, and it’s only going to get bigger.”

Professor emeritus of European agricultural policy at Trinity College Alan Matthews does not regard our reliance on imported soya as a large worry, and has no personal worries about the safety of GM soybeans. However, he does recognise the reality of “asynchronous approval” problems.

“A high share of soybeans are GM. In the EU, there’s no legal problem with that, except that each particular GM needs to be approved, before it can be brought in. This is quite a complicated and time-consuming process.”

Matthews says that this can be problematic if a supplier country introduces a new GM variety of soybean that has yet to be approved in Europe.

“They may try to ensure that shipments to Europe are separate, but it’s inevitably going to get contaminated somewhere along the line. You end up in a situation where you have a shipment from somewhere with this new GM variety, it’s detected at entry and then refused,” he says.

“That’s a concern for the European livestock sector, that they could find themselves inadvertently unable to import feed.”

Matthews believes that growing more protein crops in Ireland may have other consequences, saying we will either have to substitute other forms of production or clear more land to facilitate it.

“Are you therefore protecting the environment, by increasing the area granted to protein crops in Ireland, if the objective is to reduce land usage overall?”

However, he also recognises that deforestation and biodiversity loss occur elsewhere. In order to conquer this, he says we should “use our market power as an importer” to insist on the countries we get the feedstuffs from protecting their vulnerable habitats and raising their standards.

Secretary of the Irish Pig Health Society Shane McAuliffe, from McAuliffe Pig Farms in Co Kerry, has worked with nutritionists from Cargill to reduce the amount of soya protein in his pigs’ diets by 20%, subsequently reducing his pigs’ ammonia emissions by 15%. He also incorporates seaweed into the diets, which he says is reducing his costs and need for antibiotics, while maintaining the health and growth-rate of his animals.

As technology advances, he’s positive we can “significantly reduce” our reliance on imported feed. “Science and technology are moving forward rapidly and more sources of feed are available. It’s up to the government to provide incentives and make policy to use more sustainable practices,” adds McAuliffe, who says he sees promise in new feed sources such as algae and insect protein.

 

PANEL

There has been much abuzz about the potential for insect protein to feed the humans and animals of the future and a pair of Meath-based innovators are getting involved.

The brainchild of Alvan Hunt and John Lynam, Hexafly was established with the aim of developing sustainable feed for the agriculture and aquaculture industries using insects. Using biomimicry techniques, Hexafly takes black soldier flies into the lab, breeds them and hatches the larvae. The larvae are then fed with by-products from the brewing industry which they convert to a higher quality protein source before being used in feed.

“I looked at the production figures several months ago and on a per tonne basis, our method produces 90 per cent less greenhouse gases than one tonne of soy for example,” explains CTO and co-founder John Lynam. “In terms of space efficiency, on a good year on a soya farm you get one and a half tonnes of soya protein per acre. We are using one third of an acre and can produce 2,000 tonnes within one year.”

Hexafly is currently finalising the completion of their commercial pilotfacility and soon after will begin exporting their product. At present, EU legislation only permits the use of insect protein in the aquaculture industry and as Ireland has no compound fish feed manufacturing facilities, they will be focusing on exports in the beginning. However, once they receive the green light to supply to the pork and poultry industries, they envision being able to provide a local feed source to farmers on their home turf. “While we may not be able to replace traditional feed completely, we will be able to produce insect meal in addition to soya and fish meal to ease the demand on the food supply chain,” says Lynam.

(First published in the Irish Examiner on March 15 2018. Also available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/farming/we-depend-two-times-more-on-imported-animal-feed-than-our-neighbours-832683.html)

Tackling Ireland’s alien invaders – Irish Times, March 8 2018

The Japanese knotweed, rhododendron and giant hogweed are fast becoming household names as these pests continue to invade Irish landscapes. These ill-famed plants are just some of many invasive species causing destruction to Ireland’s ecosystems.

An inaugural global register of invasive species recently presented in Scientific Data shows that the Republic of Ireland is currently home to 1,266 non-native species – 63 of which have a negative impact. Ireland was one of 20 countries randomly selected for inclusion in this Global Registry of Introduced and Invasive Species (GRIIS), which will include every country by 2019.

“We focused solely on environmental and economic impacts,” says Shyama Pagad, lead author of the work and member of the IUCN SSC Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG). “We think it will help countries with trading partners. When you know your trading partner has listed this invasive species, you can set preventative measures to stop them from entering your country. It forms a basic alert system.”

While the ISSG researchers formed their database through analysing existing publications, they required the assistance of local editors to check and add to it. Invasive species officer at the National Biodiversity Data Centre Colette O’Flynn was recruited as editor for Ireland. The use of universal terminology, in addition to the fact that her team are currently undertaking a similar exercise, meant that editing wasn’t difficult.

“It’s always going to be a dynamic list,” O’Flynn says. “Assessments must be repeated as more animals come in and things we thought were invasive turn out not to be, or at least not as invasive as they appeared.”

Asked what our most harmful invasive species is, she says aquatics like the zebra mussel are particularly problematic. These creatures arrived in Ireland in the 1990s, attached to the hulls of imported leisure boats.

“Zebra mussels change the whole ecology of the lake system. They filter water when feeding; you would think that’s a great thing as they clean out the water but this causes more sunlight to reach the plants on the bottom. Those plants then grow more vigorously and this completely changes the food web in the lake.”

In addition to threatening lake systems and native mussels, Zebra mussels also block water intake pipes, filters and boat engines where they settle in large clusters.

Notorious plants such as Japanese knotweed are also acknowledged by O’Flynn as damaging species, which hold the potential to undermine road and building foundations. However, she feels that recent years have seen a big shift in efforts to deal with invasive species.

“This is driven by a number of things. Finding out more about species through databases like this definitely helps, as does people sending sighting reports to our centre,” she adds. “When we have the data, we can analyse it and use it to inform decision-making.”

The European Regulation of Invasive Alien Species enacted in 2015 involves a dynamic list of 49 invasive species of concern in the EU. Once a species is added, each member state is required to carry out appropriate prevention, early detection and rapid eradication and management measures.

Acknowledging the regulation’s potential, head of the Department of Environmental Science at IT Sligo Dr Frances Lucy says it hasn’t truly been enacted yet in Ireland or other member states. “The reason why [it’s not being followed] is because it’s a very new regulation. The European Commission is still gathering information and there hasn’t been any punitive measures attached to it yet.”

Lucy is a firm believer that citizen science is key to tackling our invasive species and in turn, protecting biodiversity. “Even if we had 1,000 biodiversity officers and a whole legislative system in place, it’s not what is going to save biodiversity in Ireland,” she notes. “Right now, we are in danger of disengaging from nature because we don’t spend as much time outdoors as we used to due to the virtual reality we’re using. Why not use virtual reality to re-engage people?”

She refers to the use of various apps, Twitter and other tools currently being used by the public to report and record various species. For example, the National Biodiversity Data Centre receives 10,000 sighting reports a month through interactive tools.

“The recording of species is one key area where citizens can get involved. The other vital part regards invasive species management, particularly biosecurity. The man on the street needs to know how to manage and prevent their spread,” she says. “This can be done by taking simple precautions every time we engage in outdoor recreational activities; this should be automatic, like putting on your seatbelt.”

If the Government put more funds into educating people on recognising and managing these species, money would be saved in the long run, Lucy points out.

While recognising it’s a concern, campaigns officer at the Irish Wildlife Trust Pádraic Fogarty feels the invasive species issue has “been overblown”.

“A lot of ecologists have taken their eye off the ball. Habitat loss, pollution and biodiversity loss are still our biggest problems in Ireland. Invasive species thrive in habitats that are damaged and degraded,” says Fogarty, who feels these big issues are not being addressed.

“The idea of invasive species is easier to tackle than habitat loss. That’s often more controversial, particularly as agriculture and peat extraction industries can be difficult to deal with.”

There’s an app for that

Technology plays an integral role in identifying and mapping locations of particular species, including invasive ones. The National Biodiversity Data Centre’s Biodiversity Data Capture App allows people to capture details of any species they encounter and send them directly to the National Biodiversity Data Centre’s database.

Meanwhile, the Report Invasive Plants app was developed by Limerick County Council in 2016 specifically in response to invasive plants. It records four species – Japanese knotweed, winter heliotrope, giant hogweed and Himalayan balsam – in addition to having an “other” category.

To date they have received 900 sighting reports from 130 individual users, with Japanese knotweed being the most commonly recorded. Collected data is fed back to the National Biodiversity Data Centre.

“We used cameras and GPS prior to this but it was very time consuming. With just one person doing it, it was never going to work,” explains senior executive engineer with Limerick County Council Anne Goggin. “There are other apps out there to capture invasives but many are complicated. We wanted something quick and simple, aimed at someone who is not a specialist but does have a passing interest.”

Inland Fisheries Ireland also have developed an app to allow for the reporting of invasive species occurring within Irish fresh water.

(First published in The Irish Times on March 8 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/tackling-ireland-s-alien-invaders-1.3419509)