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Agri-food expert honoured by Queen’s University

From left, Professor Chris Elliott OBE; Declan Billington; and Professor Nigel Scollan.

A leading member of the Northern Ireland business community has received an honorary professorship from Queen’s University Belfast.

Declan Billington, chief executive of John Thompson and Sons animal-feed manufacturer and the vice-chair of the Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association, recently had the title Professor of Practice conferred on him.

The honour acknowledges not only a successful career – Billington leads the largest, multi-species feed mill in Europe – but a commitment to driving the local economy, for which he received an MBE last year.

A former chair of CBI Northern Ireland, he has long been a champion of innovation and high standards of food safety in the local agri-food industry.

This has culminated in representing the NI food industry at Brexit negotiations over the past three years – up to and including meetings with UK prime ministers Theresa May and Boris Johnston – in which he has sought to protect the interests of local farmers, food producers and retailers. He has also worked to protect the all-island economy, as a member of organisations such as the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC).

A chartered accountant by background, Billington has been key in promoting a closer relationship between scientific research and the food industry, helping create pathways along the whole of the food chain, from fundamental science through to retail.

In 2015, for example, he helped establish the Agri-Food Quest Competence Centre, which links academic researchers from Queen’s and the University of Ulster, CAFRE and AFBI with NI’s top food and drink companies to work together on research projects.

A Queen’s graduate, he has always maintained especially close links with that university, particularly through the establishment of its Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS), on whose Industrial Advisory Board he sits.

He was instrumental, for example, to the Food Fortress project, one of the first big industry-academia research partnerships in the area of food security at Queen’s. His participation enabled important scientific investigations into the safety of animal feed, and technological advances in diagnosing the same, in the wake of the dioxin contamination crisis of 2008. That work directly led to the development of an internationally renowned feed-quality assurance scheme, run by Professor Chris Elliott OBE and his team at IGFS.

“Declan has been an absolute asset to us over the years,” said Professor Nigel Scollan, director of IGFS. “The entire food industry owes him a debt of gratitude for his sterling work on Brexit and here at Queen’s, we have benefitted enormously from his continued support.”

In his capacity as chair of the Poultry Federation of NI, Billington is currently working with IGFS on developing capacity within NI on the management of poultry disease. He is also exploring with IGFS novel ways in which animal and agricultural waste, such as phosphate and nitrates, can be recycled in order to mitigate environmental degradation.

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