GE has place in NZ

April 8, 2014

The audience at the annual Kim Hill Earth Hour debate decided there is a place for genetic engineering in New Zealand.

. . . Ninety minutes of pros, cons and broad views presented by panellists Tony Conner (AgResearch),  Robert Cruickshank (Lincoln University) and Richard Newcomb (Plant and Food Research) on one team and Christine Dann (Organics Aotearoa), Philip Gregan (NZ Winegrowers) and  Jon Hickford (Lincoln University) on the other, with close interrogation of them all by Kim Hill, was followed by 30 minutes of questions from the audience.  Chairwoman Sarah Walters, Deputy Mayor of Selwyn, then invited the audience to indicate by “noise” how they felt on the question.

Sarah ruled that the “ayes” were “slightly louder” signalling that genetic engineering should stay on New Zealand’s agenda “as a research opportunity” but with the provisos that it be well regulated, that consumers have a choice between GE and non-GE through strict labelling, and that the role of large overseas corporate organisations funding, and thereby influencing, research, be curbed. . .

Richard Newcomb added that the “GE debate has become completely intertwined with the anti-big business debate and with the notion of big business controlling food production and supply.” . . . .

He’s right – many of those opposed to GE are on the left of politics and also opposed to what they label big business.

Defending the environment, Christine Dann said she believed genetic engineering was “ecologically dangerous and too risky.”

“If everyone had their own little garden and grew their own vegetables the problem would be solved,” she said.  . .

If she is right, and I don’t think she is, Would she care that a whole lot of other problems would be created including job losses?

New Zealand is taking a very cautious approach to GE which is as it should be.

But the vehement opposition to it is based on emotion not science.

That a majority of the audience gave cautious support, albeit with provisos, to GE gives some hope that science might win.

 

 


Not as green as they’re painted

April 7, 2014

Organic production is better for the planet, isn’t it?

The Green Party which advocates for a far more organic production would have us believe it is but University of Waikato professor of agribusiness Jacqueline Rowarth says that isn’t so:

. . . People’s first consideration when buying food was price, despite claims they might buy based on factors like organic growth, she said.

While people might think buying organically or from the farmers market was environmentally friendly, research showed carbon dioxide emissions were higher buying that way, Prof Rowarth said.

A lot of so-called environmentally friendly policies, including buying local, organics, and recycling aren’t nearly as green as they’re painted.

Support for them are often based more on emotion than science.

The need for more of the latter was another point Prof Rowarth made:

. . . The future of ensuring the world’s population was nutritionally well fed was incorporating all the best technology, including the strategic use of genetic engineering, she said during a public lecture at the University of Otago yesterday.

There also needed to be a greater research and innovation culture so advances could be made to feed the world’s ever-growing population.

”That is why in New Zealand we need to encourage everybody to become involved in science,” Prof Rowarth said.

The downsizing of the Crown research campus at Invermay and the discussions about making science elective at school in year 11 did not meet that brief, she said.

”Nutrition depends on agriculture which depends on an understanding of the soil.” . . .

Scientific research and advances have and will continue to improve agriculture and nutrition.

There were plenty of examples of how the past few hundred years of science had helped increase the yield from plants and animals, improving human nutrition.

Advances in wheat and milk production were prime examples.

The benefits of this were highlighted in the fact that the percentage of the world’s population that was malnourished had dropped significantly from 34% in 1969 to 17% in recent years, even though the population had grown massively.

”More people are fed to a better level of nutrition. It is a triumph of agriculture.” . . .

A triumph of agriculture based on science and hard work.

Prof Rowarth also dispelled a few modern-day myths on modern food consumption, pointing to literature showing in real dollars food was cheaper than it had ever been, even though it ”didn’t feel like it”.

People could now afford to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, as they were more affordable than ever, and what they should be worried about was their consumption of highly processed foods.

”Back in 1912 you were lucky to get vegetables, maybe a carrot or potato.” . .

Cheaper doesn’t mean cheap but we have a far wider range of food at prices which make the cost of feeding ourselves a lower percentage of most household budgets than it was for previous generations.

An increase in organic production and buying local will reduce yield, choice and increase prices and the environmental worth of such practices isn’t backed up by science.

 

 

 


Farmers angry with AgResearch

March 18, 2014

AgResearch Chief Executive Dr Tom Richardson said last week’s meeting with farmers in Gore was constructive over plans to move scientists from Invermay to Lincoln was constructive.

The meeting was initiated by the Southern Texel Breeders and hosted by Beef + Lamb New Zealand.
Eighty seven people attended the meeting, of which about 50 were farmers.

“It was good to be able to speak to concerned farmers directly about our plans to deliver them better science and higher returns. It was a good wide-ranging discussion, and wasn’t solely focused on our reinvestment plans for AgResearch campuses,” says Dr Richardson.

“There was also discussion on government investment in science, industry support for science and how to take research forward.

“Regards our campus reinvestment plans, we understand the concerns of Southland and Otago farmers, and it was an opportunity to reinforce the fact we are not closing Invermay – in fact we’d like to increase the numbers of staff there who are dealing with on farm and regional environment issues.”

AgResearch’s Future Footprint plan will position the organisation for the long-term to deliver better science, more effectively, to New Zealand farmers, the pastoral sector and the New Zealand economy.

The Southern Texel Breeders passed a motion requesting an independent review of the plan, which will involve the co-location of scientists into science innovation hubs, allowing for a more effective collaborative approach to tackle national science ‘big issues’.

Dr Richardson says the plan will see $100 million reinvested to create modern facilities that are functional, adaptable and fit for modern science.

“Future Footprint will see us maximising the use of our facilities and specialist infrastructure to achieve better returns for AgResearch, our clients and the pastoral sector,” says Dr Richardson.

“We remain committed to find the best solution to continue to deliver the science all New Zealand farmers rely on to stay ahead of their international counterparts.”

Farmers aren’t convinced and they’re angry.

They pay levies which provide a good part of AgResearch’s funds and they want scientists to stay based where the bulk of sheep and beef farming takes place – in Otago and Southland.

Immigration Minister and Dunedin-based MP Michael Woodhouse isn’t convinced AgResearch has yet made its case for shifting scientists from Invermay to Lincoln.

As the debate about the merits of an AgResearch hub being established at Lincoln, Mr Woodhouse confirmed to the Otago Daily Times yesterday he had visited Invermay and talked to the staff.

There had been a fear that leaving just 20 scientists at Invermay to deal with farming services and animal services was a ”death spiral” number. But Mr Woodhouse had been ”assured” by AgResearch 20 was the absolute minimum number of scientists and it was hoped to lift the number to 50 scientists at Invermay in the future.

”We need to test that plan and make sure it is the right thing to do for New Zealand Inc and New Zealand agriculture. Can we be confident moving 50 scientists out of 80 from Invermay is better than moving the 30 from Christchurch to Invermay? I am not convinced AgResearch has met the test set them by Minister [Steven] Joyce.” . . .

The plan hasn’t met the farmers’ test.

Dr Andrew West tried to merge AgResearch and Lincoln when he headed AgResearch and failed. Farmers think he’s trying to achieve the same thing by another route now he’s vice chancellor of the university.

They wonder if the plan has more to do with shoring up Lincoln than what’s best for the industry.

AgResearch gets a lot of their money and they are worried that much-needed research will suffer from the loss of institutional knowledge and distance from the main concentration of sheep and beef production.

Whether or not the move goes ahead, one option for any spare buildings no-one has mentioned is as the headquarters for the Otago Regional Council.

The ORC has been looking for a new home and had expensive plans for one in the city. That was torpedoed but they still need a bigger base.

Invermay, with or without the current AgResearch staff, could be an option.


Cotton-woolling children more dangerous in long-run

January 26, 2014

A small country school was told by a visiting inspector to replace it’s barbed-wire fence in case one of the children hurt themselves on it.

The principal said that was the point.

These were country kids, they knew about barbed-wire and the fence was to keep them off the road.

The inspector was also concerned about pine trees in the playground in case the children climbed them.

The principal said they did climb them – just as they climbed trees at home.

The principal had the backing of her board and other parents – and now they have the backing of research:

Chaos may reign at Swanson Primary School with children climbing trees, riding skateboards and playing bullrush during playtime, but surprisingly the students don’t cause bedlam, the principal says.

The school is actually seeing a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing.

Principal Bruce McLachlan rid the school of playtime rules as part of a successful university experiment.

“We want kids to be safe and to look after them, but we end up wrapping them in cotton wool when in fact they should be able to fall over.”

Letting children test themselves on a scooter during playtime could make them more aware of the dangers when getting behind the wheel of a car in high school, he said.

“When you look at our playground it looks chaotic. From an adult’s perspective, it looks like kids might get hurt, but they don’t.”

Life is chaotic and play is a very good way for children to learn how to deal with it.

Swanson School signed up to the study by AUT and Otago University just over two years ago, with the aim of encouraging active play.

However, the school took the experiment a step further by abandoning the rules completely, much to the horror of some teachers at the time, he said.

When the university study wrapped up at the end of last year the school and researchers were amazed by the results.

Mudslides, skateboarding, bullrush and tree climbing kept the children so occupied the school no longer needed a timeout area or as many teachers on patrol.

Instead of a playground, children used their imagination to play in a “loose parts pit” which contained junk such as wood, tyres and an old fire hose.

“The kids were motivated, busy and engaged. In my experience, the time children get into trouble is when they are not busy, motivated and engaged. It’s during that time they bully other kids, graffiti or wreck things around the school.”

Parents were happy too because their children were happy, he said.

Children need freedom to play and experiment and let off steam.

But this wasn’t a playtime revolution, it was just a return to the days before health and safety policies came to rule.

AUT professor of public health Grant Schofield, who worked on the research project, said there are too many rules in modern playgrounds.

“The great paradox of cotton-woolling children is it’s more dangerous in the long-run.”

Society’s obsession with protecting children ignores the benefits of risk-taking, he said.

It’s far better for children to learn from small risks with relatively harmless consequences when they’re younger than big risks with serious, possibly fatal consequences when they’re older.

Children develop the frontal lobe of their brain when taking risks, meaning they work out consequences. “You can’t teach them that. They have to learn risk on their own terms. It doesn’t develop by watching TV, they have to get out there.”

A few might learn from other people’s mistakes but most of us have to be the other people.

The research project morphed into something bigger when plans to upgrade playgrounds were stopped due to over-zealous safety regulations and costly play equipment.

“There was so many ridiculous health and safety regulations and the kids thought the static structures of playgrounds were boring.”

When researchers – inspired by their own risk-taking childhoods – decided to give children the freedom to create their own play, principals shook their heads but eventually four Dunedin schools and four West Auckland schools agreed to take on the challenge, including Swanson Primary School.

It was expected the children would be more active, but researchers were amazed by all the behavioural pay-offs. The final results of the study will be collated this year.

Schofield urged other schools to embrace risk-taking. “It’s a no brainer. As far as implementation, it’s a zero-cost game in most cases. All you are doing is abandoning rules,” he said.

There’s a lesson here and not just for children and schools.

Some rules and laws imposed for safety’s sake are necessary but too many are counter-productive.

Trying to cotton wool society is just as dangerous in the long-run  as cotton-woolling children.

It might reduce risk but it also reduces people’s willingness and ability to think and take responsibility for themselves and the consequences of their actions.

Exactly where the line between too little and too much lies is a moot point.

This research shows it had been crossed and it’s good that the school had the courage to act on that.


5000 trees and counting

January 6, 2014

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition had pledged to plant 800 kauri trees in Northland to offset the carbon emissions.

That was before their research vessel Akademik Shokalskiygot stuck in ice and they needed a helicopter to rescue them when the ice breaker sent to rescue them got stuck and  another ice breaker sent to rescue the first ice breaker also got stuck in ice.

It will now take a forest to cover the carbon footprint of the rescue.

. . . The expedition had pledged to plant about 800 kauri trees in Northland to cover its carbon footprint. Environmentalists believe planting trees helps to offset the impact of burning fuels such as diesel.

But former Act Party leader and Herald on Sunday columnist Rodney Hide said that would have to increase to about 5000 trees to make up for the fossil fuels burned in the rescue.

Expedition leader Chris Turney said more trees would be needed than earlier estimated but he was yet to work out how many. . .

He will also have to work out why they got stuck 60 kilometres short of their destination when the 1911-to-1913 voyage of Australian explorer Douglas Mawson they were retracing made it to shore.


B+LNZ funding at risk in AgResearch changes

November 12, 2013

Most of the publicity and lobbying over AgResearch’s proposal to move most of its staff from Invermay to Lincoln has been directed at the government because it’s a crown entity.

However, it has an independent board and around half its funding comes from the industry and one of those funders is now raising concerns:

If there are not the skills to conduct key research AgResearch may lose beef and lamb industry funding, Beef + Lamb New Zealand chairman Mike Peterson says.

B+LNZ had been up front all the way over proposals to downsize AgResearch’s Invermay campus near Dunedin under the Crown research institute’s Future Footprint (FFP) plan, Petersen said.

However, the reality was if the skills were lacking there would be nothing to fund and that would put future research funding at risk.

“It’s the reality. If there are no researchers to do the work we need done then there will be nothing to fund (at AgResearch),” Petersen said. . .

Most staff at Invermay aren’t just saying they don’t want to move to Lincoln, they’re saying they won’t move.

B+LNZ spent $5 million annually funding research at AgResearch and that was boosted a further $20m by partnership funding, including the Government.

“We (B+LNZ) generate $25m worth of research activity each year,” Petersen said.

To continue to do that, access to key skills remained crucial.

“But we are not going to use that as a stick on AgResearch over where and how it locates staff.

“But if we can’t get access to key capability then one option is the funding will not be available.”

Losing key staff would have a huge impact on AgResearch capability.

. . . He acknowledged there was pressure from southern farmers for B+LNZ to oppose AgResearch’s FFP.

“I am aware that there are farmers, particularly down south, that think we should be up in arms but at the end of the day this is an AgResearch board decision and we have been given the assurances we have been looking for at this stage,” he said.

Farmer concerns were being taken seriously and B+LNZ would look into remits issued by the Southern South Island and Central South Island sheep councils opposing the shift of staff from Invermay to Lincoln.

Where the scientists were located was not necessarily the issue for B+LNZ, Petersen said.

“Our issue is will the (key skilled) scientists in fact be there to do our research?

“It could be that scientists decide not to move and then AgResearch might then decide to retain them at Invermay. Invermay, or Lincoln, is not the big deal for us – it’s the access to the capability.”

The  concern for B+LNZ isn’t about the location, it’s about capability and there are serious questions about whether AgResearch would retain that if AgResearch goes ahead with its plan to gut Invermay.


Wanting what someone else has got

November 2, 2013

One of the more unattractive traits in people is wanting what someone else has.

It can cause people to become dissatisfied with what they’ve got if they think someone’s got something better, even if they were satisfied with what they had before.

It happens with monkeys too.

Is this the foundation for politics of envy?

#gigatownoamaru wants to be the fastest town in the Southern Hemisphere – and is working for it.


Agri-Rover takes pain out of pasture management

November 1, 2013

An AgResearch team has taken some extra-terrestrial inspiration to help take the pain out of intensive pasture management.

Inspired by NASA’s Mars rover project, the team at AgResearch in Palmerston North and Lincoln have built a paddock robot they’ve named the Agri-Rover.

The Agri-Rover is designed to be a small, fully-autonomous rover that will automatically undertake multiple tasks around farms day and night. 

Scientist Dr Andrew Manderson led the project, which was developed with funding from the AgResearch Curiosity Fund, a seed fund that enables AgResearch staff to investigate ideas that could benefit the pastoral sector.

“We started this project in 2012 and presented the first prototypes at the FLRC conference back in February,” says Dr Manderson.

“We’ve come a long way since then, and have had a functional rover out in the paddock since April.”

The Agri-Rover concept is for an all-weather rover that deploys from a central base station, independently navigates to a paddock, goes under two-wire fences and gates, slowly but progressively traverses the paddock while taking measurements and treating patches, then automatically returns to the base station for recharging and further deployment. 

“This works in all weather, all of the time, quietly going about its tasks without creating extra jobs for the farmer. It’s designed to be easy to operate, and will report results as needed to a cell phone or computer. 

“Always in the back of our mind was keeping it affordable, which is often a sticking point with new farm technologies,” says Dr Manderson.

Now they have built a rover that can operate successfully under farm conditions, the team are focusing on how it will be used to improve farm production and reduce environmental impacts. 

“First and foremost is to equip the rover for pasture measurement, to provide real-time feedback on paddock covers, feed wedges, and possibly even pasture quality.  This is all about quick, accurate information for real-time decision making, without having to spend any time collecting it. 

“At the same time we’re looking to measure soil properties for precision fertiliser application, mapping compaction zones, and creating soils maps for variable-rate irrigation.  We are developing the rover to do as many tasks as possible to make it as useful as possible.”

The team are also testing systems to automatically treat pasture and fresh cow urine at the patch scale. By programming the rover to drive over every square foot of a paddock, it could be useful for the selective identification and treatment of individual urine patches, and selective identification and treatment of individual weeds. 

“Locating and treating urine patches is the single biggest challenge we have set ourselves,” says Dr Manderson.

“The level of required GPS technology is currently very expensive, and while we can tow a sizeable spray unit, it is too big a drain on current battery life. Targeting individual weeds is even more of a challenge.  But we’re working with some crack technicians to solve these challenges.”  

Dr Manderson says there are many possibilities for the rover, and hopefully the list of tasks will grow as the group gets more feedback from industry.

“For example, other scientists are developing robots to herd cows in for milking,” he says.

“Likewise, we can put a camera on this thing so farmers can use it as a remotely controlled rover that they can use to check things on their farm, such as keeping a 24 hour watch on springers at calving time.”

Farmer input and feedback has already been instrumental in keeping the rover design effective, affordable and robust.

“It’s a battery and solar powered unit running four 240v gear motors that cranks along at about 5km/h, goes up and down 15-20 degree slopes, and spins on a dime,” says Dr Manderson.

“It’s tough as well. We accidently dropped it off the back of a ute and it fell on its lid, we just turned it over and away it went again. Although 5km/h might seem slow, it’s a medium walking pace, but this thing is designed to independently chug around all of the time so speed isn’t really all that important.”

The team behind the project are now talking to local farmers to identify areas where the rover could be of use on-farm, anyone who would like to help shape the future of the project can contact: enquiries@agresearch.co.nz

 


2012 Ignobles

September 17, 2013

Ignobles are awarded annually for achievements which first make people laugh then make them think.

 This year’s winners are:

MEDICINE PRIZE: Masateru Uchiyama [JAPAN], Xiangyuan Jin [CHINA, JAPAN], Qi Zhang [JAPAN], Toshihito Hirai [JAPAN], Atsushi Amano [JAPAN], Hisashi Bashuda [JAPAN] and Masanori Niimi [JAPAN, UK], for assessing the effect of listening to opera, on heart transplant patients who are mice. . . 

PSYCHOLOGY PRIZE: Laurent Bègue [FRANCE], Brad Bushman [USA, UK, the NETHERLANDS, POLAND], Oulmann Zerhouni [FRANCE], Baptiste Subra [FRANCE], and Medhi Ourabah [FRANCE], for confirming, by experiment, that people who think they are drunk also think they are attractive. . . 

JOINT PRIZE IN BIOLOGY AND ASTRONOMY: Marie Dacke [SWEDEN, AUSTRALIA], Emily Baird [SWEDEN, AUSTRALIA, GERMANY], Marcus Byrne [SOUTH AFRICA, UK], Clarke Scholtz [SOUTH AFRICA], and Eric J. Warrant [SWEDEN, AUSTRALIA, GERMANY], for discovering that when dung beetles get lost, they can navigate their way home by looking at the Milky Way. . . 

SAFETY ENGINEERING PRIZE: The late Gustano Pizzo [USA], for inventing an electro-mechanical system to trap airplane hijackers — the system drops a hijacker through trap doors, seals him into a package, then drops the encapsulated hijacker through the airplane’s specially-installed bomb bay doors, whence he parachutes to earth, where police, having been alerted by radio, await his arrival. . . .

PHYSICS PRIZE: Alberto Minetti [ITALY, UK, DENMARK, SWITZERLAND], Yuri Ivanenko [ITALY, RUSSIA, FRANCE], Germana Cappellini [ITALY], Nadia Dominici [ITALY, SWITZERLAND], and Francesco Lacquaniti [ITALY], for discovering that some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond — if those people and that pond were on the moon. . . 

CHEMISTRY PRIZE: Shinsuke Imai [JAPAN], Nobuaki Tsuge [JAPAN], Muneaki Tomotake [JAPAN], Yoshiaki Nagatome [JAPAN], Toshiyuki Nagata [JAPAN, GERMANY], and Hidehiko Kumgai [JAPAN], for discovering that the biochemical process by which onions make people cry is even more complicated than scientists previously realized. . . 

ARCHAEOLOGY PRIZE: Brian Crandall [USA] and Peter Stahl [CANADA, USA], for parboiling a dead shrew, and then swallowing the shrew without chewing, and then carefully examining everything excreted during subsequent days — all so they could see which bones would dissolve inside the human digestive system, and which bones would not. . . 

PEACE PRIZE: Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, for making it illegal to applaud in public, AND to the Belarus State Police, for arresting a one-armed man for applauding.

PROBABILITY PRIZE: Bert Tolkamp [UK, the NETHERLANDS], Marie Haskell [UK], Fritha Langford [UK, CANADA], David Roberts [UK], and Colin Morgan [UK], for making two related discoveries: First, that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up; and Second, that once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again. . . 

PUBLIC HEALTH PRIZE: Kasian Bhanganada, Tu Chayavatana, Chumporn Pongnumkul, Anunt Tonmukayakul, Piyasakol Sakolsatayadorn, Krit Komaratal, and Henry Wilde, for the medical techniques described in their report “Surgical Management of an Epidemic of Penile Amputations in Siam” — techniques which they recommend, except in cases where the amputated penis had been partially eaten by a duck. [THAILAND] . . . 


What went wrong at AgResearch?

August 29, 2013

AgResearch isn’t very popular in the south following the announcement of its proposal to relocate most of its activities from Invermay to Lincoln.

It won’t be very popular with Fonterra, MPI, government or anyone else caught up with the fallout from the botulism scare now it’s been found it was responsible for the test which showed the possible botulism contamination in a batch of Fonterra’s whey protein concentrate.

Subsequent tests – all 195 of them – have contradicted that and shown that the WPC was safe.

AgResearch has issued a media release saying:

A spokesperson for AgResearch said: “We have today received correspondence from Fonterra in relation to testing carried out by AgResearch for Fonterra.

“Under the terms of our contract with Fonterra, we are bound by a confidentiality agreement and cannot discuss specific details.

“However, we have reviewed our work and we are confident in the work that our experts carried out and reported to Fonterra.

“Both the Government and Fonterra are conducting investigations into the issues and we are involved in these inquiries.

“We have also sought to discuss the concerns raised today directly with Fonterra and we are engaged with MPI regarding these developments.”

Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings said while there is a sense of shared relief that the product was not contaminated, Fonterra had done the right thing by initiating a precautionary recall.

“Food safety remains our number one priority.

“The original results from AgResearch indicated the presence of toxin-producing Clostridium botulinum in the affected whey protein concentrate and we could therefore not take any chances,” he said.

Fonterra originally commissioned independent testing from Crown Research Institute, AgResearch, as one of only two research facilities in New Zealand capable of carrying out testing for Clostridium botulinum.

“On the basis of the results we received from the AgResearch tests, we had no choice but to alert regulators, and announce a global precautionary recall with our customers.

“We have just learned of the further and definitive test results. While we share a sense of relief about them, this in no way lessens our commitment to undertaking a thorough review into what happened, and to learn from this experience.”

Mr Spierings acknowledged there had been confusion and anxiety arising from the complexity of the precautionary recall and apologised for it.

“The past few weeks have been very difficult for parents in a number of countries, as well as for our customers, our farmers, and our staff.
“For me, as Fonterra’s CEO and as a father of three children, I truly believe that in initiating the recall, we took the right decision and did the right thing at the most critical moment. Given the same circumstances, and with food safety always front of mind, I would do the same again.

“Food safety and quality must always remain our top priority. I have created a new role of Group Director, Food Safety and Quality that reports directly to me.  Fonterra already has world-class food safety systems, and we’ll make sure that our dedication to food safety is further embedded in everything we do.

“The news today does not affect the various reviews and inquiries underway. We are committed to learning from, and sharing, any findings about how we can improve. We will do this in an open and transparent way,” Mr Spierings said.

There will be lessons for AgResearch too.


AgResearch’s purpose is ag research

August 15, 2013

Delegates to a southern summit in Dunedin yesterday were united in their call for more investment in Invermay agricultural research centre.

And the message would be delivered in person to government ministers and the AgResearch board by a southern delegation within days, Mayor Dave Cull said yesterday.

His comments followed yesterday’s AgResearch-Invermay summit in Dunedin, which drew more than 50 delegates from organisations across the lower South Island.

The delegates spent much of the day discussing ways to save Invermay and boost the regional economy, before emerging with an action plan that was big on potential but light on detail.

The ”alternative proposition” would be for more investment to expand Invermay, while emphasising the national, as well as regional, economic benefits that would result, he said. . .

AgResearch’s purpose isn’t to provide economic benefits from its location,

It’s purpose is to do agricultural research.

. . . There was also agreement about the threats posed by AgResearch’s plan to shift 85 Invermay jobs to either Lincoln or Palmerston North.

Environment Southland chairwoman Ali Timms said that included Invermay’s ”vital” research into improving water quality in Southland as land-use patterns continued to intensify.

She told delegates the Southland environment was ”very different” from Canterbury’s, and Invermay’s research needed to occur in southern conditions and be presented ”first-hand” to farmers to change habits.

”That won’t happen in Canterbury. It won’t happen in Massey University. That science needs to happen in Southland.” . . .

This is a valid argument, but AgResearch’s plan is not to close the research centre completely and it is possible that those who remain could still do this work.

Agricultural research can and does result in economic benefits at local, regional and national levels.

But it should be done where it is done best with the best use of limited money.

Whether or not that is at Invermay as it is, as a smaller centre or as a bigger one is debatable.

Morale has been low for years with scientists complaining they spend more time applying for funds than doing science.

That feeling probably isn’t peculiar to Invermay, or agricultural research but it reinforces the importance of making best use of what money AgResearch has.

As for regional development, the southern leaders should be looking inland to Queenstown where the winter games are taking place and will pump millions of dollars into the economy.

Games chief executive Arthur Klap said . . .  ”there is a direct economic flow of somewhere between $3 million to $5 million” and on top of that the games spends around $3 million on organisation such as wages, stages and local bands.

”Fifty percent of our budget is locally spent.”

A key economic benefit of the games, he said, was that they attracted a large number of international athletes and their management, meaning ”it’s new dollars into the country”.

This year the games was investing $1 million in television coverage.

Thirty-eight broadcasters in more than 100 countries would be screening events. . .

Whether or not the delegation will alter the decision to reduce the Invermay workforce, southern leaders need to be looking to a range of opportunities for economic development.

Those in local government must also look at themselves to ensure they are doing all they can to reduce the costs of setting up and growing businesses.


From lab to plate

August 6, 2013

The world’s first in-vitro hamburger has been taste-tested:

Since 2008, Dr. Mark Post has been working on growing edible meat in a laboratory. Today, at an event in London, the first in-vitro hamburger has been served.

Muscle stem cells were taken from a cow’s shoulder in a gentle biopsy and grown in serum, with micro-exercise so they wouldn’t be flabby. 20,000 cells were then assembled into a burger, bound with bread crumbs and egg (but curiously no salt), colored with beet juice and saffron, and presented to the public. The event was also broadcast on Culturedbeef.net.

Dr. Post, a cardiovascular biologist from Maastricht University, brought his raw burger out, in a petri dish under a cloche. On a television set, chef Richard McGeown, opining that it looked a little paler than normal, cooked it in butter and oil before a hungry audience, then served it to two lucky volunteers: Austrian food futurist Hanni Rützler, and Josh Schonwald, author of The Taste of Tomorrow.

Hanni: “There is quite some intense taste. It is close to meat; it is not that juicy. I missed salt and pepper. More than I expected of the structure, it’s not falling apart.”

Josh: “The texture, the mouthfeel, has a feel like meat. The absence is the fat. It’s a leanness. But the bite feels like a conventional hamburger.”

The technology to grow fat cells is still lacking — Schonfeld characterized the texture as like “an animal protein cake” — but that is the next step for the team. “I think it’s a very good start,” said Dr. Post. “This was mostly to prove that we can make it.” . . .

It is at least a decade away from mass-production and price and taste will determine if it is commercially viable.

In a world short of protein it could have a market but I don’t think from lab to plate has quite the same appeal as from paddock to plate.


Rural round-up

July 31, 2013

Fonterra’s ‘overdraft clearing forecast’ for 2013/14:

A milk price of $7.50 per kilogram of milksolids (kg/MS), now being forecast by Fonterra Cooperative Group for the 2013/14 season, is an ‘overdraft clearer’. Federated Farmers believes farmers will look to pay back credit lines extended to them during the drought.

“This increase in the payout forecast from $7 to $7.50 kg/MS comes off a very strong balance sheet,” says Willy Leferink, Federated Farmers Dairy chairman.

“Obviously this and an advance payout of $5.50 kg/MS, is great news after a disappointing back end to the last season. Given this time last year payout forecast were being paired back, seeing it go up is a huge relief. . . .

Increased forecast milk price, advance payout evidence of Fonterra’s strength: Brown:

A 50 cent increase in the forecast Farmgate Milk Price and advance for the 2013/14 season is reflection of the Co-operative’s strength said Fonterra Shareholders’ Council Chairman, Ian Brown.

The Fonterra Board of Directors today announced a revised Farmgate Milk Price forecast of $7.50 per kg/MS for the 2013/14 season, including a $5.50 advance, and an estimated dividend of 32 cents per share.

Ian Brown: “This outcome is evidence of a strong organisation that has moved appropriately for the benefit of its supplier Shareholders. . .

Latest water quality trends ‘red letter day’ for farming:

Good environmental farm management is starting to show through in the Ministry for the Environment’s (MfE) latest River condition indicator.  This shows that over a decade at 90 percent of the sites tested, most of the MfE’s key indicators were either stable or improving.

“Improved management of the land and water resource by everyone may be starting to show up in these water quality results,” says Bruce Wills, Federated Farmers President.

“In broad brush terms New Zealand’s water quality is steadily improving.

“In recent years, farmers and communities have really stepped up their efforts but we know we can and must do better. This latest report shows we are heading in the right direction and we need to take this as encouragement to further step up our collective efforts. . .

AgResearch Plans Its Future Footprint:

The country’s largest Crown Research Institute, AgResearch, has released further details of its plans to reinvest $100 million into its campus facilities and resources.

AgResearch Chief Executive Dr Tom Richardson says the proposal is now with staff for consultation and involves a major reconfiguration and reinvestment of AgResearch’s campus and farm infrastructure to create a vital agricultural research institute for the next 50 years.

“We will be modernising our science facilities, co-locating our capability wherever possible, and participating in large agriculture innovation hubs, all of which will generate greater returns across the pastoral sector.

“This is a once in a generation opportunity to put AgResearch in the best possible long-term position to do more quality science more effectively and efficiently, and to make a much bigger difference to the agricultural sector’s productivity and profitability,” he says. . . .

New on-line weather forecast service:

Conservation Minister Dr Nick Smith today launched a new online mountain weather forecast service that will improve the enjoyment and safety of trampers, hunters, mountain bikers, skiers and fishers using New Zealand’s National and Forest Parks.

“New Zealand’s mountain environment can quickly turn from warm and calm to treacherous. We can improve the safety and enjoyment of users by providing more frequent and detailed weather forecasts on the internet,” Dr Smith says.

“We lose about six people per year in our mountains and often these deaths are weather related. We also have about 150 mountain search and rescue callouts a year. This improved weather service will reduce risk and save lives.

“The new online mountain weather forecast service will provide standardised five day forecasts updated every day for 24 mountain locations across eight of New Zealand’s most popular parks. This compares to a previous service of eight locations with a mix of forecast lengths from two to five days and from a frequency of twice daily to weekly. . .

Speech to Horticulture New Zealand annual conference – Nathan Guy:

Today I want to talk to you about my priorities for the primary sector, of which horticulture is a major part. In particular I want to talk about the two goals that the Ministry for Primary Industries has – to grow and protect New Zealand’s economy.

As you all know, the primary sector is the powerhouse of our economy. It is worth around $30 billion a year to the New Zealand economy and makes up around 72 per cent of our exports.

Your industry is a major part of this equation, with New Zealand’s horticultural exports earned $3.6 billion in the year ended 31 March 2013. The total value of horticultural products produced is around $6.6 billion. . .

Farm Environment Awards Motivate Northland Farmers to Lift Game:

Participating in the Ballance Farm Environment Awards inspired Ken and Janine Hames to step up environmental work on their Northland farm.

Ken says they entered the awards to benchmark themselves against other farmers and “to see where we were at” in terms of environmental sustainability.

He and Janine, a vet at Ruawai, first entered the Northland Ballance Farm Environment Awards in 2010 and were thrilled to win two category awards.

“I guess it showed we were on the right track,” says Ken, who runs an intensive bull finishing operation on 400ha at Paparoa, southeast of Dargaville. . .


Chocolate is medicine . . .

July 7, 2013

. . .  Well, it can be good for you:

A new Australian study has found dark chocolate may increase calmness and contentedness through the polyphenols found in cocoa.

Polyphenols are found naturally in plants and are a basic component of the human diet. These compounds have been shown to reduce oxidative stress, which is associated with many diseases, and may also have beneficial psychological effects.

Anecdotally, chocolate is often linked to mood enhancement,” Matthew Pase, a PhD candidate at the University of Swineburne in Melbourne and lead author of the study, says. . .

“This clinical trial is perhaps the first to scientifically demonstrate the positive effects of cocoa polyphenols on mood.” . . .

Sadly I don’t think this is the sort of medicine to which you can apply the rule that if some is good, more is better.


Science Challenges announced

May 1, 2013

The Government has announced the final 10 selected National Science Challenges and a $73.5 million boost over four years to fund them.

“The National Science Challenges will tackle some of the biggest science-based issues and opportunities facing New Zealand,” Minister of Science and Innovation Steven Joyce says.

“The Challenges are designed to take a more strategic approach to our science investment by targeting a series of goals which, if they are achieved, would have a major and enduring benefit for New Zealand. . . .

The 10 challenges are:

  • Ageing well – harnessing science to sustain health and wellbeing into the later years of life
  • A better start – improving the potential of young New Zealanders to have a healthy and successful life
  • Healthier lives – research to reduce the burden of major New Zealand health problems
  • High value nutrition – developing high value foods with validated health benefits
  • New Zealand’s biological heritage – protecting and managing our biodiversity, improving our biosecurity, and enhancing our resilience to harmful organisms
  • Our land and water – research to enhance primary sector production and productivity while maintaining and improving our land and water quality for future generations
  • Life in a changing ocean – understanding how we can exploit our marine resources within environmental and biological constraints
  • The deep south – understanding the role of the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean in determining our climate and our future environment
  • Science for technological innovation – enhancing the capacity of New Zealand to use physical and engineering sciences for economic growth
  • Resilience to nature’s challenges – research into enhancing our resilience to natural disasters

This covers a wide field of scientific endeavour.

I’m especially pleased the challenges focussing on high value nutrition, land and water, biological heritage and technological innovation included with the potential to improve productivity while enhancing the environment.


NZ grass going global

March 24, 2013

A grass developed by AgResearch is going global in efforts to reduce bird strikes at airports.

An ingenious Kiwi solution to the billion dollar bird strike problem is getting ready to go global after impressing airport experts from around the world.

Bird strikes at airports cost the aviation industry an estimated US$1.2 billion annually in both damage to airplanes and deterrence measures.

AgResearch scientists have developed a tool to help airport managers control the problem, a grass containing a special novel endophyte that naturally deters wildlife and insects.

The endophyte is a natural fungus that grows between plant cells in many ryegrasses and tall fescues. It makes the grasses unpalatable to both insects and animals without harming them, and therefore deters both insect eating and herbivorous birds such as ducks and geese. Initial reports have shown that it can reduce the number of birds in sewn areas by 70-80 percent.

The discovery was patented and commercialised by AgResearch company Grasslanz Technology and is being marketed by PGG Wrightson Turf. . .

Sam Livesey, Business Analyst at Grasslanz Technology in Lincoln says that the technology has huge potential, and this is a good opportunity to open a worldwide market.

“The endophyte technology we’ve pioneered here could have worldwide applications in aviation, sports fields, parks, golf courses and orchards in temperate environments,” he says.

Two endophytes branded as ‘Avanex Unique Endophyte Technology’ have been introduced into two turf grasses: Jackal, a tall fescue for the aviation industry and Colosseum, a perennial ryegrass used in sports and amenity turf areas. The Avanex products could also prove profitable for arable farmers in New Zealand who grow the premium grasses for seed.

Trials at New Zealand airports have shown a significant reduction in bird numbers on areas sown with the endophytic grass, reducing the risk of bird strike at take-off and landing.

Mark Shaw, who heads the promotion and sales of Avanex for PGG Wrighton Turf says that they’re bringing together airport and turf consultants from around the world to show them how effective use of this grass can provide solutions around habitat management on airports and reduce the use of insecticides in public spaces.

“This is the only deterrent grass in the world at the moment, and it is one of the few permanent deterrents that can be used at the airport. Basically, we’ve made a restaurant that the birds don’t want to eat at, so they’ll go somewhere better.

“We’re aiming to speed up the adoption of avian deterrent grass technology by providing accredited consultants in which airports can have confidence, and influential academics and regulators will be able to speak confidently on the product,” he says.

The group has been taking part in seminars at the AgResearch Lincoln campus, and will be shown the grass in action at Christchurch, Wellington, Hamilton and Auckland Airports as well as sports grounds. . . .

Friends who grow sunflower and canary seed on a large scale accept that they will lose a percentage of their crop to birds each year.

Orchardists, berry fruit and grape growers also have bird problems which these grasses have the potential to counter.

But the biggest market is likely to be airports and if successful this will be another example where agricultural research produces results which have a wider application in other industries.


Readers breed readers

March 19, 2013

Who would have thought that:

. . . The analysis of New Zealand’s 15-year-olds in an OECD reading test says the difference between students with more than a year of early childhood education and those with none is equivalent to a year and a half of schooling.

The study says there is a similar difference between teenagers whose parents read to them in their first year of school and those whose parents did not.

It says students are also likely to be much better readers if their parents read books and talk to them regularly. . .

There is no doubt a lot more to the research than this report suggests but it does seem to be stating the obvious – readers breed readers.

 

 

 


Bloodmeal makes bioplastic

March 2, 2013

Low meat prices get most attention from those bemoaning the economics of sheep farming.

But poor prices for by-products are another contributing factor.

That might change if Aduro Biopolymers’ work on turning bloodmeal into plastic succeeds commercially.

The company has received investment from Wallace Corporation.

“Aduro Biopolymers has developed an innovative method for the production of bioplastics made from by-products of the red meat and poultry industries,” says Graham Shortland, CEO of Wallace Corporation. “We’re always looking for innovative ways to turn new and existing raw materials into higher value products in order to sustainably deliver superior returns to our meat processing partners.”

“We’ve been very impressed by the team at WaikatoLink and their track record in commercialisation as well as the quality of research from the University of Waikato. This investment is part of a broader strategy and the start of a partnership that will allow us to bring new research from the University into our business.” . . .

Aduro Polymers aim is to develop environmentally conscious materials for the manufacturing and construction sectors. The company’s first product is Novatein, a bioplastic that will be price competitive with petrochemical plastics. The global plastics market is worth over a trillion dollars and currently bioplastics represent 5-10% of that market, with a compounded annual growth rate of almost 20%.

Darren Harpur, Acting CEO of Aduro Biopolymers says, “The manufacturing process for Novatein is quite simple. This means the capital costs required to commence manufacture will be relatively low and should enable the cost effective production of Novatein. There is a growing demand for environmentally friendly plastics but they need to be at the right price point for consumers. We are confident we can achieve this price point with Novatein.”

The science behind Novatein originated and continues to be developed by the University of Waikato’s Dr Johan Verbeek and his team, where bloodmeal produced by the red meat industry is processed into granules which have been modified and optimised to suit a chosen product’s attributes. The granules can then be manufactured into injection moulded or extruded products using industry standard equipment. Novatein has been in development since 2007 and has received investment support from KiwiNet’s PreSeed Accelerator Fund from the Ministry of Science and Innovation.

Harpur says, “As consumers, we’re all aware of the effects of plastics on the environment. Novatein will help solve some of those problems by introducing a bioplastic made from naturally occurring materials that on their own quickly degrade in the environment. We think that this aspect combined with a simple manufacturing process will enable our technology to be adopted quite rapidly.” . . .

TV3 has more about the product here.


Brain faster when chewing

February 26, 2013

Japanese research shows that brain’s reaction times are up to 10% faster when people chew.

“Our results suggest that chewing induced an increase in the arousal level and alertness in addition to an effect on motor control and, as a consequence, these effects could lead to improvements in cognitive performance,” researchers at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences say.

This is bad news for people who are regarded as too slow to chew and walk at the same time.


Feds’ president’s farm in climate adaptation study

January 30, 2013

Federated Farmers’ president Bruce Wills’ farm is one being used for a case study on climate adaptation.

Irrespective of personal views around the causes for climate change, all farmers know our climate is ever-changing impacting farm businesses. This makes the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) Impacts of Climate Change on Land based Sectors and Adaptation Options, an important contribution.

“All farmers know the climate changes and whether it is man-made, natural or a combination of the two, what really matters is building resilience into our farm businesses,” says Bruce Wills, Federated Farmers President, whose own farm is one of the MPI case studies.

“The climate changes and will continue to change because we live on a dynamic planet. If we had little or no climate change our environment would be closer to that of Mars and hostile to life as we know it.

“What the Ministry for Primary Industries has produced is thought provoking because the overriding assumption around climate change has been its negative effects. The climate is in fact neutral; it is what we make of it which counts.

This is a very important point.

Almost all the information on climate change is about the politics and possible mitigation. This study is looking at how farmer might adapt to it.

“If we are in a warming cycle with higher concentrations of CO2, then we can expect increasingly rapid pasture, crop and tree growth boosting productivity. On the downside, there will likely be increased frequencies of drought and floods with pests and disease.

“Ensuring we have the right on-farm infrastructure, systems and personnel to cope with climate variability is vital. Especially once you marry what we are doing inside the farm-gate with what is happening regionally and nationally.

“It is also vital we maintain stringent biosecurity to defeat pests and exotic diseases before the border.

“With the case study done about our farm, it boils down to the tactical use of plantings to stabilise hillsides, farm dams to store water and stock policies to better cope with the weather volatility we are experiencing.

“Environmental management is vital; it’s about being able to farm sustainably and profitably for generations to come.

“While outside of the report, the control of possums by way of 1080 has been massive to our farm’s economic and environmental sustainability. The explosion of bird life and biodiversity I have seen with the demise of possums has been extraordinary.

“The other case studies are there to show farmers by sector and type just what is possible. I think it will engender discussion within the primary communities on where we go and how we get there. That is a discussion Federated Farmers is keen to be a part of.

“New Zealand’s innovative and progressive farmers are very good at reading environmental signals. Farming will continue to adapt and evolve in response to these changes,” Mr Wills concluded.

  The paper Impacts of Climate Change on Land based Sectors and Adaptation Options is here.

Feds has links to the paper, a toolbox and case studies under Useful facts, figures and resources here.


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