Ag & Science not Mutually Exclusive

International scientist Lord Robert Winston reckons our future is in science not agriculture.

The popular TV documentary host told the Herald yesterday he believed the country’s days of relying on agriculture for income were numbered.

How many times have I heard this before? Though never when the world is facing a critical shortage of food which gives us an unprecedented opportunity to get even better at what we already do – producing high quality food at a relatively low price.

 

But while science was the ideal vehicle to lift the economy, New Zealand researchers lacked the funding to reach the lofty, but achievable, goal, he said.

New Zealand spent about 1 per cent of GDP, or $700 million, on research spending last year – three times lower than some other OECD countries.

Of that, New Zealand’s primary blue-skies research fund, the Marsden Fund, was able to distribute just $39 million.

Blue skies research is funded on its scientific excellence rather than a specific commercial drive. The Herald reported in March an open letter to Science Minister Pete Hodgson, signed by 460 of the country’s leading scientists, contained a plea for the fund’s budget to be trebled. Mr Hodgson responded by drawing attention to a new research fund, worth $700 million over four years, aimed entirely at the agricultural sector.

In an ideal world we could indeed do more blue sky research. But in the real world, where we are not a wealthy country, it makes sense to direct most funding to areas where scientific research will result in commercial opportunities which will enable us to fund more research, some of which would not be driven by a financial imperative.

Lord Winston spoke to the Herald yesterday at the opening of New Zealand’s newest and most advanced fertility facility, Fertility Associates, in Auckland.

He said the new facilities were world class and followed a long tradition of New Zealand leading the world in fertility science. Bio-technology, especially in the human reproductive field, was something New Zealand could lead the world in.

And hasn’t some of what we’re doing in this area been a by-product of agricultural research?

Developments in the field were likely to focus on lowering the need for hormone treatment and improving embryo selection, he said. Such advancements would improve the lives of people around the world and offered a potential financial windfall.

“That would be fantastically valuable. I think with a smaller economy there has to be considerable wisdom about how you focus on what you do well. I think that’s a very important message for your country. New Zealand should certainly continue on its strengths.”

Like a usually mild climate which enables us to grow grass which we are very, very good at turning into protein?

The country’s history, and generations of pioneering science in the agricultural sector, had set it up for such a triumph, he said.

“It’s because of sheep, basically. You were interested in breeding animals. International industry drove it forward. But it might not be the answer any more.”

Meat was losing favour because of its environmental impact, and as an industry it was low profit, he said.

 

Would that be a scientific view about extensive sheep farming here, or a misinformed one based on intensive and more expensive, financially and environmentally, practices in other countries? And while conventional sheep farming hasn’t been profitable for the last couple of seasons all signs are positive for next season.

“New Zealand isn’t a great producer of many things that are profitable. But scientific knowledge really is important and can be very profitable.

“That’s a wonderful model for a small economy. The niche area of biotechnology is a big prospect. New Zealand [tends to] regard it as essential to find the economic value of the research … before you do the research. It’s got to be done on the understanding that you have the basic blue skies research there.”

Among the things we generally do produce profitably are milk and meat; a lot of our profitable science has come from agricultural research and some of that has been adapted for human applications.

Science has never been more important in agriculture (less methane, anyone?), and if we are to have more money for more science then directing a lot of our scarce resources at agriculture is sensible.

It would be foolish to put all our scientific eggs in the agricultural basket. But we are not a wealthy country and therefore do not have the luxury of being able to spend large amounts of the limited funding we have on blue sky research; especially given so much existing expertise and our natural advantage in agriculture.

But it’s not either science or agriculture, the two are not mutually exclusive. IMHO our future should be with science in agriculture.

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