Primary sector research over the next two decades: challenges and opportunities

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Overview of a New Zealand native bush canopy

The following was Sir Peter Gluckman’s Address to the New Zealand Association for Animal Health and Crop Protection, 23 July 2015

The NZ pastoral agriculture system has been built of decades on research and development: arguably a disproportionate amount of which has been supported by the public purse; much of that has been appropriate. But it is also true to say that within the primary sector, the private sector could, should and needs to do more to protect its own future.

We even have seen components of the private sector reduce their investment in R&D– for example the sheep industry’s recent abandonment of the wool levy. In the same vein it has been disappointing so see the notable hesitation by the pastoral sector in engaging in MPI’s Government Industry Agreement, that seeks to share the costs of biosecurity incursions and the reluctance of the broad food sector to understand that they too need to contribute to food safety research.

As a broad generalization with some exceptions, the primary sector appears to find it difficult to look more than a few years ahead. Why? Have we been too complacent both as an industry and as a country? Yes we are an economy based on natural resources, but our exports remain dominated by commodities; what added value there is largely comes from exploiting consumer preference rather than any true product transformation.

Why some parts of the sector such as the beef sector are currently doing well, the most prominent part of the sector is going through a rough time due to a series of external factors – some predictable, some not – these include the changing fundamentals of the Chinese economy, the expansion of production by European dairy farmers as the production cap has been removed and the massive expansion of North American dairy production as grain prices fall largely because of cheaper energy prices from traditional sources.

The question is how should the New Zealand primary sector respond to the current situation? My strong view is that this must not be through bunkering down but rather this is the time for strategic investment in research and innovation. We need to look beyond the current issues and look ahead, perhaps two decades, because the R&D lifecycle in agricultural and life science is definitely of that order. What does the science need to address?

Obviously the challenge of climate change is top of mind. This will lead to dramatic changes in when and where our rain falls, impacting on core aspects of our farming systems – many farmers will need to shift to dry-land farming systems which are very different, and with this there will be major policy and technical issues around water-use to address.

The ongoing shift towards more overt environmentalism by both developed and developing markets is already becoming more apparent. With this it will become ever more important to demonstrate that farming is environmentally sensitive. Indeed we need to start seeing environmental values as an important component of economic productivity and this is realistic and possible even when commercial demands and land-resource limitations point towards ever-increasing intensification.

Similarly we cannot ignore the escalating risks to biosecurity that climate change and increasing trade and travel will bring. While it may sound unrealistic we need to consider the possibility that shifting consumer attitudes in some markets may mean that meat and even milk will be replaced by artificial meats and synthetic milks – indeed the rate of investment in that sector particularly in California is dramatic. How such challenges will play out is not clear – for example on one hand the same market segments that appear to particularly value “natural” are effectively the same as those that are increasingly concerned about the impact of livestock farming on the climate and might be drawn to artificial foods.

But other things are clear – globally concerns over food insecurity will rise as the global population grows by more than 3 billion more people. At the same time there is an increasing understanding of the relationship between food, nutrition and health. The current controversies about food taxes on sugar and fats for example are a manifestation of that growing dimension.

So we need to think about several strands for a research agenda if our primary sector is going to thrive, as it simply must. How will we ensure environmental quality while continuing to produce high quality food? Part of this is about enhanced technology transfer and knowledge diffusion within the industry – we already know that there is a big difference in metrics of productivity and energy footprint between the performance of farmers at the higher and the lower end of the range.

We will need to think about land-use – have we done the optimal by massive expansion of one kind of farming? Secondly we need to think about soil, forages and our livestock. Will the livestock genetics we have now be optimal for the future? Will the forages we grow in the future be those we currently use? Already there is a shift away from ryegrass and clovers – towards deeper-rooted forages that better scavenge for minerals and water.

But we have other ecosystem challenges. Biosecurity is a growing concern. . The clover root weevil in pasture, the varroa mite in bees, PSA in kiwi fruit and Ebola and MERS in humans all highlight the inevitability of a growing number of inevitable biosecurity concerns. In truth, our farmlands are the partial transplants of the European landscape and with this this there is a notable lack of stabilising biodiversity; their ecology is indeed inherently unstable and this is becoming ever more apparent as we push the land harder to increase productivity. A current example of this is that it seems that the major pest species, the Argentine stem weevil, is becoming resistant to the once highly effective parasitoid wasp biological control agent introduced some decades ago. This is probably simply the result of intense selection pressure that is so much severe in the incomplete ecosystems represented by NZ pastures. Related to this; the nature of NZ’s managed landscapes makes them hugely susceptible to invasive exotic species,

With regard to soil nutrient flows and water quality, do we need to think more about novel endophytes and soil micro-organism manipulation to better trap and mobilise nutrients for enhanced forage production and minimisation of pollution? We also know that production in our free-grazing ruminants is nutrient-limited and productivity could be enhanced if we could address those limitations in an acceptable way – that is why our animals do well overseas on grain and intense forage systems.

But what about the use of synthetic chemicals in farming systems – we saw the marketing problems arose when we failed to properly think pre-emptively about DCD in the food chain, yet at the same time it is an important and safe nitrate immobiliser. How will we proceed in the future with other potential fertilisers and production-relevant chemical agents?

The primary sector is indeed beset with threats and challenges and yet from my vantage point it seems relatively resistant to engaging in long-term strategic thinking and the needed research. There is much opportunity and need for pre-competitive liaison; yet the idea of precompetitive alliances for R&D while common overseas is relatively rare in the NZ context – in every sector.

Why this gap between strategic investment in research and industry has occurred is speculative. Is this inherent in the NZ culture – I suspect it is and explains the chronically rather low investments we make both from the public and private purses in R&D. It may well be argued that the science community has not been assertive or communicative enough about the upside of long-term primary sector research. It may be that there are just too many incentives for all parties to focus on short-term returns. With respect to the private sector, is it the sector has become conveniently too wedded to the idea that such research is largely the government’s responsibility. Of course it must be accepted that there is a significant component of public good in agricultural research relating to sustainability and environmental quality and to supporting the economic value of the sector and that is why the Crown invests.

But this gap between government and private sector funding simply needs to be closed and we need to see the government science sector spend more of its resources on longer-term needs rather than being over-focused on assisting immediate industry returns. This can only happen if industry increases its commitment

Climate change will be a key issue in both the market place and in the political and diplomatic arenas. Food production makes up 20% of global emissions and about 50% of New Zealand’s emissions. Addressing these emissions is an important part of our global strategy and contributions to mitigation against climate change. New Zealand has led the way in focusing on this issue – with its role in sponsoring, funding and promoting the Global Research Alliance on agricultural greenhouse gases. Some 46 countries are now engaged and the research is progressing well – indeed with some very exciting preliminary results. It does look for example as if it will be possible for methane production to be reduced without compromising food production from ruminants. But again this effort is almost entirely being driven by the public sector- yet the opportunities and the returns if the private sector was to engage are obvious.

If production is to increase without unacceptable environmental burdens then a rapid move to precision agriculture will be needed. Livestock genetics and epigenetics, soil microbiology, environmental monitoring, forage assessment, plant genomics and data analytics will all become part of an advanced agricultural system. I mention epigenetics because it is now becoming clear that genetic information is not the only form of information passed inter-generationally and epigenetic memory can be passed from one generation to the next. The importance of this is that it may allow manipulations in one generation to have multigenerational effects and as the manipulations will be environmentally and nutritionally based rather than molecular or pharmacological, it may offer rapid routes to further improvement in our livestock. Epigenetic markers may be as important to measure as genetic markers were in the past and allow further gains to be made. We have some very good epigenetic scientists but they are largely working on other questions. They could be pulled into the sector.

New Zealand will have to move faster into precision agriculture if the primary sector is to remain a major part of the economy – which it must as it is at the mainstay of regional activity. There are enormous opportunities in such systems – for the farmer, for the agritech sector, for the biotech sector and for the manufacturing and ICT sectors. But we are yet to see real and globally significant clusters of investment and activity emerge.

Ultimately the value of our agricultural sector will depend on how much and at what value we sell to the world. And here I think we have a lot to do. We have relied largely on commodity production – yet the cost of production that used to be considered very low on global comparisons has changed – other countries have learnt and now can produce milk of similar quality at about the same cost per unit – that is no longer our competitive advantage. Increasingly we have relied on consumer perception to lift value – better cuts of meat, wagyu beef, wine, better cheeses, infant formula, kiwi fruit and so forth. These are nearly all based on consumer perception rather than inherently true added value – this can be fickle and cannot be relied on. We need to be thinking more about what high value nutrition means.

My own bias is that high value nutrition is increasingly about health and proven health claims. We all know that nutrition and health are intimately linked but we need to get away from unsubstantiated over-hyped nonsensical claims that dominate the sector and the media. The sciences of metabolic imaging, epigenetics and metagenomics are radically changing nutrition research. We have a favourable regulatory regime but industry is yet to truly engage in taking advantage of it. In 2015 we still have a very poor understanding of the biological effects of different forms of protein in the diet and yet as the world’s largest producers of dairy protein we need to know much more about it potential biological effects in raw and processed forms. This needs sustained long-term research involving medical not just food scientists and it requires industry to be vigorously engaged.

Even with the National Science Challenges – three of which directly overlap what we have been discussing – the internal and external stakeholders have again, been too focused on the short-term rather than lifting their sights and vision to the longer-term which is where they are meant to be focused. I hope we can move beyond this and shift everyone’s vision.

I have left to last the most difficult issues. The most obvious of these is that of emergent biological technologies such as synthetic biology and what has become known as gene-editing. It is not yet clear how societies will react to these technologies globally. They obviously offer much promise both in environmental protection and in enhancing the quality of food and its production values. But different societies react differently to new technologies and the debates, while often masquerading as science, are not really about science – but are about deeply and genuinely held belief systems. It is inevitable that in coming decades these issues will surface and it would be tragic if those discussions were confused, by partisan politics, scientific exaggeration or frank misinformation. Some technologies will be accepted, some will be rejected – that is society’s right and role to do so. But when these technologies come to the point where they merit consideration, society has the right to have well-informed and honest and civil conversations. The agricultural community must be part of such discussions.

In conclusion I have to admit to a bit of anxiety. There is enormous unmet opportunity in primary sector productivity and its ability to contribute to the growth of the New Zealand economy – we must not allow the recently emerging myth to be permeated that it is a low technology or sunset sector – the reality is it can be and must be a very high technology sector. But ownership structures mean that the private sector has a fragmented role in R&D developments and as I have already said, I am worried that there is short-termism and an unwillingness to engage collectively in precompetitive research and innovation. New Zealand needs the sector to thrive; it is core to our economy, our environmental health and to protecting the social health of our regions. It will not thrive unless it too understands the need to engage in and support long-term as well as short-term research.

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