Friday, July 1, 2022

Making science a ‘day job’

The greatest risk to New Zealand Agriseeds is being denied access to technology, the pasture company says as it passes 25 years. Tim Fulton visits headquarters near Darfield.

For evidence of shifting sands in the seed and pasture industry, Murray Willocks only has to consider the popularity of AR37 endophyte.

Agriseeds’ chief executive has seen farmers switch to the product developed by PGG Wrightson and AgResearch and then go back to his company’s NEA2.

In fact, Willocks says he doesn’t really understand where the initial demand for AR37 came from.

“We were the only people in the market last spring with any variety that’s got AR37 in it because everyone’s got production problems with it.”

Consequently Agriseeds finished the season with stock in hand.

“I’m not sure how important it is but that was a really good example of our business and ability to deliver the best product compromised because we didn’t have access to technology.”

In response the company has invested more in research and development and taken on a science manager in Dr Colin Eady, a former Plant and Food Research geneticist, who arrived last July.

Willocks emphasises the importance of having a science manager rather than a dedicated research and development person.

“It’s all about getting the science that’s going to take our business forward, forming those relationships with the science community, getting out there and seeing what’s around.”

Essentially, the Dutch-owned business at Courtenay in central Canterbury has been good at applied research but not so sharp in areas like genetics for plant breeding.

The power of genetics and what it will do for the plant breeding industry is huge, with genetic modification at one extreme and gene marking at the other.

Operating on a 224ha research station, Willocks says a lot of advanced science “was not in our day jobs”.

“I’ve got a bit of a science background and a bit of an understanding of genetics and so on but it just wears my brain out. Our plant breeders are really good at finger-tip stuff – what you see – but we need that capability in terms of what we can’t see. This is putting someone into the organisation whose day job is science.”

As would be expected, the company’s approach to GM will be an inescapable part of Eady’s role.

Willocks treads warily, conscious that anything he says is likely to earn him a reprimand from GE-free activists. The missing factor in the GM story in this country was a once-and-for-all “national conversation” about whether it was right and proper to invest in the area, he said.

“If you look at the GM technology worldwide it’s fantastic in terms of what it’s delivering, not only in terms of agriculture but in terms of pharmaceuticals. It’s the fastest-growing technology in agriculture in recent times and all those terrible images that were going to happen around Frankenstein aren’t happening. And environmentally it’s very good.”

The problem with GM is still acceptance in the market and the regulatory process.

“Long term, if NZ is to remain competitive I believe that we have to seriously look at what we’re doing with GM.”

If it turns out that market acceptance is still frigid or only lukewarm, Agriseeds will simply carry on with its current business, Willocks says.

“GM is not an issue for Agriseeds. GM is an issue for NZ agriculture. My personal view is that there is no premium for GM-free.”

By comparison NZ, as a low-cost producer, would have a problem if a South American nation or Australia had GM pastures that were 20% more productive than non-GM pastures, he said.

Running with GM pastures would bring costs of its own, one of them being compliance with government regulations.

Willocks estimates the cost of bringing GM ryegrass to market in this country could be more than 10 times the current $4.5 million tag for new conventional ryegrass. At Agriseeds the latter process is already a 12-year cycle, so the obstacles for GM are considerable.

“Because of the cost of bringing it to market there would have to be a premium for GM. If you brought out GM ryegrass and sold it for the prices that you sell ryegrass now, you’re dead. It’s just not going to get there.”

Attempts are being made to establish with the government what the regulatory cost of a GM import might be, Willocks says.

Agriseeds was founded in 1987 and employs nearly 55 staff. It is a wholly owned member of the international Royal Barenbrug Group and in the past year local staff has grown by about 20%.

Willocks believes this larger workforce will help deliver better service to its rural service re-sellers and farmers as part of its re-shaped strategic plan.

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