Saturday, December 2, 2023

PULPIT: Market chains limit our science

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The Farmers Weekly of August 19 was great reading. I wish urbanites knew what great minds we have working in agriculture.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Many of the articles focused on innovation, broadening the suite of what New Zealand grows and recognising the value of a clean food supply. 

In an address to Horticulture NZ Foundation for Arable Research chief executive Alison Stewart outlined key issues including shifts in dietary habits, the increasing focus on health and well-being and the potential of innovative, novel foods. 

The production of GMO-free soy, corn and canola for consumers prioritising food safety was another opportunity.

I’d like to partially disagree with Sue Edmonds in her article on regenerative farming. 

Farmers haven’t been coddled along – they have been shoved along. 

Capital market mentality has driven what writer Raj Patel calls the wine glass shape of markets. 

Lots of farmers at one end, lots of consumers at the other end but opportunistic markets in the middle that work more like cartels to keep commodity prices suppressed. 

Concurrently, 1980s reforms gutted basic sciences and got rid of the extension services that supplied impartial science knowledge. 

We stripped basic science out of our national discussion and prioritised funding for applied (drill-down) science and public-private partnerships for commercial applications. 

It was the shift that resulted in farmers walking into the local chemical supply store to buy the short-term fixes so they could get by. 

Problematically, those input costs keep rising but farm income – not so much. 

Farmer organisations, such as FAR and DairyNZ, tried to fill the knowledge gap but the work they could do and the funding they could acquire has been limited by post-1980s silo, bottom-line approaches. 

How can NZ pivot to resource farmers impartially to compensate for many of the distortions of the last 30 years? 

Of the $229 million Sustainable Land Use Package I’d like to know how much of that is going towards soil science to inform farmers and support weaning them off nitrogen. 

I’d like to think a lot of that money will go towards communicating established science knowledge and researching for NZ conditions rather than putting taxpayer money into a software programme that hides the data it obtains as intellectual property.

There’s a bunch of farmers on social media discussing regenerative agriculture. Issues include mixed pastures, cover crops, our long-term, bifocal, ryegrass-clover habit. 

New techniques might increase drought tolerance, nutrient sequestration and uptake, kicking into animal health and fertility issues. 

The environmental and veterinary damage control from using a narrow high-inputs approach appears to mimic the needs for chronic illnesses we see in the human population, also arising from a narrow range of low-nutrient and pesticide contaminated processed food inputs. 

Further, a growing body of science is unpicking the role of microbes in the soil and root exudates to transform non-available nutrients into bio-available nutrition – just like microbes in the human gut play a role in synthesising hormones and neurotransmitters. 

The science NZ really needs is interdisciplinary, regional, whole-farm perspective science. A farmer might not make cash off a cover crop but the stock benefits might be significant and vet bills might be reduced. We haven’t had significant science for that in a long time.

Environment Minister David Parker recently promised $35 million for advisory and extension services. The science around soil has exploded in countries that still fund good, old fashioned, basic science instead of a pill for every ill. It’s pretty important to get this information out there and recognise soil regeneration and protection of water quality are a social good all of NZ benefits from. 

I’d like to think threaded through our future is adoption of diversified, high-nutrient protein crops, as Nick Pyke also discussed, that can occupy niche positions and avoid the cartel-like control of the agribusiness conglomerates, that set prices on the so-called market. 

I’d like to think niche meat and dairy products, including organic, can avoid cartel-like price suppression as well. 

Turning away from chemical agriculture is essential because it is not just dairy farm nitrates polluting our water. 

That won’t happen without appropriate knowledge and public-sector financing to ensure vested interests don’t capture the information channels and distort terms of reference around reporting and monitoring. 

Just because Stats NZ stopped keeping pesticide records doesn’t mean the issue has gone away. 

Without a national screening process to understand the chemical profile of our freshwater NZ lacks capacity to protect the quality of our drinking and irrigation water for future generations. 

Regional Councils are ad hoc and inconsistent at testing. We simply can’t depend on them because of low funding and industry pressure to avoid screening for diffuse emissions. 

The future for agriculture could be exciting if it were based on soil, farmer, animal and public health, transparent expert knowledge and exploiting niche markets. 

Complex science-based approaches are the only way we can ensure agriculture thrives. 

This is why lobbying by the Royal Society to deregulate, sorry, to have a conversation is disingenuous. 

We are yet to see dietary and safety tests on animals of the drought-tolerant GMO ryegrass. 

We know at a minimum the spend on this one cultivar is $25m. We’re all in the dark – the opposite of what consumer markets and taxpayers want. 

There is plenty of evidence gene-editing technologies exhibit severe limitations and that many of the claims remain theoretical. 

In many organisms gene-editing tech doesn’t work, scientists observe resistance, claims of precision of the new genetically engineered processes are in many cases false, off-target effects have been found and, of course, once out of the laboratory, there is no containment. 

Will the average farmer take a cut out of the patent? Not likely. Will the public sector own the patent? 

The irony is, AgResearch has been stuck in the same cultural silo-science rut I’ve been talking about. 

It can get the funding if it drills down into one thing and works out a way for an industry body to make money from a patented product. Its hands are tied from addressing the systemic needs of complex systems. It’s been the most perfect hijacking – we’ve all been bought by market-science.

We’ve got the great minds, we’ve got farmers out there unearthing 30 years of development in regenerative agriculture – science that has been sideswiped in our corporate approach to patents, silo accountability and growth at all expense. 

Farmers and families deserve solid investment in science knowledge that doesn’t necessarily end in a corporate patent. 

True entrepreneurship comes from complex knowledge across systems – just like farming used to be. Let’s get going.

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