Thursday, February 22, 2024

Getting to the root of all weevils 

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Stephen Goldson has been awarded the Ray Brougham Trophy for his outstanding contribution to grassland farming in NZ.
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Stephen Goldson’s career began as an entomologist in the Ministry of Agriculture’s research division, working on the management of New Zealand’s damaging exotic pasture pest species. 

Specialising in weevils wasn’t his ideal, but after 25 years of focused and well-supported, long-term ecological research, he is humbled to be recognised for the contribution he has made to the suppression of these pests using imported parasitoid wasp biological control agents.

The work has led to positive results and greatly reduced exotic pest impacts on NZ’s pastoral ecosystems, with the economic benefits running into hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

There are also ongoing environmental benefits associated with reduced nitrogen pollution and avoidance of the use of synthetic pesticides.

After a year as a school-leaver on Volunteer Service Abroad in Sarawak, Goldson’s tertiary education began at Otago University in 1970. Nine years of continuous education led to a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and a Diploma in Science from Otago University, and a Master of Science from Canterbury University. 

This culminated in a PhD in Entomology from Lincoln College in 1979 and led him directly to a research career as an entomologist in the then Ministry of Agriculture’s agricultural research division.

“Initially I thought I would be working in cherries or grapes. I was a bit resentful when I got put into working on grass, but this turned out to be a fantastic opportunity because the science that can be done here based on simplified ecosystems offered great opportunity to increase ecological understanding, and through biological control theory we were able to gain great clarity of understanding because our grassland systems are so much simpler to work in than the complexity of EU grasslands.”

Goldson was recently awarded the esteemed Ray Brougham Trophy. 

“I am very gratified to get the award. My research has not always necessarily been upfront to farmers, it’s been a lot of detailed work in science in a laboratory.

“I’m very glad I have made a contribution and really appreciate the recognition of the contribution I have been able to make with quite detailed scientific research, which has led to understanding of the nature of our pastures, which has led to understanding why pests become such an issue, while at the same time why some biocontrols have worked so well.”

Goldson said there has long been an assumption that NZ farmlands are akin to other places in terms of entomology.

“It’s not the case because our farmlands have been created from cleared forest and bush areas while the EU forage plants, in terms of insects, are quite different, so there is no natural enemy to stop pests once they got into NZ.”

He cited the lucerne weevil, Argentine stem weevil and clover root weevil as examples.

“People say, ‘Why aren’t our natural enemies in NZ controlling these pests?’

“It’s because our grasslands evolved from forest and tussock lands … our paddocks are incomplete transplants of EU grasslands so our natural enemies are staying in the bush and native trees in paddocks.”

Goldson and his research team are now looking at the genetics of biological agents to find out what traits there may be that lead to successful control in terms of longevity, reproduction and dispersive ability, all underscored by climate change.

“This means really getting into the genetics of what’s going on to further develop biological control, possibly through the application of genetic technologies when permissible.”

Aspects of the science system in NZ are not necessarily providing what’s needed right now.

“The successes were undoubtedly the result of high-risk and above all long-term research that included stable funding input from AgResearch and TEC funding via the former Bioprotection Research Centre at Lincoln University.

“Such funding seems to have ended in the agricultural space.

“Agscience has a long way to run here, it has very much to do with farming but also protecting the farming environment.

“The idea that science research supporting farming is somehow of diminishing importance is absolutely absurd. 

“The contribution of agriculture to NZ’s economy remains extremely high, therefore very important.              

“For me as emeritus now I can do what I want to do, when I want to; not what I am told to do, so we’ll see what happens next.” 

More recently Goldson has acted as the chief science strategist and chief scientist in the Crown Research Institute AgResearch.

He has also been employed as the executive director of a multi-organisational centre of strategic research known as Better Border Biosecurity. 

He is a Professorial Fellow at Lincoln University and is a theme leader in the Bio-protection Research Centre focused on pest-plant evolution. 

Goldson was president of the NZ Plant Protection Society from 2001-2003 and in the mid-1990s worked part-time as science adviser to then Minister of Research, Science and Technology Simon Upton while he continued with his research. 

A similar arrangement has been made since 2009 to accommodate his current 30% secondment as strategist to the chief science adviser to the prime minister, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, particularly focused on agriculture and the environment.

Goldson, FRSNZ, ONZM, is a Fellow of the NZ Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science, the Royal Entomological Society of London and the Royal Society of NZ. In 2011 he was vice-president of the Royal Society of NZ (biological and life sciences) and chair of its academy. 

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