Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Research Unit going 50 years

The Lincoln University-based Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit (AERU) was established in 1962. Its key objective was to better integrate research in respect to the place of agriculture in New Zealand. Annette Scott reports as the unit celebrates its golden jubilee year.

LINCOLN MILESTONE: Agribusiness consultant Andy Macfarlane, Caroline Saunders and Selwyn District Councillor Malcolm Lyall catch up at the Agribusiness and Economic Research Unit’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

The core mission of the AERU is to exercise leadership in research for sustainable well-being with researchers working together to produce and deliver new knowledge.

AERU operates as a semi-autonomous research centre at Lincoln University providing research expertise to a wide range of organisations in the public and private sectors.

Research is focused on economic, resource, environmental and social issues with the unit also co-ordinating some of the external research undertaken by academic staff from other Lincoln University faculties.

Founded in 1962 by Professor Bryan Philpott, the then Professor of Agricultural Economics, the unit was originally part of the Commerce faculty at Lincoln. It was made a separate research centre in 2011.

While approving the establishment of AERU 50 years ago the Minister for Scientific and Industrial Research the Hon W.Tennent, acknowledged the difficulties being experienced in the sale of NZ’s farm products overseas. He emphasised the need for more research in agricultural economics and the need for more information to estimate the effects of the changes likely to be brought about by changes in overseas markets.

That philosophy hasn’t changed 50 years on and current AERU Director, Professor Caroline Saunders highlighted that in her address at the 50th anniversary celebrations.

“In 2011 we worked on 22 funded projects and produced 52 publications – despite quakes. We currently have seven full-time and nine part-time staff plus several postgraduate students. And we are still focused on delivering research for sustainable well-being. Nothing has changed.”

In the first AERU report in 1963 Philpott described the aim of the centre as providing the answer “to a whole range of questions which can be summarised in the question – What are the economic problems of a faster rate of growth of agricultural production?” The major topics to be researched were listed under market economics, production economics and agricultural industry relationships.

Fifty years later the AERU continues to have strong research capability in investigating the contribution of NZ’s land-based sectors to the national economy. AERU researchers have led major research programmes on sustainable agriculture, international market trends, technology innovation, and choice modelling of consumer preferences, food miles and education employment linkages for young New Zealanders.

Current work incorporates water and the value of irrigation, market research assessing the impacts of changes in Japan, UK, China and India on NZ markets, and impacts of the oil and gas industries.

Projects on the drawing table include Ngai Tahu, evaluating benefits of settlement and business models for optimal development, economic development strategies, Beef + Lamb NZ Primary Growth Partnership, the benefits of precision agriculture and irrigation, and non-market evaluation of biodiversity.

Saunders is currently leading a portfolio for Landcare “Supporting Trade”, a new opportunity to link across the university and CRIs. Future developments include a centre for value chain management to profile and provide a one stop shop for business.

“I have a passion for win wins, and better returns for producers drawing upon premiums based on our integrity of production, including environmental. Nothing new in this, as the history of AERU shows, therefore we hope to continue this challenge and make a difference to NZ,” Saunders said.

A number of well-known figures in NZ agricultural, public and education sectors have been members of the AERU research team in its 50 year history. As well the centre has been boosted with the expertise of leading academics from Lincoln, and other NZ universities, who began their careers in the AERU.

Professor of Trade and Environmental Economics, Saunders was appointed director in 2001, her 11 years to date being the longest director term. The AERU staff has expanded considerably under her leadership, reaching more than 20 researchers and support staff this year.

It was this growth in size and output that was recognised by Lincoln University in 2009 when the AERU was promoted to its own space and granted sole occupancy of the Lodge, originally the principal’s residency. In 2011 the centre, breaking away from the Commerce faculty, became a semi-autonomous research centre reporting directly to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor.

The foundation of AERU expansion has been the unit’s involvement in a number of large research programmes funded by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FoRST), now the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, as well as a wide range of smaller research projects for regional, national and international agencies.

In 2003 the unit was involved in the establishment of the Agricultural Research Group on Sustainability (ARGOS), an incorporated joint research venture with the University of Otago. ARGOS was designed to examine the environmental, social and economic sustainability of NZ farming systems and its goal was to facilitate innovation and improved performance in primary production systems.

Funding was secured for nine years from FoRST, supplemented with contributions from industry stakeholders. Research included projects on lowland sheep and beef farms, kiwifruit orchards and high country farms. Saunders herself was directly involved in this programme.

Saunders is also recognised for her significant work on the Food Miles project in which it argued that it was not the food miles associated with the transport of the food products that should be addressed by environmental policies, but the total energy used from production to plate.

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