NZ surges up global biotech rankings

New Zealand has been ranked #3 in the recently released Scientific American World View Scorecard, which measures the biotech innovation potential of 54 countries.

Using seven categories including productivity, IP protection, intensity, enterprise support, education/workforce, foundations and policy and stability, the study benchmarks each countries’ potential on an annual basis.

New Zealand has surged in the rankings from #18 in 2011 to #3 in 2015. Dr Will Barker, CEO of NZBIO says its members have always maintained New Zealand is a great place to grow bio-based businesses.

“It is fantastic to be recognised in such a prestigious international study,” Dr Barker says. “Taking top spot in several subcategories, including ‘most life science PhD’s per capita’ and ‘best political stability’ is great. However, there is room in NZ for significant improvement in both public and private R&D spending and investment, which is very low compared with the other top 10 countries.”

Commenting on the comparative strength in the Enterprise Support and Policy and Stability categories, added: “These results clearly show the infrastructure for supporting New Zealand’s growing bioeconomy is evolving nicely. However, while the study uses wide ranging data to measure potential it fails to examine local legislative challenges such as our HSNO Act, which affects a large portion of our biotech companies.”

Scientists point to flaws in public consultation on climate change

The New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) has expressed concerns about serious flaws in the Government’s recent public consultation on climate change.

“Climate change will have a profound influence on New Zealanders, and there are many complex issues that need to be dealt with” says Dr Nicola Gaston, President of NZAS.

“Yet, there is a marked lack of publicly available information and analysis which would help New Zealanders decide on the best course of action.”

The hurried consultation process was intended to help the Government determine a negotiating position in the United Nations’ coming Paris meeting on climate change, in December this year. This meeting is widely seen as one of the last chances for a global agreement to be reached on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, to prevent more than 2°C of global warming since pre-industrial times.

The NZAS is concerned about the lack of publicly available relevant information, as well as the minimal involvement of key New Zealand scientific institutions, such as Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) and Universities.

The short timeframe for the consultation is also problematic, spanning less than 4 weeks. Hon. Tim Groser announced public consultation on 7th May. MfE’s public discussion document was published in May and public submissions closed on 3rd June. In addition, Dr Gaston says in the Association’s submission that “the key Landcare Research Report was only released on the 25th May, just before the last public meeting, and other relevant reports were only made available after 8 of the 12 public meetings or hui.”

The general lack of engagement by CRIs and Universities in the consultation process may reflect concerns previously raised by the Association about conflicts of interest in the scientific community, as a result of the Government’s policy of mainly funding scientific research that has a direct application in industry or government, Gaston said..

The CRIs play a critical role in advising the government on climate change issues, and are dependent on millions of dollars in year-to-year contracts as a result, she said.

Therefore, it makes sense the CRIs are reluctant to critically comment on Government policy when the result may negatively impact Government science funding decisions.

These concerns were widely echoed by the scientific community in a survey conducted by the Association last year.

Environment Commissioner warns water quality is “not out of the woods yet”

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, has released two reports on water quality, calling for further steps to safeguard the quality of New Zealand’s fresh water.

She gives credit to the Government for investing heavily in developing policy to improve the management of fresh water, describing the 2014 National Policy Statement as “a major step forward”.

Some regional councils had begun to act and there was “a real sense of momentum.”

 “But we are not out of the woods yet. Some lakes and streams are below bottom lines and many others are not far above them. And in many places, water quality continues to decline.”

Dr Wright said ongoing conversions of land to dairy farming was resulting in increases in nutrient pollution of waterways.

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NZBio backs fresh debate on biotechnologies

NZBio is reported to have waded into the debate over using new biotechnologies, including genetic modification, and given support to a call by Treasury secretary Gabriel Makhlouf for another look at New Zealand’s attitude to risk.

Will Barker, chief executive of the biotech industry organisation, said the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act needs to be urgently revised so new organisms are covered by better-conceived legislation.

Attempts to interpret the current legislation have shown it to be highly restrictive, yet there are considerable benefits that new genetic technologies can offer New Zealanders,” Barker said in a statement today.

In a speech at Fieldays last week on making informed decisions about natural resources, Makhlouf said New Zealand’s current system denies choice over whether the country should adopt them  when new technologies come along, both genetically modified and non-genetically modified.

But our international competitors do have this option, he said.

Makhlouf cited the example of a new variety of high-yielding eucalyptus tree recently approved for cultivation in Brazil which will allow growers to get a 15 per cent increase in wood for the same area, processors to get a 20 per cent reduction in the cost of wood production, while the environment benefits from a 12 per cent increase in the amount of carbon dioxide stored per hectare.

Although high-yielding wood is at the core of the pulp and paper industry, New Zealand’s current regime for regulating new organisms is highly restrictive in practice, and doesn’t allow flexibility to choose whether this is something wanted here, Makhlouf said.

“I’ve heard it said that our currently regulatory regime would deny us the choice to adopt many new plants and species that today offer us huge advantages: kiwifruit, rye grass, and even the ubiquitous pinus radiata,” he said.

Makhlouf also said New Zealand was denying itself choice over how much risk it took.

“When systems adopt rigid approaches to risk, for example, rather than genuinely enabling adaptive management approaches, we limit our ability to explore and assess the potential risks of our actions,” he said.

Barker said decisions on biotechnology, including GM, should be subject to an appropriate risk-based assessment.

“Much of what is being said about GM here in New Zealand is simply inaccurate. Millions of people around the world have accepted GMOs into their environment and their food supply, because under appropriate legislation, they are recognised as having no substantial difference in risk profile to any other agriculture practice.”

Irrigation is a good thing – but we must not repeat the mistakes

Dr Brent Clothier is Science Group Leader, Production Footprints & Biometrics Sustainable Production, at Plant & Food Research. He reports: 

From just 17% of our global lands, irrigation around the world now provides 40% of our food & fibre.  That’s a brilliant use of our natural capital!  It’s also enabling the New Zealand economy to boom through irrigation of our pastoral lands for dairying, and also through its use with higher value land-uses.

Great!

Or is it?

What are the implications of fiddling with nature’s hydrology without due consideration of (generally foreseeable) environmental consequences? Have we learned from past lessons? Are we destined to repeat well-known mistakes?

Beyond the water-driven demise of the ancient city of Babylon, today’s poster-child of an irrigation disaster is the Aral Sea.

The National Geographic has recently commented on this here.

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Farm leader rebuts GE Free NZ on link between cattle deaths and GM fodder crops

GE Free NZ has raised questions after more cattle deaths were reported in Southland and DairyNZ counselled caution on feeding cows with the increasingly popular winter vegetable crop fodder beet.

This year’s deaths follow several cattle deaths linked with swedes last year.

But Federated Farmers’ President and science spokesperson William Rolleston said recent stock sickness or deaths were likely to have been caused by a high sugar content in the fodder beet the stock have been eating.

He said in a media release in response to GE Free NZ:

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Lincoln research points to biowaste as a key ingredient for growing pine profits

New research at Lincoln University suggests biowaste can be used on former pine plantations to generate big economic returns.

Four years of research in a greenhouse environment found the waste, which might include sewage and dairy shed effluent, can be used to rapidly establish native vegetation on former pine forest soils.

Early estimates suggest the natives could produce a financial return of over $200 million annually.

“The signs from our greenhouse trials are extremely positive,” Associate Professor Brett Robinson says.

He says the research team have focused primarily on growing native species such as mānuka and kānuka, which can be used to produce valuable products such as honey and essential oils.

“Not only is this a great way of rapidly kick-starting low-fertility soil and a productive use of unavoidable waste which is currently disposed of either inappropriately or expensively, but in focusing on mānuka and kānuka, we can grow the market in products not easily adopted by overseas competitors.”

Around 1.8 million hectares of New Zealand soil is under pine plantations. This figure is decreasing, however, because there is little economic incentive to replant timber crops. Historically, pine forestry was an effective means of providing an economic return for low fertility soils, but this is no longer the case.

Growing pine trees followed by logging also often results in depleted, nutrient-poor soils. Converting this soil into productive farm land requires the constant application of high rates of fertiliser.

Associate Professor Robinson says his research challenges this approach.

He says initial findings suggest the use of biowaste can significantly accelerate the growing capability of these soils by increasing the water and nutrient holding capacity, and providing essential elements.

It has also been found that, when used alongside pine waste and some charcoals, the leaching of nitrates is dramatically reduced.

These species have the added advantage of positively affecting the soil by producing antiseptic chemicals which kill off pathogens in biowaste-amended soils, he says.

Field trials are expected to begin soon.

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