Hamilton student goes to court to battle NZ Govt over climate change policies

A law student from Hamilton is challenging the Government in the High Court over what she claims is a “failure” to properly address climate change.

According to Sarah Thomson, 26, New Zealand’s targets under the Paris Climate Agreement are “unambitious” and fail to reflect scientific consensus on climate change.

The case, the first of its kind in New Zealand, will be heard over three days from today in the Wellington High Court.

Thomson says she has been inspired by climate change litigation around the globe, including the 900 Dutch citizens who filed a case the Dutch Government and a case in the US where 21 young people are suing the Federal Government.

She says she has the backing of several world-renowned climate change experts, including former NASA researcher James Hansen, who is giving evidence in the case.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change author and Victoria University of Wellington Professor James Renwick is also giving evidence.

The lawsuit will ask the Minister for Climate Change Issues to justify the way in which New Zealand’s climate targets have been set.

Benefits of pre-lamb drenching come under the AgResearch spotlight

The latest research is challenging the popular belief that drenching ewes around lambing time will consistently provide production and financial benefit.

At the recent Beef + Lamb New Zealand AgInnovation conference in Palmerston North, AgResearch parasitologist Dr Dave Leathwick reviewed the science around the production benefits from drenching ewes at lambing. This showed some new data on the benefits of focusing drench treatments on ewes with low body condition scores.

One common theme emerged from the  review of all on-farm trials conducted in New Zealand since the 1960s – there is no consistent production benefit from drenching ewes around lambing time, whether farmers use an oral drench, a long-acting injection or a capsule.

This means that sometimes there is a measurable benefit and sometimes there isn’t, Leathwick says in a media statement (HERE).

“But it’s a bit more complicated than that, because many of the trials didn’t actually measure all the variables necessary to make a proper decision on the benefits of treatment.”

“This was clearly seen in the recent series of trials conducted by farmers in the Wairarapa, the ‘Wairarapa Anthelmintic Trial’.

This study was largely run by farmers and was funded by a complex of industry agencies and companies. It was by far the most comprehensive study ever conducted in New Zealand on this topic.

“The key outcome from this work was that in nearly 50 per cent of the trials, there was a net financial loss as a result of drenching ewes. This came about because while treated ewes and their lambs tended to be heavier at weaning, there tended to be fewer of them ie. ewes treated with long-acting drenches, on average, weaned fewer lambs.

“The fewer lambs effectively cancelled out any benefit from the heavier ewes and lambs. Further, the financial analysis showed that the biggest driver of dollar return on investment, was, in fact, the number of lambs weaned, rather than ewe or lamb weaning weights. The results showed the biggest driver of financial benefit was lamb survival.”

An unexpected result from the Wairarapa study was that the response to treatment was independent of ewe body condition score pre-lambing. In other words, all ewes responded the same regardless of their condition.

AgResearch scientists have been following up on this finding over the past year and have further analysed data from both the Wairarapa study and other trials. Their recent findings show that over the period from pre-lambing to weaning, some ewes increase in condition, some lose condition and some stay the same.

“The proportions following this pattern are exactly the same whether the ewes were drenched or not, and the type of drench was irrelevant,” Dr Leathwick says.

“We interpret these data as telling us that low body condition in ewes at this time of year is unlikely to be caused by worms. Even when skinny ewes are given a long-acting drench, many of them don’t improve in condition, and some lose condition.”

The message seems to be that ill-thrift in ewes is probably due to other factors.

Work from Massey University has suggested subclinical pneumonia and facial eczema are more likely to be involved. While the causes of ill-thrift remain uncertain, it seems worms are not important.

“So, if you try and solve an ill-thrift problem in your ewes by drenching you will probably fail.

“Therefore, while farmers may, in some situations, see some benefit from drenching ewes around lambing, they should be cautious, as a positive financial benefit is not certain. The benefits of treating ewes pre-lambing are not at all reliable or consistent, and there may be much better ways to spend your money.”

The best advice for maximising kg lambs weaned/ewe mated, Leathwick says, seems to be to get as many ewes as possible to condition score 3 before lambing starts.

New funding for a joint NZ-Australian project to combat myrtle rust

More details have emerged about Plant & Food Research and Scion winning funds in the latest round of MBIE’s Catalyst Strategic Fund for  a project addressing the threat of myrtle rust to New Zealand.

A media statement posted on the Scoop website (HERE) says the project has three key aims: to establish the susceptibility of key species to myrtle rust, build scientific knowledge for successfully storing germplasm of Myrtaceae species, and develop ‘in the field’ plant pathogen detection and surveillance systems.

“This is very important and timely research now that myrtle rust is present on the New Zealand mainland,” says Plant & Food Research Bioprotection Technologies Scientist and the project’s Principal Investigator Dr Grant Smith.

“This fungal pathogen threatens many species that have environmental, economic, social and cultural importance, including the indigenous pōhutukawa, rātā, kānuka, and mānuka, as well as exotic plant species such as Eucalyptus and feijoa.”

The Catalyst Fund supports international research partnerships and scientific cooperation. In this case, New Zealand scientists will be working closely with colleagues in leading biosecurity organisations across the Tasman, with the research collaboration between Plant Health Australia and New Zealand’s Better Border Biosecurity providing the overarching coordination.

“New Zealand and Australia have much to learn from each other with regards to the invasive species in their respective countries. Myrtle rust is something that Australia has been dealing with for seven years and our experience can really help New Zealand,” says Plant Health Australia Executive Director and CEO Greg Fraser.

The programme reinforces the development of a key trans-Tasman partnership between members of New Zealand’s Better Border Biosecurity network and Australian biosecurity organisations.

“Australia and New Zealand face many of the same issues and opportunities in bio-protection and biosecurity, so high-quality collaborations of this nature are very important. Smart partnerships like this achieve better outcomes than working alone,” says Better Border Biosecurity Director Dr David Teulon.

Scion Research Leader Dr Beccy Ganley says:

“Many biosecurity issues are too large for one organisation or sector to tackle alone. Myrtle rust is a prime example and we are very pleased to receive support from the Catalyst Fund to help reduce the threat this disease poses to our myrtles.”

The project will employ the expertise of Plant & Food Research, Scion, Plant Health Australia, Te Turi Whakamātaki (National Maori Biosecurity Network), the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, NSW Department of Primary Industries and the Wellington Botanic Gardens. The project is also linked with scientists at Kew Gardens in the United Kingdom, who have significant expertise in the conservation of Myrtaceae species.

Wisconsin study shows decisions on pasture use and feed management affect GHG emissions

American researchers have created a study to compare the effects of feeding strategies and the associated crop hectares on the greenhouse  gas emissions from certified organic dairy farms in Wisconsin.

According to a Science Daily report on the work (HERE) consumer demand for organic milk in the US recently surpassed the available supply. Sales of organic products reached US$35 billion in 2014 and continue to rise.

As farms convert  to organic production to meet demand, feeding strategies will need to be adapted to meet USDA National Organic Programme requirements.

Agriculture accounts for around 9% of total US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The US dairy industry has committed to a 25% reduction of GHG by 2020 relative to 2009. By varying diet formulation and the associated crop production to supply the diet, farmers can affect the quantity of GHG emissions of various feeding systems.

The study to compare the effects of feeding strategies and the associated crop hectares on GHG emissions of certified organic dairy farms was developed by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Herd feeding strategies and grazing practices influence on-farm GHG emissions not only through crop production, but also by substantially changing the productivity of the herd,” lead author Di Liang said.

“Managing more land as pasture, and obtaining more of the herd feed requirements from pasture, can increase the GHG emissions if pasture and feed management are not optimised to maintain milk production potential.”

The authors identified four feeding strategies that typified those used on farms in Wisconsin, with varying degrees of grazing, land allocated for grazing, and diet supplementation. A 16-year study was used for robust estimates of the yield potential on organically managed crop land in southern Wisconsin as well as nitrous oxide and methane emissions and soil carbon.

Production of organic corn resulted in the greatest nitrous oxide emissions and represented about 8% of total GHG emission;. Corn also had the highest carbon dioxide emissions per hectare.

Emissions decreased as the proportion of soybeans in the diet increased, because soybeans require less nitrogen fertilization than corn grain.

More intensive grazing practices led to higher GHG emission per metric tonne. But  allowing cows more time on pasture resulted in lower emissions associated with cropland. Manure management and replacement heifers accounted for 26.3% and 20.1% of GHG emissions.

Based on their findings, the authors determined that a holistic approach to farm production is necessary. Organic dairy farms with well-managed grazing practices and adequate levels of concentrate in diet can both increase farm profitability and reduce GHG emission per kilogram of milk.

“Consumers often equate more dependence on pasture with environmentally friendly farming, but this study demonstrated that low milk production per cow is a major factor associated with high GHG emission,” said Journal of Dairy Science Editor-in-Chief Matt Lucy.

“Managing both pasture and supplementation to increase milk production per cow will substantially reduce GHG emissions.”

Factors such as dairy cow breed and non-production variables may also have an effect on GHG emissions on organic dairy farms. Thus, future studies are needed in this area to elucidate the effects of grazing management and feeding systems.

With more research, however, crop and milk production, GHG emissions, and farm profitability can be optimised on organic dairy farms.

 

Myrtle rust is on the agenda for new NZ-Aust research collaboration

The Government is committing $4.46 million for three new New Zealand-Australia research projects aimed at delivering wide-ranging benefits to New Zealand, Science and Innovation Minister Paul Goldsmith says.

The funding of the partnerships through the Catalyst Fund, which supports international research partnerships and scientific cooperation, reinforces the Government’s support for collaboration across the Tasman through the New Zealand – Australia Science, Research and Innovation Cooperation Agreement, signed in February 2017.

One of the successful projects involves the New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research in collaboration with the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries. It will undertake research on key New Zealand plant species’ susceptibility to Myrtle Rust.

The other projects are:

* The University of Auckland in collaboration with Murdoch Children’s Research Institute will investigate links between genes, environment, molecular physiology and health through early- and mid-life to improve the health of our children.

* Massey University in collaboration with CSIRO will explore turning metal-organic frameworks into disruptive technologies and applications including new catalysts for eliminating nitrous oxide greenhouse gas emissions.

“These projects reflect the fact that Australia and New Zealand face many of the same issues and opportunities that can be addressed through high-quality complementary research,” says Mr Goldsmith.

“In particular, the research into Myrtle Rust will be important for our ongoing efforts to control the spread of the disease, and manage its impacts on native species such as Manuka, with its importance to the honey industry.

International partnerships are fundamental for New Zealand’s science and innovation system because they bring new knowledge, ideas, people, technology and investment into our system, he said.

More information on the successful Catalyst Fund projects can be found HERE, and the New Zealand – Australia Science, Research and Innovation Cooperation Agreement can be found HERE.

NZ farmers are using Betty’s artificial intelligence to manage animal health

A New Zealand-made mobile app is being used by local dairy farmers to replace veterinarians. Available on the App Store, the Betty app uses machine-learning algorithms to help dairy farmers diagnose sick cows in their herd.

Farmers using the app are presented with series of questions. The responses combined with regional farm and weather data produce a list of the most likely causes of disease in their animals.

Betty’s creator, Dr Jonathan Wong, said the idea was born out of frustration, while he was working as a dairy veterinarian.

“There are a lot of farmers out there who are reluctant to call a vet early, especially if a problem is perceived to be minor,” he said.

“With Betty we can help farmers decide whether or not their sick cow is an emergency and to take immediate action, or connect them with a local vet if need be.”

The app has been on trial with a core group of 31 farmers, who are providing on-farm feedback to improve its artificial intelligence engine.

“It’s all about experience,” Wong explains.

“While a typical dairy vet sees up to ten cases a day, the Betty AI engine has the ability to assess hundreds of sick cows every hour and is continuously refining her algorithm with each one.”

Samuel Woods, a dairy farmer trialling the app, runs a 600-cow herd in Canterbury.

“The reality is there are many inexperienced workers entering the dairy industry,” he says.

“With millions of dollars worth of livestock to manage, you need to give them all the tools to find sick cows early.”

The Betty app is currently available on the New Zealand Apple App Store.

The long-term plan, says Wong, is to improve the Betty AI engine before releasing it overseas.

“And then, maybe, we’ll release an app for cat owners too!”

The Betty app can be found HERE.

Cracking manuka’s genetic code may mitigate the effects of myrtle rust

A nationwide science project that sequenced the manuka genome and is now exploring its genetic diversity may be instrumental in protecting the indigenous plant from the fungal disease myrtle rust.

Using state-of-the-art genome sequencing technologies, Plant & Food Research scientists mapped manuka’s genetic blueprint in 2015 and shared the information with tangata whenua and the New Zealand research community.

The research focus has since moved to using bioinformatic techniques to acquire a detailed understanding of the unique attributes of manuka’s genetic stocks – the data have been gleaned from around 1000 samples of manuka leaf collected nationwide in a collaboration with Landcare Research, the University of Waikato and key Maori partners.

The information generated is providing important scientific insights concerning the distribution and genetic diversity within and between manuka populations in New Zealand.

“A key objective of the project has always been to understand how genetic material is exchanged between manuka populations by pollen and seed dispersal to help whānau and hapū, and the honey industry, to develop unique stories around provenance, and help ensure genetic variation for conservation purposes,” says Plant & Food Research Science Group Leader Dr David Chagné.

“With the arrival of myrtle rust on the New Zealand mainland, we soon realised the need for an additional and more specific conservation application for the project.

“While it’s not clear just what effect myrtle rust will have on mānuka under New Zealand conditions, we should expect differences in susceptibility and resistance across the mānuka populations.

“By using the latest technologies for DNA sequencing and new methodologies for bioinformatic data analysis we can determine which parts of the genome are associated with tolerance.

“This will help us to better predict the potential damage from myrtle rust and determine how fast the various mānuka populations will respond to the disease.

“The data will assist with guiding research priorities for maintaining and protecting diversity in mānuka,” says Dr Chagné.

Research results from the project are expected to be released between June and August this year.

The Maori organisations assisting with stakeholder engagement and commercial support in the project are Ngati Porou Miere, Tuhoe Tuawhenua Trust, Atihau-Whanganui, Taitokerau Miere and Tai Tokerau Honey. The project is funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.