Research to breed low-methane livestock and Plant & Food scientists are recognised    

The work of AgResearch scientists to successfully breed low methane emitting sheep, as a tool to combat climate change, has been recognised with the Supreme Award at this year’s Science New Zealand Awards.

Science New Zealand represents the country’s seven Crown Research Institutes. The annual awards recognise research excellence at each CRI.

Outstanding research by three Plant & Food Research scientists and teams – an accomplished fruit crop scientist, a consortium working on myrtle rust disease and an emerging researcher looking at foods that support human health – were recognised, too.

Dr Jill Stanley received a Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to plant physiology and crop science over four decades. During her career, Dr Stanley has worked on a range of crops in varied locations, including the UK and Spain, collaborated with numerous researchers and growers and now leads a team of 40 people.

Her summerfruit research has focussed on improving practical outcomes for growers by enhancing productivity and fruit quality. Dr Stanley’s work has helped growers use resources more efficiently to lift returns and has delivered quality fruit for consumers.

Her research has been instrumental in the development and release of three exciting new apricot cultivars, and she led the summerfruit aspects of the Future Orchard Planting Systems (FOPS) programme, developing new planar (two-dimensional) growing systems.

Dr Stanley is dedicated to supporting career development in New Zealand’s next generation of scientists.

The Plant & Food Research Team Award recognises the Myrtle Rust Consortium, a multi-party, multi-disciplinary team drawn from across New Zealand who mobilised to mount an exceptional biosecurity response. The Consortium includes over 100 individuals from across the science sector – from CRIs, universities, iwi, government, industry and international collaborators and a national community of stakeholders.

The consortium have worked tirelessly towards the common goal of protecting our myrtle species from the devastating effects of myrtle rust. Key to the success of the consortium has been their collaborative and cohesive approach, along with the recognition and respect of Mātauranga Māori and mana whenua kaitiakitanga, which has empowered Māori involvement and leadership across the science response.

The Plant & Food Research Early Career Researcher Award recognises Dr Odette Shaw for her work on understanding how compounds in fruits and vegetables can support health and wellbeing, particularly conditions related to the body’s inflammation response. Her research into the effects of berryfruit on lung inflammation have led to the development of a new functional food product.

Through her involvement with the High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge, Dr Shaw is helping New Zealand food companies identify products with beneficial properties.

AgResearch scientists – with the support of the industry through the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium and the government via the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC) – spent over a decade working on the science that won them their award.

They were able to identify genetic differences which influence how much methane an individual sheep produces.

By breeding for this low methane genetic trait, the scientists have been able to demonstrate that after three generations the lowest emitting sheep produce close to 13 per cent less methane than the highest emitters, per kilogram of feed eaten.

While the actual methane reduction at the farm scale will be less when sheep are also being bred for other desirable genetic traits, it is still expected to be significant. The lower emitting sheep have been found to be otherwise healthy and productive where it comes to their meat and wool.

AgResearch senior scientist Suzanne Rowe says this knowledge is being shared with the sheep industry in New Zealand, with researchers globally and is also assisting research into breeding lower methane emitting cattle.

“Research like this is critical for the agriculture sector, which produces almost half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions and needs practical tools to help achieve a reduction target of 24-47 per cent less methane by 2050,” Dr Rowe says.

Methane is a relatively short-lived but potent greenhouse gas.

Judges in this year’s Science New Zealand Awards, which include entries from New Zealand’s seven crown research institutes and Callaghan Innovation, referenced the major significance of AgResearch’s work within New Zealand and the “tangible contribution to the global issue of our time”.

The world-first AgResearch achievement also featured engineering innovation in the form of specially designed portable accumulation chambers that can be taken on to farms to measure the methane emissions of individual sheep.

Dr Rowe says it is humbling to have the work of her and her colleagues recognised.

“It has taken well over a decade to reach this point and it has been a long journey by a dedicated team of scientists. We have worked side by side with sheep breeders and farmers to achieve a practical outcome that can be applied on farms. It is a fantastic feeling to know that we have achieved something that will make a difference for the livestock industry, for New Zealand, and the world when it comes to climate change. This is why we do our science – to make a real difference.”

“We’ve been fortunate in this programme to have great support from our funders in PGgRc and NZAGRC, and to be able to work closely with the sheep industry through Beef+Lamb Genetics to share these gains with sheep breeders and farmers. We think that when this low methane breeding trait is incorporated into New Zealand’s entire sheep flock, the methane reduction could be in the area of 0.5 to 1 per cent annually, which will be significant as it accumulates over time.”

PGgRc general manager Mark Aspin welcomed the recognition of “an immense amount of mahi and dedication” since 2007 by the AgResearch team led by John McEwan and Suzanne Rowe.

“The livestock industry relies heavily on genetic improvement to remain competitive and the challenge of lowering methane is no different. The results of this research will matter for our farmers,” Mr Aspin says.

“This trail-blazing research has provided sheep farmers with the opportunity to lower methane in a permanent and cumulative manner, underpinning and complementing other strategies for greenhouse gas reduction. It has opened up the opportunity for all New Zealand livestock industries to follow suit and this is now gaining momentum as the focus shifts to extending the genetic selection across the national sheep flock and to cattle and deer.”

Among the other individual Lifetime Achievement Award winners were:

Dr Lloyd Donaldson (Scion) an internationally recognised expert in capturing images of the cell structure of plants and plant anatomy. He has pioneered techniques in fluorescence imaging of wood and biomaterials. His microscopy skills have not only provided huge insights into the structure of plants, but his methods are part of the toolbox that researchers all over the world use.

Dr Kenn Dodds (AgResearch) has focused on livestock improvemen. It’s an area in which he has left a massive legacy. A senior statistician at AgResearch, Ken has pioneered work in genetics and reproduction that has had a major positive impact on the sheep, deer, salmon, and forage industries in Aotearoa New Zealand. He has been instrumental in the adoption and implementation of new analytical procedures that have had a significant impact on research output by others.

Dr David Whitehead (Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research) is a lab and field scientist who has made an outstanding contribution to advancing New Zealand’s environmental and social well-being through research on plant physiology, ecosystem carbon exchange and greenhouse gas emissions, and through service to the science community. David has worked for Manaaki Whenua and predecessor organisations since 1979, following a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Edinburgh. He has published over 160 papers, was a contributor to the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.

Sources:  AgResearch and Plant & Food Research

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