Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

New programme promotes profitability and sustainability

Improving environmental, economic and social outcomes are at the heart of an expansive new sustainability science programme from Plant & Food Research.

The Sustainable Agro-Ecosystems programme (SAE) is an initiative that prioritises scientific research specifically aimed at enhancing the productivity and resilience of the primary industries while also reducing environmental footprint.

The projects within the programme sit under three key research themes: Land Use Suitability, Plants for the Environment, and Future Farming.

The overarching objective is to deliver scientific knowledge, tools and technologies that simultaneously improve the quality of our environment, increase profitability, grow export earnings, and improve market access, says Plant & Food Research Team Leader Steve Thomas.

“Achieving this means the smart and sustainable use of resources, such as soil, nutrients and water; and taking into account the ever growing complexity of the economic, social and cultural environment that farmers and growers now operate in.

“The impact of farming on our environment is under increasing scrutiny, yet the pressure to produce high-value products and be profitable is as great as ever. There is also the need to consider and adapt to the implications of a changing climate and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The programme is aimed at enabling New Zealand farmers and growers to sustainably produce high-value crops with the smallest environmental footprint possible.

It is envisaged that this research will support the establishment of enhanced, environmentally considered crop management systems that will ultimately deliver greater value and performance.

 

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Fencing of waterways an effective tool to combat pollution

Fencing of waterways has proven very effective where it has been used to combat the risks of contamination from agriculture, AgResearch says.

AgResearch’s Professor Rich McDowell, the chief scientist for the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, was speaking after the publication of a study looking at policies for fencing waterways on contamination loads in New Zealand waterways.

His paper was published in the American Journal of Environmental Quality.

The Ministry for the Environment’s Our Freshwater 2017 report indicates that urban waterways have the worst overall water quality in New Zealand, but much of the public focus in recent years has been on the impact of agriculture – particularly dairy farming – on waterways in rural areas.

“Fencing is very effective at reducing contaminant loads to waterways – by 10 to 90 per cent depending on the nature of the contaminants and local issues,” Prof McDowell says.

“Fencing works especially well for the likes of E. coli or phosphorus contamination that can result from animal wasteor stream bank destabilisation. However, fencing all waterways in New Zealand is impractical and in some places other good management practices may be more cost-effective.”

“A combination of better awareness of the issues and the use of good management practices (including fencing) in the right place is starting to reverse degrading trends in the likes of phosphorus and sediment in the water over the last decade,” Prof McDowell says.

Dairy farmers had invested in a major programme of fencing waterways to the equivalent of nearly 27,000km. They should continue to do so as it is effective at reducing waterway contamination, Prof McDowell says.

“The fact that most of the contaminant load comes from areas not requiring fencing reflects the much greater number and areas occupied by small streams – potentially from steeper country where dairy farming is unlikely to be present. Other work also indicates that a substantial proportion of contaminant concentrations may be from natural sources.”

AgResearch Research Director Greg Murison says there is a big focus by his own organisation and others, including DairyNZ, to support farmers in developing management practices that reduce the risk of water contamination.

“The number of science programmes looking at these issues demonstrates how scientists are being responsive to what is important to New Zealanders.”

You can read the study HERE.

Evidence affirms intensive farming is bad news for NZ’s native bees

Scientists have produced the first evidence that the more farming intensifies in New Zealand, the less our native bees like it.

While ecologists worldwide are concerned about the decline of native bee populations, in New Zealand very little research has been done on the 27 endemic species, which play an important role in pollination not just of native plants but also agricultural crops.

In a new study from the University of Auckland’s School of Biological Sciences, researchers planted fields of flowering plants in areas with intensive and non-intensive agriculture in the surrounding landscape. They then collected and identified insects visiting the flowers at each site to measure the abundance of different pollinator species.

The study found that at plots surrounded by high-intensity agriculture, exotic pollinators such as the honeybee thrived, with populations increasing by 150 per cent.

Conversely, native bee numbers in those plots declined by 90 per cent.

Because native bees nest in natural, unmodified soil and only forage for food within a limited range from the nest, they are vulnerable to intensive farming, study author and doctoral candidate Jamie Stavert says.

“Native bees were very common at low-intensity sites but were mostly absent from high-intensity sites and this has important implications because native bees play a vital role as pollinators of many native plant species and crops in New Zealand.”

Mr Stavert says the study is the first indication that intensification of agriculture is having a strong negative impact on native bee populations and we are in danger of becoming too reliant on the ubiquitous honeybee.

“The exotic honeybee is an important crop pollinator and no-one disputes that,” Mr Stavert says. “But they are also vulnerable to disease and we cannot become too reliant on one species for pollination.

“The health and resilience of our native and agricultural ecosystems comes from biodiversity. We need a wide range of pollinators to do the job.”

Although the study was focused on agricultural areas, Mr Stavert says people can do practical and simple things in urban gardens to help native bees. This includes planting native species that flower at different times of the year, protecting areas of bare soil for nesting and reducing insecticide use.

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The study is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

New national standard for plantation forestry is announced

A new nationwide set of environmental rules for managing New Zealand’s 1.7 million hectares of plantation forestry will better protect the environment and deliver significant savings in compliance costs, Minister for the Environment Dr Nick Smith and Associate Minister for Primary Industries Louise Upston say.

Forestry is New Zealand’s third largest primary industry but its efficiency is hampered by the confusing mix of planning rules across New Zealand’s 86 councils, Dr Smith says.

The strength of the national approach is that it will better protect the environment while  improving the productivity of the forestry sector by applying consistent environmental standards to reduce operational costs.

A major change with the new regulations is the development of three new tools for managing the environmental impacts from forestry, covering the issues of erosion, wilding pines and fish spawning.

The restrictions on forestry activities are related to the environmental risk rather than the council area in which a forestry operation is located.  This change is particularly important as 80 per cent of forest owners manage forests in multiple council areas.

“This new national forestry standard is part of the Government’s broader Resource Management Act reforms, facilitated by amendments passed in May this year,” Smith says.

“It follows other national regulations covering telecommunications, electricity transmission, waste tyre management, water metering and drinking water, contaminated soils and aquaculture.”

Ms Upston says the forestry industry will benefit from having a set of consistent regulations to operate under.

“Planning rules at local government level are subject to regular reviews and there could be as many as three sets of regional or district plan rules. Some large forests also cross local government boundaries, resulting in different rules for the same forest.”

“Removing this uncertainty will encourage greater investment in a significant contributor to our economy, especially at regional level. Forestry employs more than 26,000 people and exports total more than $5 billion a year,” Ms Upston says.

“The National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry covers eight core plantation forestry activities: afforestation, pruning and thinning to waste, earthworks, river crossings, forestry quarrying, harvesting, mechanical land preparation and replanting. Councils may apply stricter rules in special circumstances where local conditions require a more restrictive approach.”

The standard, which comes into force on 1 May, 2018, was developed jointly by the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Ministry for the Environment. Support and guidance will be provided to councils, foresters and key stakeholders to ensure an effective rollout.

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.

 

DOC critic says loss of science quality in NZ is having dire consequences

The scientific justifications for the use of 1080 poison have been challenged in an article posted online (HERE) by Dr Jo Pollard, whose CV includes 18 years conducting research on animal management with AgResearch.

Back in the 1990s, she recalls, any hint of a prejudicial bias seriously undermined a scientist’s credibility but nowadays (she says) it seemed a scientist’s selling ability mattered most.

She contends:

“Gaining funding and successfully delivering results that generate more funding is vital to career development. And since the NZ government controls the money (grants to universities, NGOs and its own departments) the government gets and selects what it wants.”

The Government wants and since the 1960s has been getting widespread aerial poisoning with 1080, Dr Pollard says.

“The government has argued it needs to kill introduced mammals claimed to spread bovine tuberculosis (Tb) and threaten native wildlife, and widespread poisoning is the best way.

“Respected scientists are expected to sit tight while the media, government departments and high ranking officials misuse data to suit pre-ordained agendas.”

One example cited by Dr Pollard is the claim by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, that 1080 poison is “moderately humane”.

But her focus is on the kea, which she claims is a victim of “New Zealand’s degraded science culture” which

“…has spawned the rise of some disease-busting and biodiversity-conserving specialists whose claims go unchallenged, have a very strong following and who are supporting ever-increasing poisoning campaigns”.

Dr Pollard challenges claims that 1080 is needed to kill stoats.

She refers readers to http://1080science.co.nz/scientific-reviews-of-1080/

The use of 1080 by DOC was the subject of Dr Pollard’s criticism in 2011 HERE and HERE

The DOC response (HERE) was written by Paul Livingstone, manager of TB eradication and research at the Animal Health Board, and Mike Slater, Conservator for DOC on the West Coast.

They said:

Although birds, invertebrates and other animals are certainly not immune to the poison, the risks are greatly mitigated by the lethal doses they need to consume. There is no evidence that the toxin has a cumulative effect, or persists in the food chain. In fact, one of the most remarkable properties of the toxin is how quickly a sub-lethal dose is metabolised and expelled from the body. The risks to non-target species are further alleviated by the extremely strict regulations around how the toxin is used. For example, decades of extensive research and operational experience have enabled us to improve the efficiency and minimise the risks of aerial 1080 operations through:

• A reduction in the average quantity of poison bait used per hectare from 30kg/ha in the 1970s to just 2kg/ha today
• Research into more efficient dispersal methods, such as cluster sowing, that may further reduce the quantity of bait used by up to 75 per cent
• The use of GPS technology to make the deployment of baits accurate to within a couple of metres
• The routine use of cinnamon lure to attract possums and repel birds
• The routine use of carefully-screened cereal baits

The response also noted the Environmental Risk Management Authority, in a reassessment of 1080, had concluded the benefits of using 1080 to control introduced species that are destroying our endemic wildlife and spreading bovine TB outweigh the adverse effects.

Dr Pollard is qualified at Honours level in ecology (Limnology, Ecology and Applied Ecology) and animal behaviour and has particular interests in animal welfare, NZ’s ecology, and scientific integrity.

Another rejoinder from DOC seems inevitable.

Scientific research the key to balancing farm productivity and the environment

We can have economic growth and an improved environment, AgResearch chief executive TOM RICHARDSON argues in this article in NZ Farmer (see HERE)…

Chances are you have read about it in your newspapers, in your online news feeds, heard about it on radio or television, or discussed it with family or friends. Wherever you go, the issue of farming in New Zealand and its impact on the environment is a hot topic.

There has been a huge amount of debate from all quarters about what the real and measurable impact of farming practices are, who is to blame, what is being done to mitigate it, and what more can be done.

Recently a piece on TVNZ’s Sunday programme on dairy farming provoked a host of strong responses about the perception and realities of the dairy industry. A report released recently by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman on the state of New Zealand’s fresh waters provided important insights into the challenges that exist, while a newly published review by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) on New Zealand’s environmental performance has added to the debate about the pressures we face.

Agriculture remains the backbone of New Zealand’s economy, and there is still plenty of scope for growth in the value of the agricultural products that we sell to the world. In fact, New Zealand’s forecast economic growth over the coming decades hinges on growing the value of agricultural exports. And this must be done whilst enhancing the environments we farm in.

So we must confront these seemingly conflicting challenges if we – and future generations – are to enjoy the quality of life and opportunities afforded by economic prosperity, and the enjoyment of our natural environments which we hold so dear.

As the head of a science organisation which is focused on solving that conundrum I see our role in this being clear, and critically important. Science needs to lead the way by finding solutions to these seemingly intractable problems, and in partnership with central and local governments, agri-businesses, sector organisations, and farmers we need to ensure these solutions find their way into practice on New Zealand’s farms.

By investing in science now we are investing in the future of our economy and the enhancement of our environment that sets New Zealand, and our high value export products, apart from the pack.

We can’t create more land and we can’t continue the generations of focus on more inputs – such as animals, water and fertiliser – to drive more production. We must get smarter.

We can produce better pastures, better livestock, and better farm systems that will enable both profitable farming and enhanced environments. That is what drives our dedicated scientists to tackle big issues such as our agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and managing the nutrient losses from farms that can impact on soils and waterways.

A big part of this is scientists working alongside farmers to see what makes a real difference when it comes to environmental impacts.

As one example drawn from our work across the country, the work of AgResearch and our partners alongside South Canterbury farmers Bill and Shirley Wright has shown us how, over time (in this case almost 25 years), a farm can significantly reduce the intensity of its greenhouse gas emissions while continuing to grow its profitability and productivity. We have also learned from this working farm example what approaches can have an impact on the loss of nutrients on the farm without compromising the bottom line.

As we look further to the future, science is giving us insights into new options to solve this conundrum. With methane being the largest contributor to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, AgResearch scientists are leading the international effort to develop approaches to reduce methane emissions from livestock, through animal breeding, changing the composition of what the animals eat, and potentially a methane limiting vaccine that is currently in testing.

New Zealand’s agricultural exports are based on pastures, and here too new options are emerging from our laboratories.  AgResearch scientists have produced a ryegrass using new genetic technologies that laboratory trials suggest has a 50 per cent higher growth rate, and significantly higher energy content for growth of the animals eating it, with less nitrogen excreted that can make its way into rivers and streams and affect the water quality. Laboratory testing has also shown it to be more drought resistant, and the potential to reduce methane production in animals by 15-23 per cent.

This new generation ryegrass is now being field tested in the United States to determine if those observations hold true in the field. If they do, it is a potential game changer for New Zealand. Of course the debate around genetic modification would fill a whole column on its own – and I won’t attempt to go into that here – but this grass does give an insight into the possibilities that are coming from science here at AgResearch and around the world.

These are just a couple of examples, but the most exciting thing about science is that we are always coming across new possibilities that we can seize upon.  I am confident that with the right investment and commitment, we can solve New Zealand’s biggest conundrum and enjoy that quality of life we all seek.

 – Stuff