Primary sector science roadmap to boost exports is launched

Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy and Science and Innovation Minister Paul Goldsmith tonight launched the Primary Sector Science Roadmap at the National Fieldays.

Mr Guy says science will be a key driver in lifting overall primary sector exports to the target of $64 billion by 2025.

“From climate change, to changing consumer preferences, to a greater emphasis on issues like traceability and provenance, science and technology have an important role to play in ensuring our primary industries remain globally competitive,” says Mr Guy.

“This Roadmap will inform research conducted by New Zealand science and technology teams and organisations, along with their international partners.

“It provides a shared view across the primary sector on the science and technology needs for the sector – and where science investment needs to be focused. This document will guide the primary sector’s science direction for the next 10 to 20 years.

“I’d like to thank the many industry leaders, research organisations and individual scientists for all their valuable input into this document,” says Mr Guy.

Goldsmith said the creation of the Primary Sector Science Roadmap supports the Government’s overall strategy for the science system.

“The National Statement of Science Investment 2015-2025 sets out a vision for a highly dynamic science system that enriches New Zealand through excellent research that creates impact. The Government invested an estimated $428 million in primary sector research in 2016, while the industry carried out R&D worth $266 million.

“The Roadmap recognises the important role that the primary sector plays in our economy, and ensures the government, industry, and researchers are working collaboratively to achieve the best results for New Zealand through high quality science,” says Mr Goldsmith.

The Roadmap is aligned with the Conservation and Environment Science Roadmap and will be a guiding document for the strategic directions of the National Science Challenges.

You can link to the Roadmap HERE.

Link is drawn between height of children and consumption of non-cow milk

Economist Eric Crampton has drawn attention to a paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition which shows an association between children drinking non-dairy milk, as opposed to cow’s milk, and lower heights.

Crampton’s post on his Offsetting Behaviour blog (HERE) is based on a press release (HERE) and he shows the link to the paper (HERE).

He writes:

The press release talks about associations but doesn’t say anything about causality. Nevertheless, the author goes on about the lack of regulation of protein content in non-dairy milk.

And hey, maybe that’s what’s going on. Reduced protein intake could be doing it.

But it looks like the paper doesn’t control for other part of kids’ diets. If it’s likely that kids on almond milk diets or soy milk diets are more likely to be on vegan diets overall or to have other weird diet issues that could also affect protein intake, it seems kinda odd not to adjust for other parts of the diet.

And while they exclude kids with growth-affecting disease from the study, they do include asthma. Some folks exclude dairy as part of trying to control asthma, and inhaled corticosteroids can suppress growth among kids (though they catch up later).

So it would be a bit premature to run the cross-price elasticities of milk with respect to non-dairy substitutes, multiply by the effect of supply management on milk prices to get the substitution into non-dairy because of supply management, then work out how much shorter supply management is making some Canadian kids.

The research was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Institute of Human Development, Child and Youth Health, and the Institute of Nutrition, Metabolism, and Diabetes and St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation.

The researchers aimed to determine whether there is an association between non-cow milk consumption and lower height in childhood and assess whether cow milk consumption mediates the relation between non-cow milk consumption and height.

They give this background to their study:

Cow milk consumption in childhood has been associated with increased height, which is an important measure of children’s growth and development. Many parents are choosing non-cow milk beverages such as soy and almond milk because of perceived health benefits. However, non-cow milk contains less protein and fat than cow milk and may not have the same effect on height.

The authors say this was a cross-sectional study of 5034 healthy Canadian children aged 24–72 months enrolled in the Applied Research Group for Kids cohort. The primary exposure was the volume of non-cow milk consumption (number of 250-mL cups per day).

Multivariable linear regression was used to determine the association between non-cow milk consumption and height. A mediation analysis was conducted to explore whether cow milk consumption mediated the association between non-cow milk consumption and height.

Results: There was a dose-dependent association between higher noncow milk consumption and lower height (P < 0.0001). For each daily cup of noncow milk consumed, children were 0.4 cm (95% CI: 0.2, 0.8 cm) shorter. In the mediation analysis, lower cow milk consumption only partially mediated the association between noncow milk consumption and lower height. The height difference for a child aged 3 y consuming 3 cups noncow milk/d relative to 3 cups cow milk/d was 1.5 cm (95% CI: 0.8, 2.0 cm).

The paper’s conclusion is that non-cow milk consumption was associated with lower childhood height. Future research is needed to understand the causal relations between non-cow milk consumption and height.

Broad range of research topics covered in Royal Society lecture series

The Royal Society Te Aparangi has announced a nationwide lecture series hosted by its branches to demonstrate the range of research being carried out throughout New Zealand.

The lectures are part of the society’s 150th anniversary activities.

Each talk will include a presentation and video celebrating the society’s past and looking to the future, led by Professor Richard Bedford, the society’s president.

Topics range from human heat stress due to rising temperatures and humidity in response to climate change to future food and developments in pest management for pipfruit crops.

Gene editing to improve the national dairy herd is another of the topics.

Professor Bedfored describes it as “a broad and intriguing collection of research we can be proud of.”

The events are free but a donation to support branch activities would be appreciated.

More details can be found HERE.

Decomposing leaves are shown to be a source of nitrous oxide

Michigan State University scientists have pinpointed a new source of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that’s more potent than carbon dioxide.

The culprit?

Tiny bits of decomposing leaves in soil, according to account of the research released by the univerity (HERE).

The discovery, featured in the current issue of Nature Geoscience, could help refine nitrous oxide emission predictions as well as guide future agriculture and soil management practices.

“Most nitrous oxide is produced within teaspoon-sized volumes of soil, and these so-called hot spots can emit a lot of nitrous oxide quickly,” said Sasha Kravchenko, MSU plant, soil and microbial scientist and lead author of the study.

“But the reason for occurrence of these hot spots has mystified soil microbiologists since it was discovered several decades ago.”

Part of the vexation was due, in part, to scientists looking at larger spatial scales. It’s difficult to study and label an entire field as a source of greenhouse gas emissions when the source is grams of soil harboring decomposing leaves.

Changing the view from binoculars to microscopes will help improve N2O emission predictions, which traditionally are about 50 percent accurate, at best. Nitrous oxide’s global warming potential is 300 times greater than carbon dioxide, and emissions are largely driven by agricultural practices.

“This work sheds new light on what drives emissions of nitrous oxide from productive farmlands,” said John Schade, a programme director for the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research program, which co-funded the research with NSF’s earth sciences division.

“We need studies like this to guide the creation of sustainable agricultural practices necessary to feed a growing human population with minimal environmental impact.”

To unlock the secrets of these N2O hotspots, Kravchenko and her team took soil samples from MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station Long-term Ecological Research site.

Then in partnership with scientists from the University of Chicago at Argonne National Laboratory, they examined the samples at Argonne’s synchrotron scanning facilities, a much more powerful version of a medical CT scanner. The powerful X-ray scanner penetrated the soil and allowed the team to accurately characterize the environments where N2O is produced and emitted.

“We found that hotspot emissions happen only when large soil pores are present,” Kravchenko said. “The leaf particles act as tiny sponges in soil, soaking up water from large pores to create a micro-habitat perfect for the bacteria that produce nitrous oxide.”

Not as much N2O is produced in areas where smaller pores are present. Small pores, such as in clay soils, hold water more tightly so that it can’t be soaked up by the leaf particles. Without additional moisture, the bacteria aren’t able to produce as much nitrous oxide. Small pores also make it harder for the gas produced to leave the soil before being consumed by other bacteria.

“This study looked at the geometry of pores in soils as a key variable that affects how nitrogen moves through those soils,” said Enriqueta Barrera, program director in NSF’s earth sciences division. “Knowing this information will lead to new ways of reducing the emission of nitrous oxide from agricultural soils.”

More specifically, future research will review which plant leaves contribute to higher N2O emissions. Plants with more nitrogen in their leaves, such as soybeans, will more than likely give off more N2O as their leaves decompose. Researchers also will look at leaf and root characteristics and see how they influence emissions.

Newly identified gene helps time the spring flowering of vital grass crops

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have identified a gene that keeps grasses from entering their flowering cycle until the season is right, a discovery that may help plant breeders and engineers get more from food and energy crops.

Many plants have evolved the ability to wait for snow to melt before investing precious resources in blooms.

Flowering as the warmer, longer days of spring arrive — and the risk of a damaging frost recedes — requires a process called vernalisation, a news release from the university (HERE)explains.

This is a process in which flowering is blocked until the plant senses a sufficient cold spell.

Some varieties of wheat are among the plants that prefer to get established in the autumn but avoid flowering before it gets cold, says Rick Amasino, a UW-Madison professor of biochemistry and genetics.

By becoming established in the autumn, these plants can take full advantage of the window of the growing season when it opens in the spring.

Much has been done to identify genes involved in flowering, including one in grasses called VRN1 that helps get the vernalisation ball rolling by spurring groups of other genes into action. But just what keeps VRN1 in check, so flowering does not occur in the fall or in a winter warm spell, was unclear until Amasino, postdoctoral researcher Daniel Woods and others began putting a small Mediterranean grass called Brachypodium, or false purple brome, through false cold seasons in lab refrigerators.

“Getting at the genetics underlying complex processes is difficult in many crop species, so we’ve used a small plant with a compact genome as a model to get at the molecular underpinnings of how a vernalisation requirement is established, says Woods, first author on the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“What we found is a gene that represses the VRN1 gene prior to winter.”

Comparing the DNA of Brachypodium plants that abide by the typical cold-to-warm transition before flowering, to DNA from mutant versions of the grass that flower without the typical wait, pointed the researchers to a gene they are calling RVR1 (for its role in repressing VRN1).

They suspect RVR1 serves the same purpose in other temperate grasses that require vernalisation, a group that plays an outsized role in our lives.

“Grasses — including corn, wheat, oats, rye and barley — provide more than 80 percent of our caloric intake worldwide,” Woods says. “Rice alone in some countries is as high as 70 percent of the calories. But if you combine things we eat directly as well as animals we depend on that also eat grass, it is clear that grasses make the world go around.”

While the newly identified gene will likely be of interest to breeders of cereal grains, all those grass calories fuel more than bodies, says Amasino, whose work is supported by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy’s Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC).

Switchgrass, which holds interest as feedstock for production of biofuels such as ethanol, doesn’t bother with vernalisation. It grows slowly and flowers in the early summer months in the upper Midwest.

“We think there’s a good chance that taking the RVR1 gene from Brachypodium and putting it in switchgrass will delay switchgrass flowering,” Amasino says. “Delaying switchgrass flowering to various extents may affect and improve yield.”

Amasino’s lab will partner with GLBRC researchers on that work, and will continue to study different types of Brachypodium adapted to winters spanning a range of temperatures and lengths.

“How did one variety evolve a system tweaked to require 16 weeks of cold? How did another one develop for just two weeks of cold? What’s the genetic difference between the requirement for a short winter versus a long winter?” Amasino says.

Grasses are important crops, and this model for studying flowering can tell scientists a lot about how they work.

US withdraws from climate change agreement but NZ remains committed

US President Donald Trump’s today confirmed his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement but may begin negotiations for a better deal.

The US accounts for more than 15 per cent of total global emissions, exceeded only by China.

Under former President Barack Obama, the US committed to reduce its emissions by 26 per cent to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

New Zealand has committed to reducing emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett (HERE) said the US withdrawal was “a step backwards” but New Zealand remained committed to the agreement and the accord was still intact.

Green Party co-leader James Shaw said the US decision was a retrograde step but the rest of the world would keep calm and carry on.

The Science Media Centre asked climate change experts to comment on the implications of President Trumps decision (HERE).

It has posted these comments:

Professor James Renwick, School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington,.

“My take is that this is a backward step, but it’s hardly game over for the Agreement or for climate change. The US could stay in and do nothing, which would be as unhelpful as pulling out.

“The US stepping away from Paris hands the opportunity to China, the EU, and others, to take the lead and this is already happening. I understand China is already developing an agreement with the EU to push harder on emissions reductions.

“Plus, the President and Washington is not the USA. Individual cities and states are doing their own thing. The Governor of California has already signalled that he’s looking internationally for partners to push emissions reductions.

“So, Trump pulling out may just encourage the rest of the world to do more. The US is pulling back from global leadership and other nations will step in to take over. This move may, in fact, signal the start of China’s real dominance of international affairs.

“Climate change is an incredibly pressing problem. If we are to live up to the Paris Agreement, the global community has somewhere between 5 and 20 years to move on significant emissions reductions. Every nation must strive to lead on this issue, and if the US isn’t there, New Zealand and other countries must step up.”

Associate Professor Bronwyn Hayward, political scientist, University of Canterbury, comments:

“It feels surreal to be listening to Trump’s announcement as I am packing to leave tonight for the author meeting on the Special Report for the IPCC about how to achieve the objectives agreed in Paris to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

“I was simply shocked to hear Trump describe a 2 degrees climate rise as “tiny, tiny” amount because a global rise of 2 degrees translates to much higher local temperature changes and changes beyond 2 degrees risks dangerous climate events

• The Announcement is no surprise – Trump signalled he intended to pull out of the agreement.

• What is a surprise is how long it took and that Trump has had to leave the door open for his re-entry into the Paris Agreement

• This decision has taken a very long time and is so equivocal because it is not one that is well supported even amongst his own core vote base. This is why Trump is working so hard to make climate change seem a ‘foreign’ economic threat

• Despite the deeply partisan political divisions in the USA, a detailed poll this month by Yale University of Americans’ attitudes to climate change revealed only 1 in 5 US voters now support withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and less than a third, just 28% of Trump’s own vote base agrees America should leave the climate agreement

“USA withdrawal also creates significant new problems for the President, which is why he has keep the door open

1. First are political challenges; the withdrawal of Trump will create a political vacuum which China and EU is already stepping into as new global leaders in technology- there is also significant risk of political isolation of USA. Tillerson’s visit to NZ for example reminds us that the USA needs it’s international allies, but by putting ‘America First’ also reminds domestic populations in the rest of the world that is what is good for America is not necessarily good for their own countries and this will make it harder for other governments to forge alliances with an unpopular USA administration.

2. Second, the President’s decision creates significant industry challenges. There is no evidence that there will be new jobs created by the old industries, while other significant business leaders of new industries, including Apple, will be very frustrated at changes to US regulations for new investment in clean technology. We can also expect intense lobbying now from some sectors to destabilise the wider global climate agreement by arguing that without USA ‘what is the point?’. However, while the USA makes up about 26% of total global emissions, what the rest of the world does will now matter very much. We can also expect to see intense lobbying from geoengineering sector to position experimental industries like large-scale carbon capture and storage.

3. Third, this creates significant leadership challenges for the President as the leadership vacuum allows space for a new generation of younger world leaders and city and state governments to position themselves as offering new vision, and many like the state of California are already significant global leaders in addressing climate change.”

Dr Adrian Macey, senior associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“There are two ways to ‘leave’ the Paris Agreement:

• Formal withdrawal – this would be the ‘nuclear’ option. It would be seen as a hostile act. Under the Agreement the process could take 4 years.
• Change or suspend the NDC (nationally-determined contribution) which is what Trump claims is an unfair burden on the economy. He could change this, as it is not legally binding. This would mean that a future administration could simply renew/revise the US contribution and restart cooperation.

“The loss of the US would be damaging, for sure, for four reasons:

• As the world’s second largest emitter, without it, staying within the 2 Degrees target would be much harder, if not impossible

• It could give an excuse to other countries not to stick to their targets

• It would signal an end to the leadership of the “G2” (US and China) whose cooperation was essential in getting the Paris Agreement.

• If it were followed by pulling money out of climate change more widely, it might call into question the very valuable and world-leading research being done in the US eg. by NASA with its various satellite-based research projects.

“And of course, it would mean a huge loss of influence for the US.

“BUT there are mitigating factors:

• There is already a global shift towards renewable energy (the core of the climate change challenge), quite independent of any international agreements. The economics are changing rapidly, and there are additional benefits in jobs and innovation. Coal is unprofitable in the US for simple economic reasons, nothing to do with climate change.

• Other countries are signalling that a US withdrawal won’t lessen their commitment to the Paris Agreement

• Powerful US states such as California will continue their climate change policies.

• Major US businesses, even oil companies are moving to address climate change in their long-term plans.

• China has signalled it intends to retain its global leadership role, and the EU will be keen to step into the gap left by the US – they have been less influential in recent years.

“So …. unfortunate, and a setback but no need to despair.”

Ten new community science projects funded in South Auckland

Ten new community science projects, from dung beetles to beehive monitoring, are getting under way in South Auckland.

The projects are aimed at a range of participants – primary and secondary school students, community and iwi groups – who collaborate with scientists from universities and research organisations.

The ten 2017 projects have been awarded up to $20,000 each. They are being funded as part of the SouthSci initiative, the South Auckland pilot of the NZ Government’s Participatory Science Platform.

SouthSci project manager Dr Sarah Morgan says the new projects are excellent examples of local communities engaging with science and technology as equal partners.

Nick Pattison, a SouthSci project alumnus, now Director of STEM at Kauri Flats School, said:

“Traditional citizen science has not had a lot of relevance for South Auckland with a history of science organisations coming in to study and test, but not building long-term relationships with us. In stark contrast, these projects put the power and ownership back in our hands, which we think is directly linked to their success.”

The projects include:

* Papakura High School in collaboration with Massey University, investigating whether food waste can be used to create biochar that enhances plant growth and sequesters carbon

* Tangaroa College having established beehives with the help of BeesThingz, investigating whether they can predict beehive health by using sensors to monitor hives

* Ormiston Junior College in collaboration with Dr Shaun Forgie, investigating whether the presence of dung beetles on effluent affects soil and the volume and biochemical composition of water that runs off following rainfall

* Mangere Mountain Education Trust, Mangere Bridge Primary School and Makaurau Marae, investigating the effect of rodent control on the kumara yield in their urban garden

* East Tamaki School investigating which chemicals in worm tea and vermicast affect plant growth the most, with chemists from University of Auckland.

* Willowbank School in collaboration with Plant & Food Research and Watercare, designing a robotic watering system triggered by a sensed level of soil moisture

The announcement was made by COMET Auckland,a Council Controlled Organisation of Auckland Council. Its role is to support education and skills across Auckland, contributing to the relevant social and economic goals in the Auckland Plan.