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. Continue reading

Future orchards recognised in Primary Industry Awards

Plant & Food Research  has won two Primary Industry Awards, recognising innovations in orchard design and sustainable fishing systems.

The Future Orchard Planting Systems (FOPS) science team received the Primary Industry Science and Research Award in recognition of their work in creating a new growing system that increases the productivity potential of New Zealand’s apple, pear and summerfruit orchards.

“The FOPS design, led by Dr Stuart Tustin, was based on our understanding of plant physiology and developmental biology,” says Dr Jill Stanley, Science Group Leader at Plant & Food Research.

“Theoretically we knew it was possible to increase the light captured by the canopy and that this would greatly increase productivity”. Continue reading

Let’s not forget science is one of the pillars of Labour’s primary industries approach

NZIAHS president Jill Stanley – going out to bat for agricultural and horticultural scientists on Radio Live at the weekend – reminded her interviewers and audience of something Labour’s Andrew Little told Federated Farmers almost a year ago.

Mr Little was Labour’s leader at the time and immediately after the introductory courtesies he told the feds:

The future of New Zealand’s primary industries can be summed up in two words — science and sustainability.

These are the twin pillars of Labour’s approach.

Last month Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor announced 15 appointments to the Primary Sector Council, which has been charged with helping the primary sector to capture more value from its work.

The council will provide independent strategic advice to the Government on issues confronting the primary industries.

But where are the scientists?

Dr Stanley raised that question in a press statement (HERE).

She was asked to discuss her concerns with Radio Live’s Rural Exchange team (the interview can be heard HERE) at the weekend.

Continue reading

NZIAHS says science must play a key role in council plans – but where are the scientists?

The NZIAHS has examined the membership of the Primary Sector Council and found it wanting.

Agriculture and Rural Communities Minister Damien O’Connor announced the council yesterday (HERE).

The NZIAHS issued this statement today –

One big question is glaringly raised by the composition of the newly announced Primary Sector Council, says Dr Jill Stanley, president of the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science.
The question is: where are the scientists?

Damien O’Connor, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Communities, has described the council as a group of visionary agribusiness leaders whose task is to help our primary sector capture more value from its work. It will provide independent strategic advice to the Government on issues confronting the primary industries.

Its first job will be to develop a sector-wide vision, taking account of ideas – for example – of sustainability, grower-to-plate storytelling, pasture-fed protein and smarter use of water. Good science is an essential component of each of those and will be in most other ideas the council considers.

The council includes Mark Paine, Strategy and Investment Leader for People and Business at DairyNZ and previously the Dairy Australia Principal Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

His job at DairyNZ is to address issues of recruitment, employment relationships, leadership and career development in the dairy industry. He oversees the strategy and investment in dairy education and training, from apprenticeships through to post graduate scholarships and is responsible for the industry strategy pertaining to the development of resources for farm business management.

Beyond Mark’s name on the list of 15 appointees, there are no scientists. This is a disappointing reflection on the perceived value of including agri-science leaders, be it senior scientists at AgResearch, Plant & Food Research, Landcare Research, Scion and ESR, let alone Massey or Lincoln Universities.

Presumably this is a deliberate oversight, giving expression to a ministerial embrace of “modern-think” whereby it is believed science will follow the lead set by innovators in business. This is contrary to experience: history shows science has led the way and enabled new opportunities in business to emerge.

The chairman of the new council, Lain Jager, at least should have a good understanding of what science can do for the primary sector’s sustainability and profitability. He is a former chairman of Zespri, the world’s largest marketer of kiwifruit and a company which owes a great deal to the multidisciplinary team from Plant & Food Research, led by Chief Operating Officer Dr Bruce Campbell, which in February was awarded the 2017 Prime Minister’s $500,000 Science Prize.

The prize was awarded for the team’s rapid and successful response to Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae, or Psa, which threatened the destruction of the New Zealand kiwifruit industry in 2010.

The industry’s recovery was enabled by the team’s development of a new gold-fleshed kiwifruit cultivar, Actinidia chinensis var. chinensis ‘Zesy002’, referred to by growers as Gold3 and sold around the world as Zespri® SunGold Kiwifruit. Hundreds of genetically-diverse selections were screened and evaluated to find new cultivars with increased tolerance to the disease while meeting grower requirements and consumer demands for taste.

Forty-eight million trays of the new cultivar were sold last season, with an export value of $686 million, up 70 per cent on the previous year and increasing by around 10 million trays a year as newly-grafted vines reach production.
According to notes on the science award website, it is estimated that less than half the economic and social benefits would be achievable without SunGold.

The team also developed molecular diagnostic tests, a world-first and a breakthrough in the fight against Psa which enabled rapid testing of orchards to inform management plans and provided a mechanism to screen new cultivars.

The track record of this team and so many of our other agri-scientists is hugely impressive. It’s a shame Mr O’Connor has bypassed them.

Dr Stanley wonders how the council will be able to obtain the strong voice for science that they obviously need to achieve their goals. Will Mr O’Connor consider expanding the council?

If he doesn’t, will the council realise the need to draw on key people from the Royal Society and the CRIs, or possibly consult the Prime Minister’s Chief Scientist? Whoever they involve, science clearly must play a key role in the plans that the council recommends for creating a value-added primary sector.

 

Loss of AgResearch jobs “will have huge ripple effect through the farming sector”

Dr Jill Stanley, Vice President of the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science, warns that the proposed loss of up to 33 scientists and 50 technical positions at AgResearch, will have a huge ripple effect throughout the New Zealand farming sector.

The primary industries account for over 50% of New Zealand’s export earnings, she points out, and agriculture is a big contributor to this. The rundown of research capability will impede New Zealand’s efforts to stay competitive in the international market.

The 2015 OECD report places New Zealand 27th out 34 OECD countries in terms of total spending on R&D as a percentage of GDP.

New Zealand’s poor performance is acknowledged in the National Statement of Science Investment, released this week.

In this statement, the Government outlines plans to increase both public and private sector investment to reach the OECD average by the 2020s.

This sounds admirable, says Dr Stanley, but she recalls Simon Upton as Minister of Science expressing the same desire during the science reforms of the 1990s and failing to bring about the necessary step-change in science funding.

The Government is also reviewing CRI core funding, which has not been inflation-adjusted since its inception.

“But will this be a case of too little, too late?

“Obviously, the affected staff will be feeling undervalued and vulnerable,” says Dr Stanley.

She says it is likely only a few of those who lose their jobs will find other jobs in agriculture within New Zealand. Many of the others will likely be lost to our competitors overseas, while some will find jobs outside the sector.

These redundancies will further discourage bright young New Zealanders from entering a career in the primary sector, at a time when we desperately need an increase in our skill base.

The heart of the problem appears to be lack of funding to retain this capability, says Dr Stanley. AgResearch has predicted a gap in revenue of more than $5 million this financial year. They have identified new areas that need 27 new staff, resulting in a net reduction of 56 positions.

Dr Stanley agrees that AgResearch should be responding to industry needs. But she says New Zealand needs a science system that is adequately buffered to allow for capability retention when shorter-term industry priorities change.

* The speech by Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce when launching the National Statement of Science Investment can be found here.