Economist and soil scientist at odds over moves to protect some land from developers

The release of Our Land 2018, the Ministry for the Environment’s report which deals with the state of New Zealand’s land resources, has triggered a debate between an economist and a soil scientist on Sciblogs.

The report shows the extent to which New Zealand’s urban sprawl is eating up some of the country’s most versatile land.

Dr Eric Crampton, Head of Research at the New Zealand Initiative, said he just doesn’t get the fixation with making sure nobody builds a home on agricultural land.

He sees no need for some land to be protected from developers, arguing that market mechanisms do the job well enough, thank you.

Pierre Roudier, a scientist in the Soils & Landscapes team at Landcare Research and a Principal Investigator at Te Pūnaha Matatini, disagrees.  Banning the development on our best soils makes sense because it acknowledges resources values that can’t be measured in economic terms.

Dr Crampton’s opinion post, syndicated from Offsetting Behaviour (it originally appeared HERE), cites a Radio New Zealand report (HERE) which said the Government plans to make it harder for councils to approve new homes and lifestyle blocks on productive land near urban areas.

The ministry report highlights that between 1990 and 2008, 29 per cent of new urban areas were built on some of the country’s most versatile land.

The Radio New Zealand report went on to note that lifestyle blocks were also having an impact – in 2013 those blocks covered 10 per cent of New Zealand’s best land – and quoted Environment Minister David Parker’s concerns.

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Lab meat on the menu in restaurants by the end of the year?

But where’s the “clean” stuff?

Meat grown in a laboratory could be on restaurant menus by the end of the year, according to a manufacturer’s claim reported by The Independent 

The implications for New Zealand food production of in vitro animal products, sometimes referred to as “clean meat”, have been reported in AgScience here and here.

These products are made from stem cells harvested via biopsy from living livestock, which are then grown in a lab over a number of weeks.

The Independent report (citing reports in CNN and the Guardian) says –

Some environmentalists believe the process could be the key to reducing global warming, with one study predicting it could lower harmful greenhouse emissions by 96 per cent.

And the first products could be available for human consumption within months, according to Josh Tetrick, CEO of clean meat manufacturer JUST.

Chicken nuggets, sausage and foie gras created using the technique could be served in restaurants in the US and Asia “before the end of 2018”, he told CNN.

But public perception and a reluctance to diverge from traditional farmed meat still represent considerable hurdles for the clean meat industry to overcome, he said.

“Gnarly problems, communication issues, regulatory issues,” would have to be solved before products went to market, he said in a separate interview with The Guardian.

The report also quotes Professor Mark Post, chief scientific officer at Mosa Meat, whose lab based at Maastricht University in the Netherlands was responsible for creating the world’s first cultured hamburger.

Professor Post said the regulatory approval process could delay samples being distributed to suppliers by years.

He gave a time frame of three years before the company could sell its first product to the mass market.

But The Independent goes on to note a recent study’s findings  that one-third of Americans would be willing to eat clean meat regularly or as a replacement for farmed meat.

To reach that point, companies will have to bring down the cost of mass production.

Memphis Meats, a food technology company based in San Francisco, has to spend around $2,400 (£1,800) to make 450 grams of beef.

But as techniques become more streamlined, the price is falling, and the company believes it will be able to send the first products to market by 2021.

The animal rights charity, Peta, has been investing in in vitro meat research for the past six years.


Greenpeace report’s grim environmental picture may point to boon for NZ agriculture

Questions about the direction New Zealand agriculture should take are raised in a document released by Greenpeace International which highlights the environmental impacts of industrial meat and dairy farming.

The report, which can be found HERE, says livestock farming is responsible for 14 per cent of global climate change emissions – as much as is is generated by all trains, ships, planes and cars put together.

Among the main findings are –

  • Direct GHG emissions from the agriculture sector account for 24% of all global emissions, and livestock emissions (including land-use change) account for 14%, which is comparable to the emissions from the whole transport sector.
  • If left unchecked, agriculture is projected to produce 52% of global greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades, 70% of which will come from meat and dairy.
  • The food system is responsible for 80% of the deforestation currently taking place in some of the most biodiverse forests remaining on Earth, with livestock and animal feed expansion being the most prominent single driver of this destruction.
  • Since 1970, the Earth has lost half of its wildlife but tripled its livestock population. Livestock production now occupies 26% of land on Earth.
  • This year it is expected that 76 billion animals will be slaughtered to satisfy meat and dairy consumption. Changes in human diets towards more plant-based foods could reduce around 20-40% of the projected increase in extinction risk by 2060 for medium- and large-bodied species of birds and mammals.

This sounds grim – but what about the opportunities?

Gen Toop, Greenpeace NZ’s sustainable agriculture campaigner, raised them in a media statement (HERE).

“The evidence is in. The world is waking up to the fact that industrial livestock farming is warming the planet, contaminating our rivers, tearing down our forests, and putting our health at risk.”

Polluting industrial farming practices were coming under increasing scrutiny by New Zealand’s international customers, Toop said.

If this was ignored, the imminent consumer shift from industrial meat and dairy products could present a major threat to the New Zealand economy.

Greenpeace in New Zealand has been campaigning against the industrial farming practices that have taken hold here, such as intensive stocking, the heavy use of big irrigation, synthetic fertilisers, toxic agri-chemicals and imported animal feed.

“Fortunately, we also have a growing number of meat and dairy farmers in New Zealand that have reduced their herds and turned their backs on industrial practices – working with the environment rather than to its detriment.”

Toop said the new report puts progressive, regenerative farmers in a prime position to take advantage of the new global playing field.

Greenpeace’s international campaign aim is to halve the world production of meat and dairy by 2050 and put an end to polluting industrial farming practices.

“The inevitable consumer shift towards less and better meat and dairy is a chance for our Government to unshackle NZ’s economy from its unhealthy dependence on dirty intensive dairy farming and bulk low-value milk powder,” Toop said.

“In fact, if we don’t diversify NZ agriculture into more plant-based food production and higher-value meat and dairy grown using truly environmentally sound, regenerative farming methods, we’re going to be left behind.”

Toop identified Landcorp, the country’s biggest farmer, as one of those seizing the opportunity and declaring “we will need fewer animals on our land in the future and more plants”.

Source: Greenpeace

Nearly two billion people are shown to be dependent on imported food

Researchers at Aalto University have shown a broad connection between resource scarcity, population pressure and food imports in a study published in Earth’s Future.

The earth’s capacity to feed its growing population has long been a topic of global discussion but previous research has not previously clearly demonstrated this connection.

The researchers performed a global analysis focusing on regions where water availability restricts production and examined the period from 1961 to  2009, evaluating the extent to which the growing population pressure was met by increasing food imports.

The researchers’ work combined modelled data with FAO statistics and took into consideration increases in production efficiency resulting from technological development. The analysis showed that in 75% of resource scarce regions, food imports began to rise as the region’s own production became insufficient.

Even less wealthy regions relied on the import strategy — but not always successfully.

According to the research, the food security of about 1.4 billion people has become dependent on imports and an additional 460 million people live in areas where increased imports are not enough to compensate for the lack of local production.

The big issue, says co-author Dr Joseph Guillaume, is that people may not even be aware that they have chosen dependency on imports over further investment in local production or curbing demand.

“It seems obvious to look elsewhere when local production is not sufficient, and our analysis clearly shows that is what happens. Perhaps that is the right choice, but it should not be taken for granted.”

The international food system is sensitive and price and production shocks can spread widely and undermine food security — especially in poorer countries that are dependent on imports. As a result, further investments in raising production capacity could be a viable alternative. Especially in sub-Saharan Africa and India, there are opportunities to sustainably improve food production by, for example, more efficient use of nutrients and better irrigation systems.

Postdoctoral researcher Miina Porkka emphasises that the solutions will ultimately require more than just increasing food production.

“Keeping food demand in check is the key issue. Controlling population growth plays an essential role in this work, but it would also be important to enhance production chains by reducing food waste and meat consumption. Since one quarter of all the food produced in the world is wasted, reducing this would be really significant on a global level.”

This post is based on information provided by Aalto University.

Chance discovery about food crops and carbon capture holds lesson for NZ science funders

University of Guelph researchers believe an almost entirely accidental discovery could transform food and biofuel production and increase carbon capture on farmland.

By tweaking a plant’s genetic profile, the researchers doubled the plant’s growth and increased seed production by more than 400 per cent.

The findings were published in the March 2016 issue of Plant Biotechnology Journal.

The team studied Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant often used in lab studies because of its ease of use and its similarity to some common farm crops. They found that inserting a particular corn enzyme caused the plant’s growth rate to skyrocket.

“Even if the effects in a field-grown crop were less, such as only a tenth of what we’ve seen in the lab, that would still represent an increase in yield of 40 to 50 per cent, compared with the average one to two per cent a year that most breeding programs deliver,” said Prof. Michael Emes, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB).

He said the team’s finding could boost yields of important oilseed crops such as canola and soybean, as well as crops such as camelina, increasingly grown for biofuels.

Larger plants would capture more atmospheric carbon dioxide without increasing the amount of farmland, said Emes.

“Farmers and consumers would benefit significantly in terms of food production, green energy and the environment. The ramifications are enormous.”

The finding came almost by chance.

Studying the enzyme’s effect on starch, the researchers noticed that their genetically engineered plants looked different and much larger in photos taken by lead author Fushan Liu, a former post-doctoral MCB researcher.

“That’s when we realized that we were looking at something potentially much more important,” said Ian Tetlow, an MCB professor and study co-author.

Although genetic engineering led to more flowers and pods containing seeds, it left the seed composition unchanged.

“The seeds are where we would get the oil from, and consistent composition is important so that the function and use of the oil isn’t changed,” said Tetlow.

The researchers plan to test canola and other crops. Field tests and analysis with industry and government will likely take several years.

Emes said the discovery could have enormous implications for agriculture, carbon capture, food production, animal feedstocks and biodiesel.

The work was started to test some ideas in basic science,  he said, which “just goes to show that you never know where that science will take you.”

This quote should be framed and mounted on the wall of the office inhabited by New Zealand’s Minister for Science and Innovation, for him to reflect on when making funding decisions.