1492762106280 - Scientific research the key to balancing productivity and environmental values

Scientific research the key to balancing productivity and environmental values

OPINION: 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.

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