Saturday, 5 April 2014

Are we being milked?

Why are NZ taxpayers shovelling $48.5m to research looking for "direct ways to reduce emissions without reducing agricultural output", without hunting out potential market failures first, let alone directing the ca$h that way? I'm not sure...

Here's a starter, which I guess was fed to the media by the scientists receiving our ca$h, who want good PR at a time when their supply is being reviewed. The interesting bit is the list of topics they've been working on:
  • a vaccine and compounds that could be added to feed to reduce methane emissions;
  • breeding sheep and cattle that produce lower emissions;
  • screening plants for their ability to reduce nitrous oxide emissions; and
  • how plants with different attributes, such as deep roots, can increase the amount of carbon stored in soil.
This is a bit suspect is it not? The first two are obviously commercially bankable research projects, and I'd bet that all or most of the resulting IP will be privately owned from them. Why are we subsidising this? I can't see any market failure here - these people are already putting their own money into the research. Why exactly do they need a subsidy?

But also: opportunity cost.
But first: relevance

Agriculture probably is the most important industry in NZ and we kiwis probably are more dependent on agriculture than any other 'developed' country. Climate change will impact our agricultural production massively. So if there was anywhere that NZ desperately needed innovation, surely it would be agriculture, now.

Its OK therefore, in principle, to spend of $48.5m of our money on "finding direct ways to reduce emissions without reducing agricultural output". I could even tolerate a few rorts like those IP projects if the search for options was wide enough.

But it isn't. The idea of farming in a different way, like the way we and many others do, is just not being considered, I think. Yet there are reasonable grounds for investigating their potential for carbon sequestration. Done well, biological/organic farming can grow rather than deplete the organic matter (carbon) in the soil.

David Whitehead seems like the guy in the $48.5m pipeline that would be responsible for assessing the potential for biological farming to sequester carbon. I hope he'll shortly reply to my emails and tell me how they are assessing the radically different approaches of biological/organic farmers. But I'm not holding my breath.

Following my earlier post about William Rolleston, I emailed to ask him directly about where in this new "collaborative" science funding model that he helped to develop was the ca$h going to investigate and further develop these biological/organic methods (as distinct from subsidising biotech investors). In response, he pointed me to the Biological Husbandary Unit at Lincoln, which does great work. However I have since discovered that it gets basically zero percent of these taxpayer research funds. So if Dr Rolleston's actual plan was that research funding would seek truth and value wherever it may lie, then its not working very well.

In summary, it really looks as though we are taxpayers being milked by commercial interests. That'd be bad enough, but in addition the funding is ignoring serious research opportunities into promising alternative farming systems. Our ag research funds seem to be mainly going to investors that want to sell stuff to farmers, preferably under the protection of patents that taxpayers have funded.

If this is true, its a terrible scandal. I keep hoping to find out that I'm wrong, but it hasn't happened yet.

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