Thursday, 19 February 2015

Agricultural innovation options

New Zealand is heavily dependent on primary production for export earnings, notwithstanding the growing contributions from other sectors. Agriculture is particularly important and for New Zealand that mostly means pastoral agriculture.

Pastoral agriculture is becoming increasingly specialised and scientific. We now have access to tools that can massively improve precision for applications of water and fertilisers, to monitor animals individually for health and productivity, and even to remotely fly over distant paddocks observing stock, water etc.

But we're still basically just growing plants to feed animals, so improving the productivity of farm land should be our #1 priority. All that cool technology could be used any pastoral farming systems.

We can and should recognise two alternative pathways for New Zealand agriculture. Neither can be completely defined, because the R&D is ongoing for each, as it should be. But the broad directions of each are nevertheless clear enough. They differ in two dimensions:
  • how we kill off undesirable organisms, and 
  • how we feed desirable organisms.
One option is the conventional system promoted by outfits like DairyNZ, the fertiliser duopoly of Ravensdown & Balance, and the multinational seed & "plant protection" companies like Syngenta, Monsanto and Bayer. This option views farmers as being constantly at war with some kind of bug or weed that we'll always need to kill. It's slightly different to Orwell's 1984 in that the enemy is constantly changing, but similar in that both require perpetual war. That's great for the business of arms dealers who in this example are suppliers of agricultural herbicides and pesticides.

To feed desirable organisms, the conventional system advises the use of N sourced from fossil fuels, soluble P mined and dragged halfway around the world and, K which is also drawn from finite resources.

In my humble opinion this approach is foolish and doomed. Our farming philosophy reflects the other option and is the complete opposite of the status quo. To kill off weeds and pests, we nurture their natural competitors and sometimes also use mechanical methods - photos of Darren's awesome gorse mulcher will be posted in due course. We re-grass 10-20ha chunk each year planting a diverse mix of (often modern) varieties including plenty of legumes (for nitrogen) and deep rooting herbs (for drought resistance). We ignore the conventional advice by not spraying out the old grass and using un-treated seeds, which works fine.

To feed desirable organisms we design our own brews. This is a fairly sophisticated system involving regular testing of soil mineralisation, pasture composition and soil biology - we use the test results to design custom brews for feeding the soil & plants (our foliar system is here). It is definitely working for us, but it's all based on ad-hoc reading around and talking to people. We lack guidance from solid peer-reviewed science, as do the increasingly large number of other kiwi farmers heading down this route.

Which brings me to the point. Why do New Zealand's public research funds primarily go to corporates? Specifically, why is co-funding from industry required to get almost any public research money? The co-funders are just getting subsidised to create saleable intellectual property rights, while genuine public good research is crowded out. This biases our agricultural innovation toward private profits earned under the conventional system. Its madness, and not just in my opinion....

Many other farmers support our view that we need to invest in science that explores public good methods to

  • extract nitrogen from the atmosphere rather than fossil fuels;
  • understand how to profitably farm the bacteria and fungi in our soil so that they unlock and harvest nutrients for plants; and
  • control pests and weeds by fostering their competitors rather than killing them.
Under current policy settings, none of this will happen because no corporate could monetise the outcomes. Damn shame.


  1. Hi John,

    What stops farmers from chipping in to fund that work themselves?

    I had in mind broader public benefit, like pastoral systems that reduce livestock methane emissions.

  2. Good question Eric.

    A few thoughts.

    1. The price signals are screwed up. Farming this way that builds humus giving you carbon sequestration but there's no reward for that.

    2. Fragmentation. We only meet other biological farmers at workshops and conferences which is all pretty random.

    3. Individuality. Farmers tend to just plod along doing their own thing. There are a few organisations allowed to impose compulsory levies on us, all of which are captured by input suppliers.

    4. Business case. If me and 2 mates fund research that benefits all farmers, we create a lot more value than we can capture ourselves. More importantly, we need to have enough scale to justify the whole project.

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