Sunday, 22 March 2015

Whack-a-mole bingo

As you know, there is a big kicking machine on hand to deal with raving lunatics who ask awkward questions about food safety.

That machine will need an overdrive gear after yesterday's finding by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (pdf) that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic.

This is starting to look like that never-ending whack-a-mole game: the moles keep popping up no matter how many you smack down. Which isn't surprising when you think about how hard it would be to prove anything safe.

But enough epistemology. In anticipation of the inevitable backlash, let's all play whack-a-mole bingo.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Meat processors are trying again...

The NZ meat processing industry is struggling to escape from a nasty but very stable situation. There is excess capacity but any firm shutting a plant pays all the costs and spills many benefits to its rivals. This has been the case for at least 20 years, over which period the shift towards dairying has reduced sheep & beef numbers further, making the situation worse.

Well-intentioned people try to fix this problem periodically. Federated Farmers (pdf) had a crack in January 2014, and yesterday we had the Meat Industry Excellence group report which is basically seeking a meat processing monopoly, at which point plants could be closed because the benefits would be internalised. MIE reckons this would save $450m per annum.

Right on cue, one of the biggest processors today argued that MIE's plant closure plan was too aggressive. These people obviously have trouble agreeing with each other, which is why competition seems a more likely long-term scenario than monopoly.

An alternative "solution" is for one of the big processors to innovate in ways that give it a real edge over the others. Last year I suggested that a focus on the final customer might provide some insights into how this could be achieved. With that idea in mind, here's a snip from the MIE paper

Is there a problem?
• Yes, most definitely.
What is that problem?
• Inadequate and inconsistent farm gate returns.
• Inadequate processor returns.
• Loss of land to other uses, particularly dairying.
• An industry that is shrinking in scale.
What is causing that problem?
• Over-capacity.
• In some cases, inefficient and old plant and technology.
• Over-investment in procurement relative to marketing.
• Insufficient investment in marketing.
Why aren’t these issues being addressed?
• Too many competing processing and marketing companies, a lack of processor profitability and too little commitment by farmers to specific processors.
What needs to happen to fix the problem?
• Consolidate processing to get scale.
• Determine what period would be appropriate for a moratorium preventing new capacity.
• Long term supplier contracts.
• Collectively, as an industry, determine reserve capacity for droughts.
• Collectively close plants.
• Consider ‘Chain Licencing’ as an enabler
This is almost entirely a supply side analysis. There is only one oblique reference to customers, which is that suppliers aren't spending enough on marketing.

While each processor probably feels obliged to participate in these apparently endless attempts to force unwilling parties to merge, I hope this is not at the cost of an increasingly strong customer focus.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Anti-science labels

Arguments are worth having it there's a chance that reason will prevail over ego. Once that prospect disappears it's time to quit, as I'm sure you'll agree...

Kevin Folta is a pivotal figure on the "pro" side of GMO arguments. Kevin recently reported on a student project to survey: "public opinion about genetic crop improvement.  What are the triggers that excite or scare the public about how crops are changed by breeding, mutagenesis or other genetic techniques?".

What a great topic. I'm not surprised Kevin thought it "brilliant" and helped the student with the project. I'm also thrilled that they scored over 450 responses from random demographics and that the data are "astounding". Insightful student, interesting topic, astounding data. What's not to like here?

Well, apparently Kevin forgot to ensure that the prior strength and direction of respondents' views on GMOs were properly recorded for the 450+ people surveyed. At least that's the only reason I can think of for what happened next, which was that Kevin decided to 
"add an interesting highly biased layer by applying the same survey instrument to traditionally "pro-GMO" audiences and those not as comfortable with ag biotechnology."
Can you see why this must be a second survey? It's going to two different groups that Kevin's going to pick, and also, he's already told us that the student's survey was a success (450+ responses, astounding data).

So then Kevin, knowing he's regarded as the enemy by people "highly biased" against his position, starts inviting those people to complete his survey. Or as he puts it...

We have used social media to do the recruiting. It has been easy to recruit "pro" participation.  
But anti-GMO sentiment is silent. Total crickets. 
What's the deal?  When I put any scientific anything online there are swarms of the anti-biotech that are happy to hammer on me. There is always someone wanting their two cents to shape a conversation.
Where are they now?  Why won't they help a student's efforts?  The survey is anonymous. 
 I posted on Facebook pages of anti-GMO organizations like GMO Inside, Occupy Monsanto, and Moms Across America.  I've included their handles in Twitter feeds and reached out personally to individuals like Nomi from Babes Against Biotech.
The plea to "help a student's efforts" looks emotive when compared with the apparent success of the original project, not to mention Kevin's role in supporting that work. 

Anyway, the thing that caught my eye was this interpretation of Kevin's post
That's a pretty strong label there: anti-science. The impression is that these people are luddites, irrationally opposed to the pure objectivity of the scientific method.

I'd expect a scientist to use the term in a disciplined way, which means excluding other explanations before reaching for this classification. In this case there is one other very obvious explanation, which is that Kevin's enemies don't want to help him because they are his enemies.

I totally get the frustration felt by Kevin and Alison. But anyone claiming another group is "anti-science" really needs a scientific reason for that claim.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

We're all environmentalists now

Environmental values were celebrated in Blenheim on Friday night at the Cawthron Marlborough Environment Awards, also sponsored by the Council, DOC, Foresters, Federated Farmers, Wine Marlborough, ASB, Cuddon's and Morgan's Road Nursery. 20-odd tables of 10 people showed up to hear about 25 entrants in 6 categories.

Dignitaries included local leaders from Iwi, Council and Parliament in the form of 2003 Supreme Award winner Steffan Browning. No sign of  new electorate MP Stuart Smith.

Dame Anne Salmond was superb as the guest speaker. She began by noting that Maori arrived by sea-voyaging canoe around 1300, were extremely innovative with terrific sea-going credentials. A relatively short time later, Captain Cook showed up at Totaranui and mutual respect allowed these two peoples to get on together. The area became a favourite resting place for the English who loved  the loud and varied morning birdsong. Shame we don't hear that much these days. So its wonderful to celebrate people who care enough to do something. 

A fellow dairy farmer sitting next to Lynne said "That was a really good speech. who is that woman? I've never heard of her." 

There was some very cool stuff on display, like volunteer teams killing wilding pines in the sounds, wetland reclamation, a wildlife sanctuary, conservation education schemes, community gardens, a farmers market and voluntary renovation of a remote DoC hut.

We loved the Supreme Award winner: NZ Drylands Forestry Initiative is researching the best coppicable Eucalypt for dryland conditions in New Zealand. The idea is to replace toxic treated pine posts in farming and viticulture, with ground durable posts that can be harvested without killing the tree or disturbing the soil. Brilliant. This focus on the right plant for the job reminded me of Mark Cristensen's wonderful work on apples (Monty's Surprise) and tomatoes (Moonglow) as reported at the raving loonies conference last month.

To be brutally honest some of the other entries looked odd. It doesn't really spin my wheels that some vineyards/wineries might install PV solar or make the adversity of a wetland into a marketing angle, while still spraying the life out of almost everything.

But it's interesting that these fairly big businesses can be arsed getting involved as entrants or sponsors. That indicates that anti-environmentalism is being driven underground, as happened to sexism and racism in the past. 

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Communication is a 2-way thing

Over the last couple of days I've done industry workshops in Wellington and Auckland on my cost-benefit analysis of a contentious topic. A change is proposed that looks beneficial overall but would definitely disturb the status quo. And although (or perhaps because) the general topic has been unresolved for a decade there is considerable resistance to fixing it (in this way, now).

In this setting, cost benefit analysis can be more than just an analytical tool; it also helps to frame the issues and allow people an opportunity to participate at a couple of different stages. We started (months ago) discussing a list of potential costs and benefits. Once that was thrashed that down to a final list I got to work on what could be quantified and now we're discussing that part.

Listening is crucial. I don't work in this industry every day, so without careful listening I'm going to miss important details, and without wide consultation I'm going to be easily gulled by things people think are important but actually are not.

If I'd gone into these workshops thinking I knew it all, I'd have been quite rightly crucified. As it was, we had (appropriately) robust discussions but they were civil. 

This was all reinforced nicely last night in the monthly #scicommnz (i.e. science communication) twitter chat through this gem from University of Auckland physicist, Shaun Hendy.
So true.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Public spending on the arts

It started with a tweet

That's an interesting historic observation. It makes no claim as such, but points towards an inference. I presume(d) the $1k benchmark refers to public (taxpayer) money and responded by mentioning the obvious economic difference between the historic averages and any predictions about the impact of future funding reshuffles.
That's pretty cryptic so let me explain. Can we please start off by assuming that the reason we spend taxpayer funds on the arts is to generate benefits for appreciators of the arts? Maybe there's another reason, in which case I'd like to hear it.

Proceeding... One measure of the amount of benefit generated is spectator numbers. This is imperfect of course, because spectators incur costs in getting to artistic performances, whether by physically relocating to a performance venue & buying a ticket, or paying to download a track. Still, spectators is not a bad indicator.

But since we're comparing live classical music, ballet and kapa haka we really should note that the ticket prices are likely to be substantial for the first two and minimal for kapa haka. High ticket prices will curb demand, which probably accounts for much of the difference in spectator numbers per $ of public funding.

Ticket prices are also a great indicator of private willingness to pay. Ticket prices are way higher for orchestras & ballet than for kapa haka, which tells us that there is a more reliable business model for the arts favoured by rich people, which diminishes their case for public funding.

Yes, spectator numbers are choked off by the high ticket prices, but why does that mean taxpayers should pay more?

Public funds should be allocated to places where there are big spillover benefits. To my eye, that looks way more likely for kapa haka than for classical music and ballet. And may I just add that when I pay good money to attend all night outdoor parties featuring outrageously loud jungle music, it never occurs to me that there should be any taxpayer subsidy.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Baffled pundits

Two senior journalists were today bemused by John Key's failure to explain why mass surveillance of Pacific nations is perfectly OK.

Fran O'Sullivan struggled to understand why the PM has been so "lightweight" in his responses and concluded her column saying:
Key could save himself a great deal of angst if he explained simply to New Zealanders why this country participates in international security arrangements and what's at stake if it doesn't. It's a no brainer. Getting hung up on Hager isn't.
Tracy Watkins was more explicit about Key's response, saying (accurately IMO) that it "defied logic" was "unconvincing" and "over the top". She followed up with the exact same plea:
A reasoned and considered defence of the GCSB and its work, including a detailed explanation as to why Snowden had it so wrong as Key claimed would have carried a lot more weight and would have quickly shut the story down.
I think we're all waiting for a proper explanation. But surely the PM's problem is really obvious.  He is on record from last year categorically stating that the GCSB is not undertaking mass surveillance of New Zealanders and promising to resign if proven wrong.

So Fran and Tracy are pleading for the impossible. The PM simply cannot now defend a program of mass surveillance in the Pacific which has hoovered up the private communications of at least 200,000 New Zealanders, as the GCSB director of the day has now confirmed.

Maybe these Pacific governments are all in the loop and happy about what we've been doing. Maybe there are other justifications. Sadly, we can't even discuss these issues until the PM stops playing the man, and he can't start playing the ball because of his previous statements.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Hey Nanny, what should I tell Dylan?

NZ farmer's safety suit (2015)
The government has had enough. A rising death and injury toll on farms has prodded it into action to make farming businesses accountable for safety as is the case for every other employer. 

So leads the front page of NZ Farmers Weekly this week as Minister Michael Woodhouse and his agency WorksafeNZ ramp up the heat on farmers in advance of a new law that will impose on farmers a "duty of care" for anyone on/in our "workplaces".

In the process, they're trying hard to distance themselves from the quadbike helmet fiasco, as well they might given that helmets are so ineffective and the authorities are not interested in rollbars or warrants of fitness. Not that they're resiling from their role in those proceedings of course; they're just trying to shift all the blame for outrageous fines onto the courts.

Anyway, it's important that farmers please don't get the idea that this new initiative will be a "ticketing exercise". No, no, not at all. Here's how it will work instead, according to the report.

  1. Worksafe inspectors will target areas and farmers will be asked if an inspector could visit to talk about farm safety and practices. [nice, polite]
  2. If farmers refuse, there would be random unannounced spot checks. [but definitely not a ticketing exercise]
Officials "did not want to wield a big stick", but when a WorkSafe inspector calls they might

  • Ask you to demonstrate evidence of how you manage health and safety on your farm and show workings of a safety system in use.
  • Check your hazard register to see what the hazards are and evidence of how you manage them.
  • Ask for evidence of a machinery, vehicle or plant maintenance schedule and check guards on machines or PTOs.
  • Ask you or your employees to demonstrate or explain how a machine works and how you adhere to manufacturer's recommendations.
  • Look at personal protective equipment and evidence that it's used.
  • Ask how you involve your employees in your health and safety planning and regular reviews.
  • Ask about how you use chemicals on your farm and check how they are stored.
  • Observe you carrying out regular work activities.
  • Ask how you induct contractors new staff and visitors on to your farm.
  • Ask you any other questions or view any part of your operation to assess how effectively you are safeguarding the health and safety of everyone on your farm. 

We are very safety conscious farmers running an average sized operation with about 2 FTE workers. We know our hazards, but haven't written them down in a register. We manage health and safety very well but don't have a documented "system".

So this all looks like misguided bureaucratic overkill designed for much bigger operations. It suggests that the rule makers have learned nothing from the quad bike helmet fiasco and have ignored specialist advice procured(pdf) on this very topic which includes the following.
The workplace health and safety agency will need a deep understanding of current workplace health and safety culture, and the different potential target groups of any culture change campaign.
I'm sure these folk are well-meaning, but their methods are terrible. If they really wanted to change the culture for SME farmers we would have been involved already in preliminary discussions about how we do things. There would have been bottom-up attempts to understand the existing culture through processes that actually work like the Land and Water Forum approach, or the way big companies hammer out mutually beneficial deals with unions. It is nothing like that.

So, unfortunately, this looks very much like a crackdown dressed up as an attempt to change the culture. The headline above is dead right: "the government has had enough", from which it follows that "something needs to be done" and since this is "something", it needs to be done. I'm sure we all know what would have been said if the Clark government had tried this approach: Nanny State.

We'll comply of course, though it sounds hugely time consuming and I'm certainly not promising to be friendly when the inspectors call. Actually, it'd have to be a fair bet that some farmers might struggle to contain a strong urge towards physical violence. I trust that WorkSafe will be issuing inspectors with suitable protective gear and instructing them in its use.

Meantime, here are a couple of questions for Nanny.

What should I tell Dylan, the boy down the road, next time he calls up asking to go for a walk in the evening looking for an eel? Maybe there's a pro-forma legal contract I could get him to sign that covers eeling, but maybe he's not old enough to sign and I'd be unfairly prevailing on him to "contract out" of my duty. Perhaps me and Dylan both need legal advice; I'm just not sure.

Also do I really have a duty of care to poachers who sneak into my "workplace" at night hunting wildlife? If so, any practical tips on how I should discharge that duty would be great, especially regarding actually capturing them, so we can discuss things. I'm assuming that booby traps are not recommended.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

South Park water

SouthPark used to be a dairy farm but wasn't compliant with new riparian exclusion rules because many paddocks were deliberately fenced to include waterways - way cheaper than piping water to troughs. 

We bought it two years ago with a soil bio-activation plot in mind, but knowing that we were also committing ourselves to a new stock water system, plus associated riparian fencing. 

Past experience suggested that a DIY operation might be the go. So we bought a pipelaying mole plough, rented a wee 2T digger and ripped into it.

This shot is in the happy mid-morning stage. The super-sighted might spot Matt on a wee digger about half-way along that line of cows in the middle distance.

Once Matt had made the appropriate cuts under fences and tracks etc with the digger I joined up the nodes, dragging the mole-plough and leaving a wake like this..

Between us we've got on top of the job this weekend, which feels good though there's still a way to go. We had a few issues, like throwing digger tracks about 6 times and spearing existing the 40mm mainline. 

Next steps are to run out the pipes, plough them in, install troughs and hook everything up. Then we can get onto the riparian fencing. 

Hot and hard work, but also a great antidote to a week in the office and a terrific long-term investment.