Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Cheers Lorde

Lorde canning her Tel Aviv gig is a superb capstone to a year in which women finally got some cut-through in exposing sexual predators, and a brilliant young woman became our Prime Minister against massive odds. What a wonderful Christmas present.

Earlier, Lorde had appreciated reading this piece by two women, both New Zealanders, one Jewish and one Palestinian, in helping educate her. So yeah, it's smart and brave women all the way down here in Aotearoa.

The backlash started immediately, making plenty of noise but very little sense. Keep politics out of music is a desperately weak reed to cling to, ignoring everything from social commentary in Royals through to in-your-face protest songs.

Hypocrisy is the main charge though, as featured on on Page 1 of the anti-boycott playbook. David Farrar was particularly quick out of the blocks calling Lorde a hypocrite but it wasn't long before he was joined on this ridiculous platform by Israeli officials. The line seems to be that if you don't play in Israel you can't play in Russia either.

I'm not buying it. We all do what we can, right? If I see some guy hassling people on the street, my natural instinct is to intervene and make him stop. That's ok for me because I'm a big guy & not worried about physical interaction. Others might call the police, or try to persuade people who look more like me to have a go, or maybe just silently pray. We all do what we can in the moment.

In this situation, the hypocrisy-vendor does nothing but accuse others of moral failure: "oh, well, if you're going to intervene here, why aren't you also confronting violent gangs, joining the police force, or agitating for more spending on mental health". In his eyes, doing what you can in the moment, which is one good thing, is the worst of all sins.

Boycotts work if their target cares enough. Rugby boycotts of South Africa worked because those white people really loved rugby. A boycott of international tiddly winks or flower arranging wouldn't have had the same effect. So the impact of Lorde's decision should be measured by the rapid response from senior Israeli government officials: it's a home run.

There may well be a personal cost: the Israelis will be doing their best on this front. But nothing worthwhile is costless.

Thank you Lorde and kia kaha

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Reasons to be cheerful

Optional background music

Yea though verily do we stand on the cusp of special things, like massive rapid climate change, war in Korea and fascism in those formerly United States, and yeah, though pillocks and fucking morons do indeed walk freely among us, yet there are reasons to be cheerful, down here in Aotearoa.

Feminism for a start. Celebrities are being publicly outed as sexual predators, fired & sued, all of which is reducing their much-vaunted personal "brands" to a terrible liability. This is a huge win for civil society, reaching across the whole demographic spectrum including politics & religion. So far, the wave hasn't really struck these shores but at least we can celebrate the knowledge that it's brown trouser time for lots of really horrible men.

Closer to home, the official attitude towards welfare has changed too, from punitive to rational. Where I've recently roamed this has been enraging certain people. I reckon its the most-whinged-about topic, post-election. Some people are *really* down on 'beneficiaries' and ultra-keen to punish the bludgers, as was previously the official policy. The official stance is now much different, hence the rage.

The old punitive approach spread through government agencies for 9 long years & was fed by law changes, which is why imprisonment rates are now skyrocketing. I look forward to being more like Holland, were they're turning empty prisons into commercial accommodation.

Jacinda & the rest are caning it too, are they not? If I recall correctly, Jacinda was supposed to be a delicate flower, not quite up to the task, a pretty lightweight. Yet against strong protestations from the opposition, she credibly threatened retaliation if Australia put the slipper into 4000 kiwi students. They folded. Well-played Jacinda: more please.

There will be tussles to come for sure. But we do have plenty to celebrate as 2017 winds down.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

NZ has a Driving Problem: Respect

It's been a bad year on NZ roads: the highest road toll in 7 years and a horrible spike in cyclist deaths. I trust that the policy agencies are all over this but my concern is that we are massively under-emphasising one of the three official messages. 

The advice seems to be: belt-up, drive safely & respect other road users. I think we need much more effort on the third leg of this stool: respect.

Exhibit 1: Mark Richardson. What a wanker. Mark delights in cruising at 95km/hr in the fast lane of a two-lane highway. 

As a fledgling shock-jock, Mark only says out loud what (he reckons) lots of people are thinking. I reckon his reckon is right: there is a regular supply of anti-social arseholes out there on our roads. They've bought into the slow=good message to the point where they actively enjoy slowing other people down.

We use SH6 often between Blenheim and Nelson. There are a few safe passing places but only a few. Lots of other roads have similar features. 

I prefer to drive at 100km/hr unless conditions dictate otherwise. Often we run up behind trucks, road maggots & other rentals obviously happy to beetle along at 80 - 90km/hr. If it's a large infestation we just beetle along too. But other times there is a real chance of getting past slower traffic safely. 

In this situation, you might think that everyone benefits from successful overtaking, because the slow drivers know they're slow. Feeling bad about holding-up other people, they like seeing you overtake them. 

Sadly, other drivers accelerate, trying to race you out of a safe overtaking move. As Mark Richardson knows, lots of people have this attitude. They're not in any hurry so why should anyone else be? They'd prefer to hold people up than let them through. I really don't understand this mentality. 

The police say "it is easy for drivers to get distracted, or lose patience with other road users", such as that selfish arsehole who doesn't want you to pass. Reportedly, the police also "despair at the failure of drivers to heed repeated messages and their willingness to take needless risks"

Deliberate moves to prevent overtaking are needless risks, part of the respect problem we have on NZ roads, and a contributor to our road toll. 

So while you're on the road this summer: be respectful; don't be like Mark Richardson.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Guest Post by Prof T Dagginson - Selling unpopular stuff

Guest Post by Dr Trevor Dagginson, Professor of Problem Solving at the University of Taihape

Could you sell ice to the Eskimo? How about tobacco in these modern times when the support of scientists & doctors is less easily acquired? These are tough assignments but at least you can pick off the customers one-by-one. What if you were asked to switch public opinion from skepticism to acceptance of your stuff? Obviously this is much more difficult, but as luck would have it, my psycho-socio-economic research here at UoT has thrown up some recent examples from which, if I play my cards right, certain advice might be gleaned.

Firstly, and forgive me for stating the obvious, flat-out lying can work pretty well. Say for example you want to start a war in the Middle East. Let's also assume that creeping pacifism has sadly advanced to the point where this is just not an intrinsically popular idea. So you need to get past all that, talk directly to the people and explain why your war must proceed. In this case you'd struggle to beat bare-faced lies as a great strategy.

Perhaps there's a dossier that could be sexed-up a bit, to better align it with the strategy? Tell you what: if you could persuade people that bastard has weapons of mass destruction, you'd be straight to first base. From there, just spout whatever lies are needed at the time and there'll be a fair chance you'll be good to go.

Wedgies are also good and in this context it's customary to pick on minority groups, as far down the socio-economic ladder as possible. Ethnic minorities and refugees are going to be your ideal targets, but mainly you just want fairly small and isolated groups. Having selected your target, you need to explain how they're bludging off 'us'. Resentment is the key to an effective wedgy. So you'll probably want to focus on the costs and ignore the benefits.

Oh and by the way, best you keep a weather eye out for the dreaded reverse-wedgy, where the bone gets pointed at the wrong end of the socio-economic spectrum. There's been a bit of this lately, to the point where it could become a problem. All this talk about inequality and the 1% is a classic reverse-wedgy move. Obviously young people are to blame, but social media has given these ignorant little twerps a flippn megaphone.

The problem with social media is that it promotes open discussion. How can we sell unpopular stuff if ordinary people can contest our preaching? Let's be honest: all these comments and questions are flippn annoying, not to mention disrespectful. Can't we just make them shut the flip up?

Well perhaps we can. My research here at UoT has uncovered two useful strategies.

First, just refuse to engage. The brilliant chief scientist of NZ's EPA has commendably stuck to her guns in flat-out refusing to engage with ordinary people or so-called 'scientists' that disagree with her. Sure, the country's only serious business paper scrapped her column, but hey, at least no-one got to question her.

Go Jacqueline: transmit > receive. The grumbling riffraff includes scientists but does that mean you have to talk with them? Hell no. You're the boss & there's a sign on your office door to prove it.

Second and I'll admit it's a fair bit more difficult, try to make discussion impossible without refusing to engage: it's like a super-charged version of passive aggression. This guy is an expert but you wouldn't know it unless you tried to directly challenge him in social media conversation or talked to my mate Bruce Bayliss.

The key is to be aggressively thin-skinned: take offence early & often. If you master this persona and follow just 1 basic rule, you'll never have to engage seriously with your critics. Here's the rule :

Never admit to a characterisation of your position by someone you perceive as an opponent. 

Conversation/argument/debate relies on the other party understanding your message and responding to it. None of us wants that, but sometimes these annoying little gobshites get to make what *sound like* reasonable points, out loud & in public. They're so crass.

But if you relentlessly deny they understand your position, the conversation stops as dead as an old fergie with a leg-out-of-bed. Here are a few practical hints to help you deflect these apparently rational arguments:
  • 2nd order arguments are best
    • focus on how we talk to each other, not the substance of any disagreement 
  • use labels
    • deny the other person understands your position,
    • say they're 'characterising' or 'projecting' which are terrible sins
  • stay relentlessly aggressive 
    • attack them for playing word games & twisting the words you used; and
    • find ways to accuse them of infringing your rules for debate.
Eventually you'll burn off all but the most dogged of the impudent plebs who don't see it your way. The only possible downside is that you get tired of all the winning, in which case you might want to consider relocating to the USA where truth doesn't really matter any more. 

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Social Microbiology for Farmers & Economists

Most of us know that legumes can use root nodules to fix atmospheric nitrogen and make it available to the plant. That's the basis of the ryegrass & clover model that used to underpin pastoral agriculture in New Zealand & elsewhere, before we started buying nitrogen in bags.

Biological farmers know that this is just one of many potential symbiotic relationships between plants and living organisms in the soil. We try to feed our soil biology with complex foliar sprays & avoid damaging it with cultivation and harsh fertilisers. We dig holes, count worms, and measure brix levels in forage & outputs. But to be brutally honest, we really don't know much about the complex underground relationships between soil organisms and plants.

So it is a rare treat to listen to Toby Kiers, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (currently visiting U of Canterbury) being interviewed on RNZ. She is using modern microbiological methods to examine the symbiosis between plants and soil organisms that lies at the heart of biological farming. 

It turns out that economic models are assisting her work, so now I'm even more interested. Economics students may know that some branches of game theory draw inspiration from evolutionary biology: apparently the inspiration was mutual. 

I can't hope to do justice to even this 1/2 hour interview here, let alone cover the details of Toby's work programme & how it might mesh with biological farming practices. So let's just cover a few basics.

Fungi expand plant root zones
Fungal networks in the soil can massively expand the (effective) surface area of plant roots to which they attach. They are embedded deeply into the plant roots: piercing the root cell walls and growing arbuscular (small tree) networks inside those root cells. These link the root cells with hyphae networks that the fungi spreads through the soil. So now we have a massively expanded network for collecting & exchanging soil nutrients.

Fungi trade P and N for C
The basic trade between fungal networks and plants is that the fungi collects P and N from the soil and trades them for C that the plant produces via photosynthesis. Farmers know that soil tests often show that there is lots of P down there, but if you're buying soluble forms of P your sales rep will probably tell you that the P showing up on the test is not "available". So you need to put more on. Active fungal networks would harvest that P for your plants.

The plant supplies C in the form of sugars that feed the fungi. This basic symbiotic trading relationship has existed for at least 400m years. Recently discovered: plants also supply lipids to the fungi. Maybe future work will find that other forms of C being supplied?

Underground nutrient trading works like a normal market
As in all trading environments, there is a balance between co-operation and competition. Consider things from the fungi's perspective in an established market. Fungi has incurred the fixed costs of penetrating the cell walls, building its arbuscular networks inside the root cells, and building out its hyphae networks into the soil. Conditions are perfectly set up for a long term nutrient trading relationship.

The existing underground nutrient market could be left to its own devices, stimulated using the methods of biological farming, or destroyed by switching to conventional methods: application of urea and soluble P.

The biological reason that last approach destroys the market is that fungi are "obligate biotrophes". They are great nutrient scavengers, but they can't survive on the nutrients they harvest: fungi needs feeding. If the farmer now supplies solid urea and soluble P, the plant doesn't need the fungi so it cuts off the flow of C. In response, the fungi effectively says: "now you're getting this stuff for free so you don't want to pay me in C? well that's me rooted. i'll just crawl away & die".

This is consistent with a theme Toby emphasised. The observed conduct of non-human parties to a beautiful (& potentially hugely productive) underground nutrient trading market can be explained as if the participants were rational humans interacting through markets.

This interview left me elated and depressed.

On the upside, it's great to know that the market model is broadly appropriate to these underground nutrient markets and that 90% of plants can access them (not brassicas though). This is consistent with my intuition but it's great to have scientific support.

Switching hats to economics, is it not incredibly average that this kind of science work doesn't get funded in NZ? We think we're so clever and classless and free, but look at the scoreboard: Toby is from Holland, which exports 4 times as much food as us by value. Yet we have far more good land and far fewer people.

Sadly, our farmers & ag policy makers remain in thrall to the people who sell us stuff. We could do much better by seriously investing in science like this, with broad applications/benefits but no commercial sponsor.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Conversation > Communication

Science communication is an industry now. Universities offer degree-level qualifications in science communication, there's a conference circuit for people who self-identify as science communicators, not to mention the popular #scicomm tag on Twitter.

Pretty much all of this industry is devoted to explaining science to the rest of us, in the hope that we'll eventually understand: it is almost entirely one-way traffic. If you listen to #scicomm on Twitter you'll mainly hear preaching, discussion of preaching techniques or angst-ridden discussions about how to get people to agree. For they are preaching the truth and we are either converts or prospects.

Science is far more rigorous than religion: the agreed method of progress in science involves trying to falsify hypotheses. Done well, economics is no different: science and economics should be practiced without reference to ones own values or beliefs. That's why some of us argue that economics is a science: we subscribe to the method. Still, for what follows lets assume it's not.

Advanced study in any of these fields is difficult: the content differs but I'm not aware of any systematic differences in the cognitive abilities of people with comparable advanced degrees either within sciences or between them and economics. Also, both groups are like artists: we tend to fall in love with our models. So we have a lot in common.

I also acknowledge of course that economists can get religious. No-one my age who was resident in Aotearoa at the time could forget the sermons used as support for the late-1980s economic revolution. Yet there are no #buscomm or #econcomm groups on Twitter or degree courses in how to optimise your business/economics preaching.

My point will become clear shortly, but first we need to recognise that economics is not a laboratory science. When economists analyse potential policy/institutional/structural changes, we generally can't do (or consult earlier) experiments that directly answer our questions. Instead we're constantly trying to knit together fragments of information, using them to confront one of several potential theoretical models, and draw inference about likely effects.

This makes economics imprecise, with elements of art. It also means we care *a lot* about what other people think. The views and reactions of ordinary non-economist people will (in aggregate) determine the ultimate answers to our questions. When I'm investigating a public economics issue, I am deeply interested in how people (or firms, which are run by people) feel about stuff and how they'd react if things changed. Listening closely to non-specialists is incredibly important in my field.

By contrast, the #scicomm crew are entirely focused on persuading people who are yet to see the light. They assume that the knowledge flow will be one-way traffic because they know they're right, so it's all just a sell job. This is why they get so frustrated & angry when challenged. They're mainly stuck on transmit. They do have a receive function, but it's been hard-wired to focus on constructing 'gotcha' attempts: ways to assign pejorative labels to others who can then be ignored if not vilified.

This one-way traffic form of "science communication" creates a massive blind spot. It limits the scientist's understanding of other perspectives. It's better suited to gospel preachers than professionals trying to engage with their fellow citizens.

Some of you will be thinking: "this is all fine in theory but does it really matter"? One reason it matters is the same reason that #scicomm exists as an industry: scientists want public support. If you don't understand your audience, your communications strategy is very risky if not doomed.

Another reason is that values differ, as do expectations about the future. For example, a scientist working to develop a particular GMO is likely to be focusing on the positive potential of the work. How should they behave if deployment of "their" GMO would create risks? Strictly speaking, assuming the persona of the dispassionate scientist, they should recognise that the calculation as to whether the risks are worth accepting is beyond their expertise. The scientists' role in this situation is to accurately characterise the risks and then allow others to choose whether they are worth taking.

What about planetary engineering? Suppose a group of scientists developed and received financial backing for schemes to pump stuff into the atmosphere or send up mirrors or whatever. Should we, the non-scientists just automatically accept whatever risk calculus they presented? Or should we also consider the views of ordinary people, non-expert in planetary engineering technology but nevertheless affected by it?

My position is that these are social decisions, not the domain of vested interests. I think #scicomm needs to take a hard look at itself and be far more receptive to feedback from lesser mortals. Conversations are two-way. If you stopped preaching for a bit, you might hear what others are saying.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

GMO Regulation in NZ

Another month, another call to significantly relax GMO regulation in New Zealand, this time from Grant Jacobs over at sciblogs. Grant briefly lists 13 "ideas". Many are unsupported assertions about how we (NZ) should behave. Lots of ground is covered quickly.

I want to pick up on two issues: diversity & inclusiveness.

Grant recognises "many different types of applications" of GM which relies on the ability to "read genomes" and use one of several "editing technologies". This diversity of applications is one of the reasons I've been describing GM as resembling a general purpose technology (GPT). 

Diversity is also why case-by-case risk assessments are needed. One example: risks associated with outdoor release of a GM plant that could breed with other plants are different to those for a medical application where such inter-breeding could not occur. Not that outbreeding is the only concern, nor plants: Grant is also seeking the removal of regulation on GMO animals, insects, fungi & bacteria. 

While recognising this incredible diversity, Grant also suggests that "legislation targeting GM varieties could be removed". So the plan is: never assess things that haven't been invented yet, provided they're GMO's? This is bonkers. I trust the relevant authorities will require a sturdy bridge before accepting Grant's invitation to cross the logical chasm.

Grant says that "few problems are science-based ones". Don't get excited though: that's not an admission that scientists should listen to non-scientists. On the contrary, Grant's saying that concerned non-scientists are stupid.

It all starts with the name: GMO is a liability because "people have different ideas about what it means, and it carries emotive baggage". Then we're told that concerns about transgenesis only exist because people are thick, or as Grant puts it these concerns are "culture-based, not science-based. This wants education, not regulation". Oh, and we shouldn't "conflate big business practices and crop safety" or "worry about 'unexpected risks' from using GE" or be "negative" or "defensive"

If you listen in to conversations between practitioners of science communication (e.g. #scicomm on twitter), you'll pick up a lot of frustration about why the messages aren't getting through. Grant seems to think it's because we all just need more lecturing while the business side of things gets on with the job.

I'm all for education and outreach by scientists. We can learn a lot by reading and listening to objective scientists. I certainly have. But GMO science is not the only discipline that should inform decisions on the regulation of GMOs. 

We live in a democratic society: our laws and institutions reflect social views, albeit in imperfect ways. We don't let telcos set telco policy, we don't let bankers design financial regulation and we shouldn't let GMO producers set GMO policy. Industry input and insight is useful in all these cases, but it needs to be moderated by other professions. 

Otherwise, we'll end up with people like Grant doing the policy economics, like this...
  • "GE varieties do not endanger organic farming. Allow both. The diversity may mitigate market risks". Sure it's just an idea. It's also wild speculation about market issues on which Grant has no expertise to my knowledge. 
  • "Regulations always conflict with other nation’s rules. Create opportunities for NZ; worry about other nations later". Crikey. Where to start. He's not destined for the diplomatic service is he? We have signed up to a lot of international agreements and are members in good standing of the international community. Also, trade.
By the way, the regulator, whose decisions Grant is hoping to influence with his bush-economics, has recently taken off on its own undocumented excellent adventure into economics.

Disciplinary imperialism is a real worry here. These issues are far too important to be controlled by the vested interests.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Feed the World with Cellular Agriculture

Is anyone else getting serious pleasure from the media blitz over cellular agriculture? Meat and dairy products without the animals is the basic pitch. Food-like products, containing protein, are being grown in labs and will soon be released to markets they will rapidly dominate, apparently.

I'm a big supporter of this plan, which might sound odd coming from a New Zealand dairy farming economist. Here's my reasoning.

Start with the markets. Cellular protein is potentially attractive to two groups.

  • Vegans or near-vegans who loathe the animal farming industry but love the taste of dairy & meat and don't mind eating gmos; and
  • People who buy on price and can't afford to worry about the provenance of their food. 
It is not yet clear how this stuff is going to be pitched to the market, but presumably the suppliers will try to capture both of these groups. I find it hard to understand the first group and suspect it is neither large or enduring. The second group is much larger. If it were tapped, prices for cellular protein would fall and the vegans would be stoked.

In this low-price scenario, cellular protein would compete with the output of mainstream animal farming in NZ and elsewhere. I hope & trust that Fonterra & others are worrying about this, modelling the production costs of faux animal protein (fap), investor expectations of those costs and market acceptance of the products. 

Let's help them out a bit. Assume that fap is a commodity freight train coming at us. It's a low cost high volume for our product. How should we respond? There are two main options for NZ farmers. Fight them, or join them:

  • go up-market, focusing on a more wealthy market segment, who care enough about food quality that they'll pay extra to avoid the fap; or
  • sell animals and start farming plants as inputs into the fap factories to support the cellular agriculture industry.

I really like that cellular agriculture is forcing this choice on us.

My own interests are not affected much by where the country goes on this choice. There is already a big disconnect between what we supply (soil biology & zero pesticides) and what Fonterra pay us for (milk solids). Market disruption from a low-price artificial gmo protein doesn't look like a negative to me.

On the contrary, cellular agriculture undercuts William Rolleston* and his fellow travellers who have been spending up large on lawyers & lobbyists to promote outdoor gmos in New Zealand. This gives me great pleasure. My economic research in connection with draft local government plans in Hawkes Bay, Auckland and Northland found that there were net local benefits from banning outdoor cultivation of gmos.

Among the counter-arguments was that New Zealand farmers have a moral obligation to feed the world, and that gmos are needed to do so. This 'feed the world' argument is common but it seems useless now. Indoor gmo promoters are gazumping those promoting outdoor gmo cultivation by producing heaps of cheap food for the world, apparently.

The promises of cellular agriculture are no less reliable than the promises of those seeking outdoor cultivation of gmos in NZ. Both camps are prone to exaggeration and the optimism of those invested in new ventures. Both camps assume consumers will be happy to eat their food. It's pretty difficult to see any difference except the outdoor people need to expose our ecosystems to contamination risk.

Contamination risk is my primary concern, so I'm delighted that we can now feed the world without it.

Now, for dessert, have a look at this photo I shamelessly stole from twitter and have a listen to this.

Last year's FedsPres is addressing the Rural Business Network on genetic tech in NZ agriculture. Ashburton is thriving as an agricultural service centre so the apparent turnout suggests a lack of enthusiasm.

Maybe everyone stayed away because they knew he'd be pimping the outdoor gmo technology again. I am reliably informed that cellular gmo agriculture didn't get a mention.

* Recognising the inevitable, I used to refer to William as Sir William. I am suspending this usage in the hope that the new govt will abolish these stupid titles (again). I hope it doesn't need to be reinstated. 

Friday, 3 November 2017

Pesticide-Free Maize 2017

Intermittent reinforcement is a powerful psychological effect. As we head into our third season of growing maize without pesticide, I'm hoping for the stunning results we got in our first season and trying to forget the disappointments of last year, when we got slammed by the weather and the weeds. Somehow I forgot to blog about that. It wasn't a complete disaster (we're feeding out the silage now) but it was pretty bad: We comforted ourselves that everyone around here had a bad maize season.

But I still have a vivid memory of sitting in the silage chopper harvesting tall healthy maize from our first attempt, and hearing the surprise in the contractor's voice about the size of our crop which he knew damn well had flouted almost all industry recommendations, and the nice big pile of silage we had at the end. So yeah, we're doing it again.

The basic plan hasn't changed: feed the maize plants well but don't poison predators/competitors. We buy bare hybrid seed, untreated with any insecticide or fungicide. Before sowing we innoculate the seed with our own blend of beneficial fungi (mycorrhizae and trichoderma). This year we're including the wonderful aztobacter. The picture shows a bag of untreated maize seed tipped into a wool fadge with a dollop of each innoculant on top. We roll it around in the fadge to coat the seed, and then tip it into the drill for sowing.

Preparing the Ground
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The most difficult and crucial part of this process is getting the maize away to a good start before it gets swamped by competing plants. It's all good when the maize beats the weeds to canopy closure, at which point the maize blocks light to everything else, but a disaster otherwise.

In previous years we've got the contractors in to disc the maize paddocks and then power-harrow (rotary hoe) them. We're keen on and have tried to use false seedbeds but the logistics beat us both times: we just don't have time in spring to wait for dormant seeds to sprout. Since we have no discs or power-harrow, we're also dependent on contractors for the timing of cultivation. Received wisdom also dictates that maize be "precision planted" so contractors again.

Herbicide helps manage these logisitics: just spray out the paddock. If there was much grass when you sprayed, put some animals in there to eat it before you the disc, power-harrow etc. I'm serious: NZ farmers do send cattle into paddocks that have been killed with Roundup.

Fortunately though, animals are also a herbicide substitute. This year we break-fenced young stock on the maize paddocks, pushing them a bit hard, aiming for very little grass cover, plenty of trampling, but not quite raw earth/mud. It worked very well for one paddock and most of the second but then the contractor was discing in the neighbourhood so we got all three paddocks disced, rather than wait who-knows-how-long for the next chance.

We are trying less cultivation this year, because it really messes with soil biology, slicing up the worms, destroying those wonderful hyphal networks and releasing CO2. Maize seed is large and robust: it is a kernel of corn. It should be able to grow from a shallow seed bed. So we're skipping the power-harrow stage. After discing, we crumbled up the top 2-5cm a bit with our own gear and then drilled the maize seed directly into that.

Sowing the Seeds
As mentioned above, the normal system involves "precision planting". We bought this service the last two years but are trying an alternative this year. Based on the last two years, we reckon that:

  • "precision planting" involves nothing more than setting the row width at 750mm and then dropping seed to achieve a target of seeds/ha; and
  • in practice, the spacing of plants in those 750mm rows is random - it hits the target sowing rate on average but plants are not evenly spaced in the rows.

Our contractor, who also supplies the planting service, doesn't care about row width because his chopper has a rotary head: it'll eat anything. So row width isn't a concern for harvesting, but canopy closure is the #1 issue for succeeding without herbidice.

I won't bore you with the arithmetic, but it's easy to show that random planting at the same per hectare rate would give much more uncontested space to each maize seed, which should also mean less maize-maize competition and faster canopy closure. We happen to have a great seed drill perfectly capable of random planting at a specified rate.

So that's what I did last night: drilled the seed randomly in 2 paddocks and made a start on the third before retiring due to an over-heating tractor and and under-fed driver. Since then we've had 30mm or rain.

After the storm, the next jobs are to get the drilling finished, roll the paddocks, and then get the fert on! 

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Hope for a generation

Backing track for this post

As the man said, elections have consequences. We all vote in hope for a generation of people that can run the country well while also advancing policies we like. Now that a reforming government is getting to work, here are a few of my hopes.

Stop Persecuting the Poor
Walking among us are many who begrudge welfare payments except to the old, who get the lions share. They wish WINZ was even more aggressive towards the bludgers, which is why Metiria's message was so unacceptable. My hope is that government spending on fraud detection/deterrance gets aligned with expected payoff. If we only cared about the money, so that shitting on the unfortunate and calling it something noble wasn't desired for its own sake, we'd spend less public money persecuting the poor and more chasing tax dodgers.

Evaluate Education Experiments
A new school curriculum(pdf) for New Zealand was finalised in 2007 following a long period of consultation and deliberation. Without actually ditching that curriculum, the National-led government elected in 2008 subverted it by diverting attention to national standards and charter schools. The best you could say is that these were experiments, but why don't we know how they turned out? It seems that an evaluation of charter schools was contracted some time ago but strangely enough the report was timed for release after the election.

Labour's education manifesto says "Taxpayer funding for education should be directed towards learning and teaching, not creating profit-making opportunities for private businesses". That's the correct priority: learning and teaching are paramount and only fools would want to turn the whole thing over to private business. Labour also advocates "Repealing the legislation allowing for Charter Schools", which sounds like bad news for Catherine Isaacs at least. 

My hope is that education in NZ continues to innovate, but with less dogma in what is tried and more evaluation.

Take Environmental Issues Seriously
Climate change poses a global collective action problem. There are only selfish reasons to not join the fight and having worked pretty hard for the privilege of kaitiakitanga over some nice farmland, I'm not looking for a hand-out from the taxpayer now. When my mokopuna ask me about climate change, I'd rather not be making excuses.

As you know, the NZ taxpayer is picking up the tab for agricultural emissions (other than fossil fuel use) so we are being subsidised. Even though my costs will increase, I welcome the new government's plan to include agriculture in the ETS. I hope & trust that soil carbon sequestration will be part of the plan, to create an incentive for others to join the regenerative agriculture movement.

Also, it's embarrassing and wrong that we still turn a blind eye to the pesticide problem. Bee-killing neonics are advertised as standard seed treatments, glyphosate is sprayed everywhere and the EPA just doesn't give a fuck. I hope this generation will bring some order to the EPA.

Promote Competition
Last but not least, I hope we might finally get some action on s36 of the Commerce Act. This is the only part of NZ's competition law that constrains firms with substantial market power from abusing that power.

Due to a long history of liberal merger controls we have lots of firms with substantial market power. Fine, we did that for reasons and are not about to undo it by forcibly breaking them up. Much less fine: s36 doesn't work, so these powerful firms have no real constraint on the use of their market power.

It's not just me who says it doesn't work. The chair of the Commerce Commission is on record as clearly indicating the same thing five years ago. Since then, the competition regulator has effectively been on strike because it considers the law unworkable. The public announcement of this position five years ago effectively gave carte blance to the top-end-of-town. No-one is keeping track of the consequences but the costs of having no law and everyone knowing must be enormous.

If this wasn't so arcane & geeky it'd be a front-page scandal. I hope we get it fixed, pronto.

Synthetic Protein & Pastoral Farming

Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll have noticed that wealthy investors are pouring money into R&D projects to grow meat and milk in laboratories using genetically engineered yeasts. The financial dream is that these labs will morph into factories and the wealthy investors will get wealthier. 

Good luck to them. Perhaps these technologies can indeed "feed the world" (as if that line is anything more than marketing spin). If we're going to have GMOs, then lets keep them indoors rather than allow them to interact and propogate in our biota/plant/animal ecosystems. To my eyes, this is yet another argument against outdoor GMO release in NZ: now we obviously don't need it to "feed the world": grow your protein in the lab.  

Less clear to me is the reasoning behind arguments like this and this which are basically berating NZ's pastoral farmers for the fact that synthetic protein is being pursued. Yeah, we know, and we also know we can't stop it.

Missing from all this vapour-ware, is any analysis of costs, pricing and demand which depends on pricing. The talk is of devastation to our markets, which implies that these are these going to be mass-market commodities. If that turns out to be the case then New Zealand's largely grass-feed and gmo-free products will continue to have a niche market, though we'll obviously need to push on with further environmental and management enhancements to secure that niche.

More generally, production decisions change with demand. If these synthetic protein dreams start gaining market share you'll see a response from farmers. Until then, pimp the synthetic products by all means, but don't berate us farmers for not responding to vapour-ware.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

HSNO Regulation Economics

Rod Oram has highlighted two facts about New Zealand's EPA
  1. It is using a new method called "net benefit" to evaluating hazardous substances and new organisms; and
  2. There is no written description of the new method.
Gleaned from an interview with EPA Chief Scientist Jacqueline Rowarth, Oram tells us that the net benefit method entails...
weighing up the financial, health and environmental costs of a substance against its economic benefits. For example, Rowarth says, Roundup, and other forms are glyphosate, are highly beneficial to farmers because they reduce weeds and significantly increase crop yields.“It’s a very difficult calculation,” she says. However much economics goes into the analysis, “ultimately there is a final point that becomes subjective” about wider societal values.
Exactly how does that work? I asked her. “We’re trying to formalise that because more people are challenging decisions. 
Does the EPA have a guide to this methodology? “I’ve been exploring this in press articles…and a document is being prepared internally on this.”
So basically they're making it up as they go along. Instead of sticking with the precautionary principle, the EPA seems to weighing up things without measuring them first.

Worse, there appears to be no international guidance on how to do this. On the contrary, according to Rowarth...
The EPA is a world leader for its work on “net benefit” analysis.... “Our scientists are being invited abroad” to give presentations on the methodology,
To me, this sounds like another round of the "light-handed regulation" New Zealand used for privatised monopolies in the 1990s. Pushed by extremist economists, this ill-fated idea was also hailed as world leading. Not one country followed though, so we weren't so much leading the world as heading off down a blind alley. Eventually, New Zealand endured a very painful re-calibration of regulatory expectations, though not before the privateers locked-in $2-3bn of un-earned capital gains in the electricity distribution sector alone.

As part of the re-calibration, the Commerce Commission as regulator was instructed by Parliament to develop "input methodologies" setting out in detail how regulation was going to be applied, to consult on these methods and for its decisions to be subject to a specially-enabled High Court review. All of this effort was designed to avoid regulating "on the fly" as the EPA now apparently does.

So the omens are not good. But what are the economic arguments against the EPA's novel method? There are two: it is conceptually wrong; and it is fraught with severe practical challenges.

The Concept
Back in the late 90s I visited a colleague who was an economics professor at Stanford and learned that a common description of a hopeless student there was "not clear on the concept".  In this EPA matter, the concept is the precautionary principle which goes like this:
if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public domain (affecting general health or the environment globally), the action should not be taken in the absence of scientific near-certainty about its safety
Notice that the level of risk is not specified and could have a low, even a very low probability. What matters is that "severe harm" might ensue. Examples of potential severe harm in the HSNO context include widespread disruption of human endocrine systems, depression and other forms of mental illness, and unintended consequences from the outdoor release of GMOs. These all count as "severe harm". Under the precautionary principle the onus would be on those seeking approval to prove "scientific near certainty".

One economic rationale for this approach is that disasters are best avoided if possible. Disaster insurance might possibly help, but ask the good people of Christchurch if they feel properly compensated. Or try to buy insurance against the expected mega-quake from the Hikurangi Subduction Zone

In the HSNO context though, the potential disasters are not natural in the sense of being beyond human influence. Far from it, any disasters will be the result of decisions made by humans at the EPA to approve the release of hazardous substances and/or new organisms. We can't insure against these disasters, so the EPA should not expose us to them.

The effect of the precautionary approach is to place an onus of proof on those wanting approval for a HSNO and to set a high bar (near certainty) for that proof. This is fully consistent with the real options literature, which requires that the timing of irreversible decisions made under uncertain conditions be delayed until the upside benefits are well in excess of the potential costs.

By contrast, the net benefit approach is based on expected values. If the EPA's probability-weighted assessment is that benefits exceed costs, then it will release the HSNO.

Here's a way to think of the difference between these approaches. Imagine you were in charge of Christchurch back in the day, and you had to decide whether to allow houses to be built on liquifaction-prone land. The precautionary principle would direct you to avoid exposing people to disaster, so you'd decline the request, markets would adjust and houses would be built somewhere else.

The property developers who bought swampy land cheap and now want to build houses will be advocating the net benefit approach. They'll have plausible-sounding economists and power-points for Africa, and they'll be regaling you with all the massive benefits of seeing things their way. If you ask about the risk of disaster, they'll assign it a tiny probability so that an expected (probability-weighted) value analysis aligns with their request, while gently suggesting that perhaps you shouldn't be such an old worry wart. 

So, yes, there is a huge difference and no, the net benefit approach does not properly accommodate disaster risk. That's why we use the precautionary approach.

Incidentally, the precautionary principle is baked into the HSNO Act. The purpose of the Act (s4) is to
protect the environment, and the health and safety of people and communities, by preventing or managing the adverse effects of hazardous substances and new organisms
To me, if you 'protect' a thing or person you would ensure they were not exposed to even a small risk of disaster. Parents of young children are usually clear on this concept. 

Section 7 of the HSNO Act is titled "precautionary approach" and requires that
All persons exercising functions, powers, and duties under this Act ... shall take into account the need for caution in managing adverse effects where there is scientific and technical uncertainty about those effects.
Finally, Schedule 1AA of the Act is the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants which is explicitly based on the precautionary principle.

Practicalities of Net Benefit Approach
You'll have gleaned by now that I think the EPA is barking up a blind alley, probably the one where Jacqueline Rowarth buries all the strawmen she keeps murdering in the popular press. For the record though, I should just finish with a few questions for the EPA in the event that it proceeds down this track. I'll focus on glyphosate for now....

1. How do you measure annual and cumulative exposure to glyphosate for New Zealanders?
2. What probability do you assign to a New Zealander contracting cancer from exposure to glyphosate?
3. How did you estimate that probability?
4. In your model, what is the cost of a New Zealander contracting cancer?

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Strike Three: Rowarth has to walk

We all make mistakes and some people are psychologically incapable of admitting or apologising for them. This personality trait is probably detrimental to a scientist's career, but need not be fatal if the mistakes are few, minor and uncorrelated.

None of these defenses is available to Jacqueline Rowarth, who is still the Chief Scientist at NZ's Environmental Protection Agency despite committing three significant and correlated errors in less than a year, in the opinion of other scientists.

Strike One
Rowarth's appointment was reported on 10 August 2016 and she took up her role at the end of October 2016. Even before getting her feet under the desk, on 3 October 2016, she claimed that the Waikato River was one of the five cleanest rivers in the world. The Freshwater Scientists' Society schooled her publicly, noting her reliance on poor quality data that was also out-of-date. The Society's president Marc Schallenberg also commented on a later statement from Rowarth:
Ms Rowarth's later comments in an letter to NZ Farmer that E Coli in the river would pass the European Union's swimability test were also wrong, he said. He said she used median values and not maximum values to assess the data.
To my knowledge, these embarrassing errors have never been acknowledged or corrected by Rowarth. For it's part, the EPA chose to focus on timing details, saying:
"it would be comment on statements she made while employed in a previous role".
Strike Two
On 20 April 2017, Rowarth and Doug Edmeades participated in a radio discussion about whether freshwater scientist Mike Joy is an extremist. Edmeades had previously supported Rowarth's false statements about the quality of the Waikato River. This discussion prompted the NZ Association of Scientists to write to its members with a "reminder of the rules" concerning public debates between scientists. Association President Craig Stevens was quoted as follows:
"In this particular area we're talking about freshwater and land use. "It's an issue that's incredibly important for New Zealand from a number of perspectives. "We were concerned that some of this was proceeding in the media in a way that was not helpful for getting the facts across."
Again, Rowarth declined to comment.

Strike Three
One of the roles of the EPA is to regulate pesticides. It is well known that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has decided that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic. Note that this is raw glyphosate, not the stronger formulations sold to farmers in New Zealand.

The EPA recognises IARC as “one of the two respected sources for information on carcinogenicity” but decided to not to accept its determination on glyphosate, commissioning an alternative review of the same evidence from a single NZ scientist, Wayne Temple, who as luck would have it came to the opposite view, that "glyphosate is unlikely to be genotoxic or carcinogenic to humans".

Rowarth has been working hard to support the EPA's position but running into serious scientific criticism including this strong piece from sciblogs, which itself leans on background work by former Green MP Steffan Browning and independent researcher Jodie Bruning. Now the issue has finally hit the mainstream media with this Rod Oram report, noting among other howlers that the Ministry for the Environment is reviewing the whole EPA, quoting Sir Peter Gluckman as saying "We don’t fully understand what they [the EPA] do" , and that Rowarth is not aware her employing agency is under review.*

I will have more to say soon about the EPA's "net benefit" approach to pesticide regulation, on which Rowarth is relying in the glyphosate matter.

Meantime, these three episodes make it painfully clear that Rowath is a national embarrassment to a country that markets itself as 100% Pure, where most citizens genuinely care about our environment and many are actively striving to live up to the slogan. She has to go.

*Update 8/10/17: It seems that Peter Gluckman's comments about a review were mis-interpreted: MfE is constantly responsible for monitoring the EPA but no special review is underway.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

DairyNZ Director Elections

DairyNZ is a statutory monopoly, empowered by Parliament to levy all dairy farmers and spend the cash on "industry good" work, including research. The directors of DairyNZ are responsible to levy-payers. We trust them to direct the management of DairyNZ in spending the funds we provide. So the election of new directors, closing at noon on 24 October 2017, really matters if you care about the scientific direction of this industry.

In 2015, DairyNZ offered an online Q&A facility where we could post questions for director candidates to answer, out in the open where everyone could see. For frankly flaky reasons, that facility is no longer enabled, though it still sits there behind the DairyNZ website.

I used the online facility in 2015 to ask candidates about their views on funding research into biological farming, written up here. Responses ranged from supportive (2 candidates) through demanding proof the research would have a positive outcome (3) and buck-passing to other agencies (4), all the way to the bottom where 1 guy flatly denied there is anything new to learn.

That last guy, the denialist, was not just elected but made chairman of the board of DairyNZ. Michael Spaans was also a Fonterra director, but in January 2017 he "stepped down from the boards of Fonterra and DairyNZ, citing ill-health". He seems to have got better though, enough to be back in the driving seat at DairyNZ anyway.

Against that background I emailed the six director candidates for this election, pointing them to this post about some very cool nitrogen-fixing bacteria and posing the same questions used in 2015:
Despite the critical role of soil in pasture-based dairying, DairyNZ has no research efforts looking at how to harness/farm the biological life in soils. If elected, would you advocate for such research? Why or why not?
Four of the six candidates responded, the omissions were Cole Groves and Jim van der Poel.

Ian Brown went for the "prove it" camp, saying that he would
need to see a case put forward to understand the benefits that may accrue to dairy farmers and the industry as a whole
What Ian is really saying here is "bring me a company that expects to make cash out of this idea". As if that's the only test of potentially valuable industry good research. It doesn't occur to Ian that there could be different ways of doing things that are (a) much better for farmers but (b) won't increase profits for any existing suppliers to dairy farmers.

Colin Glass didn't address the questions but he did send me a long email that sounded like his stump speech.

Grant Coombes did much better. He'd read the background material, endorsed a couple of the key points and committed to advocating for "a larger % spend on all R&D including soil science". That's not what I was hoping for as an outcome to be honest. I have no opinion on whether budgets should be shifted from outreach etc to R&D: what I'm asking for some investment into the biological aspects of soil science.

The stand-out winner was Mark Slee, who I later discovered already has a record of achievement in sustainable dairying. Despite this background Mark said "Biological farming is not an area I have explored but I’m keeping an open [mind] on all possibilities moving forward". Nor was this just lip service: Mark also said he is attending the field day at Brian Clearwater's farm near Peel Forest on 12th October to get "better informed about biological farming practices". Then he did some more digging and emailed the next day with some slide packs about the Backtrack farm where there is a matched trial underway, supported by DairyNZ, that apparently has a biological focus.

Mark gets my vote and I hope he'll get one of yours too. He's not an advocate for biological farming, far from it. But he's open-minded enough to seriously consider it, which is all you can ask for in a research director.

I'll admit that as a practitioner I'm nervous about how Mark will react to the field day at Brian's place. A lot of what we do is a direct challenge to standard agronomy, which is why the vast bulk of scientific agronomy doesn't even consider these methods. That makes them under-investigated, not inferior or fatally flawed, as you might gather from reading certain pundits in the rural press. 

Science works on falsification. Unless and until DairyNZ can prove there is no value in trying to foster soil biological life, it should be actively investigating the potential benefits.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

On the selling of markets

Markets in everything is a recurring theme on the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution (sample). The underlying idea is that markets arise naturally to co-ordinate voluntary exchange and it's often best for governments to just keep out of the way so this can happen.

Sometimes government is already "in the way" though, and markets won't arise without help. The NZ wholesale electricity market is a good example. With government assistance, this market opened in 1996. It was entirely unregulated until 2003 when a regulator was installed after persistent failure by the industry to agree on its own self-governing rules.

The more interesting cases are where governments want to coerce private agents for broader economic reasons. Greenhouse gas emissions are a good example. New Zealand has made commitments internationally and the government is on the hook financially for those commitments. There is a strong economic case for obliging emitters within New Zealand to pay their own way, rather than have the taxpayer pick up the tab, which is effectively a subsidy. Pricing doesn't just force polluters to pay though, it also underpins the business case for investing in mitigation.

It's well known that there are two basic ways of pricing emissions: a tax, which regulates the price; or a cap which regulates the quantity and promotes trading. Suzi Kerr has recently outlined the relative merits of these options, focusing (rightly in my view) on the promotion of certainty and concluding that "if you want more certainty, work for stronger political consensus and stable policy". Suzi notes that the price of carbon has been undermined by politicans in Australia and New Zealand, despite there being a tax in Australia and a trading scheme (ETS) in New Zealand. 

These are terrible outcomes for both countries because they strand mitigation investments and make future investors fear the same treatment. In what follows, I'm going to assume we've solved the political problem somehow, for example by using legislation that seeks to bind future governments such as Reserve Bank Act. Now, should we prefer a trading scheme or a tax? Well, if price certainty is what we're after the answer is clearly a tax.

That's the wrong answer though if you have an ideological aversion to taxes. This is why, when other forms of pollution become public issues, the NZ Initiative needs to push a different line. Thus, the water tax proposed by Labour is characterised as "guessing at prices" as a preface to discussing trading schemes. Eric Crampton recently outlined such a scheme...
Set a catchment-level cap on water extraction so that the aquifer is sustainable, set a minimum river flow so that the river is a river, then run the kind of trading regime that Raffensperger and Milke designed.
This is not an alternative to anything relevant, including the status quo. As I outlined previously, we already have catchment level caps in place along with an obligation on the relevant councils to eliminate over-allocations. Moreover, there is already a secondary market for irrigation water in Canterbury (the current price is around 80c/cubic metre) and the next round of plans at other councils is already enabling such markets elsewhere. Feel free to deride the Canterbury market as lacking depth and liquidity though: these are definitely over-the-counter trades rather than the stuff of an economist's wet dream, but that's because of limited demand for trades. Until recently, exactly the same criticism would have applied to the wholesale market for natural gas in New Zealand, and it can still be levelled at wholesale hedge contract trading of electricity in New Zealand. Yes there can be markets in everything, but only if/when/where enough people want to trade.

Neither is Eric's plan an alternative to a water tax of the type promoted by Labour because it yields no revenue for cleaning up waterways. Which is probably the point. If your aim is less government, you'll instinctively resist things that would give them more money.

Now let's get below the proposed water tax to the underlying environmental quality issues. Take nitrate pollution as an example, though the concepts apply equally well to pesticides and other things that pollute the physical commons. We have two problems here: one is ongoing pollution and the other is cleaning up past pollution, lots of which is yet to become obvious.

The more market approach is to cap the quantity of something, thereby creating the scarcity needed for a market to function. Obvious problems include: whether to cap inputs (eg urea) or outputs (eg N leaching as estimated by the model urea sellers developed and own); how exactly to decide the number of free units to gift to existing farmers (a lobbyist's paradise, right there); and how to pay for the clean up. Eric will be along shortly to talk you through these details.

The tax approach is to estimate the environmental cost of nitrate pollution and set this as a tax. I'd favour taxing the input because it's less costly and because I don't trust the model used to predict leaching. The tax revenue can then be used for clean-up.

If you've been following along, you'll have noticed that trading schemes have one political advantage over taxes: you can pay off polluters with free credits. Not fully, because you do need some scarcity to force people into your market, but the squeaky wheels can be greased. Taxes will have a greater impact on behaviour and therefore meet stronger resistance. This is why it makes sense to use a glide-path with low initial rates increasing over time to allow people to adjust, much as suggested by Lance Wiggs.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Helping Plants Fix Nitrogen

There's an interesting story in the latest Modern Farmer about work by Bayer that seeks to persuade ordinary plants to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, the same trick legumes do in a joint-venture with Rhizobia. It's well worth a read if you're into sustainable farming.

For me, this story underlines two sad facts. If you'll bear with me while I describe them, I'll reward you at the end with a positive suggestion.

The first sad fact is that agricultural science has been fully corrupted by private money. When DairyNZ spends our levy money on research it frequently partners with the private sector. This biases the research away from general purpose technologies in favour of things that can be more narrowly commercialised. For example, instead of seeking to understand below-ground farming by examining options for fostering various bacteria, fungi and protozoans, we get "precision agriculture" research aimed at getting the most value out of bagged urea. This is partly because the urea vendors want to paint themselves as good guys (while still selling lots of urea) and partly because other folks are keen on selling the sensors and other equipment you'll need for precision agriculture.

Mainly though, its because DairyNZ can't imagine that biological farming as practiced in New Zealand could be worth investigating. The notion that promoting symbiosis between plant roots and living organisms in the soil could reduce the need for bagged fertiliser seems offensive on some visceral level. Have a read of what happened when I asked DairyNZ folks about this a couple of years ago.

Second, and equally sad, we're going to have to either figure this out for ourselves or wait until our kind input suppliers have figured out how to turn a dollar out of it. We've known for some time that the big agchem companies are quietly working away on biological methods, knowing of course that today's input-intensive agriculture is looking less and less sustainable as time goes on. The Bayer project reported on by Modern Farmer is further evidence of this plan.

It's plausible to argue that it doesn't really matter too much if this new frontier of farming ends up being sold to us by Bayer and their mates. I'm less sanguine, partly because this approach will probably take much longer than a collective research effort aimed at creating a general purpose technology. The reason is that Bayer don't just need to make it work: they also need to make it work in a way that delivers revenue to Bayer. By contrast, if we were doing the actual public good research DairyNZ is supposed to be doing, the revenue consequences would be irrelevant. A larger set of methods would be available for consideration so it'd be easier & quicker to find one that worked.

OK. So much for the misery. Here's the bright spot: you can try exactly this same trick at home. Bayer understandably didn't disclose the bacteria it is working with, but there's a strong possibility it'll be Azotobacter chroococcum, first discovered in 1901. Read about this wonderful bacteria here. We've been buying it in bags, mixing it in with our foliar sprays, and using it to inoculate seeds before sowing. It seems intuitively plausible that sustainable populations of this bacteria could become established under suitable soil conditions, at which point there would be no need for further spreading.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Bullshitters Paradise

It was always on the cards that deceit would play a big role in New Zealand's election, having been so successful in the 2016 Brexit referendum and US elections. Britain's experience showed us that egregious bullshit can be very effective, using this bus to pretend that the public health system would be massively better off under Brexit.

Around the same time, in the US, highly-targeted deceit services were being sold to the Russians by Facebook, and the establishment candidate was making a ridiculous claim that his administration would build a southern border wall paid for by Mexico.

Both of these claims blur the Frankfurt boundary between bullshit and lies. Even if they start out as bullshit, once the questions start being asked the lies emerge.

I once worked with an economist who built an expert witness business this way. He took it as a challenge to support outrageous ideas for well-heeled clients. These reports would usually feature a bold claim, backed by plausible rhetoric, lots of literature citations and plenty of tables and charts: weighty. Questioned, he'd first stick to his guns until things got too intense, at which point a different second order claim would be advanced as if it were support for the first. Nail him on that one and you'll get a third order claim, and so on. This strategy often works, so he got lots of work. Eventually he got caught out under a cross-examiner's blowtorch and called out in the judge's decision as an advocate rather than an independent expert: end of career.

Political process are much less intense. Bullshit can morph into lies without being exposed because there is no judge solely charged with determining the truth. The news media does its best, but is ill-equipped to cope with the flood of bullshit and indeed relies for its content on access to the bullshitters.

This is why we are still seeing big lies put about, long after they've been thoroughly debunked, such as:

  • Britain's 350m pounds/week for the NHS;
  • Trump's stupid border wall & its funding by Mexico; and closer to home
  • Steven Joyce's mythical $11.7bn.

Let's give the Minister of Finance the benefit of the doubt and assume that he made an honest mistake when claiming Labour had an $11.7bn hole in its fiscal plan. It was a bold claim and he got it wrong according to every independent economist willing to comment publicly. He got confused about what was in the different budget lines. Mistakes happen: we've all made them. No big deal.

Except if you're unwilling or unable to admit it, like the economist described above. Then you head off down the rabbit holes looking for salvation in second- and third- order arguments. Which is where we are now, on Mr Joyce's account.

Last night, the PM repeated the $11.7bn lie on national television and this morning, the blogging wing of the ruling party posted this report based on work by some un-named economist, who reckons there is still $10.7bn missing.

Having looked at the figures, I can see why this economist is so shy. They've somehow forgotten that the three big line items in government spending (welfare, health + education), which account for 60% of all government spending, are already inflation indexed in Labour's fiscal plan. The allowance required to cover "additional line item spending" is therefore $4.2bn, not $23.5bn. Instead of having a shortfall of 10.7bn, Labour has headroom of $8.6bn.

Are you mesmerised yet? Because that's the aim: you're supposed to get so sick + tired of all the detailed argument that you declare a pox on the whole issue while retaining a suspicion that maybe Labour can't actually do basic arithmetic.

Welcome to the bullshitters paradise.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Meet our cows

Due to the popular request of one dude on Twitter, this post is about our cows.

We inherited a mixed herd when we bought this place: quite a few Jerseys (the brown ones), a smaller number of black & white Friesan, with the bulk of the herd being cross-bred. We're not too keen on the Fresians because our farm is 25% hills and we milk once-a-day. Fresians are generally larger, less agile on hills and while they produce more milk it contains a smaller percentage of milk solids, which is what we get paid for. Strong udders are essential for once-a-day and our thinking is that it's better if cows are carrying around milk with a higher solids percentage.

The life cycle of a dairy cow begins in the springer paddock, which is where all of the soon-to-calve cows live. Here's a newborn calf taking its first drink from its mother.

They are alone because all the other cows are eating the fresh grass behind the camera that I'd just opened up. Mum was more concerned to complete the birthing process than get a feed of the new grass, so she stayed there for a while, eating the afterbirth and licking her calf clean.

Sometimes it's difficult to match up calves with their mothers. A version of the aunty problem is shown below: they're all interested in the calf but only one is the mother.

Once we've decided on the mother calf pairings, we give the calf a numbered necklace and record the cow & calf numbers together.

Then we leave them alone for at least 24hrs and often 2 or 3 days, contrary to the advice of DairyNZ who say calves should be collected twice a day and fed colostrum to ensure they get those vital mother-child antibodies. We prefer to trust nature. We do monitor things and ointervene if we see this is not happening. Some cows are shocking mothers, and some calves go wandering.

There is no good time to separate a calf from its mother. Beef farmers leave the calves on for several months, and both animals suffer when the resulting strong bond is broken. A couple of seasons ago we left all the calves on their mothers for a month or more and the pain of separation after that was just awful to behold. Now we take the calf when it is 1-3 days old. The high-bred girls stay with us here, and everything else either goes to slaughter or to other people who grow them on for later slaughter.

Either way, all calves come into the shed where we give them dry bedding and milk twice a day. They generally take to the milk feeder pretty well, like these little ones...

Roll forward one year, and those little tykes will look like this.

These are some of our replacement heifers, born last spring and rapidly turning into full sized cows. We'll put some young bulls in with them in mid-October. All going well, by this time next year they'll have calved and be supplying milk. For now though, we're trying to keep these girls growing strongly despite the inevitable feed pinch in late winter / early spring. We make a lot of good hay in the summer and are feeding it to these girls right now: that steel contraption in the foreground is a bale feeder attached to the back of a tractor.

After cows have calved they go into the colostrum mob. Their milk can't be put into the vat for collection/sale so we use it to feed calves. These colostrum mob cows have eaten all their grass for the day and are now scoffing grass silage.

We keep a close eye on the colostrum mob. Eight days after they've calved we start testing their milk for any evidence of mastitis. As soon as a cow's milk is clear, she gets drafted out and put in with the main milking mob. This mob (below) gets the best of everything: plenty of grass, silage top-ups as required, mineral licks, ad-lib salt.

I was hoping to post some pics of my favourites, but that'll have to wait for another day.