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.

No comments:

Post a Comment