Our future lies in science

New Zealand loses focus on science to its detriment, and the world's

This is not a column on global warming, climate change or whether humans are or aren’t having an impact. It isn’t a column on weather forecasting, or whether weather presenters and commentators should be working towards celebrity status as entertainers -- or keeping professional in making factual statements about their forecasts. Nor is it a column explaining what farmers are experiencing during drought. 

This is a column on the need for science, and how that science might be achieved. 

Globally, more and more people are requiring high quality food, which is increasing pressures on production, and increasing wastage at the same time as pressure on the environment.  

The latest warning from the journal Nature Climate Change is that increased carbon dioxide will have a negative effect on protein concentration in crops. 

The Waikato has just experienced its second-driest season (January to March) in 107 years of rainfall records. Last year was the driest, and 2008 was the third driestThat means in over a century, three of the driest years on record have been in the last few years. 

In Southland there are estimates that 60,000 more dairy cows will be being milked in the next couple of years and concerns about impact on waterways have already been raised. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on impacts and adaptation for Australia and New Zealand released at the end of March concluded that the long term trends are for increasing temperatures, with more frequent hot extremes, less frequent cold extremes and increasing extreme rainfall related to flood risk in many locations. In New Zealand the north-east of the South Island and northern and eastern areas of the North Island will become drier, but other parts of New Zealand will become wetter. River flow will also be affected, putting increased emphasis on the significance of water storage. 

The report suggested that rising temperatures and changes in rainfall will affect agricultural production zones, pointing out that warmer winters could mean increased spring growth. The concomitant problem for primary production is that pests and diseases won’t be killed off, or at least supressed, in winterThe Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ)  released an Emerging Issues paper in March on the challenges for pest management in New Zealandurging action on developing new approaches and improving existing tools to protect the country’s environment and economy.

The RSNZ suggested increased training, education and research is vital. ‘Weeds already cost the country $1.2 billion a year in control and lost animal production. Biodiversity losses were estimated at $1.3 billion. The cost of mammal pests could be as high as $3.3 billion. Invertebrate plant pests in productive ecosystems have been estimated to cause production losses of approximately $880 million per annum already – without including the multiplier effects of their impact on economic  activity connected with this production.’ 

These costs are predicted to increase and concerns have been raised about the loss of existing controls of pests through the abolition of existing pesticides, the possible appearance of resistance to pesticides and the hugely disruptive effect of new pests on top of existing… the latter rendering existing IPM packages useless. More factors include increasing complexity and changing land use patterns which could mean that cultural control methods no longer work or that stresses on ecosystem are so high that pest damage starts appearing in areas where they were not previously apparent. In addition there is increasing market sensitivity to, and demand for, pest free-residue free products, at the same time as residue detection is becoming possible at ever-decreasing concentrations. 

Professor Stephen Goldson, Fellow of RSNZ and one of the nine authors of the report, has said that if any of this happens, costs escalate hugely.  

Clearly, scientific research is vital on every aspect including human health, food and fibre production, and ecology covering the land, fresh water and marine environments. Engineering research (mechanical, chemical and electrical) is also required to improve energy, irrigation and management of systems. 

Of critical importance, given the changes in environmental conditions, is that the research is done locally and regionally, to improve the confidence in the results not only from the scientific viewpoint, but also from the practical viewpoint of the farmer and grower. The Government-funded Crown Research Institutes focused on agriculture, horticulture, forestry and water need scientists on the ground in the regions to identify priorities for research, and work with the top primary producers to ensure that what is being proposed is practicable. Primary producer-funded levy bodies such as DairyNZBeef&LambHortNZ and the Foundation for Arable Research can then establish demonstration areas to show how the research fits into a production system -- making a difference economically and environmentally despite climatic changes. The combination of CRI-research and levy-funded systems demonstrations will be particularly important as production zones change. 

Top science will be critical. In addition, the RSNZ paper suggests that for pest management, ‘citizen science should play a much stronger role in monitoring and surveillance for pests in New Zealand.’ 

Citizen science is ‘public participation in scientific research’. Garden bird surveys, for instance, are a good example – the area covered is very much greater than could be managed by researchers alone. Astronomy and the identification of new astral bodies is another example where amateurs have made a contribution. 

But citizen science requires education and training. In New Zealand, the emphasis on science is decreasing in schools and an increasing number of students take other options at school and university.  

Also of importance is that what is required in terms of research in the regions does not fit with what the CRIs have been doing over the past few years, as budget cuts have contributed to centralisation at the expense of regional research.  
Agresearch is now moving to two hubs (Palmerston North and Lincoln) in an effort to create innovation amongst scientists and academics, but in doing so will lose touch with innovation that occurs on farms and in orchards -- the innovation that is in the regions where the changes are occurring. Scientists and researchers will not be on the ground to observe those changes, nor test their ideas with top farmers and growers. 

In turn this means less engagement with citizens and with schools in the locale. If children don’t see how science works, they are less likely to take science subjects through school and into university.  

The IPCC report states that New Zealand is a major food exporter, hence changes in production conditions in the region have a major influence on world supply. Last year’s drought caused the FAO world food index to increase by 1%. Climate change impacts could have consequences for food security, not just locally but globally.  

New Zealand has a role to play in assisting the world to cope, but only if it has the expert workforce in terms of science, treats the scientists appropriately (thereby enabling them to do the vital work), and locates them geographically where they can interact with practitioners for optimum collaboration.  

Professor Goldson has emphasised that the science community is very capable of working well within itself, but that institutional barriers to interaction still cause excessive competition in funding. 

He has also suggested that the industry needs to play a part in identifying potential issues so that the scientists can do the research in advance of the results being required. “The rate at which science progresses is often underestimated,” says Professor Goldson. “Serious lead times are necessary.”  

For New Zealand the issues are zones of production, irrigation, nutrient and pest management. More scientists are needed to address these challenges, and these scientists must be enabled to work in the areas where the challenges exist. The benefits will be multiplied through citizen science –- and New Zealand will stay ahead of the game.