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The trials and tribulations of the sheep wool industry have been well-aired over the years. Anyone who has taken an interest in the industry, specifically in crossbred wool, will know farmers are currently facing such low prices that it has been uneconomic in some cases to even shift the wool off their farms.
Therefore, right now it may be difficult for those involved in the industry to see light at the end of the tunnel. Yet as researchers with a long history of studying this special fibre, we still see reason to be optimistic about its long-term prospects.
The Wool Industry Project Action Group, which Andy Cooper – one of our Science Impact Leaders - sits on, recently delivered an important report that laid out these challenges and started an important conversation around matters of leadership, coordination, strategy and funding.
The group’s report lays bare the decline the strong wool sector has experienced in recent years, including the lack of profitability and investment, which has seen sheep numbers go down 45% since 1995 (from 49 million to just 27 million in 2018), with wool production falling 51% (from 213 million kg clean equivalent to 105 million kg).
The figures are sobering and do undoubtedly contribute to a reluctance to invest into this part of the industry. As outlined in the report, the challenges are many, and complex, and we at AgResearch certainly don’t have all the answers. But in our opinion as wool researchers, if we seize the opportunities, there is light at the end of that tunnel.
With the support of industry partners, such as the woolgrower-funded Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) and the Wool Research Organisation of New Zealand (WRONZ), we continue to build a strong scientific case for why wool is a superior choice for the world’s consumers, who are rightly concerned about the future their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will inherit.
New Zealand carpet-maker Cavalier recently shared its plan to transform to an all-wool and natural fibres business, citing concerns about the negative impact of synthetic fibres on human health and the planet. It also pointed to a recent upturn in trading, particularly in wool sales, presumably because it helps address these concerns.
One example is the pressing global concern on the health of the marine environment. A disturbing prediction in a World Economic Forum report is that plastics will outweigh fish in our oceans by 2050. A major contributor to this marine pollution is microplastic fibres shed from synthetic clothing and fabrics in the washing process, which accumulate in the sea and potentially our seafood.
Important research by our own scientists - funded by AWI and presented earlier this year to the International Wool Textile Organisation - demonstrates that untreated and machine-washable wool fibres and cellulose-based viscose rayon readily break down in seawater. In comparison, the synthetic fibres tested – polyester, nylon and polypropylene – showed little or no biodegradation in an aquatic environment.
Our scientists have also produced some initial evidence that wool clothing is better for skin health than a synthetic alternative (polyester) when worn against the skin. Our research also confirmed wool-rich fabrics are far superior to synthetic fibres when it comes to flammability of clothing. Wool has natural fire-resistant qualities, whilst synthetic alternatives have a propensity to melt and pose risks to the wearer.
The list of wool’s other superior attributes we have investigated includes odour resistance, temperature regulation, moisture management and stain resistance; and continues to grow. These wool qualities go beyond apparel to provide benefit in other applications, such as floor coverings, insulation, upholstery and the like.
This aligns well with a recent grassroots petition calling for New Zealand’s House of Representatives to ensure all public-funded buildings and KiwiBuild homes are built or refurbished with New Zealand wool carpet and New Zealand wool insulation. The petition garnered more than 15,000 signatures and speaks to a sentiment in New Zealand to support an industry that has fallen on tough times.
Whether it is the industry contributing, or there is some form of assistance from the New Zealand taxpayer or other mechanism, further research and development funding is needed to seize these innovation opportunities for this natural, sustainable product we have come to know so well. There has been debate in these pages (*Farmers Weekly) about where such funding should be directed, including an argument that no further funding is needed behind the farmgate.
Anyone familiar with New Zealand’s wool sector must recognise that farm practices, such as shearing and wool handling, are perceived to have barely changed in decades. At AgResearch, we know our research in this on-farm space has made a significant difference through reductions in flystrike and the cost of shearing and wool handling – so we should keep a focus on innovation opportunities in that space too.
If we want to tell a compelling end-to-end story about New Zealand wool to consumers, then we surely cannot afford to focus solely on the marketing of the finished product. There is a great story to tell here across the production and added value chain, especially if producers can effectively leverage off the inherent qualities of wool with the science to support it.
**This first appeared in Farmers Weekly, 31 August 2020**