General

Opinion: Dr Trevor Stuthridge on agriculture post-COVID

16 June 2020
Opinion: Dr Trevor Stuthridge, Research Director

Amid all of the disruption and challenges brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, some bright lights have shone through that provide reason for optimism for New Zealand in a post-pandemic world.

One has been the performance of our agriculture sector, which has stoically carried on through the health crisis – ensuring a safe, quality food supply to New Zealanders, and maintaining crucial earnings from our export markets.

Another has been the level of public trust placed in our scientists – particularly in the health sciences – and how those scientists have stepped up to provide the best advice to keep New Zealanders safe and guide our country through this.

In both areas, New Zealand’s world-class expertise has held us in good stead. Indeed, sometimes unlikely crossovers have become possible, such as AgResearch’s support for a government-funded project led by biotech firm Avalia Immunotherapies to start looking at how a COVID-19 vaccine may be secured for New Zealand.

The path ahead is by no means certain, and further global shocks could still be to come. The question now, as we look ahead to how New Zealand may fare post the COVID-19 crisis, is how we best leverage the performance of those farmers and scientists, and what innovations we can make to best position our economy and the outlook for our people.

Therefore, longer-term, a key consideration is how we continue to build resilience into our agricultural sector, and as scientists how we help provide the tools to do that.

As one example, digital agriculture is already well-recognised as a means for farmers to stay competitive. As we emerge from this health crisis, it will be more important than ever to harness these rapidly growing technologies and the vast amount of data they can generate on- and off-farm to optimise production efficiencies and reinforce the quality and provenance of our products.

At AgResearch, we are exploring the potential of some of these digital agriculture tools. They might, for example, interpret the data from on-farm sensors and smart packaging to inform an overseas consumer where exactly a NZ food product came from, when it was produced, how it was produced, that it was safely handled and transported to them, and what impacts it had on the environment – and to directly compare these attributes with other food producers worldwide.

Our work on the microbiome – the micro-organisms that live in soils, plants, animals and the human gut – offers exciting possibilities to design consumer-centric smart food products with unique characteristics that could originate only in New Zealand. By better understanding and harnessing these microbiomes, we can be targeted in developing cutting edge, fit-for-purpose products in food and fibre – created with a lower environmental footprint - that give New Zealand an even greater point of difference.

Consumers more than ever are demanding high ethical standards in food production. That means not just showing that animal wellbeing is a critical priority, but also how we looked after the land it is raised on, how we actively use all the by-products generated during production, and how we uphold the cultural values that New Zealand prides itself on.

The environmental challenges and expectations on farmers are increasing, and the government’s recently announced freshwater reforms including stricter controls on nitrogen pollution are a demonstration of this. In the climate change space, expectations are also changing, and in this area, it is encouraging to see a lot of research to mitigate the effects of agricultural greenhouse gases coming to the fore. At AgResearch, for example, our research has shown we can safely breed lower methane emitting sheep, and that knowledge is now being rolled out to sheep breeders in New Zealand.

AgResearch scientists are also working to better measure quality of life for the animals, and how to keep adding to our welfare practices, investigating opportunities to create a circular bioeconomy for New Zealand, as well as supporting the optimal use of land that helps the farmer make a living while also protecting that land for future generations.

None of these innovations are easy of course. They require significant investments in research, time and money – and close alliances between the industry, science and innovation providers, and the government.

It is heartening, therefore, to see the recently announced government investment to support crown research institutes - and the wider research, science and innovation sector - as we come out of the COVID-19 crisis. In all, $196 million has been set aside for research institutes such as AgResearch to ensure they retain talent and can continue their important research.

For AgResearch, it also means a capital injection of $45 million from government towards a badly-needed new research facility and corporate headquarters in Lincoln, near Christchurch. This facility, to be constructed on the grounds of Lincoln University near the existing AgResearch facilities, will not only provide a modern workspace in which our scientists can produce the best research to support the agriculture sector. It will also mean greater collaboration with the likes of Lincoln University, Canterbury University, and other crown research institutes, so that we are working together towards the same goal of helping New Zealand bounce back from COVID-19.

If we can build on the exceptional performance and response of New Zealand through the health crisis, there is no question we can come out of it stronger and better placed than ever.

**This first appeared in Farmers Weekly, 15th June 2020**

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