Archive September 2012

The Future by Airbus Robert Hickson Sep 27

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I’ve been looking at the latest instalment of The Future by Airbus and considering how it compares to the way some New Zealand sectors are looking toward the future. Their latest work is centred on “smarter skies”, and they look at 5 concepts associated with reducing fuel and energy emissions. Their horizon is 2050.

Airbus’ approach is less about predicting what will come to pass and more about generating ideas about a possible future – based on surveying passengers as well as considering engineering and design possibilities. They have also produced a fancy sound and light show to launch it, but that is more style than substance.

The New Zealand approach is, crudely, less about ideas and imagined futures and more to do with how we can sell more (valuable) stuff in a more environmentally sustainable way. Noble goals to be sure, but not that inspiring. And as the Riddet Institute’s “Call to Arms” report notes (echoing Sir Paul Callaghan), we can be good at producing such reports but not acting on them.

New Zealand strategic time horizons are usually only 10 to 15 years. Examples are Fonterra’s strategy, the Strategy for New Zealand Dairy Farming, the Riddet Institute’s Agri-Food Strategy, and the Forest Wood Strategic Action Plan. However, Victoria University has done work on looking at tourism in 2050, and the Auckland Plan looks out 30 years. On the other hand MFAT’s India and China strategies have a pitiful 3 to 4 year horizon.

I like Airbus’ approach, particularly their engaging with future travellers and young engineering graduates. That brings in fresh ideas and provides more interest and vibrancy than a dry strategic plan developed by a small group. Most of the NZ primary production strategies note the problem of attracting skilled workers to farming but struggle to find ways of how to solve it.

A key limitation I see in the farming and food strategies is their focus on products. They give less attention to the farming and post-harvest systems that sit around the product pipelines. These systems will change quite significantly over the coming decades, due to:

  • More expensive and/or volatile oil prices
  • Climate change
  • An increasing focus on sustainable production practices
  • Increasing competition from overseas producers
  • Demographic changes – fewer young folk are going into farming
  • Changing farm ownership patterns – farm sizes are tending to increase and more are likely to be run by corporations
  • Increasing technological precision, resulting in greater tailoring of plant and animal traits, feeding and fertilizer regimes, and control of the farm environment and the processing chains.
  • Increased integration of agricultural and industrial systems (to produce food, fibres, fuels and other materials)

What “smarter farming” concepts and  innovations will be important for how New Zealand farms? NZ’s future in agriculture may have more to do with how we farm rather than what we produce. Agility and diversity rather than large scale monoculture and a limited product range is what we need to think more about. And farming system expertise is exportable and profitable knowledge.

Here’s my starter list:

  1. Profit in diversity – back to the future with less specialised farms reliant on a single pasture type and single farming style. More integrated farms with various beasts and crops to spread the risks and develop new production opportunities.
  2. Low input farming – smarter use of water, fertilisers and pesticides through sensors, modelling and automation to reduce operating costs and adverse environmental impacts (we are already on the way to this, but there’s a long way to go).
  3. Data intensive farming – mining and analysing individual animal performance & welfare data, environmental conditions, nutrient loads, plant growth rates, and market trends to optimise and anticipate the next seasons farming plan.
  4. Integrated energy, water and waste management systems – farms that power and recycle themselves.
  5. Eco-logic farming – greater use of “terraforming” farms (ie changing the landscape) to enhance production and sustainability; including use of wetlands and  native plants to enhance biodiversity and better manage water and wastes.
  6. “Just in time” production – more flexible production & processing systems that respond quickly to market demands. For example, matching beef & lamb grazing to particular pasture/crops to provide meat with particular flavour, texture or nutrient characteristics.


Finding GeMO Robert Hickson Sep 07

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Some of the keynote speakers at the recent Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference brought to mind the scene in Finding Nemo of the three sharks grinning at Marlin and Dory. Not, I hasten to add, because I view Monsanto, Du Pont, et al., as sharks out to gobble us, or NZ’s agriculture up. Or that I view GMOs as dangerous beasts.

Rather because after over a decade of contentious argument here about the promise and perils of genetic modification in agriculture not much seems to have been changed in the approach. The messenger can be more important than the message. Rather than big corporations, its the little guys and gals that people often want to hear from. So a lost opportunity to present a point of view that doesn’t play to stereotypes.

The protests against GMO trials in the UK earlier this year didn’t gain traction because of how the scientists involved made efforts to explain their research to the public. NZ scientists are doing this here too, but it is a hard and thankless task.

I’m not going to discuss here the pros and cons of GMOs in food. It is still a dynamic situation internationally, with Europe seeming to become more receptive at the government level, while India is going the other way and citizen referenda in the US are pushing for labelling.

Genetic modification is progressing along other fields. The first drug produced from GM plants (or rather carrot cells) has been approved for use. It is being considered as a means to control malaria and is already being deployed to control west nile virus.

Gene therapy has had success in treating hemophilia in a trial and another  treatment for a rare disease is close to being approved in Europe. There is speculation about use of “gene doping” in sport now or in the future.

Synthetic biology is developing rapidly, moving on from just producing fuels to other more valuable chemicals. The US military is a big supporter of synthetic biology, funding programs to develop fuels, medicines and other things.  University teams are also increasingly sophisticated in using synthetic biology to create solutions to a range of challenges. Unsurprisingly, some groups are concerned about the use of synthetic biology and are calling for a moratorium.

So gene technologies are progressing on many fronts. Whether NZ will use it for food production in the short to medium term is uncertain. An important determinant will be the attitudes of the overseas markets our foods go to, and they remain cautious. Another critical factor will be the value proposition for genetic modification – will its use add substantial value (economic or otherwise) to what we produce? It seems more likely other types of genetic modification may be used here first. It will be interesting to see what the Minister for the Environment decides about the current regulatory system.  [Disclosure: I contributed to one of the reports MfE commissioned].


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