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One of the great ironies of the New Zealand economy is that in spite of Knowledge Waves and transformations and biotechnology and any other number of next big things, the powerhouse and backbone has continued to be agriculture and horticulture.

For industries that have been described as ‘sunset’ the fact they’ve increased their percentage economic contribution over the past 20-30 years shows they are anything but.

There’s also a good economic argument that ‘innovation’ (no matter how you describe it), is best done by building on the back of something you’re already good at.

Which is part of the logic, presentations and discussion behind the NZ Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science’s Forum in Wellington’s Te Papa on Tuesday October 4? (See here for more details).

Given the spectacular ‘failure’ of agriculture and horticulture over the past 20 years, NZIAHS president Jon Hickford says it’s worth looking forward 20 years and asking ourselves the questions “where so and how so?”

And, in spite of many peoples’ notions, ‘we need to show that the strength of our science really is in agriculture and horticulture,’ says Hickford. ‘It’s not lowbrow science at all, and we need to highlight that we’re world leaders at this.’

Federated Farmers vice-president Dr William Rolleston is one of the speakers.

Rolleston (a medical doctor) wears many hats as well as being a farmer, and is head of South Pacific Sera, as well as being chair of the Ministry of Science and Innovation’s Innovation Board (which has been pretty anonymous since being set up earlier this year, though the suspicion is this isn’t his fault). His perspective on farmer priorities in ag and hort research spending promises to be a highlight of the event.

There is also a political forum, with the four main parties debating some set questions, with the discussion being moderated by Dominion Post agricultural journalist, Jon Morgan.

Involving politicians is apt, since one of the desired outcomes is to raise the profile of the primary industries within the cabinet rankings — currently number 11.

David Carter (Nat), Damien O’Connor (Labour), Kevin Hague (Green) and Don Nicholson (ACT) have all been given three set questions, as well as taking part in an open discussion.

1. What ranking do you think the Minister of Agriculture should have in Cabinet and why?
2. What are New Zealand’s priorities in growing earnings from agriculture and horticulture and can we sustain a first world economy on the back of these sectors?
3. What is your party’s view with respect to the employment of experienced scientists within the policy development sections of Government Departments and Ministries?

Hickford says that from a pragmatic point of view, New Zealand’s economy can best grow and diversify from its existing strengths.

‘In spite of the financing of a whole lot of fancy gadgets, in 20 years time we’re still going to be eating,’ Hickford says.

‘If we’re producing the best, safest, most nutritious and enjoyable food for wealthy people, we’ll still be making money.’

sticK agrees. Innovation from within the country’s core strength will continue to be a feature of our economic and environmental landscape for decades to come.

Of course, it would do a tremendous amount of good if the country, NZ Inc, actually named the nation’s key comparative advantage — namely the ability to convert sunlight, soil and fresh air into wonderful protein products through our pastoral method. Such a branding exercise would completely change New Zealand’s ‘offer’ to the world.

However, owning our story is another argument and discussion — for now simply raising the profile of agriculture and horticulture can be considered a desirable outcome of the conference.

Hickford and his cohorts deserve all support they can muster.