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Environmental and scientific challenges

By Anna Campbell

I am an unapologetic, staunch advocate of commercial science and its role in growing New Zealand’s economy; even more so, when it is targeted at agri-food production and growing the value of our export products. Lately though, I have been having some interesting conversations with people who feel that we must take more care in agricultural circles to retain our pure science capabilities and provide more support for groups that work entirely free of commercial interests.

Dr Mike Joy: Science funding and environmental issues

One such conversation was with Dr Mike Joy, a freshwater ecologist at Massey University. We were both speakers at a Māori agribusiness forum in Rotorua. I did not know he was going to be there and on the plane to Rotorua I happened to be reading an interview with him, by North & South magazine, where he lamented the lack of independence of science being funded through commercial interests and vented his frustrations at the lack of progress on protection of our waterways. I pondered his comments in the taxi on the way to the forum and imagine my surprise when there he was in person in a little hall in Rotorua –guess I should have read my agenda! Over the next couple of days we had the opportunity to discuss these topics and despite coming from completely different ends of the science spectrum, we found we agreed on a lot. It all made me think that often groups with different interests disagree without ever having had an open-minded discussion and listening to each other’s case. 

Dr Joy’s presentation to the group was simple but powerful. He didn’t dress it up, he didn’t attack agricultural practices, he simply presented data showing trends in what has happened in freshwater catchments over the past 20 years. It was grim viewing but just as frightening was his perception that commercial scientists were choosing to ignore what was happening through fear of losing their funding from agricultural companies with financial agendas.

The need for environmental leadership

I haven’t come to grips with all this yet, environmental science is not my area of expertise, so I struggle to confidently place my stake in the ground as to the state of science in this area… my position is not a cop out based on any commercial interests! Last week though, I had another very interesting discussion with Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Environment Extension Manager, Erica van Reenan. We were discussing the challenge of “balancing” environmental and economic requirements. We decided that “balance” was probably a misleading term, as in reality, economic interests usually tip the balance. Semantics aside though, we both passionately agreed that environmental leadership on our farms should lead to better value for our products if we create that connection with consumers. This is supported by a recent report by “Data Driven Marketing Asia” which shows that for Chinese consumers in Shanghai, New Zealand tops a list of 10 countries where they favour buying food from…and why? The environment of course, with 84% of the 500 surveyed preferring to buy New Zealand food products because of our “clean and natural environment”. It sounds like a worn out cliché, but we need to make the most of this seemingly insatiable demand for our wonderful agri-food products by focusing on increasing value and determining how to increase volume without destroying the goose that laid our golden eggs…our beautiful environment.

Listen to each other

So here we are at the end of my column and I am no closer to having my stake in the ground: commercial science vs pure science, economy vs environment? There are no winners here, we are not actually in different camps; it’s just that sometimes we don’t listen to each other. Having expertise in all four areas is vital for our country’s future and none of us should be ignorant or working in isolation of the other. These are complex issues that require investment from both commercial and government sources and a commitment from all parties to find solutions. 

Emotions will run high and stakeholders will stamp their feet but we have a responsibility to always question our position and be open to hearing things we might not want to hear and acting when we need to. Compromises will need to be made but ultimately, in terms of both science funding and policies around environmental issues, we must listen to all parties and do what we believe to be right rather than teetering precariously whilst watching the environment degenerate around us.