Transformational science poses some questions
For my sins, I have been learning about Government science strategy. The big shift is a move from incremental innovation to transformational innovation.
For food and agricultural science, the theory is that industry interests will look after incremental innovation - it's a little frightening to imagine that our traditional agricultural companies are going to take up the mantle on this one.
However, it is interesting to ponder, what does transformational innovation mean for food production?
I have come up with five key areas for agricultural transformation.
1. Climate resilience
What we grow and where we grow things will change if we are to adapt to climate change. The Bay of Plenty may not be able to grow kiwifruit without winter chilling, maize will shift its way from Waikato to Southland.
Locally, Otago will become wetter in winter and spring, with more extreme rainy days. We will also be warmer, 0.6 degC to 0.98 degC by 2040.
We will need to move existing plant and animal species to different regions, change species completely or transform plants and animals so they can survive in challenging conditions, i.e. genetically modify plants to be drought-resistant.
Conceptually, what do you think about the Taieri Plain as a massive hemp farm connected to a hemp seed and oil processing plant exporting to the world?
2. Replacing people with robots and machines
I don't have a lot of confidence in agricultural education at the moment.
Our traditional agricultural universities, Massey and Lincoln are under pressure and what's happening to Telford is a crime.
Despite agriculture still being our number one contributor to GDP, it's an uphill battle getting that recognised at an education level.
On top of that, many of our young people are voting with their feet: it seems photography, fashion or sports management are more attractive careers to an 18-year-old than milking cows or running Zespri - go figure.
In Tauranga, entrepreneur and orchardist Steven Saunders has seen that lack of labour will challenge his business interests.
He understands that international companies will not develop robotics for the New Zealand kiwifruit industry, so he has built his own company "RoboticsPlus".
Expect to see robots in orchards, vineyards and on dairy farms and more science investment into engineering, machine learning and artificial intelligence.
3. Personalised food and medicine
Imagine a wealthy consumer in New York who loves yoga and organic almond yoghurt, but she wants more.
She wants to know that she has burned 2000 calories today and her blood iron levels are lower than last week.
In direct response, she wants her fridge to automatically stock lean New Zealand venison with known calorific and iron content which has been matched to fit her needs (assessed genomically of course).
She also wants her dog, Frofro, to have carbonated, mineral water on tap with the addition of customised biscuits (produced from muscle cells) to suit his bubbly personality - not too energetic, mind, or he gets a little naughty.
We will need to work out how to develop products for such people and their pets, but we will also need to find a way to reach them and still make money from the degree of personalisation.
4. Getting food to the right people and wasting less
According to the United Nations FAO, about one-third of all food produced - about 1.3 billion tonnes - gets lost or wasted, while 795 million people go hungry.
Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).
Investment in developing precision farming and technological advancements along the supply chain can help address these challenges and meet rising global food demand.
Technologies and business models developed at a local level can be scaled and sold globally.
5. Global food and politics
Food shortages are a significant trigger of unrest and human migration.
Science can assist in predicting food shortages which lead to such unrest.
As an example, satellite data can be analysed to predict droughts and subsequent food shortages so agencies can act pre-emptively.
Better connected supply chains and integration with weather data can allow for gains in efficiencies and productivity.
Developing countries can also leapfrog the clunky incremental technologies we have left over from historic innovations.
No need for phone lines - data can be collected from satellites and mobile phones and used to improve productivity. Interdisciplinary collaboration in this area is crucial, how can our agricultural scientists be a part of collaboration with policy-makers, food companies and aid agencies?
Smart investment in science and technology can transform food and agriculture - the Government has that right - but transformational innovation carries with it far greater risk than incremental innovation.
Is the Government prepared for a higher degree of failure, too?