South united in call to act

Delegates from yesterday's Invermay/AgResearch summit in Dunedin (from left) Environment...
Delegates from yesterday's Invermay/AgResearch summit in Dunedin (from left) Environment Southland chairwoman Ali Timms, Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull, Dunedin deputy mayor Chris Staynes, Otago Regional Council chairman Stephen Woodhead and Federated Farmers Otago president Stephen Korteweg address media. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Southern voices have joined together in an unprecedented display of unity to call for more investment, not less, in Dunedin's Invermay agricultural research centre.

And the message would be delivered in person to government ministers and the AgResearch board by a southern delegation within days, Mayor Dave Cull said yesterday.

His comments followed yesterday's AgResearch-Invermay summit in Dunedin, which drew more than 50 delegates from organisations across the lower South Island.

The delegates spent much of the day discussing ways to save Invermay and boost the regional economy, before emerging with an action plan that was big on potential but light on detail.

The ''alternative proposition'' would be for more investment to expand Invermay, while emphasising the national, as well as regional, economic benefits that would result, he said.

When the details were finalised they would be taken to Wellington by a group of about six southern representatives.

''We're not looking for a handout. We're looking to continue to take advantage and build on the resources already in the region.''

The plan prompted a favourable response from Prime Minister John Key, who said yesterday he was encouraged by the regional approach and stressed the AgResearch proposal was ''far from a done deal''.

Earlier, Mr Cull said there was ''broad consensus'' at the summit about the ''critical'' importance of Invermay to the Dunedin, regional and national economies.

There was also agreement about the threats posed by AgResearch's plan to shift 85 Invermay jobs to either Lincoln or Palmerston North.

Environment Southland chairwoman Ali Timms said that included Invermay's ''vital'' research into improving water quality in Southland as land-use patterns continued to intensify.

She told delegates the Southland environment was ''very different'' from Canterbury's, and Invermay's research needed to occur in southern conditions and be presented ''first-hand'' to farmers to change habits.

''That won't happen in Canterbury. It won't happen in Massey University. That science needs to happen in Southland.''

The Government wanted growth, including in the agricultural sector, but also improved water quality. If many of Invermay's top scientists shifted, it would deliver a blow to key research, as well as to the country's export-led recovery.

''I think it's a classic example of not thinking about the unintended consequences, and this is exactly what the unintended consequences could be.''

Otago Regional Council chairman Stephen Woodhead agreed, saying more research was needed to tackle the environmental challenges that came with the ''significant chunk'' of primary production occurring south of the Waitaki River.

That included 30% of New Zealand's sheep flock, 13% of all dairy cattle and 35% of the country's deer herd, he said. Invermay's research was ''critical'' to addressing those environmental issues, but a ''thriving'' research centre in Dunedin would deliver economic benefits across New Zealand, he said.

The primary sector contributed nearly $1 billion of Otago's GDP last year, and 39% of all jobs in the South came from sheep, beef and dairy farming.

Mr Cull said the University of Otago also enjoyed close links with Invermay, including 60 joint research projects carried out in the past three years, and the potential for ''considerably more''.

The summit included lengthy discussion of broader issues of regional development, but Mr Cull said the focus initially was on the threat to Invermay.

The summit was chaired by Mr Cull and included delegates from eight councils across Otago and Southland and more than a dozen other organisations, from Federated Farmers and the Otago Chamber of Commerce to the University of Otago.

Otago Daily Times editor Murray Kirkness also attended, following the launch of the newspaper's ''Stand Up Otago'' campaign nearly two weeks ago.

Mr Cull said the gathering was ''probably a first'' and ''quite exceptional'', while deputy mayor Chris Staynes said the regional approach could become a more common occurrence.

''Perhaps we haven't been doing that as well as we could. I think today was a very positive step in that direction.''


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