Retaining focus on what Otago does best

The damage from the downgrading of Invermay goes well beyond the loss of expertise in the genetics and deer groups, writes Barrie Wills of Alexandra.

As a former AgResearch soil conservation and pastoral scientist associated with Invermay until 2004, when my turn at redundancy came about, I believe the latest revelations and confirmation of pending centralisation of staff to a Lincoln campus to be short-sighted and, frankly, soul-destroying for dedicated staff, having ''been there, done that'' myself.

There is no excuse for the reportedly poor consultation and lack of accountability by the AgResearch board (ODT , 27.09.13). Unfortunately, that is one price New Zealand is paying for corporatisation of our national research organisations.

For many reasons, pastoral agriculture is a key industry for the Otago economy.

It forms the commercial hub on which most of our rural towns rely for their business opportunities (transport, banking, engineering, accommodation, retail etc).

As we emerge slowly from tough economic times, there is a need to focus on what we do best which, in Otago, essentially still revolves around food and fibre production - for example, an estimated national export boost of up to $4 billion annually from irrigation implementation over the next decade is not to be ignored.

By retracting staff to core centres at Lincoln and Palmerston North, AgResearch will lose the ability to readily collaborate and liaise with clients outside the immediate region. Canterbury wins; Otago, Southland, Westland and Marlborough lose.

The media has also placed much emphasis on the potential loss of expertise in the genetics and deer groups, but the damage will be far wider than that.

You cannot sustainably farm animals without a good knowledge of soil structure and chemistry; without pasture plants adapted to increasingly varied environments and climates; without an understanding of the ecology of endemic tussock grasslands and management systems that will conserve and sustain both them and the valuable water resource they provide for the future; without monitoring for holistic management purposes, or for weed and pest control; without technology to support that monitoring or provide resourcing for alternative land-use research.

I think the proof that retaining jobs at Invermay will provide ''better value for NZ agriculture'' should be blatantly obvious to Dr Tom Richardson and his board.

For better or worse, the Otago economy cannot do without a vibrant, innovative and environmentally sustainable agricultural industry, and good science based at Invermay is a significant driver for that.

Once global financial imbalances are finally sorted and we develop stronger marketing strategies for our primary produce, New Zealand agricultural products will again be highly sought after internationally. Sink or swim - we need to be ready for that time.


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