Sustainability, genetic engineering among big issues raised at symposium

Audience members listen to a speaker at the Ag@Otago symposium at the University of Otago on...
Audience members listen to a speaker at the Ag@Otago symposium at the University of Otago on Monday. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Agriculture is coming to town!

The University of Otago has always been known for medicine and law. When I did my science degree in botany and biochemistry, I was looked down on by my biochem classmates for being interested in plants, not humans.

It used to make me chuckle. Are we so egocentric as a species that we believe anything that’s not about us is not important? As Heraclitus said, the only constant in life is change, and times are a’changing.

I have just spent the past two days at the inaugural Ag@Otago symposium, led by the infatigable Professor Frank Griffin. Dunedin, get ready for it — agriculture has come to town.

What a great couple of days it has been with a wide array of speakers and representation of farmers, scientists and industry people, all debating: what does the future of agriculture look like for New Zealand?

Here are my five takeaways:

1. The world has an antibiotic resistance problem which is a result of livestock being pumped full of antibodies for growth regardless of disease status and doctors over-prescribing patients without a genuine diagnosis.

The New Zealand livestock sector — sheep, beef, dairy and deer — is not the problem. Antibiotics are not used for growth as they are in housed systems, only as needed for disease treatment.

The New Zealand poultry industry is a different matter, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria do cross the animal-human threshold, adding to human antibiotic resistance and the rise of super-bugs.

Professor Greg Cook and his team are responding by developing new green antimicrobials specific for livestock disease and not used in human health.

2. Consumers want to buy food from regeneratively farmed properties. In fact, it is the fastest growing consumer trend at Whole Foods in the US. At the symposium, there were lots of farmers who were hugely passionate about regenerative methods and some sceptics too.

The challenge for the proponents is that it is too early in the piece within New Zealand for anyone to have hard and fast data demonstrating the benefits, nor is there a simple, prescriptive methodology or set of rules.

The premise, though, is simple: leave the environment in a better place than you found it, and most of what I heard in terms of practices sounded like good common sense. I sincerely hope the proponents are successful. Who doesn’t want greater biodiversity, better soils and healthier livestock?

3. Genetic technologies to develop new fruit trees and ryegrass were a hot topic. Should New Zealand be free of genetic modification and where does gene editing fit in our regulatory system?

The jury is still out, and food futurist Melissa Clark-Reynolds summed the issue up nicely — perhaps we shouldn’t get so hung up on the methodologies themselves but assess each case on the basis of its benefits.

4. Deer velvet is a real success story for the agricultural industry. The value of the industry has risen from $30million in 2014 to more than $100million today.

Rhys Griffiths, in his role with Deer Industry New Zealand, has developed a high-end health market in Korea targeting South Korean women aged between 30 and 50. Next steps are to replicate the model in China and other parts of Asia.

5. New Zealand agriculture is caught between being a high-end, premium producer and a cost-driven commodity seller. According to Melissa Clark-Reynolds, the two models cannot be successfully run together. As soon as we start discussing production efficiency, we’re in a commodities game.

She gave a great example of selling gelatine for jelly at a couple of bucks or selling gelatine for a Fountain skincare range at $50 a pottle.

It’s a no-brainer, really, and we need to do all that we can to celebrate those that achieve premium value, like the deer velvet team, so that others start to realise that it can be done.

To top off a great couple of days, it’s worth sharing that for the first time in 2020, the University of Otago will be offering an undergraduate applied science major in agricultural innovation. I almost wish I was a student again.

This is really important for the Otago-Southland region and also for the future of New Zealand agriculture. I would love to see some genuine cross-disciplinary collaboration across the university to help our industry produce the best functional food and health products in the world.

Wouldn’t that be something to celebrate at the university’s 175th birthday?

-Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.

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