By Owen Hembry
Mass extinctions and shifting global demand were top of AgResearch chief executive Andy West’s mind at the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation conference last week.
West told the conference in Queensland that society had a responsibility to protect biodiversity.
"We just appropriate natural ecosystems for farming and we just don’t tolerate other species ... other than the few that we want present."
He added that deforestation was contributing to climate change, which had led to previous mass extinctions.
"That raises a fundamental question," he said. "How much land do we want to consume ... how much of the world’s resources do humans really want to control?"
Growing confidence in international food supply meant other developed countries were becoming less focused on food production and more concerned with management of the environment.
"It’s a growing opportunity," he said. But New Zealand farmers had to be aware of the standards that export markets applied and might try to apply to New Zealand. These could include nitrogen and phosphorous in water, soil erosion and biodiversity levels, and could be consumer as well as regulatory-driven.
West said biotechnology could help farming become more efficient and thereby help protect the landscape for other species.
But he said many people wrongly assumed science could solve the world’s problems, and scientists were often inhibited from speaking out for fear of losing grants.
On a positive note, West said AgResearch scientists were starting work with livestock counterparts in Australia’s Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation.
He said $250,000 had been allocated this year for travel across the Tasman and to "start talking about scientific workshops and seminars, [and] exploring the start of major combined research programmes".
"The only rational approach ... is to join forces," West said.
He added that spending on research and development in New Zealand accounted for less than 1.2 per cent of GDP, compared with up to 2.5 per cent abroad.
He said the partnership would provide world-leading research, helping New Zealand farmers to raise productivity and remain internationally competitive.
"New Zealand in particular increasingly depends on farming for most of its export earnings and for its economic wellbeing."
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