'Critical capability going' with AgResearch cuts

Last updated 05:00 13/07/2014
Fairfax NZ
IN VAIN? Has work by AgResearch on how to grow dry matter at reduced nitrogen has been destroyed by the organisation’s Future Footprint reorganisation?

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Deputy Prime Minister Bill English has stated that farmers must base their arguments on good science.

OPINION: He was talking at an economics seminar in Tauranga last month, and addressing the fact that negative images and public backlash against the agricultural sector is a threat.

Basing arguments on good science is challenging when so much good science and so many good scientists are being declared surplus to requirements by Agresearch.

The big issue for Mr English is environment and ongoing concerns about water quality.

Bizarrely, the team that has made significant advances in understanding how to grow dry matter at reduced nitrogen has been destroyed in the Future Footprint reorganisation.

Dr Susanne Rasmussen's team at Agresearch Grasslands in Palmerston North, working with Professor Tony Parsons at Massey University, has redefined the long held understanding of the response of grass yield to fertiliser N inputs.

"The 'nitrogen response curve' has been the basis for over a century for fertiliser N recommendations and 'nutrient balance' N inputs advice, Parsons said.

"Our work reveals there is significant prospect to increase grass growth without the need for significant increases in N input. This gives potential to achieve far greater nitrogen use efficiency through plant, animal and soil. Alternatively, and an even greater prospect, is that the same current level of production could be achieved with a reduced input of fertiliser N."

What the team has identified could be considered the Holy Grail for New Zealand agriculture.

The problem for any hope of progress is that in the Future Footprint exercise important equipment and eight of Dr Rasmussen's team, but not Dr Rasmussen herself, were identified for relocation to the Lincoln campus in Canterbury.

So far three of the team have found other employment and Dr Rasmussen has resigned and returned to her native country of Germany. Her comments on why she resigned have been in the press and on radio.

This is just one impact of the Future Footprint plan.

The PSA estimates that Agresearch has made about 30 science staff redundant in the past year, equating to 6 per cent of the science workforce. Observers suggest that the actual number is higher.

"Agresearch should be publicly requested to inform the public of the recent and intended cuts," said an independent expert.

"Critical capability is being lost in areas such as forage improvement - vital for New Zealand's sustainability, both economically and environmentally."

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The Agresearch experience means that science capability for New Zealand farmers is evaporating.

Dr Rasmussen has been employed on a 20 per cent basis by Massey University as professor of grassland technology.

The link would enable scientists to complete the work for which the experimental work has been done, Parsons said.

"But future developments are unlikely without changes - and a world-leading team has been destroyed."

Without a serious review, and reversal, of those parts of the Future Footprint plan that Agresearch's own change management team questioned, Bill English's hopes for farmers to make their case based on science could be in vain.

* Jacqueline Rowarth is the professor of agribusiness at the University of Waikato.

-Waikato Farmer

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