Feilding inventor up for Nobel food prize

GAINING ATTENTION: John Baker with one of the cross-slot seed drills he developed.
GAINING ATTENTION: John Baker with one of the cross-slot seed drills he developed.

A Feilding inventor who has vowed to consign the plough to the dustbin of history has been nominated for the US$250,000 (NZ$327,000) World Food Prize.

Dr John Baker perfected the cross-slot seed drill over 30 years as a scientist at Massey University and then spent 10 years fighting to win ownership of it from companies the university sold it to.

He regained control of the drill in 1998, after $10 million had been spent on developing it, and set up a factory in Feilding to build them.

Cross-slot tillage is described as the keyhole surgery of farming. The drill creates two side-by-side pockets as it passes through the soil, depositing seed in one and fertiliser in the other.

Unlike ploughing, it does not disturb the surface of the soil and preserves soil micro-organisms and carbon.

Nominations for the World Food Prize, also known as the Nobel Prize for food, are made by an international committee of scientists.

The winner of the prize, created in 1986 by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug, will be announced in Des Moines, Iowa, on June 12 and the prize will be presented in October.

Nomination follows Baker reaching the finals of the World Technology Awards in 2010. Baker said the food prize nomination stemmed from his lift in profile at the technology awards.

"It awakened a lot of people to the fact 90 per cent of the world's food is annual crops. They all start off as seed and if you don't sow those seeds correctly, they won't grow and we all starve.

The drill, sold widely in New Zealand at prices ranging from $200,000 to $600,000, is also being exported to 17 countries.

The biggest markets are Australia, United States and Canada.

"They are the three big prairie food producers, countries that don't have an abundance of water," Baker said.

"They're big-scale farmers and when they can make a 1 per cent difference to yield it's a lot of money. It's not hard to get their attention because some of our yield increases have been up to 50 per cent."

The Dominion Post