When knowhow becomes New Zealand’s most valuable export

A renowned Australian author shares his opinions on food sustainability, and current R&D levels    

How humankind will produce and consume food in 2100 will be as foreign to us today as the international food industry in 2014 would be to our medieval ancestors.

Fuelled by depleting quantities of land, water, oil, nutrients and fish – not to mention the extinction of the climate which gave rise to modern agriculture – the human diet is set to profoundly, irrevocably change as global food output needs to double within the fifty years in order to feed the world.

Welcome to the “Age of Food”: your host is Australian science and agricultural writer Julian Cribb, author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it.

“The one thing the world desperately needs to feed itself is knowledge and technology and New Zealand has both of those,” Mr Cribb says of the business opportunities those irrevocable changes will present to this country.

“At the moment, New Zealand prides itself on being an exporter of quality produce, or commodities, but I think knowledge is far more valuable as a traded good worldwide than agricultural produce.

“I think the opportunity for New Zealand is to start exporting agricultural knowhow, such as the knowhow with which farms are run or the technology which is used in animal or crop production. The opportunity is to see it as a new agricultural industry, rather than a collection of small enterprise.”

Mr Cribb says agricultural knowledge tends to be the domain of small to medium-sized firms which have little export clout by themselves.

However, if those businesses were to form a business cluster, they could collaborate to win contracts worldwide to export knowledge to overseas governments or agricultural companies.

“It would also focus government’s mind on the real value of agricultural knowledge. It could be worth billions of dollars; most knowledge is.”

A fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering, Mr Cribb says the perception of New Zealand’s “clean green” agriculture is a further incentive to commercialize technologies and IP, as this country is a “very good place” to turn its science and technology into a big new export sector.

But could such a sector end up inadvertently selling out this country’s agricultural point of difference through that very IP?

“You will only lose your lead if you stop investing in R&D. If you give away some of your knowledge to get people interested in more of your product – to sell it down the track – there is nothing wrong with that.

“One should not be frightened by competition from overseas, provided you remain on the scientific cutting edge. As long as you keep on putting money back into the research effort, you can stay well in front.”

But just how much longer this country is perceived to stay in front is a moot point.

Statistics New Zealand data shows this country’s R&D expenditure totals 1.26% as a proportion of GDP, compared with the OECD average of 2.38%

Which is where the plateau comes in

According to Rabobank, one of the world’s leading food and agriculture banks, between 1981 and 2009, average annual R&D spending growth rates in food and agriculture has effectively plateaued, as a global average, while it has more than halved in high-income countries; from 2% to 0.8%.

As Mr Cribb pointed out to the Rabobank F20 summit in Sydney last month, “Global investments in food and agriculture R&D is about $50 billion, yet we spend $1750 billion each year in new weapons. So humans invest 35 times more on better ways to kill one another, than we do on better ways to feed one another.”

Because of the global (average) stagnation of R&D spending growth rates, Mr Cribb says the “machine” is being run down.

“It takes 20 years for a piece of science to make its way through the development and commercialisation process and then for millions of farmers to take it up.

“It takes nearly a generation for a new piece of science to get sustainably adopted worldwide,” Mr Cribb says.

In rising to the challenge of feeding nine billion people by 2050, he says the world’s farmers and scientist know how to overcome the problems, but governments and consumers are not as aware as they should be

“The bottom line is we have to change the economic system in agriculture worldwide because it is destroying famers, farmland, farming resources and farming industries.”

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