August 10, 2009

NZ: Feeding the World?

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will probably be aware that I am an advocate for science underpinning the NZ economy and ultimately leading to the future prosperity of our nation. There is often the confusion that scientists like myself think that for this to happen, we need to abandon agriculture. Not true. Scientists are not stupid, and many of us realise the importance of farming in the economy of our small export nation.

I believe there is room for both. We should capitalise on the wealth of knowledge in this area, as well as add a few 'bolt-on' solutions. For example, Finland, a forestry nation, now has Nokia, and Denmark, a small dairying nation like ours, is now home to a $10B export business in wind turbines. Both countries have many more smaller high tech companies, and there is no reason why we can't do the same here. We just have to be a little bit smarter about it.

I read an article on the other day by Prof. Paul Monaghan of Massey University, about how NZ is not putting to good use its excellent ability to produce food, in order to capitalise on the growing market for the next generation of value added agrifood products. The rest of the world is already catching on to new products that involve new science and technology (nanotechnology for example), to revolutionise the food and drink industry in terms of better food processing safety, improved product shelf life and more healthy products. In fact, the use of nanotechnology has already been introduced into the food and drink industry with successful applications in a number of areas including stay fresh packaging, butters and slim-line milkshakes.

In a world that is becoming more populous, short on energy and water, this could be an ideal area for NZ to apply some of its excellent food production knowledge, couple it with our brilliant image on the world stage, and NZ could feed the world with high value, high margin products.

And so back to the getting smarter bit. I believe in order to do both, we need a tweak in our science and technology research policy to a more balanced approach. Currently the government invests the majority of our science and technology research budget in the primary industry (36%). Yet if you look at the TIN100 (the top 100 technology companies in NZ), there are only 11 primary sector technology companies, comprising only 12% of revenue. Interestingly, the top 5 companies (nothing to do with agriculture) produce about $3 Billion revenue - not too bad for 5 companies I thought. As you can see, the results are not reflective of the investment made by area.

The rest of the world maintains a balanced approach and so should we. That way we can continue to add value to our primary sector through science and technology, in areas like high value foods where there are big gains to be made, but also remain flexible enough to 'bolt-on' a Nokia or Vestas should the opportunity arise.

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