I’ve been thinking


Do what you do well, is advice that is often given. Get back to basics. So let’s think about this for a moment from a New Zealand perspective. At the moment our economy, like many economies is looking grim. We are borrowing lots of money to stay afloat. We look to electronics, bioengineering and other things that we are good at, but aside from a few exceptions we don’t seem to capitalise on it. We are great with ideas, but not so good at doing something about it.

We have some success stories sure, wine does ok, lamb was doing ok until they invented food miles and we are pretty successful at controlling segments of milk and fruit, particularly apples and kiwifruit. The legacy of people like Angus Tait (who I had the privilege of working for 7 years) continues, but without his innovative attitude. We have some success stories, but they are really far and few between.

Many years ago, when we all took it for granted, we were an agrarian economy and very successful at it. We’ve been successful food exporters, right back to when the Dunedin, the world’s first refrigerated ship left New Zealand full of frozen meat carcasses, back in 1882.

New Zealand fed many parts of the world for over a hundred years and life was good. Live sheep have been exported for over 100 years, although a number of incidents where thousands of sheep died have had a negative impact on this. My biggest argument, besides the inhumanity of keeping live animals penned up for so long, was that much of the stock was exported for breeding purposes, which of course reduced the demand for our own product.

But I digress. In today’s economy, we seem to have turned our backs on some opportunities, such as creating large call centres to look after communications needs of other English-speaking countries in other time zones, a market that South Africa has made a huge industry out of. We aren’t doing enough in areas such as science and medicine, possibly because the people with the smarts go offshore.

So lets look at what problems the world is going to face in the near future, in fact many parts of the world are facing right now, food! Scarce water resources, growing populations and growing tracts of land that are becoming so dry and depleted that nothing will grow on them. Then of course we also have oceanic dead zones, which are killing fish and other sea life.

Is this something we could look at with a different De Bono Hat on? Oceanic Dead Zones thrive through a combination of fertilisers and nutrients that leach into rivers and down to the sea, causing large algae blooms. These compound as the phytoplankton absorbs available oxygen and pretty much kills everything off.

Could this be another opportunity? When I need some extra energy before a run, I swallow a pile of Spirulina. Spirulina is actually algae. Of course the algal blooms often contain toxins, but there are many algae that can be used as a food source. Perhaps we could turn a bad situation into a good one.

In New Zealand, since we signed the Kyoto protocol, it has become relatively economic to grow forests (which while gobbling up Carbon Dioxide also use up a lot of water). We have lots of land, a good climate for agriculture and a need to find new sources of income. In fact I have heard that NZ can no longer feed its population without importing food. So why don’t we start looking at ways of growing bulk food?

If we want to do the right thing, we could look at product that has low cost to grow, that we can export for a profit and help countries that have problems at the same time. More than 1 billion people (1 in 6) suffer from food deprivation.

Food Science is something we are very good at. Most universities have food science and biotechnology majors and there is even a Food Science Institute. Many people have a problem with GE Food. I don’t personally know enough about it, but one way or another we either have to put production into overdrive or accept that hundreds of millions of people will die soon through malnutrition and starvation.We have a food crisis now. Grain is scarce and with oil running out a lot of people are now growing grain to fuel cars, creating even less food source.

Whilst human population growth is slowing, there were still 74 million new mouths to feed last year. A large chunk of these are in countries where soils are eroding, water tables falling and wells going dry.

Water politics is becoming a new issue and it could be that future wars are fought between countries that share water sources. This is especially likely where low lands are reliant on water coming from highlands. Think Europe, where many of our recent wars have begun. But again I digress.

Can we go back to agriculture as something we are very good at and the world needs? Dairy is currently our biggest export and apparently Fonterra’s income represented 25% of New Zealand’s total export revenue 2 years ago!

So we are good at growing crops, but could we do more? I think so. First, we should be self sustainable. We can’t afford to rely on other markets, especially when things get to a crisis where 1st world countries start fighting over resources. Then we should look at how we can feed the world and get paid for it. As a country surrounded by sea, we do not face the extremes that occur with countries that have large land masses, including our neighbours Australia.

As to Food Miles, I’m all for sustainability, so lets look at this is an opportunity. This can mean focussing on closer markets such as Australia and Asia, but also on biotechnology to get more for less.

Sometimes I think we try to be too clever. Faster computers, cloud computing, cars, planes, rockets, 3D TV, all things I want to continue to enjoy, are meaningless to the ever rowing numbers of starving and malnourished people around the world. Because of our geographic isolation, we became very good at food. Let’s look for more and new ways to exploit this. Lets make sure that if everything turns to dung, we can still feed ourselves, then lets look at how we can help feed the world and pay off our national debt at the same time.

I’ll leave the last word to NASA who have remote sensing technology to monitor conditions affecting food resources and their management:

Low Carbon Future


I’ve just finished reading an excellent story by Chris Barton in the NZ Herald, which is a good primer for the Copenhagen conference that John Key is going to? The cricket on TV is on in the background and apparently Key is in Wellington watching New Zealand vs Pakistan, so he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to get to the airport.

He quotes Phil Scadden, a geo-scientist from Dunedin, as saying that by 2025 we could cover all our energy needs using wind, hydro, geothermal and other relatively green sources if we were prepared to spend a great deal of money.

I find it hard to believe that NZ will spend the money, especially if we are insistent on Kyoto and other deals which would require us to pay other countries who have less carbon emissions than us. For my money I think that we should invest the same amount of money on cleaning up our own act.

I ask myself if we can afford to be prissy about seeing lots of wind turbines on hilltops. Personally I think they look really good. I was in the Netherlands earlier this year and the site of hundreds of wind turbines was quite inspiring. I don’t have a problem with having them far enough away so they don’t cause noise polution. We have plenty of great spots in the country that are almost always windy, such as Ohakea, which I believe from memory means place where four winds meet. It certainly never disappointed when I used to go down to the Ohakea Air Base to race land yachts, a very green speed sport:)

Something that annoys me when we talk about clean and green in this country is the lack of emission controls for diesel vehicles. If I was given a dollar for each diesel soot sprewing truck, with black soot backs delivering frozen meat, I would be able to retire today.

I’d also like to know why NZ is following other countries, with Feed-in Tarriffs, which I have previously blogged about. The concept was raised a long time ago by the Green Party, where there would be subsidies and incentives for people to put solar panels on their rooves and allowed them to sell surplus power into the grid.

Anyway, this whole situation disturbs me. Instead of fixing our problem at home, we want to pay other countries who are more fortunate than us, in having more trees etc. NZ has the ability to be self sustainable if we put our brilliant scientists and inventers on the job. We could be isolated from a lot of the problems of climate change in other parts of the world. Once we have it licked, then we can give them access to our know how. That might make a great new export for us.

For now, I’ve been for a 9 1/2 km bush walk/jog, finished my blog and am going to go and by an electric lawn mower. It is plastic, doesn’t need oil or petrol, won’t rust and will therefore last much longer.