Comment: Jacqueline Rowarth contemplates the best way to create the next big noise, whether revolutionary or disruptive, in the agricultural sector.

Before the iPod, there were boomboxes. 'Cool' people held large-speaker music machines on their shoulders polluting the environment with their choice of music noise as they rocked past.

A man named Jonathan Ive changed all that. His ear buds and compact devices revolutionised the music experience. Jonathan Ive also invented the iMac, iPhone and iPad.

He had a team of about 15 people working with him, but he is the design genius. And he says that to truly make a difference, you have to think about the problem, identify how to make the experience better, and then be prepared to pour money into it.

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New Zealand isn't well known for the money part: Sir Ernest Rutherford's 'we didn't have the money, so we had to think' has been echoed recently by Rocket Lab's Peter Beck, for instance, and the Crown research institutes have been doing their best on budgets affected by inflation.

Despite this, in some areas, including agriculture, New Zealand scientists and researchers have been world-leading. In some cases this has been of necessity. For example, most other developed countries are not concerned about year-round-pasture-based agriculture. Research in New Zealand has resulted in efficiency gains in production.

Agricultural productivity increase

StatsNZ reported in February this year that multifactor productivity over the last decade (which includes labour and resources as well as capital expenditure) has increased an average of 2.8 per cent a year in agriculture. In some contrast, accommodation and food has increased by only 1 per cent a year, and IT and telecommunications by only 2.2 per cent.

Agriculture was exceeded by retail at 3 per cent average – but without the new money coming onto the country through export sales (75 per cent of which are from the primary sector) the retail sector would suffer because consumers would have little discretionary income to spend.

Another benefit in improved efficiency is in greenhouse gas emissions per unit of product (also called emissions intensity). Emissions intensity has reduced by approximately 1 per cent per year per unit of production since 1990. Without the gains, New Zealand's agricultural emissions would have been 40 per cent higher than they are.

New Zealand's research into the free-air carbon dioxide enrichment (FACE) method is also unique as it is the only FACE site that involves grazing animals. This is surprising given the extent of grassland in the world (approximately 37 per cent of the land mass, and most is grazed) and explains why the New Zealand results are in demand.

The FACE research has shown that carbon dioxide enrichment doesn't always result in increased pasture yield, and that nitrogen fixation by legumes is reduced in high carbon dioxide. In addition, nitrogen in soils is reduced and some carbon fractions in soil are increased.

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These findings have significant implications for future pasture management, and although there are signs that some plants and micro-organisms might be able to adapt, research is ongoing to ensure New Zealand farmers can meet the challenges ahead.

Where is our competitive advantage?

The research described is evolutionary in nature – gradual changes and investigations. In contrast, Jonathan Ive's iPod was revolutionary – disruptive, in fact. And disruption is being faced in the agricultural sector with the development of synthetic foods.

This disruption doesn't meet the definition of 'all natural' that has been the demand of the 'new' consumer for a few years. And it certainly isn't devoid of environmental impact (most synthetic food requires sugar as an energy source, or wheat, peas, potatoes, rice… and all, including sugar crops, require land, fertilisers, fossil fuel in machinery, and pesticides).

But of most importance, synthetic food isn't where New Zealand's competitive advantage lies. Pastoral agriculture (and some horticultural crops, and some wine types) is.

So how do we create the next step, whether revolutionary or disruptive, in the agricultural sector?

Jonathan Ive has at least some of the answer: knowing the problem, focusing on it, working out how to make the experience better, and then investing heavily. He says that a thirst for knowledge and understanding is a prerequisite, and that innovators should 'look to be wrong'.

In particular, Jonathan urges that innovators should strive to be better, not different.

"If something is going to be better, it is new, and if it is new you are confronting problems and challenges you don't have references for," he says. "To solve and address those requires a remarkable focus. By being better you will inherently differentiate, but fundamentally this will be to the benefit of the customer."

- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth CNZM CRSNZ HFNZIAHS has a PhD in soil science and has been analysing agri-environment interaction for several decades.