Comment: Dr Jacqueline Rowarth asks if science and agriculture will still be considered "essential" after the Covid-19 outbreak subsides.

Netflix might well be saving people's sanity but it is science that is saving people's lives.

READ MORE:
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth: The myths around nitrate in drinking water
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth: The moral dilemma facing vegans
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth: Why food in New Zealand is 'expensive'
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth: What you need to know about glyphosate

Medical research put into practice by health professionals is making the difference.

Advertisement

It is the medical research that involves biology, chemistry and physics that has or is identifying the virus and symptoms, developing vaccines and drugs, and creating the technologies such as positive pressure rooms and ventilators to assist breathing.

Add in the PPE gear, the hand sanitisers and the supply-chain management to track were everything is – including where the virus has reached – and the number of types of occupations involved in health increases.

The same applies to food supply.

Everything to do with the growing, harvesting and processing of food has been deemed "essential"' in countries in lockdown around the world.

Food outlets (supermarkets and dairies in New Zealand) are also part of "essential", as are the transport, fuel and banking industries.

Telecommunications and information technology have come into their own, as well. They are providing the "essentials", just like the rubbish collectors, and the emergency electricians and plumbers. And everybody connected with keeping medical practices, pharmacies and supermarkets running.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied

Listen to Jamie Mackay's interview with Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:

In lockdown, the necessities of life become apparent.

Advertisement

Also apparent is that science, engineering, research and development provide the foundation for everything that is necessary.

What is less apparent is why the world had lost sight of the importance of the role of science. US-based Kiwi scientist Dr Robert Webster was clear about this on Sunday on TV1: "The world does not take science seriously".

We can tell this from the enrolments in science and science-related tertiary studies as a proportion of the total in most developed countries.

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

Even more dramatic is the enrolments in production, processing and supply of food – the agricultural and horticultural science, management and business qualifications that have been struggling since the liberalisation of the curriculum and creation of all sorts of new qualifications that have attracted students.

Food technology has not flourished, either, despite the increased interest in food created by such programmes as MasterChef.

Around the globe, headlines are indicating a renaissance: "Suddenly agriculture is important" (Canada), "Bloomberg condemned for past comments mocking farmers" (UK), "USDA stresses importance of food production" (US).

They're ramping up in New Zealand, as well, and reports from urban centres indicate a mood change.

People know the importance of agriculture. They might not quite know that "Agriculture" contributes 12.4 per cent to GDP.

This is the StatsNZ figure released in November last year for the year to 2018. ("Forestry and logging" are not included and add another 2 per cent.) Or that "Food, beverage and tobacco" (the StatsNZ category) contributes another 10 per cent. But they do know that together the categories are significant.

In the export economy, Agriculture (which excludes Forestry) contributed 68 per cent of the total to June 2019.

Far from being the sunset industry described in the 1980s, agriculture has continued to be a significant component of both the domestic and export economy.

OECD reports comment frequently on New Zealand and why it is doing so well in the primary space.

Last year Trends and Drivers of Agri-environmental Performance in OECD Countries stated that New Zealand's adoption of policies focused on research and development, farm profitability, productivity and emissions intensity reductions, in conjunction with low levels of distortionary support to agriculture, were instrumental in achieving efficient production in GHG.

Agricultural science has been the driver of developments, supported by farmers.

The OECD Trends and Drivers report stated (quoting from a Ministry for the Environment report in 2017) that R&D institutions in New Zealand work closely with farmers and industry to develop mitigation technologies and options that are economically attractive.

They also organise workshops, meetings and presentations with and to relevant stakeholders.

We're a team with all New Zealanders having a role. For some, that role is in support, but support is difficult without understanding – and that requires education.

The Food & Fibre Skills Action Plan 2019-2022, launched by the New Zealand Government last year, aims to ensure we have the skilled workforce needed for the primary sector.

A huge part of success will be whether current students see the value that they would be accorded in the sector – the kudos of the career choice, as well as the remuneration.

The "essential business" classification might help and certainly, the salaries and wages are higher than in many other sectors for equivalent qualifications.

But a significant contributor to their decision is social standing. Globally the role of food production has just escalated ...

Rethinking "essential" hasn't changed the importance of food, but it might change how we regard employment in the food-innovation chain from soil through to saliva. And, perhaps, how we lay the priorities for education and science funding that provides the foundation for everything we do, including Netflix.

- Jacqueline Rowarth CNZM CRSNZ HFNZIAHS has a PhD in Soil Science. The analysis and conclusions above are her own and should not be attributed to any of the organisations with which she is affiliated. jsrowarth@gmail.com