5 minutes with Dr. Tom Richardson

Dr. Tom RichardsonWhat is AgResearch’s role in technology and innovation within the primary sector?

AgResearch is New Zealand’s largest Crown Research Institute. It partners with the Government, industry and other research organisations to identify and deliver the innovation the agricultural sector needs to continue to be a world leader and key export earner for New Zealand. This means providing targeted science to make real gains in key areas including pasture-based animal production, new plant varieties and pest biocontrols, agri-foods and bio-based products and environmental management, including technologies to manage nutrients and mitigate climate change.

What have been some of the major breakthroughs from AgResearch?

We have a proud history of delivering great science that has real benefits for agriculture in New Zealand. For example, AgResearch’s introduction to New Zealand of an Irish wasp to combat a destructive pest – the clover root weevil – has saved the rural economy nearly half a billion dollars since the programme began back in 2006. The weevil feeds on the pastures which in many cases AgResearch has helped develop into better feed for livestock on farms. The wasp has proven a great success in controlling these weevil populations across the country and the ongoing benefit to the economy from this biocontrol programme is estimated at $158m per year. This is just one example of our work, but we are continually producing results in our labs and on farms that improve the quality of everything from wool to meat to milk to pasture.

What do you feel are the changing trends that New Zealand farmers and growers need to prepare for?

Obviously there are huge environmental and food production issues facing the world, which presents particular opportunities and challenges for New Zealand’s pastoral-based economy. That is why we are working hard with our partners in New Zealand and abroad to develop new systems to produce safe, high quality food whilst reducing environmental impact and mitigating climate change. Here in New Zealand the growth of the agricultural sector over many decades has put pressure on many of our waterways and so all of us in the sector are working to improve water quality and water use efficiency. Longer term we are seeing the development of synthetic foods – is that something we see as a threat or, given our clean energy and outstanding food safety systems, does it provide another avenue to our global customers?

What do you think could help foster more innovation and how can New Zealand support this?

Given our size and distance to markets, if we are to remain a world leader in high quality food and fibre production and have the national prosperity we all want, I think we need to do better at focusing our resources and we need to move faster. We need to create more clusters of education, research and businesses along the value chains to attract and develop talent and move ideas more swiftly from the labs into the market. Or fail quickly and learn from that. Obviously it is essential that there is adequate investment to support that but we can also be smarter with what we have. I see opportunities for more specialisation and more streamlined processes that would put more of our dollars towards doing the real work. AgResearch and our partners are giving this a good nudge by reconfiguring our resources into expanded new hubs at Lincoln (near Christchurch) and in Palmerston North (Food HQ).