World leading in agriculture – what would it take?

Professor Ray GeorProfessor Ray Geor, Massey University College of Sciences Pro Vice-Chancellor, gives his opinion on what is needed for New Zealand to become world leading in agriculture.

In a speech earlier this year, John Key said that New Zealand and Australia should join forces to create a “Harvard” of agricultural learning to attract the “best brains, the very best research, the very best technology and the very best young people from around the world”.

In the international Quacquarelli Symonds’ (QS) world university subject rankings, Massey University has the highest ranking for agriculture of any New Zealand institution at number 30. But admittedly, this is far from world leading, which begs the question – what would it take for a New Zealand institution to be viewed as the “Harvard” of agricultural learning and discovery?

In my view, the New Zealand agricultural research and education sector must adopt a more “joinedup” collaborative approach to realise Mr Key’s vision and also drive the innovation needed to meet the government’s high expectations for growth in agrifood exports. To attract the “best brains” to perform “the very best research”, we require critical mass of leading researchers working as multidisciplinary teams to tackle the big issues facing agriculture, for example achieving the balance between on-farm productivity and environmental sustainability.

Currently, New Zealand’s research and education activities in agriculture are distributed among several entities including universities and Crown Research Institutes (CRIs). Each of these entities is small by world-standards and, as stand-alone organisations, arguably lacking the critical mass of expertise to secure a global leadership position, attract and retain the very best and brightest staff and students and capture significant international funding.

The emerging collaborative effort among universities, CRIs and other industry partners around Lincoln University (Lincoln Hub) and Massey University (Food HQ) is a step in the right direction – but is it enough? In reality, there is competition among these partners for the same limited pool of resources to support research, technology transfer and capability development (education and training).

We need to closely examine the advantages of other systems globally, for example the Land Grant Universities in the USA and Wageningen UR (University Research) in the Netherlands in which government, industry and university investment in agriculture is focused on the delivery of a cocreated strategy. It is no coincidence that Wageningen UR occupies the number one spot in the QS world rankings for agriculture.

A similar “golden triangle” of integration among government, research institute and university interests in agriculture in New Zealand would provide the level of sustainable funding required to achieve critical mass and develop the innovation and capacity in research, education and technology transfer needed for us to become a “Harvard of agriculture”. Only then can we hope to realise our national and international ambitions for agriculture.