February 14, 2012

Book Review. Floreat Scientia. Celebrating New Zealand's Agrifood Innovation

Review By Dr Clive Dalton

Floreat Scientia. Celebrating New Zealand’s Agrifood Innovation
Published for the Riddet Institute by Wairau Press, Random House NZ Ltd. 2011.
ISBN 978-1-927158-081 RRP $NZ49.95

The concept of this book is brilliant. It’s a treasure trove of essays about some of New Zealand’s great innovations in science and technology, written by people who actually did the work. The essays are their personal perspectives and thankfully not peer reviewed.

It’s a really motivating book, ideal for young folk wanting to enter science, and shows what can be done in a small country, where aims are clear, and researchers get backing from their providers and bosses to get on with the job. The worry is – are those days over?

The Prime Minister should have written the foreword to the book. I hope he’s been given a copy to read over the holidays.

I also hope that the new Leader of the Opposition, who has wisely kept the Science and Innovation portfolio for himself, has a copy too.

It’s staggering to be reminded how much has been achieved by so few Kiwis, over what is really a very short history of applying science to agriculture, horticulture and food and fibre science in New Zealand.

And what’s so amazing about all this innovation is that most of the people involved are very much alive, and still active in R&D.

This review can’t list all the topics covered, but Waikato readers will enjoy the essays on innovations from Ruakura and the Meat Research Institute such as grazing systems, dairy cattle reproduction, electrical stimulation to tenderize meat, new fertilisers, and facial eczema to list a few. There could have been 50 more.

Other fascinating essays are on the way Kiwi scientists took raw products and applied basic chemistry and physics to turning them into highly sophisticated products. They worked on proteins, lactose, and instant milk powder, increasing the range of cheeses, spreadable butter and much more, including probiotics to improve human health.

Then there’s the way science was applied to make a wide range of pharmaceuticals from animal offal, developing neutraceutical from milk, and making foods visually more attractive – the science of gastronomic engineering.

There are fascinating essays on what scientists discovered about wool’s qualities and how agricultural engineers revolutionised the seed drill. How developments in genetics and animal breeding gave New Zealand sheep and beef farmers a great leap forward is a great story, and the role GE has to make to our future is tackled head on.

There was no need to invent the silly word ‘Agrifood’ when ‘food’ is perfectly adequate. And I fear that the title of ‘Floreat scientia’ will badly affect the marketing of the book. I don’t care if it did come from the Massey University crest and means ‘let knowledge flourish’.

In this day and age, few of us have Latin, so looking at the title and a bee pollinating a flower on the cover, you’d guess the book was about gardening – even though the smaller secondary title mentions innovation. The Latin needs a sticker over it saying –‘ How Science made New Zealand’!

It’s such a good book with an excellent index, is well laid out, is easy to read and browse and has some great photos. It’s good value for money.

Who needs this book? I would suggest all libraries in high schools, polytechnics and universities, and every MP needs an urgent copy couriered to their office.

Farmers and horticulturists would enjoy the book as it’s about their industry, and they made the innovations listed work. I think they’d only have time to browse it – but it would be worth buying for that reason alone.

My favourite was Dr Russell Ballard’s essay (he was my old MAF boss) who was hired to restructure MAF after restructuring the Forest Research Institute in Rotorua.

He writes: ‘The agriculture/agrifood sector, with the backing of an innovative research and educational infrastructure, took New Zealand to near the top of the standard of living stakes in the 1950s and 1960s, and I believe it will do it again in the next 20 years. All it needs is a coordinated commitment from all players to make it happen’

Yeah Right! Pigs will fly. Things worked back then because researchers had the freedom to cooperate, talk to each other and share findings. We regularly and freely reported our successes, failures, daft ideas and great surprises at meetings and conferences. Every year a thousand dairy farmers filled the Ruakura hall on one day and the same number of sheep and beef farmers the next. On the following Open Days similar numbers came to Ruakura and the Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station where I worked.

Scientists could do all their work, and not have to predict financial ‘outcomes’ for bean counters or protect Intellectual Property (IP) before starting. This was before things were all chopped up by bureaucrats, and told that commercialism was the only way to go.

I would wager that the Kiwi innovations reported in this book could never happen in today’s bureaucratic climate. For one thing, the droves of scientists and technicians made redundant under the guise of restructuring, ‘change management’ and ‘progress’ would never come back.

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