Thursday, 26 May 2022

OPINION: ‘But wait, there’s more…’


Article by Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Ravensdown director

As the price of everything escalates, the need to reduce outgoings is real and the temptation to try something new is high.  

As you search for solutions it is worth remembering the line ‘if it sounds too good to be true…’ Farmers have been farming for hundreds of years, and the agricultural track record is one of constant improvement. More food has been produced each year for each input, including land and labour.  

In New Zealand, primary sector productivity gains outstrip most other sectors. These are underpinned by public good science: farmers excel in coming up with ideas to be tested, adopted then adapted. Where unintended consequences occur, such as agrichemical use in the Green Revolution resulting in some excess nutrients in the environment, new approaches are developed, including precision agriculture involving new technologies in nutrient form and application.  

What are the chances therefore, that some entrepreneur will solve the dilemma of food production without inputs? And at reduced cost?  

Although desperate times have called for desperate measures since Hippocrates coined the concept over 2000 years ago, some measures will lead to poor outcomes, which could increase costs further.  

When offered a ‘too good to be true’ solution, scepticism is healthy: knowing what questions to ask, and when to ask them will help you stay clear of glitzy promotions that hide lack of research, or bad science, or both. 

Marketing that involves the following should ring warning bells: 

  • One product cures many problems. 
  • Evidence is in the form of testimonials, anecdotes and celebrity endorsements. 
  • No indication of peer-reviewed research. 
  • Never-to-be repeated deals with very short deadlines. 

Many advertorials on screen and on paper ring all these bells. They apply equally to fitness machines, cooking pans, and remedies for baldness, rheumatism, arthritis and impotence... as well as on-farm additives. If the product is really that good, why is all the hype required? And wouldn’t you have heard about it by word of mouth? This is particularly the case in New Zealand where over-the-fence discussions are real.  

Marketing spin is also sometimes applied to what looks like research. Again, when looking at a new product that claims to improve on-farm growth or soil health, some questions can assist to sort the wheat from the chaff: 

  • Do the comparisons show improvements relevant to your farm?  
  • Are the claimed improvements both statistically and biologically meaningful?  
  • Do the claims include actual data, or just percentages?  
  • A claim of a 10 per cent improvement might be statistically significant, though what is the starting point?  
  • At a growth rate of 20kg/ha/day DM, another 2kg might be significant, but what is the cost to achieve that improvement? Do you need extra feed at the time of year the trial was done? Do the economics stack up? 
  • What timeframe was measured: A week? A month?  Results from a short-term trial might not reflect typical conditions, and results extrapolated from a glasshouse to the field certainly don’t. 

Perhaps most important: can the marketer explain the mechanisms and processes of operation in the new product or approach? Without a comprehensible explanation of mechanisms and processes, how can the drivers and potential interactions with other factors be known? The term ‘holistic’ could give a clue to lack of information…  

Further points to look for are the presentation of analysis such as chemical composition, rather than results of scientific trials; and research that supports the action of an ingredient of the product, rather than the actual product. In this latter example, concentration is important: how much of the product would you have to apply to create an effect, and how much would that cost in relation to other products? 

Caveat emptor means that the buyer should beware. Although asking questions takes time, it should save money in the long run. 

And if the product needs steak knives to clinch the deal - it should be a no from you.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth CNZM is a Ravensdown director, representing shareholders in Area 6, the upper North Island. She farms 140 hectares in Waikato, was previously chief scientist of the Environmental Protection Authority, and has taught at universities on both sides of the Tasman. She is also a director of DairyNZ and holds the position of Adjunct Professor at Lincoln University.