Friday, May 28, 2010

An Udder Controversy

Earlier this month, AgResearch was obliged to release information about the death of young genetically modified cows. Human genes were inserted into the cow’s eggs at the time of their conception and they later suffered from the rupturing of abnormally enlarged ovaries.

AgResearch staff member, Jimmy Suttie, was reported as saying it was no “big deal” and "This was not intended to happen. But, bluntly, this is what research is all about." The opponents of genetic modification were soon up in arms about the experiments failure and voiced concern about the distress and death of the animals involved. Jon Carapiet, from GE Free NZ, not only pointed the finger at AgResearch, but also to the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) who are supposed to ensure the safety of these procedures.

ERMA has given AgResearch approval to continue its experiments with cattle, sheep and goats. However, anti genetic engineering (GE) groups have succeeded in getting a Supreme Court hearing later this year to challenge ERMA’s decisions. The recent death of GE cows will certainly not help ERMA to defend its case.

No doubt New Zealand’s reputation as a “Clean Green GE Free” country will be claimed to be at risk in the Supreme Court case. It is a very profitable marketing tool that raises the perception of New Zealand agriculture overseas. Geographic isolation has imposed heavy transport costs on all farm products. So the maintenance of this image will also probably be of some concern to hard nosed business interests who want the best returns from top shelf products.

The AgResearch experiment was trying to get cows to produce follicle stimulating hormones (FSH) to treat human infertility. Dr Elvira Dommise, an ex GE scientist, has cast doubts doubt over the need for the experiments in the first place because she says there are other better and more effective methods to treat infertility.

She also said that she thought that research should be postponed until enough was known about the mammalian genome. When questioned during an interview on TV1 about welfare issues, in a closing statement she said, “animals should not be subjected to this sort of treatment at any stage.”

The Dairy industry in New Zealand already has to cope with its negative “Dirty Dairy” image and Fonterra has been working hard to set a higher standard by pushing ahead with its Clean Streams Accord. Hopefully, market perceptions overseas will not also associate it with messy research outcomes. There will be a time when GE field trials will be asked for by researchers and the industry will have to decide if the present GE free status in dairy herds should be maintained.

Another complication will be factory farming businesses introducing the double whammy of combining GE and intensive methods in enclosed spaces. They are likely to argue that these methods are acceptable, as they will have minimal environmental impact. Commercial pressures to follow world methods and technology will always be unrelenting. For those who resist the worst of these, eternal vigilance will be the price of freedom from GE.

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Being Googled

How much do you value your privacy? I think most of us need some, but I have noticed lately that quite a few people need more privacy than I do. I guess that is because I am insatiably curious about people and I believe it is only fair that others should have the same right to know about me.

I am fairly sure that I would get along well with most of the folk who run Google. They appear to be a nerdy bunch of ‘techno-zealots’ who seem to honestly believe that the more we know, the more we grow. I rather like that idea, but I am not so sure about the way they got rich selling advertising next to digital packages of information.

I was therefore not very surprised to hear that Google has been accused of blundering into private spaces recently, when it set up its “Buzz” site within Gmail to compete with Facebook. It naively assumed that Gmail users would love to have their entries available all to see. Yeah right! The predictable uproar soon had Google scrambling to patch up that gaff very quickly.

This episode certainly got people asking questions about a company that makes claims, “to do no evil,” in the way it runs its business. The latest Google breaching of privacy issue has been the way they have collected data for their Street View site.

It turns out that 3D pictures were not the only data that they collected while whizzing around our streets. They also picked up wifi signals from houses and then mapped out the location and type of devices being used. Canada’s privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, enlisted the support of similar agencies in nine other affected countries and sent a letter of protest to the managers of Google.

It has been reported that she chided the Internet giant with, “the privacy rights of the world’s citizens are being forgotten as Google rolls out new technological applications.” Google appeared at first not to see the harm being done and then again succumbed to international pressure. They have assured the world that wifi data will be destroyed.

This controversy has stimulated a privacy rights witch hunt on the Internet and now Facebook is being hauled over the coals. They have been accused of allowing personal data etc. to be made available to third parties without the permission of the account holders. Facebook has been increasing the amount of advertising to make the site profitable, but many now see this latest move as going too far. In response, Facebook is reviewing this policy and giving assurances that the problem will be fixed.

Facebook and Google are not alone in probing into our so called “private lives” in cyberspace. I agree with the comment I heard from a media expert, when he said that we should look at internet communication in the same way we write on postcards that we send in the mail. The whole world can see the message - so be careful what you write and do.

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Friday, May 14, 2010


Some friends have commented lately that my freelance work commitments were making me house bound and I needed to get out more. I had to admit that they were probably right and so I drove over to Mangawhai to take in the scenery and breathe in some sea air.

I know someone who lives there and while we had lunch together on the verander, I looked around at the surrounding hills. I could see that there were even more houses since my last visit, but I guess that is not surprising because it is a very attractive place to live.

In the afternoon we drove out to the Heads for a walk along the shoreline. It had been several years since I had been on that road and on the way I saw something very unexpected. I noticed closed iron gates guarding the access route to a gated community.

For some reason I felt very uneasy about it. I had seen similar set ups in Auckland and I could see security could be a problem there. However, I could not understand why was it necessary here. It seemed to me to be a very ‘unkiwi’ way of living for a beach settlement.

At The Heads I was impressed with car park improvements and it was easy to park. The beach was much the same as I remembered it and quite a few surfers were in the sea catching a moderate surf. As we walked along the shoreline the sea came in and felt surprisingly warm as it swirled around my legs. It felt nice to feel the sea, the sun and the sand under my feet – I felt relaxed and glad to be away from urban clutter.

It was too good to last. I was soon made aware of new houses perched along the skyline and I felt as though I was in somebody’s backyard. Some of the magic went and I felt sad that yet another beautiful piece of New Zealand’s coastline had been plundered. When I learnt that these houses were connected to the gated community, my previous feelings certainly made sense.

Oddly enough, Radio New Zealand ran a Spectrum programme soon after my Mangawhai visit and various social activists (like Raewyn Peart) and developers (Hopper Developments) discussed their viewpoints on coastal development.

Raewyn Peart has written a book the on the history and future development of our coasts called “Castles In The Sand”. In the interview she had this to say, “We’ve just come out of the biggest boom on the coast…it is only the beginning of what we are going to see over the next 50 years or so.”

I hope the Kaipara District Council and our Government read her book and do more to protect what we have left of our unspoiled coasts. The Americans had the scandal of “Watergate”. We might be witnessing our own “Coastgate” scandal where a privileged few can lock up what is left of our coastal heritage.

Sleep Walking

The Recession certainly looks to be fading at last. The dark clouds of doom and gloom parted for me last week as a shaft of golden light came out of the heavens and made my mailbox glow. I looked inside and found an inspirational leaflet claiming - “You Can Make Money In Your Sleep”.

That is just the kind of enlightenment I need right now as I struggle to pay my bills each month. Why sweat your guts out when you can be guided to an easy fortune by a financial guru. Judging by his $750,000 per annum income, I am sure to be rich in no time at all if I sign up for one of his magical mystery tours into the internet.

I can already see from the promotional material that this business guru operates from Australia and his approach has a lot to do with attitude. Now that explains everything. Money quite literally comes out of the ground there from huge mines that operate 24/7. No wonder the door is open for some passive income earning schemes like this one to siphon off some of the billions of mining money sloshing around in their economy.

I read in the NZ Herald that Kiwis are once again being drawn to migrate to ‘The Lucky Country’ in droves after a bit of a slow down last year. I wonder how many are sufficiently prepared for the challenges ahead? Perhaps my new business guru will help me develop an Internet course for migrants to Aussie. I could earn my money in New Zealand while I take my afternoon naps and rake it in worldwide while I sleep in the evening.

I will begin with routine environmental hazards like toilet seat lifting techniques, as you look for the deadly red back spiders. Then move on to direct you to suppliers of boots that will resist snakebites and bottles of serum in case they strike higher. Crocodile Dundee hats will be essential for country folk and I will give instructions on the correct way to do the Aussie salute as you wave the flies away all day.

To be absolutely safe, you will also need my recommended: hail proof helmets, bush fire and ant bite proof clothing, tick removers, dingo and shark repellents and water purifiers. The last item might seem excessive, but remember that some Australian cities have to recycle their sewage due to low rainfall.

Language will come next. Your kiwi accent will be a dead give away, so accent lessons in ‘Strine’ will be necessary if you want more pay. I will teach you how to really believe in mantras like “To win is naturally Australian” and how to play Australian Rules Football with boots that have the words “You deserved this” stamped into the treads.

If all goes well, my grateful students will see my fees as a kind of “Advance Australian Fare” to successful emigration. “Stripe me pink!” and “Stone me crows!”, I will be getting rich while I snooze.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

New Horizons

What with drought, floods and fluctuating exchanges rates, many dairy farmers in are now having to think about where Fonterra is heading again. The prospect of a rapid increase in farm ownership by foreign businesses has also crept back onto the radar and this issue will no doubt be a mixed blessing for those starting up or leaving the industry.

Fonterra is moving into stage three of its reforms, which the company hopes will get an approval vote from a majority of its 10,500 odd owners. Cynics might argue that because the company’s first effort to widen the share holding base to outside investment went down in flames - this time around, the staged approach appears to be “softly, softly catchee monkey”.

2009 was not a kind year for Fonterra, but it survived better than most New Zealand businesses with a reasonably high debt loading. However, it claims that it is prone to uncertainties in its capital base due to its redemption obligations to its owner suppliers. The first two approved stages of reforms made that obligation more flexible. In general, Stage 3 appears to propose that flexibility to be extended amongst farmers and reduce company liability.

The co-op owners of Fonterra are debating the issue at present and the company management team insists that the changes in no way mean watering down of farmer ownership – even tho’ some outside capital will be allowed in to assist co-op members trading shares with one another.

At present, the vast majority of New Zealand dairy farms and dairy processing industries are owned and operated by New Zealanders. This could rapidly change if the Overseas Investment Office approves the massive 1.5 billion dollar buying spree by Chinese investors backing a Hong Kong listed company called NZ Dairy. It has already bought farms and seeks approval to buy the 22 Crafar farms that are being administered by liquidators. Reports are coming in that agents for the company are also active in the South Island and appraising dairy farms there as well.

Some politicians, like the Greens and Winston Peters are ringing the alarm bells and warning farmers and the public of the disastrous consequences if we lose our economic sovereignty. Broadcaster and newspaper columnist, Bill Ralston, has been hired to help out NZ Dairy with the public relations side of these transactions. He has been appealing for calm and for opponents to wait until the Overseas Investment Office makes a decision.

If the application succeeds, Fonterra will soon face even more formidable competition on all fronts and competitors will even have a presence within its own co-op membership. Asia is accumulating vast capital reserves and every nation on Earth will have to work out how to manage Asian investment.

Australian governments have ring fenced strategic Australian owned media, banking, rural and mining businesses from overseas ownership. The strength of the New Zealand economy is very dependent on agriculture. Perhaps the time has come for farmers to debate if it is also necessary to keep vital New Zealand assets in the hands of New Zealanders.

Weatherman Blues

Something has to done about the weather in New Zealand. There are far too many random droughts and floods here to allow farming to be a safe and reliable way to make a living. I have heard some people say it is due to the way we pollute the air and the water. This might well be an inconvenient truth. But others, with different beliefs, tell me that such extremes are inevitable and were predicted long ago. According to them, we are also neglecting our spiritual responsibilities and so we are well on our way down the slippery slope to Armageddon.

It would surely be helpful then, if the Government took some positive steps to boost the economy and cheer us up. We need new ideas combined with inspired leadership to show us light at the end of the tunnel of pessimism and lead us out into valleys of greener pastures.

Tidal energy is a hot prospect in Northland and if the Government backed it, all that huge amount of potential electricity source could be used to power wind turbines to modify the weather. I can see them located all along the coastline blowing unwanted storms back out to sea. When drought threatens, they could be put into reverse gear, tilted 60 degrees and used to pull in moist sea air to be blown skyward. The air would then condense and create life giving rain clouds to drift inland and sprinkle their cargo gently across the countryside.

When I read this suggestion to my cat he immediately began licking his paws and washed himself behind the ears. Now that tells me I am onto a winner here – it obviously pays to think outside the square in times of hardship.