The duopoly fertiliser industry structure in New Zealand is probably well past its use-by date, according to independent scientist, inventor and entrepenuer Dr Bert Quin. “It has, perhaps inevitably, got to the point where the sole purpose seems to be maintain market dominance and getting a return on their massive, completely unnecessarily dual infrastructure. “It is not true competition; both companies offer an almost identical range of products and attitudes” says Dr Quin. “ Huge taxpayer-funded research grants to these companies get spent on anything but what it should be spent on, viz finding ways to improve fertiliser efficiency and reduce losses to the environment.” He says instead we see tens of millions of dollars being spent on irrelevant promotion-based developments like AgHub, and looking at different plants to see if one can recover 5% more N than the other. “Talk about fiddling while Rome burns!” he says.
A classic example of how the industry has lost its way is in their attitude to reactive phosphate rock or RPR. Every piece of research ever done on this topic has shown that P run-off into waterways is greatly reduced when RPR is used instead of superphosphate and DAP. And 99% of dairy farms have sufficiently high Olsen P levels in the soil they could switch to RPR with no change in production at all. So, even though Ballance do have a little info on their website pointing out the lower P run-off with RPR, and Ravensdown do advertise RPR (to try and get some of Ballance’s ex Summit-Quinphos clients), neither of them have put any significant effort into saying to farmers “Look John, you are in a very P-sensitive catchment. We would really like you to switch to RPR, or a DAP/RPR mix”.
P run-off remains every big a threat to our precious water quality than does nitrate leaching, despite dropping off the radar in NZ in the last year or two. It is actually regarded as a bigger problem than nitrate in Europe.
Instead of promotion of RPR by the duopoly to reduce P run-off in NZ however, we get more millions of taxpayers’ money going from Ballance and Ravensdown to CRI’s like AgResearch to develop schemes – ‘dashboards’ or ‘dartboards’ or suchlike – to look at how variable-rate fertiliser spreading and other things can reduce susceptibility of soluble P to run-off. I am not saying that these do not help – they do. My question is “Why ignore the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of simply changing the type of P we use?” The simple answer is that Balance and Ravensdown management are governed far more by their shortsighted wish to keep the remaining 4 superphosphate plants viable, than they are in maintaining New Zealand’s water quality.
In the absence of duopoly control, this would simply not happen. A good part of the blame needs to be laid at the feet of spineless researchers, who are disinclined to do research that the industry may not like, in case it results in reduced funding via Ballance and Ravensdown in the future. Sadly, the futility of this attitude catches up with them eventually. By playing pawns to the duopoly, the quality and value to NZ of agricultural research has plummeted, with the inevitable result that the government has decided to reduce its funding, which in turn has seen 100 more agricultural research positions made redundant in the latest round. Some new independent research centres staffed by take-no-prisoners committed research staff are desperately needed!