Greenpeace criticises a South Island university over industry-funded research. David Williams reports

Canterbury’s Lincoln University took more than $1 million in research money from the fertiliser industry in 2021, a fact criticised by environmental activist group Greenpeace.

The university – New Zealand’s smallest – is unapologetically a practical, land-based institution, specialising in agriculture, horticulture, and viticulture.

Figures released to Newsroom by Lincoln University under the Official Information Act reveal its funding sources in 2021. The bulk of its money comes from Crown agency the Tertiary Education Commission – $28.7 million in grant income, and $9.8 million for performance-based research.

Lincoln also collected $17.8 million in research contracts.

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About $4m of that is from the commission, under “Centres of Research Excellence”, with another $3.3m of programmes funded by the Business Ministry, MBIE, and $1.9m channelled through Crown research institutes under national science challenges.

Lincoln’s outside funders read like a who’s who of New Zealand agriculture: including our biggest company, the dairy exporter Fonterra ($192,000), industry groups Beef & Lamb ($1m) and DairyNZ ($650,000), meat company Alliance Group ($99,000), and NZ Winegrowers ($481,000).

Dairy NZ also provided $300,000 for fees scholarships and stipends for 29 students, while the Lincoln University Foundation gave $393,000, and the Department of Conservation $35,000.

One stand-out source of research funding for Lincoln was the fertiliser industry.

Christchurch-based cooperative Ravensdown handed over $819,000 for three projects: biologicals for pastoral agriculture, effluent research, and improved nutrient efficiency.

Southstar Technologies Ltd, 20 percent-owned by Ravensdown, paid $158,000 for three projects for “nitrogen fertiliser research”.

(Two massive cooperative companies, Ballance Agri-Nutrients and Ravensdown, dominate domestically, with combined revenues last year of more than $2 billion, and a market share of 98 percent.)

Another Lincoln research funder is Saudi Arabian giant SABIC (Saudi Basic Industries Corporation), a publicly listed chemicals company, agri-nutrient and metals company, mostly owned by Saudi Aramco, which, in turn, is majority owned by the Saudi government.

The company SABIC Global Technologies BV spent $98,800 backing a “nitrogen fertiliser efficiency research project” in two parts.

“Scientific research should be unbiased, but commercial funding of research compromises this in principle and practice.” – Christine Rose

Corporate funding of research – “especially at this scale” – is problematic, Christine Rose, Greenpeace Aotearoa’s lead climate campaigner, says via email.

“It’s hard to imagine research funded by fertiliser giants ever finding evidence that synthetic nitrogen fertiliser needs to be phased out.”

Corporate-backed research often lacks transparency and creates conflicts of interests, she says, which reduces objectivity and integrity of the scientific method and findings.

“Scientific research should be unbiased, but commercial funding of research compromises this in principle and practice.

“One of the principles about public funding of universities and research institutes is to support objective scientific research, but funding from companies undermines this principle.

“It privatises knowledge and creates self-perpetuating fields of knowledge that work in the interests of the funders.”

Professor Chad Hewitt, Lincoln University’s provost, says in emailed comments that helping land-based industries and communities is behind the university’s core purpose – “unlocking the power of the land to enhance lives and grow the future”.

“Through our research, Lincoln University takes an active role in finding scientific solutions to address challenges, enhancing the impact for society from its science in leveraging research partnerships, and transferring knowledge.

“Lincoln University academic staff are highly cited researchers, each performing high-quality research exemplifying integrity and independence, supported by a robust university research management framework.”

Fertiliser Association chief executive Vera Power also defends the integrity of Lincoln’s researchers. Greenpeace’s comments belittle some outstanding researchers, she says via email.

“The whole point in commissioning research from institutions like Lincoln University is that you get access to internationally respected researchers known for their independence and integrity.”

She adds: “We should be proud of them.”

Research at Lincoln is aimed at improving efficiency and reducing environmental impact, Power says. “Over the last two years there has actually been a 12 percent reduction in nitrogen use.”

This comment overlooks the long-term trend. According to the country’s most recent estimate of greenhouse gas emissions, there’s been a 693 percent increase in the amount of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser applied to agricultural land since 1990, which can cause serious ecological damage in waterways, and cultural concerns for Māori.

Reducing emissions and nutrient losses

Ravensdown group communications manager Hilary Marett says, in emailed comments, the company uses science and technology to improve efficiency while enhancing the land’s productive capacity – even though it reduces fertiliser volumes.

“Each of the research projects Ravensdown is involved with is concerned with reducing on-farm greenhouse gas emissions and reducing nutrient losses to the environment. None of these are aimed at supporting increased fertiliser volumes.”

The company partnered with establishments like Lincoln University “based on their reputation for independent, robust and objective scientific research methodologies”, Marett says. “We also take extra care when investing in research to ensure all outcomes are independently robust, peer-reviewed and can be published in scientific journals.”

Through research at Lincoln, Ravensdown has developed programmes such as EcoPond, which reduces methane emissions from effluent ponds “by up to 99 percent”, and ClearTech, concerned with conserving and re-using water to wash down yards.

Southstar Technologies, as a partially owned subsidiary, left it to Ravensdown to comment.

Mike Joy, a freshwater ecologist at Victoria University of Wellington, says industry funding ensures research and teaching is oriented toward maintaining high external input farming – “and away from what we need, that is more circular regenerative and organic farming”.

Newsroom’s to-and-fro with Lincoln University over the funding information stretched most of last year, and included complaints to the Office of the Ombudsman. Our initial request, which was denied, asked for 10 years of data, but, in May, we refined that to a single year.

In late November, the university released a spreadsheet with only one company’s name withheld. We confirmed we intended to complain to the Ombudsman about the redaction. Two days later, legal counsel Tim Lester released an unredacted list, showing that fertiliser company Southstar Technologies Ltd was the holdout.

Lester said the company “initially objected to our proposed release … As we have still not heard back from this funder, we have decided to now release to you.”

Call for fertiliser ban

Greenpeace has called for a ban on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser which, it says, is one of the key drivers of what it calls industrial dairying. About half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture.

Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is made using gas and a chemical process to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it into a cheap and reliable form that can boost agricultural and horticultural production.

Dairying is its biggest user and the main driver of its increased use – and a surge in emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent, long-lived greenhouse gas.

Parliament’s environment select committee considered a Greenpeace petition that laws are passed to ban chemical nitrogen fertiliser. The committee, made up of four political parties, couldn’t reach a unanimous position.

However, its report, released in May last year, said the Government intends to review a synthetic nitrogen fertiliser cap this year.

The Green Party’s differing view was the overuse of chemical fertilisers enables farming beyond environmental limits, causing environmental damage and increased greenhouse emissions. “Farming can occur without its use,” the Green Party said in the select committee report.

Agriculture is a powerful industry, reflected perhaps by how little has been done by successive governments to rein in its emissions. The latest twist in this decades-long saga was a report, released four days before Christmas, in which the Government announced it drastically weakened a proposed scheme to price agricultural emissions,

The fertiliser industry can be quick to flash its economic credentials, especially with the tourism industry only just recovering from Covid-19-related disruptions. Power told the select committee a ban would lead to a $20b drop in gross output.

It’s not all about the economy, though.

High nitrates in water also raise human health concerns, including the potential risk of colorectal cancer. A recent article in the journal Environmental Health tracked a spike of stories in 2017, an election year, while there was a noticeable decrease in stories during Covid-affected 2020.

With an election date having been set for October, it will be interesting to see if water contamination, once again, becomes a prominent issue.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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