Kia Tōpū – Why?

One thing that is puzzling me about Kia Tōpū is – why? What is the strategic objective here? Why have a unifying theme project like this in the first place? And if we do have such a project then why choose food? Is the objective to be more attractive to students? Or to raise our position in the various rankings? Or to secure more external funding? Or to compete head-to-head with Lincoln and take their space?

The original business case document that was circulated has a short section titled “Strategic Case” where it says:

This section of the business case confirms the strategic context for the investment proposal and makes a compelling case for change. It takes previous options considered and develops the preferred approaches to the opportunities while considering defences to competitive threats.
New Zealand is currently exporting $30 billion in agri-food exports, however by the time they reach offshore markets, they have a retail value of $250 billion. Not only is New Zealand losing this gap in value, opportunities are also being lost to respond to and benefit from significant global food market disruption created by new ways of growing food without the need for land or animals, and distribution approaches which remove the need for intermediaries.
By 2050, the world’s population is forecast to hit 10 billion, and global agricultural production will have to grow by 70% by this time if current production and consumption patterns remain unchanged. In reality, to meet the global demand for food, increasing agricultural yields will not be enough. This population growth means that the percentage of arable land per person is decreasing; currently 3% of the Earth’s surface is arable land (of this 11% used for biofuels, 18% for food and 71% for animal feed) and 7% is for pasture. While these pressures exist, about a third of food produced is lost or wasted.
At the same time, climate change will have a drastic impact on food production. For example, it is predicted that by 2050, 40% of the world’s population will suffer from water shortages.
New Zealand has a role to play in feeding the world, and also needs to address its own issues in environmental and production challenges.
The application of new and existing technologies or business models in innovative ways to the three parts of the food supply chain – the production, processing and distribution of food including drink – can provide both opportunities and threats to New Zealand’s largest export sector.

None of this explains why UC is adopting this project. Are we simply being good global citizens?

The VC’s report to Council in September 2018 states:

Kia Tōpū is a new UC research and teaching initiative that aims to contribute to the global challenge of future food and food security. Over the next five years, UC will invest in research and teaching to help develop Kia Tōpū’s vision for the sustainable production, efficient processing and secure distribution of healthy foods across the themes of Food Equity, Food Intelligence and Food Innovation. These themes underpin the four projects that largely underpin Kia Tōpū’s programme of work: programme development, EFTS growth, the development of a research institute, and an online repository. Research and programme development continued on the realisation of Kia Tōpū delivery, with two representatives from each college on each of the main oversight groups – one related to establishing the research institute and one to develop taught programmes. This multi-year, multi-million-dollar investment in interdisciplinary research and teaching will require UC to develop and apply collaboration skills to leverage the contribution UC can make to the work of other institutions including other universities, CRIs and private sector partners.

However, this is also lacking in strategic objective reasoning.

No-one is questioning that food is an important issue (although the world has more kilojoules for more people than ever before). However, water is an important issue and so is climate change and so is energy security. So why food? What comparative advantage did we have in that area?

And no-one is questioning that universities should use their scarce resources for the greatest benefit. Is this where UC can actually make the biggest difference? There is an opportunity cost to this project – has anyone established what we will NOT now be doing? (i.e. what is the opportunity cost). The business case document is strong on benefits and very weak on costs. All projects have benefits – the question is are those benefits worth the costs.

The project may very well be worthwhile but I don’t know as I can’t see what the strategic objective is  and I can’t see any evidence of weighing costs and benefits. I think knowing those two things would be helpful.

Stephen Hickson.

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