BY: Jacqueline Rowarth

As the tsunami of mail arrives in the inbox, through rural delivery or the internet, there can be some confusion in sorting whether the products and suggestions will be useful or not. Are the fliers marketing or science? How do you know whether adoption will be positive – or whether not taking up the offer will mean you drop behind?

For people swimming in a flood of information and trying to find the good oil, consider asking the following questions:

Is there a time limit or quantity limit on the offer? Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) induces rash behaviour. The Auckland housing market makes the point…

What problem is the new thing solving? Do you actually have that problem? I was offered a product that would improve animal health on the farm. I replied that the farm owner is a vet. I was then told that the product would improve soil health. I replied that I am a soil scientist. At that point I was told that it would do other things as well…

How many problems can one product solve? One size never fits all and there is no silver bullet for multiple ailments.

Are the results of research presented appropriate for your farm or business? Is the pitch on emotion or evidence? Client testimonials are not the same as evidence. Evidence is facts, data and research, preferably where appropriate comparisons have been made with other products or systems, and in a setting appropriate for New Zealand. Analysis of a product (its chemical composition, for instance) is no substitute for its effect.

Was the research done by an independent researcher and have the results been published in a reputable journal? The peer review process generally ensures that the research has been carried out according to scientific principles, and that conclusions are supported by the results. Peer review does not check for how the research is then used by marketers – it can’t.

Are figures of production disclosed? Quoting percentages without indicating the starting point can have impact but is meaningless. A grazing management system that increases production by 30% sounds impressive but 30% of something that is poor is still not good. Is the starting point given?

Can the mode of action for the new product or solution be explained? Do the marketers/promoters/salespeople know how the new product or concept works? If the mechanisms and processes have not been identified, the effect cannot be known for circumstances beyond those existing where the research was done. Promoters saying ‘we don’t have time to wait for the research to catch up’ are creating FOMO.

Is the merchant/promoter/salesperson credible? Does he or she have qualifications and a track record of professional experience? Is the track record appropriate for NZ? The soils and farming systems here are very different from those in the rest of the world.

‘Is there a time limit or quantity limit on the offer? Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) induces rash behaviour. The Auckland housing market makes the point…’

Has the new product or concept been examined over several seasons/years? Results from a short-term trial might not reflect typical conditions. When pasture management is changed, it takes several years, even decades, for the interaction between soil, pasture and animal to reach equilibrium again in organic matter, nitrogen loss and production. We know from the long-term superphosphate trials that the effect of withdrawing superphosphate takes several years to show up. Basing policy on results from the time of change, rather than after equilibrium has been achieved, could end up with detrimental consequences on both environment and productivity.

Science and marketing are part of a continuum with potential for confusion. Scientific research can certainly be coloured by perspective, but reputable journals sort out fact from wishful thinking. Once published, however, marketers sometimes focus on possibilities rather than realities. And people trying to do the right thing and create a better life, do get carried away.

  • Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, an adjunct Professor at Lincoln University, is a soil scientist and farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis is her own. jsrowarth@gmail.com